Monday, 7 April 2014

Persistence partially pays off

My target the week before last was breeding male wheatears. They have started filtering through the Fylde coast as they return to breed in the UK, and lots have stuck around at certain points. Rossall Point, a perennially good location for all sorts of land- and sea-based birds seemed the best bet - at least one male had been seen there consistently for some days.

Well, knowing a bird is at a location and finding it are two very different things. Especially as the bird reports are vague - "Fleetwood golf course" (which occupies the landward side of the headland) is a big place, and a bird not much larger than a robin can quite easily disappear into the scrub, dunes, long grass, or just be too far away to get noticed - even one as striking-looking as a breeding-plumage wheatear.

Stonechats have the useful habit of perching in the open, making them relatively easy to photograph.

 A linnet doing the splits.

A pity this bird was so mangled, or I could have taken some close up shots. I wonder if it died before or after being deposited on the golf course?

My first visit was a dud. No sign of wheatears anywhere. There was a stonechat, linnets, and I got close to the resident female red-breasted merganser on the Marine Lakes. But the most exciting bird was a deceased razorbill on the golf course. I have been trialling my new binoculars recently and they have been a big help in covering the ground, but they were no use in this case. Two days later I returned. I searched more diligently, and walked most of the perimeter of the golf course (unlike some dog walkers, I'm still reluctant to trespass), but nothing. Well, not nothing - lots of skylarks, a few oystercatchers, linnet, and a stonechat again, as well as a goldfinch huddling on the leeward side of the sea wall and a bird that turned out to be a meadow pipit (they often get grounded there on migration). Right at the end of my visit, I saw a couple of pale birds, very distant, feeding in the centre of the course. I fired off a couple of shots, but could only tell when I got home that I had in fact been successful - technically. The bird was so distant it was only just possible to tell - thankfully male wheatears are very distinctive in breeding plumage.

A female linnet huddling on the leeward side of the sea wall.

 Recent snowfall meant the Cumbrian mountains shone in the distance.

Each time I see them, I get closer to the stonechats.

A meadow pipit. Hundreds of these are sometimes grounded by bad weather when migrating, but this one was alone (although interacting with the stonechat).

The closest I got to a wheatear - a full-size crop at 1000mm, about as far away as it could have been.

Third time lucky? I went back - happy that I knew at least the birds were there, and at least part of their behaviour. But other things were moving through the area, so I started my day at Fleetwood Ferry (the end of the tram line, at the mouth of the River Wyre), because a stork was flying north and had been sighted nearby. Later an osprey made the same journey - but I saw neither, despite very careful observation of the skies, seas, and mud flats. But way out in the river channel (the tide was low) was a species I've never yet seen, nor photographed - despite being resident round these shores most of the time. I was shooting handheld, manual focus, at 1400-2800mm, but they are unmistakeable - eider. Two males and two females.

The top two shots were taken at 2800mm, the lower two at 1400mm. There's little extra detail gained by adding a third teleconverter, but it can make getting accurate focus easier, as the birds are bigger in the viewfinder.

The view towards Barrow.

Once again I scoured the perimeter of the golf course (moving clockwise from the north this time). I had nearly given up, but at last on the western side, I saw a female wheatear - after I'd photographed a pair of skylarks feeding together on the grass. Then two more wheatears came into view - including the male I wanted - but just then, a local bird watcher pointed out dog walkers coming up behind. I got a few shots, but this perennial bane of my photography scared them off, and I never got close to them again. Still, I was pleased to have found them.

A skylark.

Above: females; below: the fine male.

Below: more shots of a female, which sat on the sea wall briefly, the closest I got. She then moved back onto the golf course, before flying out of sight.

Most of the snow had already melted, but even better visibility allowed fine detail to be discerned on the peaks. Below, the Isle of Man was clear in the west, over 60 miles away.

The female stonechat (I assume the same individual I've seen before here) seemed to be gathering nest material - I hope they breed here.

No fireworks this sunset - just a band of rich peach in the west.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Finch frenzy

Note: text first, then photos. Scroll down if you just want to see the pretty birdies!

A couple of weeks in Scotland, at my other base (the area where I'm doing the square kilometre challenge), presented a few opportunities. My top priority was tracking down the local crossbills, a really handsome and charismatic species, not all that common (RSPB states 40,000 pairs in the UK), and hardly ever sighted back home.

A number are found a few miles from here, in conifer plantations by a reservoir in the northern foothills of the Pentlands, a range of 500+ metre peaks running southwest of Edinburgh. I found what information I could (the local bird club gave general pointers, but far more encouraging was a photograph of a crossbill posted on their website from a couple of days before I went from that very location.

It was quite a trip, nearly 14 miles' walk along country roads and then trackways through the forest, but the day was mild and sunny - almost warm, although in the shade ice lingered from the previous night's frost. Sadly, I saw nothing I couldn't have observed had I stayed at home. The countryside and especially the plantation was full of birdsong, but almost all robins and wrens, with song thrush and chaffinch here and there. A buzzard, and a single redpoll were the only modest highlights, the latter at least offering good views through my new binoculars.

None of the spring migrants have arrived up here yet, but back home things seem to be moving, with chiffchaffs returning to many locations. The garden up here hosts masses of birds, including some specialities - a flock of half a dozen yellowhammers is a resident treat. But having put out a range of food, I was to be in luck. I may not have seen crossbills this time, but another finch appeared in numbers - the siskin.

I've only seen siskins twice before, very briefly. In fact the first time I didn't see it at all, but combing through my first year's bird photographs, I identified a female from a single shot taken at Marton Mere in 2012. This January, I was photographing the garden birds up here when a male siskin perched for a split second. I got one shot, perfectly posed, but slightly out of focus. Since then, nothing.

But putting out sunflower hearts seemed to entice them, and first four, then seven, then probably more than eight appeared, along with a single redpoll a couple of times. So long as I keep putting out more sunflower seeds, they stick around, and have been in the garden all day every day since (three days now). The first day I got some perched shots, the following two days I decided to try for in-flight photographs for a bit more interest. They are very active, very striking, and squabble a lot, so I've been able to get some nice shots. Very high shutter speeds required to minimise blur, and since it was mostly overcast, I've needed high ISO speeds to compensate - mostly between 3200 and 4000. Firing bursts and hoping you get a nice result is frowned on by some, but the only way to shoot passerines in flight in my opinion. Here are some of the best I took.

Sadly the large bird in the foreground is likely suffering from salmonella infection, and will probably die in the near future.

Obviously not a siskin!

Monday, 17 March 2014

Square kilometre challenge 2

This project fell by the wayside for a few weeks, especially as I wasn't present in the square kilometre during February. However, lots of lichens from late January, and some birds, insects, and trees identified in March have added to the total. I expect as trees, shrubs, and bulbs come into flower and leaf, they will be easier to identify, and insects are starting to become more common. Spring migrant birds have yet to arrive.

Above: various jelly fungi, very common in the local woods in January. Below: some of the wonderful varied lichens - there seems to be an impressive selection in the survey area.

January 15th-March 15th: 45
Animals: 12
Vertebrates: 7
Birds: 6
Buteo buteo common buzzard
Certhia familiaris treecreeper
Larus fuscus lesser black-backed gull

Pyrrhula pyrrhula bullfinch
Regulus regulus goldcrest
Turdus philomelos song thrush
Amphibians: 1
Rana temporaria common frog

Invertebrates: 5
Insects: 4
Agonopterix sp.***
Alucita hexadactyla twenty-plume moth
Bombus pratorum Early bumblebee
Coccinella septempunctata 7-spot ladybird
Springtails (Collembola): 1
Folsomia candida

Plants: 14
Herbaceous plants: 9
Buddleia davidii butterfly bush**
Buxus sempervirens
Digitalis purpurea foxglove
Galanthus nivalis snowdrop*
Galium aparine cleavers
Lamiastrum galeobdolon ssp. argentatum variegated yellow archangel
Meconopsis cambrica Welsh poppy
Ranunculus ficaria lesser celandine
Tussilago farfara coltsfoot
Trees: 5
Pinus sylvestris Scots pine
Picea abies Norway spruce

Acer pseudoplatanus sycamore
Ilex aquifolia holly
Taxus baccata yew

Lichens and fungi: 19
Arthonia radiata
Dacyrmyces stillatus common jellyspot
Evernia prunastri
Exidia nigricans witches' butter
Exidia thuretiana white brain
Hypogymnia tubulosa
Lecanora chlarotera
Melanelixia glabratula
Nectria cinnabarina coral spot
Peltigera membranacea
Physcia tenella
Pleurotus ostreatus oyster mushroom
Porpidia soredizodes
Ramalina fastigiata
Stereum hirsutum hairy curtain crust
Tremella mesenterica yellow brain
Usnia subfloridana
Xanthoria parietina common orange lichen
Xylaria hypoxylon stag's horn fungus

Year to date total: 93
*probably not strictly native, but long established.
**not native, but widespread and well established.
***probably Agonopterix heracliana but impossible to be certain