Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Bird project 30 - Lesser redpoll

Carduelis cabaret Lesser redpoll

Location: Garden at edge of West Calder, West Lothian, Scotland.
Conditions: Bright midwinter sunshine, chilly, breezy. Birds returned throughout day.
Photograph quality: 1-2.

Comments: I wasn't expecting any more new species this year, as Christmas family commitments will take up most of the remaining time. However, the birds came to me yesterday, feeding in the garden of my parents' new house, which I was helping to decorate. Amongst the dozens of tits, finches, crows, pigeons, and other assorted birds that visited the feeders through the day, one caught my eye early on - a smallish, brownish bird with a splash of red on its head. I needed to confirm it was what I thought - a redpoll - as other birds looked more like linnets (with pink breasts; they turned out to be male redpolls). At least four were present on the niger seed feeder at one point, sometimes skirmishing over position.

Most of these pictures were taken through double glazed windows, so critical sharpness and contrast were lost. However, the birds showed well, especially when they perched on a small plum tree opposite the house, and in the sunshine (the feeders remained in shadow) the photographs came out quite well overall (all shot at 1000mm handheld).

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Bird project 29 - Barn owl

Tyto alba Barn owl

Location: Roosting/nest box on island, NE corner of Marton Mere, Blackpool (my location was the embankment path to the east).
Conditions: Late afternoon, through dusk into the early night. Bright, light cloud; persistent breeze; cold, becoming very cold indeed after dark.
Photograph quality: n/a; video only (equivalent to 3); note, there's a lot of noise due to high ISO, and although I've applied heavy vibration reduction, the shot still waves about quite a bit, as the wind caught the huge lens (the tripod I use is really not designed for this sort of thing). Still, you can make out the bird(s).

Barn owl 1 from Barry on Vimeo.

Comments: I staked out the box a few months ago, but with no luck. I tried a technique I'd not used before, using the camera and long lens mounted on a tripod, filming in HD, as I knew any glimpses would be brief, and it would be typical that I'd be looking away when it happened. This way, I could review any activity at home, speeding up the footage. I tried this method again today, as a couple of birds (possibly including an unseasonal juvenile) had been seen in the box regularly recently, and the weather was good (almost mild earlier in the day, and bright and dry, although the cold wind really bit later on).

Barn owl 2 from Barry on Vimeo.

There are a few advantages to video over stills in this case. First, the nest box is too far and inaccessible to allow any reasonable quality shots - even at 1400mm, it is small in the frame. Second, video works better in low light, as you can use much longer exposure times per frame (as slow as 1/30sec if shooting at 24fps) without worrying about blurring (as this is acceptable in video frames, but not for stills), and since the sensor is downsampling from 22MP (in the case of my camera) to 2MP (full HD), noise even at the highest ISO (25600 for video) isn't as obvious. Since these birds are active at dusk, maximising light is a priority - especially since I needed to keep as much focal length as possible (I started at 1400mm, only swapping down to 1000mm and finally 700mm when the light had almost totally gone). Still, it would be nice to try out the Canon C100 or C300 cameras, which now do ISO 80000 (even higher than the 1Dx's maximum of 51200 for video). Getting any kind of good shot is probably not possible at this location, sadly.

So in this footage you see one bird preening itself, looking out a little (first video), then a second showing its face, and doing some strange head bobbing (it also turned its head nearly upside-down, in that special owl way) in the second video. It was good to see wild ones at last - I saw a captive bird a couple of months ago, close up, but this is just as special.  I've included some screen grabs in case you don't want to sit through the videos.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Bird project 28 - Snow bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis Snow bunting

Location: Beach opposite sand dunes, south of Blackpool, UK.
Conditions: Very strong wind (gusting to gale force), thick cloud, drizzle; high tide, mid afternoon.
Photograph quality: 2-3 (nb I took better quality shots the next day, e.g. this one).

Comments: We get these birds around the coast here on and off through the winter, but it's not predictable. Sometimes they stick around for a few days, as this flock of around 8 birds has recently. I went searching for a single one last winter at Fleetwood, but it never showed. This time I was luckier, though when I arrived at Starr Gate, I wasn't hopeful.

The tide was nearly at its maximum, the light poor (these shots were taken at ISO 5000), and the strip of beach above the high tide mark was busy with dog walkers and windsurfers. I spent some time photographing a flock of turnstones flitting from one unoccupied patch to another, then I noticed a pied wagtail. This was very lucky, as it was feeding with the snow buntings - I wouldn't have noticed them otherwise, their camouflage was too good. But once I had seen them, I worked fast - more people were approaching in the distance, so I took about three dozen photos before the birds disappeared. I may try to go back tomorrow, as the wind should be lighter, and I'll time it for lower tide, when people should be more spread out (and a weekday should be less busy anyway).

It seems appropriate that what is likely my last new species of the year has a wintry name.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Bird project 27 - Yellowhammer

Emberiza citrinella Yellowhammer

Location: Hedgerow beside Union Canal, south of Broxburn, West Lothian, Scotland.
Conditions: Cold, very strong, gusty wind; sunny spells.
Photograph quality: 1.

Comments: Not long after arriving in Scotland, I saw my first new species of the month. I wasn't expecting to see these birds at all, although they are fairly common and widespread. As it turned out, I saw them several more times during my stay, and a small flock even ventured into the garden at one point. Very exotic-looking birds.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Bird project 26 - Sandwich tern & rock pipit

Sterna (syn. Thalasseus) sandvicensis Sandwich tern

Location: Rossall beach, Fleetwood, Lancashire.
Conditions: Mild, light breeze, mostly cloudy; a couple of hours after high tide.
Photograph quality: 1-2.

Comments: I wasn't expecting to see this species yesterday, but I was not surprised either. They've been sighted in numbers around the coast here quite a lot in the last couple of weeks - habitually roosting at Knott End just round the coast, and even a few a mile or two south of Blackpool town centre.

I was actually stalking another bird - a tiny wader, that is probably a dunlin (I haven't yet identified it), when I realised immediately in front of my was a pair of terns on the sand, alongside a slightly larger and chunkier black-headed gull. I knew straight away it was a sandwich tern - they're pretty distinctive (only common and Arctic terns are otherwise found round here, and they look quite different). These birds winter in Africa, so I was glad to catch them before they leave.

One was an autumn plumage adult (not the paler forehead - it would be black in the breeding season), the other a juvenile. The latter bird was very noisily begging for food, adopting a posture reminiscent of gulls - hunched, the beak upturned and open. The adult seemed oblivious. They flew off a few metres along the beach every so often, but I was able to get quite close. See also my best shots here and here.

Anthus petrosus Rock pipit

Location: Sea defences at Rossall Point, Fleetwood.
Conditions: Late afternoon, cloudy, mild, light breeze.
Photograph quality: 1.

Comments: This is a little less certain than my previous species. This little bird landed on a concrete buttress just by me, and didn't mind me creeping closer to photograph it. But its identity was only established on iSpot, a website where you can post wildlife sightings for identification. Two people agree it is a rock, not meadow pipit, but I am not able to say for sure myself - it seems to be a juvenile, given its yellowish, dull appearance, and these species are hard to separate at the best of times.

However, a rock pipit was seen by birdwatchers there on the same day, although it was outnumbered 8-1 by meadow pipits, and it was in the right habitat, so I am including it here.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Bird project 25 - Ruff

Philomachus pugnax Ruff

Location: Levenhall Links natural reserve, East Lothian, Scotland.
Conditions: Warm, humid, sunny spells but plentiful cloud, late afternoon.
Photograph quality: 2-3.

Comments: This should be number 23 chronologically, but I only realised I had a potential shot of a ruff yesterday, when I finally started going through all my photographs from Scotland systematically. There was always a chance I'd captured one - I took lots of pictures of the assemblage of large waders while I was at this location, as I knew a couple of ruffs were there, but they weren't visible at the time I reached the second hide.

I noticed one bird that was slightly smaller than the godwits around it, and although its head is at awkward angles, in the first shot you can see its beak, which is much shorter than these other birds'. iSpot, a website where wildlife sightings can be identified and double-checked, returned a massive positive confirmation - including a response from the British Trust for Ornithology, so I can add this to my list of confirmed sightings.

I'd love to see a ruff more clearly, especially in breeding plumage, but that will have to wait until next year. Anyhow, I'm a quarter of the way to my goal, which is pretty good.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Bird project 24 - Wheatear

Oenanthe oenanthe Wheatear

Location: Sea defences, North Shore, Blackpool.
Conditions: Warm sunshine, cool persistent breeze, very thin high cloud.
Photograph quality: 1.

Comments: I walked north from the town centre specifically to look for these birds, which have been reported here in the last few days. They'll be returning to Africa soon, so I wanted to catch them. I wasn't quite sure where to look, but I kept my eyes and ears open - but since I hadn't managed to get out as early as I wanted, I wasn't expecting to be lucky.

The tide was out, so the huge expanse of beach hosted the usual birds - scattered flocks of several gull species, the occasional crow, a few oystercatchers, and on a patch of rocks, turnstones. On the 'cliffs' (artificial outcrops between the Promenade and the beach) was a single pied wagtail, and above a lone swallow was feeding. I turned back home.

But then, back towards town, I saw a bird on the steep slope below (there are three levels you can walk on, I was in the middle). It was immediately obvious this was my target - a warm buff-coloured bird, bobbing and feeding amongst the tufty plants. I edged closer, and it continued its business, allowing me to get a couple of hundred shots, mostly pretty good.

I assumed it was a female (the adult males are more strikingly marked), but it was identified as a first-year bird, so could be either sex (autumn wheatears in general are hard to distinguish).

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Bird project 23 - Dipper

Cinclus cinclus Dipper

Location: Rocks on the Almond River, by Nasmyth Bridge, Almondell & Calderwell Country Park, Lothian, Scotland.
Conditions: Mostly cloudy but bright, mild, calm.
Photograph quality: 2 (borderline 1).

Comments: I took my parents to this lovely country park, as they live nearby and it's a great spot for tranquil walks by the river and in the woods. I had my bird lens on me, but didn't expect to see anything notable. However, crossing the glorious Georgian/Regency bridge, we all spotted a small brown bird flit across the rocks. I thought a blackbird maybe, until I looked through the camera and realised it was one of the local specialities I'd hoped (but failed) to see on every previous visit. It dipped, and walked through the water, giving us a couple of minutes' viewing, before it disappeared. I had to use longer than ideal exposures, and reached the upper limits of ISO I'm comfortable with for birds on my camera (3200-4000 for some shots), so the fast-moving dipper was often blurred. Still a few shots were okay - even one I was comfortable using on Flickr.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Bird project 22 - Whimbrel

Numenius phaeopus Whimbrel

Location: Levenhall Links natural reserve, East Lothian, Scotland.
Conditions: Warm, humid, sunny spells but plentiful cloud, late afternoon.
Photograph quality: 2-3.

Comments: I went to this location for something much rarer: a wood sandpiper had been seen here for a few preceding days. But also ruff and whimbrel - so a good choice in general. I had no idea what to expect, as the local bird reports just said 'wader scrape'. I thought it would be a few birds, out of the way. How wrong I was. Signposts were abundant once I found the site, and its importance was clearly understood. The hides were made of brick, and a local birdwatcher (I suspect one of the people who updates the website) was friendly, and he (and his friend who soon arrived) helped me - as there were hundreds of birds. When four whimbrel flew in, they noticed immediately, and I got a couple of unfocused shots in flight. The birds stayed longer than I did, so I got a few good shots, although they were quite distant. Note the striped heads, about the best visual clue to this species - many similar, far commoner, curlews were present nearby.


Thursday, 11 July 2013

Bird project 21 - Little grebe

Tachybaptus ruficollis Little grebe
Location: Middle of north section of Stanley Park lake, Blackpool.
Conditions: Very warm, bright, some light cloud, very light breeze. Mid-afternoon.
Photograph quality: 2-3.

Comments: These birds are resident, albeit in small numbers, in my area, but are rarely found in the park. I heard them calling at Fleetwood Marsh nature park back in the spring, but they never came into view. I also visited Marton Mere a few times, hoping to see them, but never succeeded.

I think part of the problem is, they are much smaller than I realised. I scanned the park lake yesterday, setting up my camera at various points around the shore. Only at the fifth location did I see them - and even then, only after a long time looking. They were right in the middle, seemingly attempting to sleep amid the floating vegetation. Ducks were feeding around them - these are mallards, and make a useful scale comparison. The little grebes are scarcely larger than the ducks' heads!

It's nice to have seen them in their more colourful summer plumage. Sadly, even at the longest focal length I can muster (2800mm), they were small in the frame. So record shots only.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Bird project 20 - Spotted flycatcher

Muscicapa striata Spotted flycatcher

Location: Treetops above stump circle, Stanley Park, Blackpool.
Conditions: Mild sunshine, light breeze, early evening.
Photograph quality: 1-2.

Comments: I have seen a few reports of these birds in the park since the end of April, but only one or two birds. Today, three were seen, and conditions were good, so I went along to see if I could find any.

In fact, there were at least half a dozen, fluttering in the treetops. They rarely stayed still, settling on a different branch each time, then flying out a short way to feed, then perching somewhere else. It was a real challenge to get them in shot and in focus, and I was mostly shooting straight up, which is hard work with a big lens (for part of the time, I lay on the ground, so I was facing the treetops, which was moderately effective). Additionally, the high contrast between bright sky and sunlit leaves, the birds themselves in sun or shadow, and the branches, made getting correct exposure tricky too.

Despite the challenges, I really enjoyed myself. It was a lovely setting, and the birds themselves were delightful, acrobatic, and thankfully unconcerned by my presence. I will try to go back again before they migrate, and see if I can get better shots.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Bird project 19 - Dunlin

Calidris alpina Dunlin

Location: Fleetwood Marine Lakes, Lancashire.
Conditions: Bright, light cloud, strong wind; mid afternoon (high tide).
Photograph quality: 1

Comments: I went up to Fleetwood to find various waders and sea birds - a large flock of godwits was roosting opposite the Marine Lakes the last couple of days, but today they were nowhere to be seen, perhaps due to the strong wind on the coast. There was a small flock of turnstones on a jetty above the eastern lake, by a bridge separating the two bodies of water. One bird was different - but since I only know waders in their winter plumage, I wasn't sure what it was.

I really assumed it was something I'd seen before, but I was lucky - it's a dunlin! In the winter, these are pale grey above, white underneath, but as you can see, the breeding plumage is much brighter - the same goes for the turnstones. Note how small this bird is - turnstones are quite a bit smaller than redshanks, but they dwarf this little dunlin. Not common in the summer in the UK, especially on the coast - a few thousand pairs breed on mountains, so even more unexpected.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Bird project 18 - Garganey

Extended list 1/42.
Anas querquedula Garganey

Location: Reedbeds on east side of Marton Mere, Blackpool.
Conditions: Warm sunshine, light breeze, early afternoon.
Photograph quality: 2.

Comments: A male was seen here a few days ago, but then nothing. These ducks are few in number (the RSPB states "23-115 pairs", the BTO says 86 pairs), and turn up randomly, by all accounts. They are the only summer migrant duck in the UK, and easily missed. So I was surprised to be told by a woman who joined me in the main bird hide that a pair had been seen earlier in the day. In fact, it was a couple of hours earlier, and the report stated they then disappeared. It turns out they must have moved from the open water in the southeast of the lake, to the more secluded reed beds at the east end, but they were clearly visible (if easily overlooked) from the embankment path.

They didn't stay in the open for long. I'm really pleased to have caught them, especially as all the other new species I might have seen today (grasshopper and garden warblers, whinchat, wheatear, and little grebe) were no-shows (although I heard a grasshopper warbler).