Saturday, 28 January 2012

Canon Fodder

Those out there who know me (and my camera) will know that I have been one of the few local birders  who used Sony kit. My camera (the Alpha 700) however is getting long in the tooth and has been increasing temperamental. I was hoping the new Alpha 77 would be the answer. Well after 6 months of thinking about it I finally decided it wasn’t for me. The Alpha 77 is stacked with excellent features but unfortunately it falls down with respect to the one critical feature – taking photographs! It suffers from very noisy images (especially in raw).  It would seem the camera software does a reasonable job at suppressing the noise if you shoot in JPEG but the cost is loss of detail. Which rather defeats the object of stuffing the sensor full of pixels (24 mega pixels).
After a lot of thought, reading , discussion and soul searching I decided on the Canon 7D with the (non-image stabilised) 400mm f5.6  lens – my reasoning being that above 1/400-1/500 sec the lack of image stabilisation should not be too much of a problem and if it’s so dark I can’t get those shutter speeds the pictures would probably only be a record shot anyway!.(And anyway I'll still have my Sony for the dark days assuming it can be pathed up)
So there you are, I have joined the Canon Clan which is rather sad because I rather liked being different.
The camera arrived a week or so ago but the lens didn’t arrive till Thursday afternoon so Friday was my first run out. Luckily the sun shone and after a short look at Dover harbour (2 dozen auks - mainly razorbills, and a similar number of kittiwakes) it was off to Folkestone to photograph med gulls.
At Folkestone my luck was in because as I arrived a couple sat on one of the benches and started feeding the gulls. This meant I didn’t have to and could position myself optimally to try out the kit.
Needless to say I was still pretty unfamiliar with the camera but the first impressions were that it was clearly a whole heap faster at focussing than my Sony outfit though at times I did miss the zoom facility – the gulls being too close to get in shot.
Med Gull
Herring Gull

After 20 minutes or so the gull feeders departed and so did I.
Next stop was the old rifle range at Kingsdown where I spent some time photographing the fulmars. Again the Canon showing its superior tracking relative to the Sony.

Conclusion: I know the light was good but for a first time out I was pleased with the results.
Saturday I stayed local walking from Oldstairs bay along the track past Ottey Bottom up to St Margaret’s. I was hoping to find some yellow hammers but I didn’t – these have shown a significant decline in the area over the last few years to the extent that despite several attempts I still haven’t managed to connect with one this year. All was not lost though because there were a good head of chaffinch and the common tits (great, blue plus a few long tailed), a huge number of blackbirds (they were everywhere) and ~5 song thrush.  I also had the pleasure of finding a pair of bullfinch and my first blackcap of the year (a female).
I returned to the sea front and decided I’d have half an hour on the rifle range hoping that a peregrine or kestrel would fly by. Well they didn’t but a raven did.
I was alerted to the raven by the jackdaws which really didn’t like it being there and mobbed it both when it flew and when it landed. It went back and forth several times allowing me to adjust the exposure and get some flight shots (it was always too distant when it landed).

Again I was pretty pleased with the results though I had to up the ISO to 640 on some of the shots to keep a decent shutter speed.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Auks and Divers

Saturday (21st) started at Dover harbour but no divers were to be found. I counted 5 shags fishing near the life boat station and 19 gt crested grebes in the main harbour. On the auk front there were about a dozen in the harbour and from the end of the Prince of Wales pier I could see another around 50 in the harbour mouth.
After Dover I went back to Kingsdown and immediately could see there were a lot of auks off shore. I set up the scope and in the first 3 minutes (9.36 to 9.39) 100 auks had flown past. I reached 200 by 9.43 and stopped counting. Most were quite distant though a few were close enough to point the camera at.
There was also a fishing boat off shore so I spent some time trying to get the auks and the boat in the same frame.

Auks going in for the attack
The auks continued to move  south throughout  my stay though there were some going back the other way and a lot were just sitting about on the water.  I also saw about a dozen divers flying south with those close enough to id being red throats.
 Directly out from Kingsdown there were a few gannets, some fishing but most just sitting on the sea but there were a lot more (~50?) down towards St Margarets.

Gannets south towards St Margarets
Sunday I again went to Dover but didn’t stay long because the pier was shut. I had another look at the sea from Kingsdown but there was very little moving (especially when compared to Saturday) so as I was going to Ramsgate later in the morning I gave up and went home.
At Ramsgate Angie, with me in tow, did her shopping then we returned to the harbour to look for the red throated diver Steve Ashton had told me about. From the harbour car park I spotted it over by the lock gates but by the time we walked round there it was in the middle of the boats and disappeared towards the north(?) end of the inner harbour (left hand end as you look out to sea).
We went back round onto the prom when it emerged and swam past us only a few feet from the wall. At one point it swam along in the 2 foot wide strip of water between the sea wall and the floating walkway though the camera locked at that time and I missed the shot.

Alongside the pontoon by the prom

I was told the merganser was still around but didn’t have time to go and look for it but I did see a small grebe. I only saw it the once before it disappeared amongst the boats though it may have just been a little grebe as one was reported Saturday on Planet Thanet.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Velvet Scoter at Kingsdown

Today started at Sandwich where we did an hour’s sea watch. There was a little bit going on with quite a few red throated divers flying back and forth along with about a dozen gt crested grebes on the water. The actual number of divers out there however wasn’t appreciated until a fishing boat moved past south flushing  the divers before it  – 30+ went past in a couple of minutes.
The only ducks seen were 4 wigeon and at last there were a couple of guillemots (my first for the year in the Bay).
We gave up about 9.30 and returned to the Obs for a coffee which was lucky as the rain came down after that.
After stopping in Deal to do some chores I decided to stop at Kingsdown beach to have another look at the sea. You may well ask why and Indeed I was asking myself the same when I spotted a duck a couple of hundred yards out to sea.
I got the scope onto it and immediately my thought was velvet scoter due to the white diagonal line on its flank so I grabbed my Collins to check what I should be looking for.

Velvet Scoter
The next hour or so was spent watching it hoping it would flap it’s wings and show the white secondaries to clinch the id. The bird stood up in the water quite a lot but didn’t flap. It even splashed about on several occasions but always with its wings near to or even under the water.

Eventually it made a short flight and although this was the time the camera decide it wanted to lock up it did free itself in time to allow a couple of shots to be made.

Velvet scoter showing secondaries
The bird has a very pale belly so I think that makes it a juvenile. It was still there when I departed 12.35.
I didn’t see a lot else whilst I was there but the fulmars are back on the cliff face, there were a few red throats and gt crested further out from the scoter and a curlew landed on the exposed rocks.

So a quiet day but one that delivered quite a difficult year tick and with some record shots to boot.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Lesser is great

Since the forecast was for a bright day I decided to open my 2012 woodland bird campaign. For the last couple of year I had concentrated on Park Wood but this year I have decided to concentrate on Bossendon Wood (near Boughton).
I arrived at about 8.30 and was greeted with a host of great tit plus a decent smattering of blue tit and chaffinch. I put some seed onto the fallen tree and stood around waiting for 10 minutes.........nothing came down. Undeterred I set off into the wood looking at anything that sounded unusual (but normally failing to spot it). After about 20 minutes I still hadn’t added to the day total of species seen though I had heard a green woodpecker. Eventually my luck changed and I good views of a coal tit plus a goldcrest. Now in truth I had had glimpses of probable coal tits but I wasn’t totally sure on the id.  By now I’d walked about 600 yards into the wood so decided to take another path back to the fallen tree convinced the birds would now be feeding on my offerings.
This proved to be a good call – not because anything was feeding on the offerings because there wasn't - but because I found 2 fire crests on the way. I did get the camera out but the little beasties were deep in a holly bush and I never got close to getting a shot off.
I started doing another circuit and 4-500 yards in I came across a noisy flock small stuff. Raising the bins to one of the larger ones in the canopy revealed a female lesser spotted woodpecker!!!
Out came the camera and I started shooting.
Lesser Spotted woodpecker (female)
The bird moved several times and after one of the moves I didn’t relocate the female – I found a male. As with the female he was always high up and distant but I got off ~ 40 record shots.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (male)
Whilst following the lesser spot I heard then found a nuthatch so when the lesser disappeared my attention switched to that.

Also in the same area was a small part of tree creepers mainly chasing each other around but occasionally landing and running up the trees.

Tree Creeper
The flock had disappeared back towards the fallen tree so I made my way finding another 2 fire crests on the way.
Back at the fallen tree there was still nothing coming to the offerings but I did find Steve Ashton and we hung around waiting for Mike to arrive.
We retraced my earlier steps seeing everything I’d seen on the previous circuit including the lesser spots. I did manage some more record shots but Steve latched onto the male right in the open and got some stonking shots (though he will call them record shots). The most frustrating thing was whilst Steve was firing away I couldn't see it – I must have been looking on the wrong branch.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
By now it was about 12.45. Mike had to go home for his dinner and Steve into Canterbury so I decided to have another go at the twite at North Foreland.
I was driving along the Thanet Way when I passed the sign for Reculver so I decided to interrupt my journey and try for the Bewicks. They were there and close to the near bank in amongst the mutes. At first I kept low fearing I’d scare them but after a few minutes it was clear that the mutes were not bothered by my presence and the Bewicks were happy to stay with them.

Bewicks plus Mute Swan
10 minutes and 50-odd shots later I was walking back to the car – job done.
I wish the story had a happy ending but I couldn’t find the twite despite walking around the cauli field twice but I did find a chiffchaff in the weeds on the cliff top – surprisingly my forth for the year.

So a great start to the winter wood campaign though there are still a few ticks to collect (marsh tit, redpoll, siskin etc) but to get lesser spot at the first attempt was very pleasing.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

What a Twite

I only had an hour or so on Saturday so I popped down to Dover Harbour. There was no sign of the gt northern  diver today but there were several shags in amongst the numerous cormorants and 10-12 auks(4+ being razorbills) – with most of the auks being in the cruise terminal part fo the harbour.
Today I went to North Foreland to try and twitch the twite.  I arrived at ~8.00 and spend the next hour or so studiously studying cauliflowers - not a bird in site.
I was up near the pump house and just starting my 2nd circuit of the field when I saw 5 small birds bouncing around. They landed on the bush near the pumping station but flew off before I could get close enough to confirm their id (they had been totally silent). They disappeared over the brow of the hill/cauliflowers in the direction of the Joss Bay car park with me following.

I surmised that they would prefer the short weeds rather than the cauli field so  I started making my way along the edge of the field searching the weed fringe between the cauils and the grass and thats where I found them. The views were still poor though confidence in their id was increasing when a couple of them flew up onto the top of the caulis in full view. I’d already got the camera ready so fired off a few shots then they flew back up the hill towards the pump house.
I checked the results...............RUBBISH!!!!!!!!!!!!

 This could have been quite a good picture with the pink rump showing nicely.
Yesterday I was experimenting with the camera taking shots with the image stabilisation on and off and I’d left the bloody thing switched off. The result being that I need better than 1/400th to get a decent hit rate. Here is the best of the bunch, taken at ISO 800 and 1/250th. I was not a happy.
Hopeful of another chance I walked back up the cliff top path to the pump house where I met Phil Parker. For the next hour or so we wandered around the field but couldn’t find them. We were on our last sweep of the bottom edge of the field when we located them. This time they went up before I could get close but as they flew they were joined by another 2. They flew towards the cliff top and disappeared over the edge and out of site. At that point Phil did give up though I had one last circuit again locating them on the lower edge of the cauli field. Again they were very flighty though I this time managed a couple of shots of them on the ground . I was nowhere near as close as previously but at least I had the IS switched on now.

Scabby flight shot
The last time they flew off there was 8 birds. I have no idea where the extras kept coming from.
I didn’t spend much time looking at the sea but there were a few divers moving but not a lot else. As  well as the twite I did chalk up the first fulmar of the year raising my total to 118

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Another day at Dungeness

Today I went to Dungeness (second time this year!).  There were 2 reasons for going – birding is currently hard work at Sandwich with no ducks and next to no small stuff and Dungeness held the prospect of some more year ticks; for example the glaucous gull. After seeing the pictures of the long tailed duck published in the last couple of days I was tempted to go to Chatham but in the end I stuck to Dunge.
It  was still pretty dark when I left Kingsdown but I stopped off at Hythe to check out the rocks by the Imperial for the purple sandpipers but all I could find were a couple of turnstones.  Next stop was the ARC (sea  end) where from the road I found a lone red head smew  (I didn’t visit the hide today). There were quite a few ducks around including 8-10 goldeneye but the birds were constantly being disturbed by the shooting going on on the adjacent pit – the one on the opposite side of the road. The shooters were occupying 4 boats and were gunning their engines as they raced from one end to the other blasting away at anything unfortunate enough to fly over. I didn’t actually see any ducks shot but it made depressing viewing.
I don’t like to preach about what people should and shouldn’t do for a pastime but I do find shooting adjacent to a nature reserve odious in the extreme.
I soon left the ARC for the point where I wandered about for  an hour or so searching for the gulls. I never did find the glaucous but I think I found the Casper but it was too distant and light too poor to bother with the camera. The sea was still alive with auks, red throated divers  and assorted gulls and kittiwakes.
Next stop was the RSPB where I found Adrian Dowling and Tim Gutsell photographing the tree sparrows by the entrance gate. I had a quick chat then continued to the reserve.
There were lots of ducks on the main pit (possible pushed there by the shooters) but nothing particularly note worthy though there were ~20 pintail – one of my targets for the day.
Other than ducks the reserve was deserted with the rest of the circuit only providing 2 stonechats, several  Cetti’s but no linnets or reed buntings and only a couple of mippits – who has stolen our small birds?  On the New Diggings I thought I’d found a pair of interesting grebes but they were red head smew but even these disappeared before I could get close.
From the Denge marsh hide I found a very distant great white egret but nothing else out of the ordinary.

Gt White Egret (really!)
It was now about 11.30 and brightening up considerably so I decided to go back to the point and search for the gulls again.  On leaving the RSPB I found Tim still with the sparrows and stopped and fired off a couple of shots of my own.

Tree Sparrow
A lot of searching of the gulls was finally rewarded when I saw the glaucous flying over the fishing boats towards a large roost of gulls on the shingle. I was about to follow when looking out to sea I could see loads of divers flying left to right. I quickly went to the sea front where I took a few shots then saw the cause of the movement – one of the fishing boats was returning and flushing everything in front of it. I counted 35 red throats but who knows how many had flown before I noticed them moving.

Red Throated Diver plus Razorbill
While I was on the sea front some kittiwakes cake very close as they were trying to eat a fish thrown back by one of the anglers. I also found Adrian again!

Juvenile Kittiwake
It was then back to the glaucous, which was with the gull roost, and a few more pictures though the cloud was building by now.

Glaucous Gull
On the way home I stopped at the Imperial and this time found the purps. The light was really bad ( 1/80th sec at ISO 400) and I was about to leave when Tim Gutsell turned up. I showed him where they were and as it started to brighten up joined him and got some very pleasing shots.

Purple Sandpiper
I also took some pictures of Tiim and was joking about getting an action shot of him falling in.
Tim in action
Well he didn’t fall in but as we were leaving he slipped on the rocks, fells between them and dropped his camera down between the rocks into the sea below. He did manage to retrieve it but after being submerged things don’t look good.  
Tim was remarkably calm about the whole affair – that’s what insurance is for was his view.  I would have been really miffed and in a foul mood for weeks!!!!! Perhaps I need to lighten up.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Hard Work in East Kent

On Saturday I had a walk out onto Worth Marsh and to be honest I wasn’t really worth it. I started the day on 97 for the year and seeing as I still needed  song thrush, redwing, fieldfare, yellow hammer, corn bunting to name but 5 I was expecting to easily get past the 100 mark. Well I didn’t – all I managed was a couple of song thrushes and a Cetti’s.  There were quite a few blackbirds, chaffinch, greenfinch (by theBlue Pigeons) but there's little else to excite out there  AND I didn’t find the great white egret(s).  On the drive home I did find 5 grey partridge by the Chequers so I did manage to get to 100 but it was hard work.
Today I went over to Stodmarsh; the main target being the ibis. I checked out the Alder Wood but no sign of any siskin or redpoll and a search of the duck flock didn’t add to my year tally – of the common ducks I still need pintail. I later met up with Martyn and Sue who had seen a pintail on the main lake but it had evaded my efforts.
A few Cetti’s were calling and the tits were in good voice but the high light of the walk to the Water Meadows were 5 bullfinch, a loner then 2 pairs together. The 2 pairs were in plain view but the light was very poor and they were distant so I didn’t bother getting the camera out.
At the Water Meadows the ibis were showing well though at times they were tucked up tight against the reeds closest to the footpath so could be missed if you were expecting them out in the middle. I did get the camera out for these but it was very dark – the shot attached was at ISO1000 and I still only had 1/160th of a second. 

Whilst standing around chatting with Martyn and Sue a water pipit flew past adding to the year list. I didn’t have long so I wandered off meeting Steve Ashton in the Marsh hide where I saw another another distant water pipit (it’s very wet in front of the hide now – more suitable for heron and ducks than water pipits).
I was late so it was a quick walk along the very muddy path back to the car park though I did pick up some very distant fieldfares and I found another (closer) flock of these as I was driving home.
In all I managed 4 ticks today – ibis, water pipit, fieldfare and water rail raising my year total to 104. A reasonable start though it must be said that the number of small birds in East Kent is very low – this includes pipits, thrushes, finches (excluding chaffinch), buntings, stonechats – you name it they are difficult to find and when you do there won't be many of them. The only things that seems to be around in close to normal numbers are the common tits. It’s not much better with the geese – which are totally absent in the SBBO recording area. If it carries on like this it will be a long old winter.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Sandwich - The Point

Today I went to the Point with Ian. This was my first real outing of the year at Sandwich what with the weather and the green winged teal turning up – which hasn’t been seen since by the way.
The walk up was hard work with little to see other than a few skylarks and mippits and no sign of any stonechats, snow buntings, shore larks or Dartford warblers (ever the optimist!). The wader roost was south of the restricted area and allowed me to pile on a few year ticks in the way of dunlin, sanderling,  grey plover, knot, bar-tailed godwit.

Also on the beach were a few gulls with one in particular looking interesting being absolutely huge and having a dark grey mantle and looking to have a very white head.  First thoughts were of a yellow legged gull on closer inspection we settled for a agentatus (not least because it didn’t have yellow legs!). A scope would have been handy at this point but it’s a long way to lug one.

Herring Gulls plus Gt Black Backed.
The hundred acre field and the point held better numbers of skylark and mippit and a lone marsh harrier (young male) and over Pegwell the golden plover and lapwing flocks provided an impressive, if distant spectacle.
Much the same on the walk back until we were about 400 yrds north of the car park where we flushed 11 snow buntings. Every time I have seen this flock (the last 3 times I have walked to the point) it has been on the return leg suggesting they roost and/or get pushed off the golf course as the morning wears on.
In the afternoon I popped down to Dover where it was pretty as normal – great northern diver (always distant) about a dozen auks(guillemots and razorbills) about 10 kittiwakes and a shag that appeared right below me for a few seconds then promptly disappeared again – I think it was too close to the pier to see.



Oh and the common seal is still there scrounging fish off the fisherman.
Common Seal

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Green Winged Teal at Sandwich

I expected my first days birding this year at the Obs to be one of just ticking off the common birds. Ian and I were well on the way to Newdowns farm and we were feeling pretty pleased with 3 bullfinch by the entrance to St Georges GC when Andrew Lipz pulled up to tell us he’d found a green winged teal in amongst the 228 common teal on Restharrow scrape. He’d driven down because he’d forgotten his phone but his forgetfulness was our gain as he drove us back to the scrape.
The bird was still on the far bank and a few record shots were obtained but it was too distant and too dark for them to be much good. Whilst Ian and myself were texting around the bird disappeared and it took about 30 minutes until we had relocated it on the left hand side of the main island – a lot closer but now partially obscured by the bank.  We had totally missed it swimming across. The moral here is someone should  keep an eye on the bird!
After an hour or so we gave up and retired to the Obs for a welcome coffee after which Ian resumed our interrupted walk but I went back to the scrape. This was my first ever GWT (and only the second recorded in the Obs’s  60yr history) so I thought it deserving ofa bit more of my time.
Eventually I got some reward as the bird came closer and I managed some half reasonable shots.  There was a price to pay however as the East Kent retired birders  turned up (Mr Morris, Gawley, Aston- I know Mr Ashton nominally still works but he’s out birding as much as me!) and some new year insults traded!! All good fun though.

Green Winged Teal
For those unfamiliar with this species, as well as having a vertical white bar down from the shoulders (rather than a white horizontal stripe above the flanks) the GWT lacks most of the yellow lines bordering the dark green head patches - best illustrated in the middle picture.  
I didn’t get as many ticks as I expected but getting a life tick on my first outing at the obs was a very nice way to start the patch year list
For those interested a few more shots are on my Flick site.

Monday, 2 January 2012

A Day at Dungeness

Today was my first day out – yesterday I was recovering from too much booze and no sleep at all ..........well none until after it had got light. Overall I don’t think I missed too much other than the gannets at Dover. Chidders had kindly phoned me about their presence  but I was in no state to drive so that was that.
Today was the now routine Kingsdown birders excursion to Dungeness.  First stop for the 3 of us ( Steve Coates (Kingsdowner ) and Pete PW) was Dover docks.
We started by the lifeboat and managed to see the great northern diver but got better views  a little later from the POW  pier. On the pier we found a Chidders and from the pier we found  razorbills, guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes and assorted gulls. We left after 30 minutes but by then Tim had arrived and from what I have read everyone else arrived a little later.

Next stop was Welland Marsh where we found a small flock of tree sparrows and a little further on the bewicks (33). They were several hundred yards away but a few record shots were taken.

Part of the Bewick flock
After that we proceeded to Dunge and went searching for gulls and had a look at the sea. Nothing interesting in the gull flocks we found on the shingle but the sea near the fishing boats was alive with guillemots, razorbills, gt crested grebes, gannets (80?) and a few red throated divers (6-8 just in front of us).  The gannets were probably about 500 yards off shore but they were actively fishing –impressive stuff.
We were told that the Caspian was in a roosting flock of gulls back towards the lighthouse but as we approached 3 people with their dog went straight through the middle of them. We hung around for a while and some of the gulls returned but not the Caspian. Eventually we gave up and departed but as we were returning to the car Steve asked a couple of other birders whether they had seen the Casper  – they thought they had, just by where we had been standing. The bloody thing had come in and landed with the small flock of black heads just after we had left. We retraced our steps, spent a while looking at the bird and getting a few shots. I never tried to get  very close as there were a lot of birders down there searching for it but I should have done because a few minutes after we had left some more walkers scared everything off again.

Caspian Gull (I hope!)
The next stop was the RSPB/ARC but as we were driving along the main road Steve spotted 2 of the great white egrets in the pit on the opposite side of the road to the ARC – they were too far away for a photo.
From the ARC we had most of the common ducks (but no pintail) plus some goldeneye and the long-tailed duck but no smew (one had been seen earlier). Other than lapwing there were no waders present. We did get a bonus bird from the ARC in the shape of a bittern that flew sedately along the lake and landed over by the screen. We did go to the visitor centre to check the sightings boards. Not much to make us walk the circuit but there were at least 6 tree sparrows around the feeders – so some pleasing shots obtained.

Add caption

Tree Sparrows
Next stop was Scotney where there were a lot of grey lag, about 50 barnacle geese and 7 things with grey brown bodies, white heads and black beaks; heaven only knows what they were. Scotney was devoid of ducks though.
We didn’t stay long  and soon moved onto Pett Levels. Lots of curlews, a few redshanks and more geese – greylags and Canadas mainly but a few Brents were feeding on the grass and 5 white fronts flew in as we were watching.
Our final destination was the Woolpack (though this was on the way home so no problem). We watched the marsh harriers coming into roost but there was no sign of any hen harriers tonight. Bonus birds however were a peregrine and a merlin.
So that was my first day. We managed most of the target birds (great northern, Caspian, great white egret) only missing out on the glaucous (no one we spoke to had seen it). We did quite well on raptors with kestrel, sparrow hawk, merlin, peregrine, buzzard and marsh harrier but the small stuff was in very short supply – no linnets or mippits for example and no thrushes at all (other than a few black birds). Who would have thought you could spend a day around Welland, Dunge and Pett and not manage a single song thrush, mistle thrush, fieldfare or redwing?
Overall we managed 72 species (by my count) and I managed some reasonable pictures of tree sparrows and my first picture of a Caspian (unless some one tells me we have miss-identified it!). Not too bad a start to the year.