Sunday, 23 February 2014

Finally a breakthrough

Moorhens are so common, but almost never allow close approach. I was stood just across a small pond from this one, and it didn't mind at all.

Crocuses. They look more like the autumn-flowering variety to my eye - but perhaps are just planted too close together, making them etiolated.

A last visit to London for the foreseeable future gave me the opportunity to visit a highly regarded bird site - the London Wetland Centre. It's actually pretty easy to get to, in a pleasant part of west London - walking from the nearest railway station, Barnes, I mostly passed through common land, open scrub and trees.

 This great-crested grebe was right in front of one of the hides, and took me by surprise - sadly it was in shade while the water behind was still brightly lit.

 It's a very glossy place - former reservoirs converted into wetlands around the turn of the millennium, with a large visitor centre, cafe, and shop. The wetlands themselves are now starting to mature, and there are various gardens and exhibits around the place, with hides around the main bodies of water.

 Backlit winter reed seedheads draw my attention again and again.

A wetland is a wetland - the natural environment felt very familiar, not that different from Marton Mere, my local patch. Here and there you could glimpse the city beyond, though, and low flying aircraft were a reminder of the location. The birds were all the usual suspects - and to be honest I was a bit disappointed, especially given the not inconsiderable entry fee. Moorhens, coots, mallards and tufted ducks. On the open water, canada goose, heron, teal, lots of gulls, cormorants, and lapwing.

 A small crop of a much larger flock of lapwings - these were on the other side of the lake, so even at 700mm appear small.

One upshot was how tame they all were. Moorhens live on all the local bodies of water, but they never allow close approach - in London, they were quite content for me to stand a few metres away, photographing them. The light was perfect - low afternoon sun, if maybe a little too bright. Anyhow, I checked out a feeding station after wandering round for a while - and here my luck changed.

I'd checked their website for recent sightings, and knew a brambling had been seen, but it was very fortuitous it should appear just when I was watching. Conditions were difficult for photography, however - I was shooting into the sun, so contrast was much reduced; the bird was feeding on the ground in deep shade, and there were sunlit reeds between me and its location - reducing contrast still further. Nonetheless, I got record shots, and was able to watch the bird feeding for a few minutes. After spending the winter hopeful of seeing one with the many chaffinches at my other home location in Scotland, this was a relief as much anything. Carrying on my bird list from last year, this counts as species 32/101.

Another sign of spring - the earliest tree blossom (I guess alder?)

Friday, 21 February 2014

Saved by the wagtail

Black-headed gulls, one coming into adult summer (breeding) plumage.

Two days ago the forecast was for sunny spells, so my plan was to head to a couple of coastal locations and see what I could find. But it was thickly overcast all day, so I cancelled. The following day turned out better than expected - a break in the cloud over the Fylde was large enough to give two or three hours of genuinely warm sunshine. But I popped to the park instead - originally I would have gone up to Fleetwood, or maybe down to Starr Gate (either end of the tram line), but I took so long, I ended up just walking down to the central section of the beach at sunset. More on that shortly...

When I started getting into bird photography a couple of years ago, tufted ducks (this is a male) were one of the most frustrating - but enticing - subjects. Common but wary, I got longer lenses and teleconverters just to improve my shots. But ultimately, you can't beat a bird that's happy to come close.

Why the park? Well it's that pesky Mediterranean gull again. Seen on and off, but never when I (or David M) looked. It's so close though, I can go regularly, so I set off in hope. But on arrival I realised, it was half term - and the quiet hour I was hoping to spend was not to materialise. Actually it wasn't too busy, but I still had to field questions from curious passers by, and people were feeding the birds, so they didn't stay in one place.

 Surely the finest native duck - a male shoveler. Again, an unusually confiding bird allowed great shots - this is only slightly cropped.

And there were a lot of gulls. Perhaps three hundred or more. People would feed them in different locations, so they flew back and forth, making close examination difficult. However, I spent long enough looking to be sure they were all the common species - actually 90%+ were black-headed. I had remembered to take bird food for the first time, so I walked over to the stump ring, where nuthatches are often seen, but was waylaid by the highlight of the day - a grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea). Only the second time I've seen on in the park, and my closest and longest encounter ever. It was harassed by a commoner pied wagtail, which is the only reason I noticed it - they are small, and although ceaselessly active, can be easily overlooked feeding at the edge of the water.

Most of the shots were out of focus, because it was so fast, but some worked out well (getting me my second Flickr Explore of the year). There was also a very tame and photogenic male shoveler - these are common, but rarely come close enough for good shots.

Sadly the nuthatches never showed. Even when a second photographer put different food out. Just the tamest great tits I've ever seen, and bluetits and various pigeons. I checked the gulls again on my return journey, but then four fire engines turned up (nobody was sure why) and they all flew away. Perhaps next time.

Great tits are so common, and often semi-tame, so these are hardly groundbreaking shots. But they are still lovely birds to spend time with - and these ones had especially vibrant plumage.

A song(?) thrush was feeding nearby. I don't see these all that often.

I got even closer to the wagtail on the way back, but most shots were obscured or out of focus.

A frenzy of gulls - but not the one I wanted.

So after returning home and recharging my camera battery, I popped down to the beach around sunset. A bit late, really - although the clouds had partially broken again, it was rather too dark to be using a long lens. I checked out the gulls - nothing special; the oystercatchers were numerous and returning noisily from inland (high tide having been earlier in the afternoon). Out to sea there were birds - possibly even a few scoters in some shots, but far too indistinct to be sure. One thing that has frustrated me most in the last couple of years is how many great birds are seen out there every day, but almost all are inaccessible for photography - a lens can't reach as far as a telescope, or even good binoculars.

Here are some common beach birds nonetheless - ISO 3200 due to low light, and I was pretty far from them all, so this is for illustration only:

An adult lesser black-backed gull - note the yellow legs and mid-grey back.

A third winter herring gull (?) - pink legs and a paler grey back - the mottling is a sign of its immaturity (they only get adult plumage in their fourth year).

Another black and white bird that spurred on my early photography - an oystercatcher. There are hundreds on the beach at this time of year, but they don't usually allow close approach.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

A walk in the park

A dramatic sky over the Italian Garden, at the centre of the park. Things appear to lean back because I used an ultrawide lens (14mm) angled upwards.

Actually, two walks. The same park - my local park, the one I spent time in growing up (though not that much, I was never an outdoors child), Stanley Park. A good size, a good mix of habitats, and very accessible. For the last couple of years, most of my trips have been on the way somewhere else - usually Marton Mere, a natural lake and wetland nature reserve on the outskirts of town - but the park itself is a nice spot if I don't feel like going so far.

I was away in London for a week, my park trips either side. During my absence, one of the strongest storms of recent years swept through, and there was a lot of damage. Not so many trees fell as I might have expected (wind speeds approaching 100mph/160kph here), but lots of branches torn down. Rather sad, though I appreciate it's part of the woodland ecology - assuming the cash-strapped rangers are able to deal with it sensibly.

The first trip was in late afternoon/early evening on a weekday, with lovely low, golden sunlight from the west and few people about. I was a little waylaid by an elderly gentleman who insisted on having a long conversation with me (strangers see my camera/lens and often start chatting), but it was still a pleasant walk despite this meaning I didn't have time to go as far as I'd planned. The most notable birds were a flock of 8 or so pied wagtails, feeding alongside the lake. I've never seen this many together there before - though they sometimes feed in numbers on the bowling greens.

An immature/juvenile wagtail - greyer, with a lemon-tinged face.

An adult. Water + low sun = attractive reflections.

Some sort of domestic goose?

Another domestic goose?

A lot of cormorants. But how can this be comfortable?

 Snowdrops had started coming out.
So busy singing, this robin wasn't bothered by me snapping away nearby. ISO 6400 was required to get unblurred shots - it was nearly dusk, and dark under the trees.

Some attractive geese on the lake, albeit the usual residents. And a roost of 35-40 cormorants, along with a heron or two.

The second walk was on a Sunday afternoon. I went primarily because an adult, summer plumage Mediterranean gull had been seen by the lake that morning. Not only have I never seen this species - despite looking many times, and their being seen locally on a regular basis - but the summer plumage adults are particularly fine. Sadly, although there were a lot of gulls on the lake - a couple of hundred maybe - they were all the usual suspects. I checked every one, but most were black-headed, with some common, and the odd herring and lesser black backed.

An adult lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) - there's a tiny glimpse of a yellow leg in the shot, not visible in this scaled down version.

An adult winter common gull (Larus canus), not all that common here and probably my favourite.

An adult female black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) - this ringed individual spends the summer in Denmark (thanks to David McGrath for the info).

A first winter black-headed gull. Note the orange, rather than red, legs and beak. I'm still getting to grips with all the variations - gulls are tricky!

Elsewhere there was more activity, despite the large number of adults, children, and dogs. I followed a treecreeper for a few minutes, but got no nice shots - they are resident in the park, but very hard to photograph, ceaselessly and rapidly moving across the bark, so well camouflaged, and generally staying high up in the trees. In fact, a lot of people had bird seed and peanuts, so lots of species - semi-tame as they are there - came very close indeed. Most people seemed more interested in the grey squirrels, but I enjoyed a great tit that hovered in midair for a few seconds each time a peanut was thrown, although it didn't dare land. Bluetits, long-tailed tits, blackbirds, woodpigeon, crows - what you'd expect. But the nuthatches, that I had wanted to see on my earlier visit, were showing well. I always forget to take food, but someone had left some, and three or four individuals returned to the stump circle (where you usually see them), and seemed totally oblivious to me, a few metres away. But they were too fast for much in the way of good shots either.

Cormorants sit on the same fencing in the lake as the gulls. When the light is right - which it was not in this case - you can get good closeup shots.

 This really was the best I could do with the treecreeper on this occasion (shooting almost straight up at a bluetit-sized bird thirty or forty feet above). I ought to spend a couple of hours just on this, given how low the hitrate is.

At least the nuthatches let you get close. They're pretty fast though, so again it requires patience. I'll take food next time.

A frustrating day, to say the least. I'll keep an eye out for reports of that gull in the next week though.

Friday, 7 February 2014

A trip to Fleetwood

Sanderlings and surf.

I've been reading a grownup bird blog (by which I mean, conscientious, high quality, and seemingly popular) Hakodate Birding, and it inspired me to try out a more reportage-style entry here. I take a lot of photos on a proper hike, many of which are good, but never make it onto Flickr, this blog, or my Twitter feed, sometimes simply because I don't want to spam people with too many shots at once, or too many that are similar.

So here I'll put some of those that didn't make the cut. It's a fairly representative example of what you might see if you do a similar walk at this location, although my priorities are slightly different to those of 'birders' (I dislike that term), who tend to go for number of species seen, and have the ability to see further, with binoculars or a scope. Bird photographers are much more limited in range as a rule, plus I tend to focus on species I've not seen before, or ones I want better shots of than I got previously. Anyhow...

So on Sunday I went up to Fleetwood. It's a medium-sized town at the northern end of the Fylde coast in west Lancashire. Used to be a big fishing port, and before that a Victorian pleasure town, but it's suffered from a lot of deprivation in the last twenty or thirty years. Nonetheless, it's a pleasant place to go, with some nice local shopping areas, and at least one good real ale pub; it also has a great location, with views across Morecambe Bay to the Lake District, and nice coastal walks. More importantly, it's a good place for birds.

I was hoping to see a stonechat. Sightings had been reported there on and off for a couple of weeks, but I was out of luck. I walked through the much-deforested Memorial Park (they're apparently making it better, but it's involved the felling of a lot of trees to start with) to the Marine Lakes, a pair of large artificial bodies of water just behind the north-facing seafront. It was high tide, so a lot of waders and ducks congregated there. However, to begin with, I saw very little. Three red-breasted mergansers were a highlight, including two males, which I've never got close to before.

 Is the third one an immature male, given the darkness around the eye (adult plumage coming through?) - or a female?

But no waders that I could see - they were my backup plan, if I didn't see the stonechat. I've photographed many before of course, but I can always get better shots. I searched in vain for anything but gulls - there were plenty - and was getting pretty dispirited (often the case), until I finally found a flock of roosting sanderlings. Around a hundred birds, huddled together on the shingle. Just as I was setting up to photograph them, a dog frightened them off - there were a lot of dog walkers, and of course they tend to eschew leashes on the beach, which can be very frustrating. However, I welcomed the opportunity to get some in-flight shots, although they weren't great. The birds settled back down nearby, and I got down low and took a great many shots. After a while, I started hoping another dog would come along, so I could try again, as they looked pretty static for the most part, but eventually I gave up waiting. Just then, they took off, and I just managed to shoot a series of photos as they swept past me - some were pretty good (including one shot that was selected as the BBC Nature photo of the day, which was nice). They were dazzling, alternating between bright white bellies and dark backs, sweeping back and forth. Examining the shots later, I discovered a single dunlin amongst them, and later noticed a couple of the sanderlings had leg rings - I emailed a Dutch researcher, who I think may be responsible (the ringing took place in Greenland and Iceland), and although they couldn't be sure, said it was possible.


...and in flight. Alternating between dark backs...

...and pale bellies. The effect was much more striking than these shots suggest.

Then back, searching the shrubs for stonechats (and failing), before walking along the other side of the lakes. Finally, I saw some more waders - a few turnstones on the grass, where they usually are, and then a flock took off from a small island in the lake. The shots were poorer, as I was further away, but good enough to identify two purple sandpipers amongst the turnstones - a pair roost on the coast here most of the winter. Then I found a bunch of redshanks on the other side of the island.

A rather impressionistic shot - two purple sandpipers, left, and a turnstone.

Other birds were, predictably, feral pigeons, starlings (which abound here), various gulls (common, black-headed, and herring; I didn't look closely for others), magpies, and oystercatchers (in the park). Pink-footed geese were still feeding on the fields just south of Fleetwood (opposite Rossall School). But no passerines - although a skylark and a snow bunting were seen on the golf course by somebody else.

Not a bad day, but if it weren't for the sanderlings, I would have been pretty disappointed.

Redshanks, as far from people as they could get.