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.

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.