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

Monday, 10 March 2014

A busy week 5: odds and ends

The recent stonechat extravaganza continued, with sightings at my local nature reserve, Marton Mere. It's a good round trip of about 5-6 miles, depending on the route I take, and although I often go and see nothing of consequence, it's good to get out to the edge of the countryside (Blackpool being a strip of urban development along the coast means you're never very far from the fields). On the way, I found a massive patch of almost entirely purple crocuses, shining in the sunlight, so I took a lot of shots. It's hard to know quite how to photograph flowers like this, so I tend to do every variation I can think of, and check through them later.

No stonechats were on Lawson's marsh, a newish wetland where they'd been seen recently, so I carried on to the mere. Early blossom (blackthorn?) has started to open, really adding to the springlike atmosphere.

But no birds. As I got towards the northeasternmost corner, I got a text from my local wildlife guru David M, who had just arrived back where I'd come from. I returned, and we walked together, bumping into another local birdwatcher, who said he'd seen two male stonechats at the far end of the reserve, right on the edge of the countryside. We went there, and soon saw them - two small, bright birds, flitting up and down in the long grass. Sadly, they went to ground soon after we sat down, and that was the last we saw of them. I got just one shot, from a great distance, but it shows the wonderful adult male plumage of this species (the light was poor by this point, so it wouldn't have been a great photo opportunity anyway).

Then we went to see an owl. Long-eared owls regularly roost in the scrub north of the reserve, but their camouflage makes them all but invisible - even if you know where to look. Thankfully, David is a past master at this after years of practice, and he found the bird without too much difficulty. Once I knew where to point my lens, I could see it clearly too, and I took lots of shots - although it barely moved for the 15-20 minutes we were there, I was focusing manually (all those twigs and intervening brambles confuse the autofocus too much), and shooting at very long exposure times to make up for the low light (it was getting towards sunset by now, with lots of cloud). These shots needed 1/100sec exposure at ISO 1600-2500 (f/5.6, 700mm).

Two days later I got another text from David M, who had spotted a flock of common scoters (dark-coloured sea ducks, usually found too far offshore to photograph) fairly close to the Promenade, and suggested I go down to the southern end of town to check them out at high tide. Sadly, by the time I got there, they had floated away, but we spent a few minutes scanning the waters for anything of interest. In his scope, and my long lens, they could be seen, but were little more than black spots. We did see a seal eating a fish, accompanied by a flock of hungry gulls, but that was it.

However, walking back north, I had another go. Maybe the ducks had come closer again, or perhaps it was using all three of my teleconverters (devices that extend the focal length of a lens), but either way, I was able to get actual ID shots - the first time I've managed with this species. So that counts as a new one on my list (previous photos were too poor to be unambiguous). The following shots are very rough - but these birds were many hundreds of metres offshore. The first of these was taken at 1400mm, the rest at 2800mm, towards the upper limit possible for taking any kind of useable shot - at these focal lengths, softening tends to rob any detail gained by the extra focal length, and atmospheric distortion makes focusing very difficult, with contrast and saturation are greatly diminished. Still, you can see them - dark males with bright yellow bills, and two-tone females. This was all done by hand - I didn't even have a tripod, so had to use the seawall as a support (though some shots were taken fully handheld - hard work!).

One of the initial shots, uncropped. A single scoter at 1400mm. Virtually invisible.

A pair (female left, male right) in flight, with a third on the water.

Part of a flock of 20-30 birds. They often disappeared as they bobbed up and down, and intervening waves obscured them. To get any kind of attractive photograph of this species, I'd need to get at least a mile offshore, or go somewhere that they approach much more closely.

So nothing pretty, but it was still good to finally get some ID shots of a new species, however rough. Before I'd even got home, I received another text to say stonechats were back in the area - half a dozen on Lytham Moss, a few miles south, which boded well for the mere. I took a chance, as the weather was glorious. It would be a nice walk even if I saw nothing, and if I did, the light was perfect for getting good shots.

At first the birds were silhouetted; later I was able to get round the other side.

Almost as soon as I reached Lawson's Road wetland, I saw a stonechat, then a second. They were flitting as usual, but quite far off, between long grass and a line of low hawthorns. I spent some time edging as close as I could, but I only got some record shots again - they were simply too far, and without a tripod, I didn't want to risk manually focusing, so I stuck to 1000mm my current autofocus limit. They are pretty birds, and a pleasure to watch, but I do wish they had come closer. Perhaps if I'd waited longer.

It's amazing how tiny a branch, or even a single stem, will support a songbird. They must weigh next to nothing.

I walked all the way to the far end of the mere again, but there were no more of them. In the fields, fieldfares, pheasant, geese, and across the whole area, male reed buntings were perched on shrubs. I returned in the hope that the first two stonechats had moved closer to the path, but they were nowhere to be seen. But then, I noticed a pale bird gliding low over the marsh, and immediately realised it was a barn owl.

It flew off, but then returned, and spent a few minutes circling, landing, and retracing its path. Two of these are seen regularly in a roost box at the eastern end of the mere, so this was not such a surprise, but I really never thought I'd see one hunting. I was still far away, and the autofocus is not really up to tracking birds in flight at 1000mm, but these shots are still by far the best I've had of this species - it helped that the light was perfect again, the last golden sunlight at the end of the day.

In the final panel above, a reed bunting is perched on the foreground shrub - it was not happy about the owl, and flew off immediately after this.

And finally a heron. Good light can do wonders for even the most mundane of birds.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

A busy week 4: back to the coast

Drilling cores. This whole section of already pretty epic coastal defences is set for replacement, and I guess they need to know exactly what's underneath before they proceed. A couple of teams were taking samples for analysis.

The day after my south Lancashire adventure, I went up to Fleetwood. Having seen my first-ever stonechat the day before, I wanted to get some better photographs of this species. They have been sighted at various locations around the Fylde coastline, but most consistently at Rossall Point, the north-westernmost tip. There's a golf course with scrub and dunes there, with a shingle beach and massive sand- and mudflats at low tide. On the landward side of the seawall, you can sometimes see nice passerines, but if they don't show (as on my last visit), you can usually find something on the nearby Marine Lakes (manmade bodies of water behind the dunes) or by/on the sea.

Photographing small birds in flight is not easy, even when they aren't moving about a lot. This one was quite high - maybe a hundred feet - and I had to resort to manual focusing as the camera can't handle something so small against the sky (these shots are massively cropped).

So I went not so much in expectation as mildly hopeful, especially as I wasn't looking for anything new this time. I walked up from Rossall Square tram stop to the coast, and followed the sea defences round until I got to the southwestern tip of the golf course. There wasn't anything notable on the beach or the sea (the tide was especially low, so everything was far off, and from what I could tell it was just gulls, and the odd cormorant). I crossed to the rough track between the golf course and the sea wall - it's always an amazing difference between either side, one noisy and often very windy, the other calm, and in this case bathed in mild sunshine (very different birds either side too, though gulls and oystercatchers cross over sometimes).

On the ground, striking a classic pose.

Aside from the stonechat(s), I kept an eye out for skylarks and snow buntings (one of the latter had been seen there recently). The former were greatly in evidence. I love skylarks, especially their song, and although they are resident in the UK, I tend only to see them (or more accurately notice them) in spring when they sing. On the golf course itself, several were feeding - I counted 12 later on, and there were probably even more than that. Widely spaced, some would periodically fly up and sing - I guess these are the males. I spent a couple of rather frustrating minutes trying to photograph them, using a fence post to support the lens (holding it near-vertically is hard work with no support, and the wind was strong enough to make framing very difficult even so). Then I edged onto the rough grass and got some closer shots of one of them on the ground. They aren't too shy, so long as you don't rush towards them. I suppose feeding on a golf course, they must be used to people.

Male linnets are quite colourful, but when feeding in rough grass and on sand, they blend into the background nonetheless (especially when facing away). Females are more cryptic.

Then I continued on the path, towards a scrubbier area where I hoped a stonechat might be lurking. But immediately I found something else - a flock of around half a dozen linnets, feeding on the grassy sand. I got fairly close, and once or twice a male perched - on the sea wall, then a wire fence - but dog walkers coming the other way eventually flushed them. These are not uncommon birds, but I rarely see them very close, so it was a bonus.

A quick shot to show how vast Morecambe Bay is when the tide is out. The sands stretch miles into the distance.

No sign of anything else, round the north side of the golf course. I walked back south round the other side, along the road, but the hedges are dense here, and it's hard to see onto the course. Here and there are gaps - what look to be cut throughs, although I don't know the rules of walking out onto the greens, so I've never tried. But at last I saw something promising - a small bird, alternately feeding on the ground and perching on shrubs. My goal! It was too good an opportunity not to push my luck, and as there were no golfers within sight, I walked through a gap onto the rough grass, and the stonechat (a male, although not in full breeding plumage) actually flew towards me and afforded good shots - not top-notch, as it was still quite distant, but the light was perfect and the background separation ideal. I will still try for better, hopefully with a fully mature male (they have amazing black heads, with white and brick red bodies), but this made my day. I headed home satisfied.

Pretty much the shot I wanted.

A male house sparrow, one of the common birds I saw on the way home (gulls, starlings, etc). Still handsome though.