Sunday, 22 February 2015

Otters, Hawfinches and Shrikes

With no Six Nations to distract me and Polina still away, I managed to get out twice this weekend. I visited Santon Downham, Suffolk both today and yesterday with the sole objective being to see Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - I failed on that score yet again. Today I also took a few hours in at Lynford Arboretum hoping to see and even photograph Hawfinch. I managed great scope views but only distant cropped images.
Still, at Santon Downham yesterday I was fortunate to see this very handsome and relatively confiding Otter along the river Little Ouse.

Otter, Little Ouse, Santon Downham, Suffolk

He was quite happily catching small fish on the opposite side of the river from where I was, each time I pressed the shutter he (or she?) would stop and quizzically stare over at me before returning to munch on his fish supper. Very cute, only my third ever Otter and first one in Britain.
I checked also for the Great Grey Shrike without success, which seemed odd as up until now it had been fairly straight-forward to locate. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker(s) had been reported earlier in the week but they've become like hen's teeth now and the species continues to elude me.
Today (Sunday), I spent several hours at the feeders at Lynford Arboretum where two Hawfinches had been showing well on and off during the week. A single male gave great scope views but was too distant for decent photos. Still my best views of what is a truly stunning finch. I spent several hours there until the cold really got too much.

Male Hawfinch, Lynford Arboretum, Norfolk
I headed back to Santon Downham, once more in pursuit of the diminutive woodpecker but as usual I was out of luck. The weather didn't help though, the rain had begun and the wind was picking up. I couldn't even see the Shrike. However, as I reached the very far end of the reedbed I turned right off the bridle path and walked towards the railway line. Just then the Shrike broke cover from one of the pine trees and flew to the top of another tree, where I watched it rip the head off a poor unfortunate Blue Tit that it had caught. Nature really is brutal but what a simply superb bird Great Grey Shrike is!
At this point the weather was really turning foul. I decided enough was enough and set forth for home.

Monday, 5 January 2015

The final fling

First post of 2015 and the last bit of festive birding before reality took a grip! On New Year's Day I walked Eaton Common and Marston Marshes. Little Egret, Common Snipe and Stock Dove were the highlights. There's no Foot-it challenge this year for some reason but a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was found in Cringleford which we tried for unsuccessfully yesterday morning. Still, I now know the area to look so will check again in the coming months - thanks to Nick Robinson for the finding it and for the 'gen'.
After that Nick Watmough and I checked a landfill site at Aldeby near Beccles for gulls, nothing of note really, mainly Black-headed, Herring and a few GBB Gulls. From there we scanned Haddiscoe marshes for Rough-legged Buzzard but the only raptor was a Kestrel. Birdguides reported that a RLBuzzard was being seen from the Halvergate side so we drove that direction via Great Yarmouth and enjoyed nice scope views of the bird hunting and perched on a distant fence post. Unfortunately the strong light and distance meant that all I could do was phone-scope it - hence the crappiness of the shot!

Rough-legged Buzzard, Halvergate Marshes, Norfolk
After that we stopped off between Ludham and Catfield for Bewick's Swan en route to the raptor roost spot at Stubb Mill. A beautifully crisp Norfolk evening with calling Cranes and at least twenty Marsh Harriers plus one Common Buzzard rounded off the final day of the holidays before returning to the real world of work this Monday morning!

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Blyth's Pipit and Thayer's Gull twitch

The idea had been to arrive before 9am just as the Pipit would be warming up, get that one in the bag then head to the landfill site over at Ravensthorpe to clinch the Thayer's Gull and be sitting down to slap-up celebratory fry at some greasy spoon cafe by 10am!
The reality was a lot different! Leaving Norwich at 5am and picking up Nick Watmough, James Lowen and Yoav Perlman en route, we drove up north via the scary A17 (a narrow, dark and very icy road) and had reached Wakefield in West Yorkshire before 9am.
At the Blyth's Pipit site in Calder Business Park we were met by other birders who advised that the bird had been spooked by a Sparrowhawk and had left the site. After a twenty minute search of an adjacent area by James and Yoav we made an executive decision to go for the Thayer's Gull and come back to the Pipit when hopefully it would have returned.

Blyth's Pipit site, Calder BP, Wakefield - frozen solid at 9am!
Over at Ravensthorpe things weren't much better. Views into the Biffa recycling plant were against the sun and limited. Birders milled around but no-one seemed sure what was going on. Yoav spotted an Iceland Gull flying over which was a new bird for him and a British tick for me so all was not lost.
Then the news popped up that the Pipit was back. We checked some local playing fields for loafing gulls without success before heading back to Calder BP.
Sure enough the Pipit was there moving in and out of sight as it fed busily amongst the long grass. Distant and difficult to photograph, I took scope views first before doing anything else. For me, it appears much like a mix between Richard's Pipit and Tree Pipit. Visibly larger than Meadow Pipit (we got a good comparison when it took flight with two Mipits) and we heard the call once which was a bonus.

Blyth's Pipit, Wakefield, West Yorkshire
Any photos I got are record shots at best, finding a good position to shoot from without blocking anyone else was a challenge.
Anyway, at around 2.30pm we decided to head back to Pugney CP where we had parked, to grab a coffee before the gulls began to assemble to roost on the lake. This was where the Thayer's had been picked up previously.
There was already a row of birders scanning the lake while we fueled up from the local cafe. At 3pm we joined the line and began to scope the gulls.

Thayer's twitch, Pugney CP, Wakefield
A Thayer's Gull was bound to stimulate interest for several reasons, Not currently treated as a seperate species by BOURC though other authorities do view it as such. Identification in the field is a challenge. There are no accepted records in the UK as yet though several pending (I'm told) that have strong credentials. May also interbreed with Kumlien's Gull in certain locations just to add a further wrinkle to the whole thing!
Anyway we scanned until after 4pm, as the light faded a first winter Iceland Gull came in but that was the best we could produce. In any case following an early start, a long drive, a busy day of birding and the cold temperatures, I was starting to fade. We left after 4pm and made our way back to Norwich.
While disappointing for James, Nick and Yoav who all had previously seen Blyth's Pipit and really wanted the Thayer's Gull, at least Yoav got two British ticks (Iceland Gull and Blyth's) and I got a lifer (Blyth's) and a British Tick (Iceland) plus the craic and the company throughout made for a very enjoyable day out!

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Covehithe's Shorelark trio

Its been almost two years since Polina joined me for some birding, but decent weather conditions and the promise of some good Shorelark shots was enough to entice her to join me today. Her long lens was taken out of the cupboard, polished up, many layers were donned and we departed for Covehithe, Suffolk just after 10am.

We parked up before the church and followed the public path towards the beach. The location was easy to find, just look for the long lenses!
With patience the birds would eventually show well. Sometimes they would take flight and move further along the edge of the broad, sometimes they would be quite close but into the sun, however given time they would approach to within twenty or thirty feet.
Of the three birds, two were adults and one a juvenile. The juvenile usually approached closest with the adults hanging back a little.

First winter Shorelark, Covehithe broad, Suffolk - 28th December 2014

Adult Shorelark, Covehithe broad, Suffolk - 28th December 2014

First winter Shorelark, Covehithe broad, Suffolk - 28th December 2014
At first I was shooting from a tripod.

But as the birds approached closer I decided to apply the frying pan and beanbag method (beanbag in a frying pan with the camera and lens on top - easy to push around on the ground and enables close approach without disturbance).

Clearly delighted with myself for bringing the old Tefal pan!

The frying pan / beanbag set-up
Me (on my belly) with Jon Evans

Polina stayed at a different spot further along the edge of the broad but up to now hadn't enjoyed as close an approach I had done.

However, she changed location and that seemed to do the trick as she finally got some decent close-ups of the birds.

P smiles after bagging some good shots
Having spent at least two hours with the birds we decided it was time to leave. We had just remarked, as we headed back along the beach, that the light was starting to improve when the trio flew down about fifty or sixty feet in front of us. Polina got down on her belly and I took the frying pan out and we managed to get a few more shots in much warmer evening light.

With some decent shots in the bag it was truly time to head home.

Time for a quick 'selfie'

No time to hang around - Polina heads for the warmth of the car!

So all in all a great day out, very happy to enjoy some birding with Polina once again and my sincere thanks to Rob Holmes for the excellent 'gen'!
Tomorrow its time for some twitching as I head north for Thayer's Gull and Blyth's Pipit. Bed early me thinks!

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The twelve birds of Christmas - part six

Ok, so let's finish with a flourish. If you have been reading my blog during 2014 you will know that in May I went to Magee Marsh, Ohio - you can read all about it at:

Magee Marsh, Ohio - Day One
Magee Marsh, Ohio, Day Two
Magee Marsh, Ohio - Day Three
Magee Marsh, Ohio - Day Four 
Magee Marsh, Ohio - Day Five
Magee Marsh, Ohio - Final Day

Anyway, first time birding in the States, first time using a flash for bird photography - very impressed with how friendly US birders are to each other (we could all take note of that over here). But the warblers, as expected, stole the show. I had twenty-three species in all, perhaps would of been more if I had spent less time behind the lens. Here are two of my favourite species from that visit.

The eleventh bird

Bay-breasted Warblers were present throughout my visit, the males are stunning and this bird posed nicely from the edge of the wood near the entrance to the boardwalk.

Bay-breasted Warbler, Magee Marsh, Ohio - May 2014

Taken on a tripod with a shutter speed of 1/200, ISO400 and focal length 700mm (didn't use flash for this shot as natural light at the time was sufficient).

The twelfth bird

Let's finish with a really special one (for me anyway). My all time favourite species, Blackburnian Warbler, a striking combination of black, white and fiery orange plumage make the males almost too beautiful for words. Awesome is not a word I use much, but I think it applies aptly here.

Male Blackburnian Warbler, Magee Marsh, Ohio - May 2014
Shots one and two were taken on a tripod with a shutter speed of 1/160, ISO400 and focal length 700mm with external flash and better beamer / fresnel lens.
Shot three was taken on a tripod with an aperture of f6.3, shutter speed of 1/500, ISO400 and focal length 700mm with external flash and better beamer / fresnel lens.

Friday, 26 December 2014

The twelve birds of Christmas - part five

The ninth bird

Thanks to a liberal supply of meal-worms, the Burnham Norton Southern 'Steppe' Grey Shrike not only stayed around long enough for me to twitch, but also afforded close enough views for some decent photographs. Personally I didn't feel there was too much of a deal to be made by giving it some meal-worms, but trespassing on his Lordship's land to erect a nice posing perch was a bit cheeky (if that actually happened).
Depending on which literature you consult 'Steppe Grey Shrike' pallidirostris is either a subspecies of Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor or Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis. Either-way not a full species, but that doesn't matter. Still a very striking looking bird and it had come from a long way away. Ladies and Gents, I give you.........The Steppe Grey Shrike!

Southern 'Steppe' Grey Shrike, Burnham Norton, Norfolk

Taken on a tripod at f5.6, ISO640, shutter speed 1/200 and focal length 700mm

The tenth bird(s)

Once more this is two birds rather than one, but same species on the same day, one female, one male, one in Norfolk, one in Suffolk.........but both were stunningly beautiful.
It was a typically late autumn arrival of Desert Wheatears, and was almost three years to the day when I first ticked the species on Bray Head, County Wicklow, Ireland. In Lowestoft, Suffolk, a male flew towards me and posed on the sea wall. A short drive away a pretty female posed on the beach at Gorleston-on-sea, Norfolk.

Male Desert Wheatear, Lowestoft, Suffolk - November 2014

Taken on a tripod at f5.6, ISO400, shutter speed 1/1000 and focal length 700mm                       

Female Desert Wheatear, Gorleston-on-sea, Norfolk - November 2014

Taken on a tripod at f5.6, ISO200, shutter speed 1/400 and focal length 700mm                              

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The twelve birds of Christmas - part four

The seventh bird

Well two birds strictly speaking but the same species. The first being the long-staying male Red-backed Shrike at Winterton North Dunes. The second being a first winter Red-backed Shrike at Lowestoft, Suffolk, also a long stayer. In both cases heavy rain put paid to an extended photo session but not before I had at least managed some reasonable shots.

Male Red-backed Shrike, Winterton North Dunes NNR, Norfolk
A little later and a more soggier looking bird!   

 Taken on a tripod at f5.6, ISO400, shutter speed 1/125 and focal length 700mm.

Slightly less striking but a fine bird nonetheless, I called this one "The Bird's-Eye Shrike" in recognition of its preference for the brambles right behind the stunning back-drop of the fish finger factory in Lowestoft, Suffolk.

First winter Red-backed Shrike, Lowestoft, Suffolk

 Taken on a tripod at f5.6, ISO640, shutter speed 1/200 and focal length 700mm.

The eighth bird

On the same day I got soaked trying the photograph the Red-backed Shrike at Winterton, I tried to photograph a Wryneck at Great Yarmouth Cemetery. Not the easiest place to find birds because there is lots of cover and heavy rain didn't help. With only distant views, I decided to head home when the bird broke cover and flew down onto the path in front of me. I managed a few shots before it disappeared from view. By then I was 'super-saturated'!

Wryneck, Great Yarmouth Cemetery, Norfolk

Taken on a tripod at f5.6, ISO1000, shutter speed 1/1000 and focal length 700mm.