Sunday, 28 April 2013

Bird project 15 - Bullfinch & Goosander

Over a week ago I headed up to Scotland. I hoped to visit a few nature reserves just west of Edinburgh, if the weather co-operated. In fact it's been mixed, but not the total washout (or more accurately, blowout) my last visit turned out to be.

I wasn't expecting any new species, and was happy with the month's total as it stood. However, a few birds I don't expect to see at home (like yellowhammers and dippers) are found here, so I kept my eyes and ears open. On my last trip out, yesterday, I was doubly lucky - but it was two different species that I saw.

Pyrrhula pyrrhula Bullfinch

Location: Footpath (former railway line) east of Pumpherston, West Lothian, Scotland.
Conditions: Very mild, sunshine interspersed with cumulus.
Photograph quality: Mostly 2, some 1.

Comments: I'd already photographed a distant buzzard, and quite a few small songbirds that turned out to be willow warblers, and I was only a couple of miles into my 8-mile walk. I kept hearing quiet peeping noises from the shrubs either side of the path, so I stopped, and stared into the bushes. I was expecting at best a goldcrest, but instead noticed a bright peach-coloured bird. I assumed a chaffinch, but almost immediately realised what it was - a bullfinch. Unmistakable, even though I've never seen one before. Much brighter, with the black head, shorter beak, and habit of nibbling buds. The female was close behind, but hid until the last moment, when she flew on ahead and perched on a branch in the open, before they both flew off across the path. The female (immediately above) is duller, but still a very fine bird.

Given how few of these are seen near where I live, this was a real stroke of luck and the highlight of my trip.

Mergus merganser Goosander

Location: Flying over the Almond River valley, just west of the Camps Viaduct, West Lothian, Scotland.
Conditions: Bright but cloudy, mild.
Photograph quality: 3.

Comments: I was crossing the viaduct, a very impressive structure at least 80 feet tall, which carries a footpath high over Almondell & Calderwood Country Park. There were lots of birds, and it was a great vantage point, being at treetop level with good views either way along the valley. I caught a flock of birds out of the corner of my eye that moved like ducks, but seemed too large, so I fired off three shots before they disappeared. Only on inspection the next day did I see they were mergansers. After some considerable thought and reading, I have determined they are goosanders, not the very similar red-breasted merganser (which I saw last year). Note the females, with the brown heads - there is a sharp divide between the head colour and the pale body, which is diagnostic of this species. A real unexpected bonus!

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Bird project 14 - Skylark

Alauda arvensis Skylark
Location: Fleetwood Marsh nature park, Fleetwood, Lancashire.
Conditions: White cloud, cold, strong east/northeast wind.
Photograph quality: 1.

Comments: The first time I went to this location, I read on a notice board that skylarks bred here, but it was too early in the year. This week I've seen reports of wheatears and skylarks there, and the little grebes I heard but did not see last time should still be present.

Sadly, the weather turned less pleasant (after a morning of warm sunshine) as I arrived, and only the skylarks were apparent, singing high in the air, as well as the usual waterfowl, gulls, and a flock of wagtails joined by a male reed bunting.

The photographs of the skylark singing in the sky were very poor, but I've arranged the best four at the bottom of this article. Then one of them landed on a fence just as I was approaching, and I managed to take a series of good shots. The background was many tens of metres away, giving perfect subject isolation, so my luck was in.

A couple more of the best photos are available on my Flickr feed.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Bird project 13 - Chiffchaff

I've seen reports of chiffchaffs around the area for a few days. I heard them last summer, but didn't see or photograph them (the song is unmistakable). I walked round the local park, hoping to hear them, but nothing. After photographing a pair of goldcrests, I realised another bird I was snapping was in fact larger, and drabber - it was what I'd been looking for! (It's not always immediately obvious what you're photographing, unless you check the pictures).

Phylloscopus collybita Chiffchaff
Location: East putting green, Stanley Park, Blackpool.
Conditions: Light cloud, mild, calm. Mid evening.
Photograph quality: 2.

Comments: This bird made no sound, but let me get very close. I was using a subpar lens combination (the 200mm f/2.8 + 2x extender), but the photographs are of reasonable quality thanks to the tameness of the bird. It is not a willow warbler (very similar-looking), as none have been sighted here yet, and its pale eye ring, less distinct supercilium, and dark legs fit with a chiffchaff.

Bird project 12 - Goldcrest

Sometimes prevarication pays off. Intending to go out somewhere today, to look for new species, I decided to have one last coffee, and took my camera into the kitchen to photograph a male sparrow that has been advertising his nest site loudly on next door's roof. But I saw a movement in the brambles that grow between our gardens. I first thought it was a butterfly, then a bluetit, but it was far more exciting.

Regulus regulus Goldcrest
Location: My back garden, Blackpool.
Conditions: Mild, light cloud, some sunshine. Light wind.
Photograph quality: 3.

Comments: Only the third goldcrest I've ever seen, and the second in my garden (the first was half a lifetime ago, however). These birds are common, but hard to photograph, as they stay in thick shrubbery and undergrowth, and rarely stay still. They are the smallest British bird, dwarfed even by bluetits, so the camera wasn't totally happy trying to autofocus. However, the shots are good enough to identify the species, and I think the sex - no orange on the head stripe suggests an adult female. I spent a couple of minutes enraptured, watching it work through the garden, then it flew away.
A really special experience.

Photographs taken with a 200mm lens + 2x extender (400mm), through the kitchen window.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Bird project 11 - Razorbill

A lot of summer migrants have just started returning. It's been an odd spring, as everyone here will know, but the strange weather has meant (in addition to delaying blossom, and causing high mortality in some species) that winter visitors have been grounded here (like waxwings), and their replacements have been delayed. Still, the first chiffchaffs, sand martins, and terns have made it back to my area in the last week, so I wanted to see them.

I went down to the sea front to search for sandwich terns a week or so ago, but saw nothing but a very distant flock of scoters. Today I searched from a different point (Starr Gate, rather than Central Pier), but it was terrible seeing - very hazy, almost misty, so the sea surface was a sheet of grey. I was disheartened, but in fact the calm waters and maybe the cover meant quite a few birds were visible (or perhaps it's always like that down there). Despite the very poor visibility, I could identify most birds I saw, including a lone great crested grebe.

Alca torda Razorbill
Location: Sea surface, <200 metres off Starr Gate, southern Blackpool.
Conditions: Mild, bright but mostly cloudy, very calm, very hazy; 1-2 hours after high tide.
Photograph quality: 3.

Comments: I have seen many local reports of true seabirds over the past few months, but never seen much of them myself. Birdwatchers' spotting scopes are much more powerful than even my super telephoto combination, and it's easier to ID by eye than get a usable photograph. However, sometimes they come close to shore, and despite the terrible air quality today, these shots are clearly of razorbills. It's strange to think such an exotic species - that makes me think of remote islands and steep cliffs - swim so close to populated areas.