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!