Sunday, 27 May 2012

Alice Through the......Lens

I had gone to Rye Meads with the objective of photographing the drake Garganey that has been around the north end of the Lea Valley for the last couple of weeks. I had just settled into the Draper Hide when news came in that there were a couple of Foxes just outside. I rushed out and there on the bend in the path was a Fox staring at me.

There have been a pair of Foxes centred loosely on the Visitor Centre for some time now and often provide photo opportunites during the winter months. Now the vixen Alice is bringing up six cubs which are already fairly well grown. This is Alice with her coat looking a bit scruffy after the ordeal of being underground rearing her cubs.

Alice is used to people and is not at all bothered by their presence, whereas the cubs are a lot more nervous and will only stop for a momentary glance before scurrying off up the path after mum.

Having disappeared into the undergrowth for 10 minutes Alice reappeared and came walking at a fast pace down the path as if on a mission. She veered off to the right just seconds after this photo was taken, not because I was standing there, but because that was her shortcut. If you are in her way she will run straight past you.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Emberiza schoeniclus

One of the first "rare" birds that I ever saw was Emberiza schoeniclus or Reed Bunting. In those days rare meant that it appeared in the Observer's Book of Birds but not in my garden. As a result they have always had a place in my heart and, of course, the males are stunning birds.

At this time of year they are easy to see as they are in breeding mode and spend most of the day perched on their favourite song post rattling out their song. Back in the 1970s a friend of mine did a PhD on their song and found that it is in two parts. The first section is common to all Reed Buntings and basically says "I am a Reed Bunting" and the second part is unique to each individual ie their signature. Now a lot of people don't know that. But I digress.

The best local place for Reed Buntings is King's Meads and I was not disappointed.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Lakenheath Fen 5 Years On - Part 2

Having rested watching the Grass Snakes on New Fen, I continued up the river bank towards Joyce's Fen where most of the action takes place. As I approached the southern end of the fen I could count 20 Hobbies in the air at once. They spend most of their time hunting for insects over the reeds but occasionally make an excursion over the river bank to hunt along the river. Shortly after I arrived one bird did just this and I was able to rattle off a number of shots.

Nearly all of the female Marsh Harriers are now on nests so most of the birds seen are males. Although they will hunt over the reedbed they often cross the river and fly down the opposite bank out over the fields. I spent quite some time trying to get shots at a range of about a quarter of a mile but then the unexpected happened. A returning male started to cross back over the river but then drifted overhead allowing some close shots. I might have to wait a long time for that to happen again.


Saturday, 19 May 2012

Lakenheath Fen 5 Years On - Part 1

It is now five years since I have been to Lakenheath Fen and time for a reunion. I used to visit this site annually back in the 1980s when it was no more than a couple of Poplar plantations in the middle of carrot fields. The plantations were owned by Bryant and May, the wood being used to make matchsticks, but they were also home to a small colony of Golden Orioles. We used to drive up the bumpy track from Lakenheath village, cross the railway and settle down to watch the adults feeding young in the nest.

Now it is an RSPB reserve complete with visitor centre, and the carrot fields have been converted back to wetland, and what a wonderful site it is. Where else can you see 18 pairs of Marsh Harrier, 9 booming Bitterns, 2 pairs of Common Crane, 2 pairs of Garganey, up to 20 Hobbies in the air at once and Golden Orioles just 65 miles from Hertford?

I decided to keep to the river bank as this gets you close to the Marsh Harriers and Hobbies and also gives a better vantage point for flight shots. As I was walking along I could see two large birds circling in the distance and immediately assumed that I had connected with my first harriers of the day. However, a glance through the bins revealed that they were in fact a pair of Common Cranes. Let us hope that the fact that they are away from the nest means that they are feeding young.

The second bird to catch my eye was certainly a surprise. Amongst a group of a dozen or so Mute Swans grazing on the flooded river banks was........a Whooper Swan, a bird that should have migrated north a couple of months ago.. There was no obvious sign of a problem with the bird although I was reliably informed that it had a damaged wing with prevented it from flying. Let us hope it continues to avoid the Foxes.

Also along the river there were a number of Common Terns flying back and forth. Most of the time they were fairly distant but occasionally the river does came close to the raised river bank allowing opportunites for some flight shots.


Amongst the numerous Marsh Harriers and Hobbies there were a couple of Kestrels hovering over the neighbouring fields hunting for small mammals. This male Kestrel was successful and was so intent on devouring the luckless animal that it didn't seem to notice my presence.

However, for me the highlight of the day so far was the number of ........Grass Snakes. While I was sitting observing the birdlife from the shelter overlooking New Fen, at least 10 snakes were seen swimming backwards and forwards across the mere, sometimes within 10 yards of where I was sitting, by far the most I have ever seen in one day. Why this amazing spectacle happens here and at no other wetland I have visited remains a mystery.

So what an amazing day so far with a Whooper Swan and Grass Snakes totally unexpected. However, the main reason for me wanting to visit Lakenheath Fen was to try and photograph Marsh Harriers and Hobbies in flight but more of that in Part 2.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Photographing Sea Swallows in Flight

Sea Swallows, or in today's parlance Common Terns, are one of the most graceful flyers and it is easy to spend many an hour watching them waft backwards and forwards. However, photographing them in flight is not that easy as they are adept at sudden changes in direction and of course, always at the precise time that you are about to press the trigger.

The problem with trying to photgraph them over lakes or reservoirs is that they tend to be distant for most of the time so it is much better to select a linear body of water such as a river or canal so that they are funnelled past you. The only problem with this is that, because you are so close, they do tend to hurtle past. For my first effort I chose the Lee Navigation at Amwell.

Patience is the name of the game. I positioned myself where a couple of birds had been fishing over the canal earlier and they, of course, promptly returned to the main lake. When a bird did appear it shot by so fast that I hardly got it in the view-finder, and disappeared off towards Ware. However, with a little perseverance I got the hang of predicting their behaviour and eventually got a couple of reasonable shots.

A quick visit to the ramp next to the viewpoint revealed a couple of waders feeding amongst the now flooded vegetation. They were feeding very close to each other, never more than 2 feet apart, and therefore one assumed that they would be the same species. However, a close inspection revealed that they were in fact a Dunlin and a Ringed Plover.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Mission Cetti

And now for the ultimate photograph a Cetti's Warbler. Cetti's Warblers are gradually becoming more common and their shrill song can often be heard from a long distance. However, seeing them is another matter. Once you have got them pinned down they can sing from just 10 yards away and never to be seen or, if you are lucky, just a glimpse of the bird shuffling around in deep cover. On the rare occasions that they show themselves you have just a few seconds to take a shot, assuming of course that you have a camera at the ready.

When I arrived at the Amwell viewpoint I was distracted by the resident Whitethroat which once again was posing, this time in amongst some Rape which added a bit of colour to the shot. Also in front of the viewpoint a Stock Dove flew in for a drink. Is it just me or does anyone else think that the subtley-coloured Stock Dove is a grossly under-rated bird? Unfortunately, you can't see the bright red legs on this one.

Anyway, now on to the business at hand. There are a few Cetti's Warblers at Amwell distributed around the various reedbeds, but most are inaccessible. The bird that is close to public access and could show itself to a camera is the one holding territory next to the boardwalk by the Bittern Pool. I stood on the boardwalk and could hear it singing intermittently but not enough to pin it down. I therefore left it for a while and went for a walk up the lane.

When I returned it was singing quite frequently but had now moved to the south of the boardwalk ie between the boardwalk and the James Hide. I quickly made my way up to the upper hide so that I could look down on the area in question. I was soon able to pin it down to a pile of brash next to the fence. The bird eventually appeared but was obscured by a number of branches.

Then unbelievably, the bird broke cover and flew out onto a branch and gave a quick burst of song, before disappearing back into the undergrowth. Although my camera was poised and ready I only managed a few shots in the couple of seconds available. In the category of "challenging", these are surely my best shots so far.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Amwell Whitethroat

The mission today was to go to Amwell and try and photograph the Whitethroat that has taken up residence in front of the viewpoint. It does on occasions pose for photos but it's cooperation does rather depend on the number of visitors there.

When I arrived the viewpoint was quite busy and so I decided to walk up the lane to see if the Nightingale was going to show itself. On the way along the Lee Navigation towpath there was a lone Canada Goose which looked very tempting. Now don't get me wrong. When you first take delivery of your new camera I suspect that, invariably, the first subject is a Canada Goose as they are large, approachable and don't move fast. Hopefully, I have grown out of that phase, but today I was interested in another approach.....a portrait. What a poser!!

The rest of the walk up the lane was rather fruitless with no warblers, and the Nighingale wasn't even singing, let alone visible. However, back at the viewpoint the crowd had thinned and I was able to lean quietly on the rail waiting for the Whitethroat to show itself. It didn't take long but the challenge wasn't so much waiting for it to appear in the open but to get it in the right light.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Black Terns at Amwell

The main driver for me going to Amwell today was to try and photograph a couple of Black Terns that had been reported there. When I arrived they were still there, but the day was gloomy and the terns were keeping to the centre of the lake which made decent photos impossible. Therefore the best I could achieve were the two record shots shown below.

However, all was not lost as I wandered around the rest of the site including the Dragonfly Trail at Holycross Lake. There was nothing here out of the usual but, love them or hate them, a pair of Canada Geese were closely guarding their newly-hatched brood.

As I made my way back to the car I also had a couple of opportunities to photograph Blackcaps. I am sure that when I first started birding some 50+ years ago, Blackcaps were nowhere near as common as they are now. Today they are by far our commonest warbler and are quite happy to pose for the camera if you just wait. This male was quite happy to help in the chore of building the nest which, as far as I am concerned, is not something to be encouraged!!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

A Day in the Brecks

I love the Brecks. Not a place for building up a long day list, but unbeatable for speciality species such as Goshawk, Stone Curlew, Hawfinch, Crossbill, Tree Pipit and Woodlark. First stop today was Lynford Arboretum where I was hoping to connect with Crossbill, Hawfinch and possibly Firecrest.

The top priority was breakfast and as I tucked into a BLT I noticed movement in the nearby wood. Closer inspection revealed a buck Muntjac with it's short antlers and fangs. Unfortunately, a lot of the time it was hidden in Bracken but did show itself just once before noticing me and bounding off.

Breakfast over I made my way into the arboretum and was immediately treated to the "chupping" of a flyover Crossbill which conveniently circled and landed in about the tallest nearby conifer. It was possible to get quite close but there was no escaping the fact that the tree was about 80 feet high and therefore the bird was a little distant. The bird was obviously a male but not the brightest I have ever seen.

A look for the Hawfinches in the traditional spot drew a blank and so I decided to try my luck by the Western Hemlocks for the resident Firecrest. This was quite tricky as there were a lot of crests calling and singing, making it difficult to determine which direction the call was coming from and locate the bird. In the event, all the calls heard and birds seen were Goldcrests and so it may be that the female Firecrest was now sitting on eggs and the male had stopped singing as is often the case. However, as I was continuing my search I did come across a pair of Tree Creepers exploring one of the wooden scuptures.

There was still no sign of the Hawfinches so time to move on to an area of nearby clear-fell and try for Tree Pipit and Wood Lark. As I parked the car next to the busy A134 and started walking through the Beech wood towards the clearing I could already hear the song of a Tree Pipit wafting across the heath. When I eventually emerged from the wood I quickly spotted the pipit singing from the top of a small tree along the southeastern border. I hugged the edge of the neighbouring plantation to remain reasonably hidden and to get the sun behind me and eventually was able to approach within about 25 yards. I wish all birds were that accommodating.

And now for the biggest challenge of all - Wood Lark. Earlier in the season, when they are in full song, Wood Larks are easy to find. However, they are early breeders and are now feeding young and so are mostly silent, at least they were when I was there. I scanned all the tree stumps and wood piles with no success but then my luck changed. I spotted a bird flying low towards me over the clear-fell which landed on a tree stump 50 yards away. I did manage to edge a little closer but it was nowhere near as confiding as the Tree Pipit. I did, however, get a few shots before it flew back to the other end. On the third photo notice how the eyestripes meet at the back of the head

Well, mission accomplished and I still have a couple of hours left. So now for somewhere completely different, but that's another story.