Saturday, 20 December 2014

Santon Downham

Today I decided to head over to Santon Downham and see if I could pick up Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Probably not the best time of year to look for them and easier once they start drumming in the spring, but there isn't much else around to tempt me. And if that plan failed then I could at least try for the Great Grey Shrike at Santon Downham, although they do seem to have large winter territories and if this was the Grime's Graves bird then there was no guarantee that I would find it on Saturday morning. The 'gen' I had said half a mile from the bridge, but there is more than one bridge and half a mile in which direction?
Anyway, at the St. Helen's carpark, there was plenty of bird activity, a good sized Tit flock (which included several Marsh Tits), several Nuthatches, Robins, Dunnocks, Chaffinches and a flock of at least thirty Brambling.
I walked along the bank of the Little Ouse river and while I didn't see or hear any Lesser Spots, I did have great views of Kingfisher, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Green Woodpecker. Just before reaching the B1107 bridge I meet another birder who kindly gave me directions for the shrike and some info on the best places and times to look for Lesser Spots. I crossed the B1107 and continued along the river bank, after half a mile or so I met two more birders who showed me the shrike sitting atop a distant tree near the railway line. Given the proximity of Grime's Graves I imagine it must be the same bird. I continued a little further along to look for Lesser Spots amongst the poplars but as expected I drew a blank. On the way back the shrike had relocated and flew over my head before perching at the top of a tall hawthorn bush, pity my camera was still in the car back at St. Helen's.
So I trotted quickly back to the car, I would park near the bridge and return to the same spot and try for a photo.
However back at the car I decided I'd better eat. But first I moved my car close to the beech trees and switched the engine off. While I had my sandwiches I watched the Bramblings and Chaffinches feeding on the beech mast, cars are great hides and although the light was poor I was able to get some decent shots of the Bramblings.

Bramblings - Santon Downham, Suffolk
With sustenance taken I drove back towards the direction of the village. This time the shrike had relocated back to the trees by the train line. The distance was too great for any shots. But then a train whizzed past and the noise seemed to spook the shrike. It flew across the field and landed back at the top of the very Hawthorn bush where I had seen it earlier. Although it was against the light I fired off a few frames, not exactly magazine cover quality but better than any previous shots I've taken of this species.

Great Grey Shrike, Santon Downham, Suffolk

Friday, 19 December 2014

The twelve birds of Christmas - part three

The fifth bird

Common Redstart is one of my favourite of all bird species however they are now restricted as a breeding bird in Norfolk to a handful of locations in the brecks.
By mid / late April a male bird was reported from East Wretham Heath. I've never met with much success trying to photograph Redstarts, so to give myself the best chance of a shot and to minimise any disturbance to the birds I tried the sit and wait approach, or rather lie and wait. I placed the lens on a bean bag, got down on my belly and waited...........three hours later I had some reasonable shots, although my back and shoulders were killing me and my bladder at the end of it all was ready to burst.

Common Redstart, East Wretham Heath, Norfolk - April 2014
 All shots taken on a bean-bag with a shutter speed of 1/160, ISO400 and a focal length 700mm.

The sixth bird

Returning to my spring visit to Magee Marsh, Ohio, Prothonotary Warblers were ever present during my stay there and indeed a few pairs breed along the board-walk. To me they are one of the most attractive and striking of the American Warblers, vivid bright golden head and underparts and contrasting blue wings. I didn't manage decent shots until the last day, in fact I was just about to leave the board-walk for the final time when this fine male bird posed well for me.

Prothonotary Warbler, Magee Marsh, Ohio - May 2014

All shots taken on a tripod with a shutter speed of 1/200, ISO200,  focal length 700mm and using an external flash and fresnel lens / better beamer.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The twelve birds of Christmas - part two

In May I traveled to the Magee Marsh, Ohio, known as 'The Warbler Capital of the World', I spent one week photographing these delightful parulids as they stopped off amongst the woodlots of Magee Marsh on the southern shore of Lake Eerie before resuming their journey north. But warblers weren't the only migrants en route and the Catharus thrushes put on a great show. I had just missed the Hermit Thrushes sadly, but throughout my trip both Swainson's and Grey-cheeked Thrushes were ever present. I spent many hours standing at the edge of the woods trying for shots of warblers, tanagers and orioles. While I waited these pretty little New World Thrushes hopped around on the grass nearby, often passing underneath the splayed feet of my tripod!

The third bird

Grey-cheeked Thrushes were probably the most numerous and easily the most approachable. I tried for some eye-level shots but there was always a blade of grass in the way or sometimes they simply came too close for me to focus on.

In the end I procured my best shots as they perched on some low branches. This was my first time using an external flash and better beamer / fresnel lens, it took getting used to but I liked how it could be used as fill-flash to reduce contrast and catch the bird's eye.

Grey-cheeked Thrush, Magee Marsh, Ohio - May 2014
All shots taken on a tripod with a shutter speed of 1/160, ISO320, focal length 700mm and using an external flash and fresnel lens / better beamer.

The fourth bird

The Grey-cheeked Thrushes were accompanied throughout the week by several Swainson's Thrushes. It was great to see them alongside each other and note the contrast, the colder, greyer Grey-cheeked and the warmer, buttery and mellow plumage tones of the Swainson's Thrushes. If I'm ever lucky enough to stumble across one or other of these species on a headland some autumn, I'd rather fancy my chances of correctly identifying which one I was fortunate enough to have found.

Swainson's Thrush, Magee Marsh, Ohio - May 2014

Shot one taken from a bean bag, while shots two and three were from a tripod. Shutter speed of 1/250, ISO500, focal length 700mm and using an external flash and fresnel lens / better beamer.

Monday, 15 December 2014

The twelve birds of Christmas - part one

As a way to look back on 2014, between now and Christmas, I will be posting up some photos of my birding and photography highlights from the year gone by.
They're in no particular order, just a random selection of my favourite shots with a short description and some technical blurb added for good measure.

The first bird

A flock of Crossbills at Lynford Arboretum in Norfolk were using a puddle to drink from. With very kind permission from the property owners I was able to sit quietly nearby while the birds came down to drink. Presumably part of the influx in late July 2013, this very fine male Two-barred Crossbill showed very well as he quenched his thirst one morning in mid-April.

Taken on tripod with a shutter speed of 1/640, ISO400, focal length 700mm and exp comp. +0.33.

The second bird

Amongst the flock was this contentious bird. Some said wing-barred Common Crossbill, some said Two-barred Crossbill and some thought hybrid. There was much debate on-line but to date its identity remains unclear. However it too has to have a drink!

Taken on tripod with a shutter speed of 1/250, ISO400, focal length 700mm and exp comp. +0.33.

All in all a great morning's birding and best view I'd ever had of any Crossbill species. More to follows tomorrow!

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Grus grus

After a couple of frosty nights I thought it might be worth a visit to Strumpshaw Fen in the hope of seeing a Bittern out in the open on the ice. I spent an hour at the fen hide and a little while by one of the sluices towards the tower hide but it was very quiet. In fact numbers of wildfowl were very, very low, possibly they had found some open stretches of water elsewhere. The best at Strumpshaw was five Marsh Harriers.

One of five Marsh Harriers at Strumpshaw Fen RSPB - 14th December 2014

From there I went to Buckenham Marshes but no sign of any Pink-foots or Bean Geese just feral Canada Geese. I continued eastwards and walked briefly along the sea-wall at Breydon Water to see if I could pick up Twite but the wind was bitterly cold so I did an about-turn. Being in the vicinity of Great Yarmouth I decided to check the denes north of the Britannia Pier for Snow Bunting or even Shorelark, I photographed two Shorelarks here last February and while none had been reported this winter, it would be worth a look. However, the best I had was an adult winter Med Gull and two Skylarks.
I was heading out of Great Yarmouth past the cemetery when I thought, why not give it a quick check. There were wintering Firecrest here last year, a Black Red wouldn't be totally out of the question and not forgetting that on Christmas Day 1977 a male Siberian Thrush was found! Anyway, I had nothing like any of those birds of course! But there was plenty of activity in the cemetery, Robins, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Long-tailed Tits and a single Goldcrest.
On the way home I stopped at the steel barn between Acle and Billocksby to look for Common Cranes, I counted twelve birds feeding amongst a stubble field not far from the very large stack of round straw bales. Too distant for anything other than the most cropped and grainy of record shots.

Two of twelve Cranes near Acle, Norfolk - 14th December 2014

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Grimes's Graves GGS

This morning it was off to the Norfolk Brecks to look for the Great Grey Shrike around the Grime's Grave area.
After parking the car we took a rather circuitous route to the location where the bird is supposed to frequent. Having lugged all my gear, there was no sign of the bird. Nonetheless en route we did hear / see Nuthatch, Marsh Tit, several Green Woodpeckers and a nice flock of Lesser Redpolls (didn't see any Mealys amongst them). And this rather fetching looking idea what it is, answers on a postcard please!

Mystery fungi - ID suggestions welcome please!

We tracked back the way we had come and when Nick stopped to scan a distant fence-line, lo and behold, there was the shrike sitting atop a far-away bush. So as it turns out if we had, at the beginning of our trek, turned left rather than right we might have found the bird within the first fifteen minutes. Anyway, while we watched the shrike I heard a bird call twice from the adjacent woods that to me immediately sounded like Pallas's Warbler. I am aware that another birder mentioned on his blog that he was pretty sure he heard a Hume's Warbler calling from the woods while he was out looking for the shrike. I heard the call once more about ten minutes later, this time a little further away. Unfortunately though whatever was calling never showed but on listening to recordings of both Hume's and Pallas's on my iphone afterwards and xeno-canto later at home as well as recordings on The Sound Approach, I think the calls were either one of the two leaf warblers rather than an unusual Coal Tit call.
Anyway back to the shrike, we headed further along the path towards the bird, I took a few distant heavily cropped record shots but unfortunately that was as good as it got as regards photographs. Having walked a little further we couldn't relocate the bird so decided to call it a day and return to the car.

Grainy, heavily cropped and distant record shot of the Grime's Graves GGS

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Beautiful and The Damned

It had been a text book weekend up to this point. Fresh from seeing the The Damned in concert in Norwich on Friday night (a long awaited 'tick' in itself) and Ireland giving the Springboks a good going over in Dublin on Saturday evening, it was going to be hard to follow all of that.

Punk legends The Damned at The Waterfront, Norwich - 7th November 2014

But two obliging Desert Wheatears in both Lowestoft, Suffolk and Gorleston, Norfolk put the proverbial tin hat on it all. Almost three years to the day since I first saw that species (on the east coast of Ireland (see Desert Wheatear - Wicklow, Ireland)). Perhaps there is a pattern to their movements? This time there had been a small influx of birds late last week with singles in Kent, Norfolk and Suffolk. It had rained hard all Saturday night and that deluge continued this morning but with a clearance around 10.30am, I headed down to Lowestoft. As I walked along the sea wall from the Links Road carpark in the Ness Point direction, I could see a gathering of birders off in the distance. It was going to take me ten minutes or more to get that far but as I walked, a small bird flew along the sea wall towards me and alighted within about twenty feet. The Desert Wheatear himself. Its not often that easy, they don't normally fly towards you like that. It fed busily and made its way along the low concrete wall until it was less than twenty feet away. The background is not great but this is full frame at 700mm.

Male Desert Wheatear, Lowestoft, Suffolk
It continued to feed along the same stretch, impervious to passers-by and birders. When the sun came out I extended my tripod legs to get a better background and almost filled an 8GB memory card with files. I've still lots more to go through but so far this one is the pick of the bunch.

Male Desert Wheatear, Lowestoft, Suffolk
Having 'filled my boots' and still with time to spare I decided to head north towards Gorleston and see if the female Desert Wheatear was on show. I stopped off briefly at Ness Point where a first winter Red-backed Shrike was present in the pipe compound. I presume the same bird that I had seen last month behind the Birds-eye factory (see The Birds-Eye Shrike).
At Gorleston I was not to be disappointed. I walked along the sea wall to the third shelter south of the amusements and joined a small group of photographers / birders waiting patiently for the bird to show on the beach. In due course the bird appeared and fed quite confidently within twenty feet. At one stage it was so close I was unable to focus on it. I have never seen a female Desert Wheatear so this was interesting, obviously not so well marked as the Lowestoft male but a very attractive bird nonetheless.

Female Desert Wheatear, Gorleston-on-sea, Norfolk