Thursday, 29 March 2012

Kites in Kingsdown

I haven’t had a car this last 2 days so my time has been restricted Kingsdown and the cliff top.
Wednesday started well with 2 long tailed tits performing well for the camera in the scrub near just south of the Zetland.

Long-tailed tit
The rifle range had the normal residents, a pair of linnets, a pair of kestrels but little else of interest until I reached the far end.
I was talking to a guy who was the lead singer of a northern band called Protocol 5 (they were recording down here) when a black redstart appeared in the hole. It didn’t hang about but the lead singer was impressed as he’d never even heard of a black redstart let alone see one. Also in the hole was a not so impressive rock pipit.
After that I walked the cliff top to Hope Point seeing a peregrine drift past then disappear out to sea but in reality it was pretty quiet - though I did find a yellow hammer at Hope point and a couple of swallows went past but that was the only viz mig.

Yellow Hammer
Today followed the same routine with pretty much the same birds (amazing or what?). The black redstart dropped into the hole after I’d been standing around for 10 minutes watching 2 rock pipits and I managed some very distant record shots. (I assume it is a young male as the wings are still brownish with no sign of a white pannel and the undertail coverts are poorly coloured.) He then flew up the cliff face and disappeared over the top. I followed.

Black redstart
Amazingly I found the bird on the cliff top but it was in someone’s garden. Pointing the camera into someone else’s property is not the best thing to do at 8 o'clock in the morning but I grabbed a couple of hurried shots before quickly moving on:

Black redstart
I’ll let you decide what the sculpture is.
It was about this time that the wind got up, the temperature dropped  and a haze started descending. I only mention it because all of a sudden some viz mig started with 70-odd chaffinch moving past in the next 30 minutes along with a similar number of un-identified dots (3 of which I think were repolls), oh and another swallow.
At Hope point I amused myself trying to photograph linnets – there were around 20 of them there and they spent their time either singing from the tops of twigs then disappearing as a flock only to return a few minutes later. They would never let me get close though.

Linnet - take off.
On the return leg and as I was by the golf club car park 2 red kites drifted north, circled a few times over the old scout camp and had a skirmish before one flew off SW.

Red Kites
The second went north and circled over the village for a couple of minutes gaining height before it too disappeared off SW (at about 10.30 for anyone interested).
Finally, as I was putting my gear into the car, one of the kestrels drifted overhead and tried to make a deposit on me before disappearing onto the cliff face.

Kestrel - luckily it's aim was off.
I don’t know what is going on with the kestrels but they have been extremely skittish this last week or so disappearing before I get within 60-70 yards of them. Now if only I had some Eau d'Ashton, a unique bird attracting deodorant Steve's had fomulated, then perhaps I'd get close enough for some decent pictures.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Gloom lifted in Kingsdown

The weather forecast for the local area was not encouraging – fog – so I decided on visiting Folkestone Warren as Folkestone was forecast to be fog free. Well fog wise it was better than Kingsdown but it was a waste of time. Plenty of dog walkers but next to no birds.
As I returned to Kingsdown the fog was lifting so I decided to take in the Rifle range where I immediately found 2 flocks of brent geese – one of 120 birds feeding on the exposed weedand the other with 57 just floating. I know brents are common but to get numbers feeding or on the sea down here is quite unusual. Whilst I was watching them another 9 dropped in.

Brent Geese
Given the wind was a north easterly I decided to stay a little while and do a sea watch.  I suppose inevitably given the last few weeks the next bird I saw was a peregrine flying fast and low over the sea but it turned towards me, flew over one of the flocks of brents (which didn’t bat an eyelid) then cruised along the cliff before landing on the cliff face. A few minutes later a second (male) came into view calling then the two of them had a general fly around swooping on each other a few times before disappearing north.

Peregrines - a very close pass
Back to sea watching and a distant red throated diver flew north and 3 oyster catchers went south then there was a few minutes of what constitutes real excitement at Kingsdown when 3 red breasted mergansers went past followed by 11 avocets.

Red Breasted Mergansers

I was bracing myself for it all to kick off but that was it really other than a few resident curlews flying back and forth.
The rest of the country may be basking in near summer temperatures but it was decidedly cold today – it had only got up to 5C by the time I departed, still it turned out better than I’d expected so I went home happy.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

South Foreland and Peregrines again

I had a couple of hours at South Foreland this morning. As with the rest of the week there was no sign of any viz mig so I went in search of peregrines.
Walking south from the light house all I’d seen were a few skylarks and mippits when I found Adrian Downling sitting on the North edge of Fan Bay hoping for a peregrine. I stopped and chatted for a few minutes. It seems Adrian has been afflicted with my problem – plenty of shots of peregrines but never quite close enough to capture the detail you want.
Moving on I was skirting Fan Bay when I spotted a yellow hammer singing away in a bush close to a footpath. As I was setting up a walker marched past me and past the yellow hammer and the bird totally ignored him despite the bush being about 7 yards from the path whereas it didn’t let me get within 20 yards of it!!!!!!! I must ask Steve Ashton what deodorant he uses because he never seems to have my troubles.

Yellow Hammer
Walking down into Langdon Hole I spotted a peregrine standing on the well used viewing point. I suppose I got to about 40 yards before it had had enough of me and flew off – again wrong deodorant?

Nothing in the Hole but as I retraced my steps 2 peregrines were circling below the cliff top and I got a few pleasing shots:

They eventually disappeared but as I continued up the hill I spotted one on the cliff edge. I walked as close as I could without being seen then hidden by the sea kale the crawled forward getting quite close but the view was always partly obscured and I was shooting into the sun:
Eventually it saw me and after a brief think about what to do flew off.

As I passed Fan Bay a sparrow hawk cruised past, landed in a bush but noticed me and disappeared off north immediately (there’s a pattern emerging here!) but a little further on there was another peregrine – right out in the open. On this occasion and in full sight of the bird I managed to get within 20 yards or so. Shame I was shooting into the sun again.

Nothing new but quite an enjoyable session before too many walkers came along.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Nuthatch and Crossbills show the camera's OK

Monday 19th promised a day of sunshine so I decided to go to the woods.
There was no seed on the log when I arrived at Bossendon so I baited up and went for a stroll. As it happens I didn’t see that much just the common tits, several gold crests, a lone fire crest (high up) but no lesser spots.
By the time I got back to the log 2 nuthatch were coming regularly for food. This was actually quite interesting in that they clearly preferred the sun flower seed to the peanuts. In addition it was the whole sunflower seeds that they carried off and the sun flowers hearts they ate whilst on the log.
I stuck around for about 30 minutes photographing them by which time I had ~ 120 shots which, on the back of the camera, looked very good. In that time only a single visits by a great and blue tit; no sign of the coal tits (frequent visitors last year) or marsh tits(frequent visitors in 2010).

I don't believe this level of detail would ahve been possible before my adjustments to the focus so pretty pleased really.
Tuesday was back to the normal routine at Sandwich but it was slow. We did eventually find 4 wheatears along the beach plus  a lone black redstart and white wagtail at the Chequers but they were always distant. 
A walk over Worth marsh yielded the garganey that been out there several days but the only other bird of interest was a smart peregrine just standing on the turf about 50 yards from where we walked.
As we arrived at the Obs I noticed my car was missing – stupidly I’d forgot I’d parked at Restharrow scrape.  After a brief pit stop we went to collect it taking in Middle Field (nothing there) and the Elms which also was near birdless until a flock of 16 crossbills dropped out of the sky and started feed in in the few pines growing there.
Whilst they were in the tree tops the trees are not that high and this was by far the best views I have had of crossbills. They were around for 5 minutes or so and a few were in view (though often obscured) nearly all the time. Getting shots of them perched up high was straight forward but when they were in amongst the needles it was much darker and I didn’t have the shutter speed to freeze the movement when they were actively feeding (which was a bit sad because I had (fuzzy) shots of them opening the pine cones) but  overall the camera performed well so I’ll stop talking about it from now on.

Female crossbill

Male Crossbill
In the afternoon I went over to Grove (it was there or the peregrines) where I had the 3 garganey from the ramp and another from the Marsh hide and a meadow pipit posed for the camera:


Meadow Pipit
No sign of the glossy ibis as far as I know.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Canon 7D Front Focusing Problem

Whilst I have had some reasonable pictures with the 7D I haven’t been totally satisfied with the results. At first I thought it was my technique that was wanting because the lens I purchased (Canon 400mm f5.6) does not have IS. I had also read somewhere that the 7D requires a heavier hand on the sharpening to get the desired results and indeed I have had to resort to this on most of the images I have  posted on Flickr.  Whilst heavy sharpening can often improve the image the results are never the same as a  picture that started off sharp and heavy sharpening increases the noise quite markedly .......... but that’s another problem.
A month or so ago on a rainy day with the Slavonian grebe in Dover marina I did a side by side comparison of the Sony and the Canon and without doubt the Sony was the best. As I'd only just got the Canon I attributed this to the lack of IS on the Canon and the slow shutter speeds I was experiencing.
On one of my days on the cliffs with the perched peregrine I did another side my side comparison and on this occasion although the Canon produced the superior images I was still a little disappointed with the results especially when cropped in close. As before there was a softness to all the images even though this time the pictures were all were taken using a tripod and I had good shutter speeds.
The outcome of these comparisons and problems made me reluctant to take the Canon out on dull days and if/when I did I was resigned to using a tripod and high ISO (to keep the shutter speed high).
Having spent so long in deciding what to buy to replace the Sony I didn’t want to admit to making a mistake in purchasing the Canon - not just because of the money wasted but because I had no idea what to change it for.  So had I wasted my money? Today I set out to find out.
My first test on the accuracy of the focusing was to use a method suggested by Steve Ashton whereby you set up at ruler at 45 degrees then focus on one of the central numbers. I took a number of shots at different shutter speed and every single one suggested I had a front focusing issue i.e. the number I was focusing on was not the sharpest it was several centimetres down the ruler..
I searched the internet and found a test target (published by Tim Jackson) that I printed off, set up and ran some more test. The test chart is marked up to show how bad the back/front focusing is - with the right hand side being further away from the camnera This test showed I had a significant  front focusing problem - of the order of 10-20mm.(I did a lot of shots at different shutter speed but I needn’t have bothered – they all showed the effect):

Focus was on the thick black line
 Out with the manual and after several changes to the autofocus microfocus adjustment I think I have overcome the problem:

Post adjusting
Fingers crossed.
Sunday. As the sun was shining I went along the cliff tops from South Foreland to Langdon Hole looking to find something to point the camera at (hoping for a peregrine) to test whether the adjustments would have an effect in the field.
There was a not a lot going on but mippit numbers have increased over the last few days and were singing/displaying with gusto but the first test subject was a male stonechat. He never let me get really close but the results were far far sharper than I had grown to expect (I’ve put an uncropped version up so you can see the level of cropping done on the close up):


When at Langdon Hole I spotted 2 peregrines circling just above the cliff top back towards Fan Bay so I returned to near the rock fall and waited. I didn’t have to wait too long before one did several passes:

Whilst waiting for the peregrine to come close one of the herring gulls seemed to take exception to the presence of the peregrines and pestered one of them for about 5 minutes but sadly always distant:
Herring gull attacking peregrine
On the return leg there was a male wheatear down in Fan Bay but I couldn’t be bothered to climb down to try and get some pictures but a mippit did let me get reasonably close and again the shots are much better than I’ve experienced previously.

Meadow Pipit
So not an exciting day bird wise but it’s a relief that the camera is now operating how I’d hoped it would.
(Click on any image to get them all at a larger size)

Friday, 16 March 2012

At Last More Migrants

The weather changed for the worse today (well compared to yesterday) but the birding took a significant change for the better. We did the normal circuit this morning – across St George’s to the sea front, down to the Chequers then back along the Ancient Highway taking in Restharrow, the Elms and the Gullies.
It wasn’t long till we found the first tick of the day – a male wheatear sitting atop a bush on the golf course who was causing quite a bit of consternation to the resident mippits.  We were on the sea front counting grebes when a flock of 8 geese came in off the sea then turned south flying straight towards then over us – pink footed geese and another year tick. The geese flew south and for a minute they looked as if they were heading for Retsharrow but they changed their minds and continued south until out of sight.
We continued along the beach seeing nothing of note until we reached Restharrow (the house which I hear is up for sale – anyone got a spare £4million?) where Ian spotted a black redstart on the garden wall – tick number 3. The redstart was feeding well making its way (south) along the wall dropping to the floor then coming back up. When it ran out of wall it continued along the fence (around the Cellars) and when it ran out of fence it flew back north past us into the Cellars bushes and that was the last we saw of it. No pictures I’m afraid as I never got close enough.
Continuing south towards the Chequers we could hear geese calling out to sea then out of the gloom and coming straight towards us (again) were the pink footed geese. I got the camera out this time, guessed a setting and managed to get off a few shots:

Pink footed geese
They are not brilliant but not too bad given I only had 1/500th on a non-IS lens.
On the walk to the Chequers we had another wheatear and Ian heard a spotted redshank – I didn’t I was concentrating on the wheatear which was disappearing rapidly up the beach.
The rest of the walk to the Chequers was almost birdless however there was a chiffchaff in the bushes near the Cinque Ports Reservoir  and on the reservoir itself a red throated diver – though why it is there is anyone guess.

Red-throated diver
No sign of any cranes on Worth marsh today (I know they were seen disappearing east over the sea yesterday but they had flown off before on several occasions and returned) but we did  find a black-tailed godwit along with 3 red shank out on the marsh as well as a small flock (25-30) golden plover.
Restharrow scrape held the standard ducks and grebes and another black-tailed godwit and the Elms/Gullies had a number of chiffchaff -  we had about 15 on the circuit which compares to zero when I did the same walk on Wednesday but then again we didn’t have any black redstarts, wheatears, divers or godwits on Wednesday either!
So a good day with 3 year ticks now I just need some more to turn up when the weather is brighter.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Kingsdown Rifle Range

This past week or so my birding has been restricted by the weather and although the sun was shining today I only had an hour or so. As a consequence  I went down to the old Rifle range at Kingsdown to check for migrants.
 I have seen stonechat, wheatear, firecrest, black redstart on the rifle range in early March previously but not today. There was nothing! Well at least there were no migrants.
As I walked along the range the sea-weed covered rocks were still showing and on them were a couple of curlew, as normal though they took flight as soon as I came in sight.

I was about 50 yrd along when I looked back and could see 2 kestrel  flitting about so I turned back. As I approached it was clear that they thought spring had sprung:

Kestrels having fun
And after the deed they sat around taking in the surroundings. I waited for about 10 minutes hoping that one would fly but they resolutely stayed where they were – exhausted obviously.

The loving couple
I resumed my walk along the range and then from the south along came a peregrine which flew past then circled out to sea and returned to the cliffs near where I was standing. He (at least I think it was a he) then stayed put for the rest of the visit.

The only other birds on the range were a couple of rock pipits and the resident fulmars who were also thinking about procreation.
After that I went up onto the cliffs where a steady  stream  of chaffinch were going past. In 20 minutes I’d counted 160 or so moving north and that’s not including the dots that were going past at too higher altitude or too distant to id. Needless to say I tried to get a picture but it’s amazing just how much of their flying time is spent with their wings folded. 

Chaffinch defying gravity