Saturday, 4 June 2016

La Brenne. May 2016, Part 2

This part of the report concentrates on the Reserve Naturelle de Cherine.
There are several lakes with hides in the reserve but only Etang Cistude and Etang Sous offered much for the photographer.  Martyn and Alan also walked down the track to Etang des Essarts but didn't see very much other than a black headed gull colony being attacked by a black kite. In fact we were all walking that track when we spotted  a pair of red-backed shrikes. Steve and myself hung around hoping for some better shots whilst the others walked down to Essarts. It was a good call on our part because whilst we were watching the male shrike on a fence a wryneck landed 3 or 4 feet from it. All thoughts of the shrikes disappeared as we concentrated on the wryneck. It hung around for 10 minutes or so and allowed a few record shots to go with those of the shrikes. By the time Alan and Martyn got back both the shrikes and wryneck had disappeared.

Etang Cistude is right by the visitor centre but the hides have some weird opening times - in fact we only got into them once - they were locked every other time we tried. Out in front of the hide were black headed gulls but there is a small heronry close by and purple herons were pretty easy to see  - if distant. We did find one hiding in a clump of reed 30 -40 yards from the hide and eventually it came out into the open, caught a fish and immediately flew off into a distant reed bed.


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Over the back from the main hide we could see a pair of black necked grebes so when we were kicked out of the main hide at 12.30 (it closes for lunch or something like that!) we wandered round the lake to the other hide (which didn't seem to close for lunch). Once there we watched purple herons flying near to where we had just come from and the black necked grebes disappeared off over there as well - surely they didn't know it had closed?

Most afternoons saw us ending up at Etang Sous (the sun is in your face in the mornings). This hide was great for egrets when we were here in the autumn but this year none came close. This may have been because the water was very high or because several black headed gulls nest in front of the hide and chase away the herons if they come in; who knows. All I know is none came in.There were a number of purple herons in the reed beds but all you ever saw of them was them popping up above the reed and almost instantly dropping back into them.

There was also a great reed warbler but whilst it shouted and hollered all day long I only ever managed a distant glimpse of it.
The main attraction of this hide are the whiskered terns. There were around 200 (yes I did a count) so they were constantly flying past picking up reeds for nests and there were several perches close to the hide for them to land on.

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The other attraction of this hide and the reason for several people to sit there all day every day is the possibility of seeing a little bittern. On our first visit we could hear one calling and on our second Alan got  a glimpse of one in the reeds.  On our last visit Al and Martyn went off for a walk but Steve and myself hung around and were rewarded with one flying into the reed bed next to the hide where it showed for a few seconds before disappearing into the reeds.

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Fortunately it (or perhaps it's mate) did show again as it flew back out to the main reed bed and this time Al and Martyn were around.

The visitor centre is also a good place to photograph European green lizards (lacerta biliniata) every time we went there some were backing in the sun.



A few comments about the general area.
Nightingales are everywhere, Thousands of them and possibly the most common bird outside the villages but just as in England they remain near impossible to find in the open.. My best and only effort:


Black kites are also everywhere. If you are driving around you'll probably see one every few minutes they are that common.

Black kite

Also seen, again as we were driving, were short-toed eagles. I think we saw at least one every day - though always distant.
A couple of booted eagles were also seen during our travels but again only distantly.
Buzzards were also fairly common (though I would say not as common as the black kites) with this pale morph being the most interesting.


Black redstarts were not as common as I expected though that may be because we didn't spend that much time in villages. There were 2 or 3 singing males by our hotel and we saw them in several other villages. We also had the bonus of a pair of spotted flycatchers making a nest 20 yards from our hotel.

Spotted flycatcher

I expected to see more hoopoes than I did - I saw 4 I think and they were very flighty. I also expected to see/hear more melodious warblers but the only one I recollect were near the bee-eaters. Most unexpectedly we failed to see/hear a single serin.

One final thing to remember if you are considering a trip to la Brenne is  most of the restaurants are closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays - including the hotel restaurants - I can't think of anything more stupid in a tourist destination. One night we resorted to sandwiches and beer from a supermarket and sat outside our hotel to eat/drink. Seeing us there several punters stopped thinking the restaurant was open only to go away disappointed.

Auberge de la Gabriere - our hotel.

That not withstanding the birding was very good - how could it be otherwise with little bustard, little bittern, bee-eater and short-toed eagle being seen? The photography was a lot harder than expected but most importantly it was warm and dry!!!!!

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

La Brenne May 2016 Part 1

Last September we, as in Ashtours, went to La Brenne and whilst we saw a number of good birds the migrant species had already left. We hoped this trip would put that right.
The we were Steve Ashton, Martyn Wilson and Alan Ashdown and we stayed at Auberge de la Gabriere. We drove down catching the 3.30am (yes am) train so as to be south of Tours late morning.

The journey down was uneventful with our last comfort and coffee stop being just south of Tours on the A85/E604. As we hung around the car park we saw our first significant birds in the form of a crested lark and a cirl bunting.
As we continued along the A85 2 red backed shrikes were spotted on the fence linging the motorway then we turned off for Sublaines. Just south of the village we turned onto the narrow lanes and started looking for little bustards. Now I must admit I didn't hold out much nope but after a few minutes Martyn spotted one - it was calling and displaying in a stretch of uncultivated/weedy land.

Little bustard

It was always quite a long way off but because the weeds were short it was easy to see and we enjoyed it's calls and displays for quite a time and took some shots from the car. We continued to drive around the area and saw at least 4 more but these were flight shots with the birds emerging then disappearing into the wheat.
We did return to the weed field and the bird was back and calling/displaying but a little further away.
Also whilst watching the bustard a ring-tail hen harrier put in a distant appearance.
All in all a brilliant start to our trip and we hadn't even got to La Brenne.

After dropping off our bags we had a trip to Etang Sous where ~200 whiskered terns were in residence, purple herons showed distantly and fleetingly above the reed beds and a great reed warbler was shouting it's head off though remained unseen.

Back at the hotel we had a beer or two looking out over the Etang Gabriere and watched cattle egret, purple and night heron and black kite fly past.

Purple heron

Black kite

Night herons
The next 3 days saw us visit a number of sites (often daily)  and I'll comment on each location rather than do a day by day report.

Most mornings, before breakfast, we went to Le Blizon where a short walk brings you to a hide where you look across lily covered lake to a heronry. The herons present were mainly cattle egret and night heron though great white, little, grey and purple were also seen. Whilst the lake looks great for black necked grebe I don't recollect us seeing any here but black kites flew past frequently as they tried to steal chicks from the black headed gull colony at the far end of the lake. A few whiskered tern also called the lake home.

The best photo opportunities here were of the herons flying in and out with the early morning sun lighting up their undersides.

The drive to and from Le Blizon was also very productive in that we found a pair of red-backed shrikes in the roadside hedge (only the male posed for us) and a pair of honey buzzards.

The honey buzzards were first spotted as they took off from the road then they circled a few times before disappearing. The views were great but my pictures were disappointing - I got the exposure wrong!
200 yards further along we all piled out of the car again as a buzzard and black kite were scrapping.

Quite close to Le Blizon is Etang Fourcault. We only made one visit to this lake/hide and all in all it was pretty poor. A few ducks and distant black-winged stilt. Last September there were wide damp margins around the lake suitable for waders so I'd been hoping for a hoopoe here but the water levels were exceeding high (as they were in all of the lakes), and a lot of bramble had grown in front of the hide so the damp/muddy margins I had hoped for were missing, mostly under a foot or two of water.
The photographic highlight to our visit to Fourcault were the common wall lizards that used the fence posts to sun themselves.

Common Wall Lizard

Etang de Bellebouche: Last September we'd had a very enjoyable session here with black redstarts and middle spotted woodpeckers. No such luck this time. A few very flighty black redstarts were seen but no sign of the woodpeckers. We did find a hoopoe in the car park and a redstart family near the restaurant though only a juvvy hung around to have it's picture taken.

We made 2 visits to a quarry near Martizay and as soon as we got out of the car we could see and hear bee-eaters and just along from where'd we parked were some melodious warblers. I spent a lot of time trying to get pictures of both but only managed records shots. The warblers remained hidden (though very vocal) most of the time and the bee-eaters (as many as 15) though in sight most of the time were always too high/distant for a decent shot. Martyn also spotted a wood lark here though that too remained distant and obscured by the grass.

Etang Purais. One visit here and the main black necked grebe location though the birds were all several hundreds yards away with no chance of even a record shots. This is a lake for the scope.

Part 2 will cover the area around the Cherine Nature Reserve and Maison de la Nature

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Are Tele-converters worthwhile

Most people who know me know I don't use a teleconverter and indeed I don't even own one. I know a lot of people who do own and use them but most of the time I'm either unimpressed by the results or even when they look ok I tend to think they would probably have looked better without one and doing a slightly tighter crop.
I certainly know several people who have purchased them but abandoned using them after a few days because they are so disappointed in the results - though it must be said that I also know a couple of people who swear by them.
Anyway this last week a friend of mine lent me his 1.4x converter (one of those who abandoned) so I set about trying to get hard evidence that my perceptions ( i.e.that they are a waste of time) were correct.

I have previously tried to get an answer to this question by searching the internet but have failed to find a report where the results with and without converter are compared directly.


Since my lens ( Canon 400mm f5.6) is not image stabilised all test shots were taken with the camera mounted on a tripod. In every test multiple images (normally 10) were taken so as to avoid the possibility of camera shake or a slightly missed focus influencing the results.

The targets used for these tests were either A4 photographs of birds where lots of plumage detail could be seen or a test chart published by Bob Atkins (ref    )

The targets were set up approx 12- 15 yards from the camera (a Canon 7D mk 2).

Downstream processing was zero other than cropping and resizing so that both set ups gave an image of exactly the same size. Obviously the greater magnification achieved with the converter in place meant the reduction in pixels was significantly greater for this set up. For example using the Bob Atkins target the cropped image without the converter was 940 pixels wide whereas with converter it was 1325; both were reduced to 800 pixels for use in this blog. No attempt was made to optimise image quality in Photoshop.

The first set of shots were taken using a picture of a little green bee-eater as the target. On the back of the camera I was convinced the results were better without the converter but when the shots were processed as described above there was very little between the best shots at either setting though more pictures were poor/unacceptable when the converter was used. I now think this may have been due to the low shutter speeds -  it wasn't a very bright day and I had 1/500th without converter and 1/320th with (more on this later):

Without converter
With converter
Whilst the differences are small if I really had to choose between the two I'd go with the shot taken without the converter.

A day or two later I repeated this test using a picture of an Indian Pitta.

without converter
With converter

In this test I was focusing on the breast plumage (NOT the eye) and the results were pretty clear - the image after re-sizing was better WITH the converter than without. This time I didn't see the failure rate I saw with the bee-eater shots.  I attribute this to the greater shutter speed  achieved on this day - it was sunny and even with converter I was getting 1/5000th sec.

The final test was with the Bob Atkins chart. Here the results were again unequivocal - the more detailed images were achieved WITH the converter.

No converter
with converter

As before these are straight out of the camera.
The place to see the difference in sharpness and resolution is with the  4.5 and 5.0 sets of horizontal and vertical lines - without the converter complete resolution is achieved with the 4.5 set but lost with the 5.0 set. With the converter complete resolution is achieved at 5.0 and is almost achieved at 5.6; it's gone by 6.3. (this is easier to see on the raw images than on the blog shots but just look at the 4.5 block and the difference in quality is clear)
For these shots the camera was around 14-15 yards from the target and the "4.5" target width (horizontal and vertical lines) is 5.0 mm wide and approx 3.5mm high.

I did repeat the test without a converter but using f8 (the aperture you get when using a 1.4x converter) but the results were identical to those achieved at f5.6.

So there you have it. I was wrong. In my hands and under my test conditions the 400mm f5.6 with converter outperforms the lens alone.

Using the converter does have significant drawbacks in that the best you can get is f8. This has a significant impact on the shutter speed, decreasing your ability to freeze any movement of the subject and makes the set up more sensitive to camera shake.  This latter point was very noticeable during the test where, even though I was on a decent tripod and sitting in a chair, the amount of camera shake with the converter was a lot more apparent than without. Also when the light was poorest (the bee-eater shots) several shots were lost to motion blur when using the converter. I didn't try using remote or auto shutter release or self timer. Finally it should be remembered that the 400mm f5.6 does not have image stabilisation so this problem may not be so apparent for an IS lens.

I also expect the converter will increase the time the lens takes to focus but I didn't try to assess this not least because I have no idea how to attempt it in a quantifiable manner.

So where does this leave me.

I think I have to see how much my friend wants for his converter; if the price is right I'll buy it. For most of my work I will continue to use the lens without a converter especially for motion shots where shutter speed and speed of focus is paramount (I have enough trouble getting decent hand held shots as it is; I doubt if I'd get any at all with a converter in place). I would certainly try to use it if the subject was standing still and/or the light was decent - though it would have to stand there long enough to put the thing on!

How do I reconcile my results with the perceptions I mentioned at the start. Certainly those who have given up on a converter only hand hold so perhaps their problem is motion blur. Certainly one of the guys who swears by them uses a tripod a lot of the time minimising motion blur. So perhaps my previous conclusion were due to the greater difficulty in holding the set up steady with a converter rather than the intrinsic quality of the image.