Friday, 29 June 2012

Scotland - Osprey and Black Guillemots

The last few days I have been on a tour of the northern most regions of the Greater Kent recording area – popularly known to others as Scotland.
On Thursday, possibly one of the wettest days in living memory, we drove from Kingsdown to Perth (Scotland) and it rained big time the whole of the way. Things couldn’t have started much worse with it taking nearly 3 hours to reach the M1 despite us leaving the centre of the universe at 5.15; the traffic improved after that even if the weather didn’t.
Nominally we were going to Scotland to see a great nephew but in reality it was to give me a chance for some birding in the north – weather permitting.
On the Friday Angie spent the day with the little fellow but I spent the day at the Loch of Lowes watching the ospreys. Ospreys have nested at the Loch for years and they can be watched on line. From the hides they are ~300 yards away; close enough for great views but a long way away for a 400mm lens and the weather was not great – overcast all of the time and raining most of it. Still, I saw the two resident birds and 2 more flew past to boot. I asked one of the wardens just how many ospreys were in the area and was told there were 55 breeding pairs in Perthshire plus a number of non breeders. I had no idea there were so many up there. It makes my sighting of 4 pretty average.
Ospreys plus web cam to the left

Whilst the bird are always in sight they approach and depart from the far side of the nest so they never actually came closer than the nest itself.  Also they don’t often fish on the Loch of Lowes itself preferring to go along the valley to the neighbouring lochs. One of these (Butterstone) is a trout fishery and you can (if your luck is in) watch the ospreys fish there whilst have morning coffee or afternoon tea from the cafe at the fishery. I had a coffee there and 2 ospreys turned up but they circled high up for a few minutes before drifting off west without actually fishing.
Osprey from Butterstone
On the Saturday I spent the early hours of the morning on the coast just west of Dundee (the easiest place to get to sea/beach) where I found several flocks of eider (the males coming into eclipse) with each flock having a few red breasted merganser with them. Also along the beach I found curlew, oyster catcher and a lone bar-tailed godwit – nothing exciting but nice to see.
Bar-tailed godwit

Eider and RB mergansers
Around lunchtime we departed for Oban. I would have liked to spend a few days at Oban trying to see the eagles but time didn’t allow and my hope was to see black guillemot (a life tick) which live in the harbour. The journey from Perth to Oban took 3 hours and it rained most of the way. Luckily soon after we arrived it cleared up and whilst not sunny it was dry so at around 4 pm Angie and I walked down the harbour. We checked around the pier and found nothing of note – just a few herring and common gulls. I think the guillemots lived here once but there is a lot of touristy activity on the pier now (including 2 large restaurants) so they may have been scared away. As we stared to walk north along the prom (Corran Esplanade) we found a  confiding rock pipit and 2 hooded crows pecking at what I thing was a dead juvenile jackdaw.
Hooded crow
I had been on the lookout for hoodies throughout the drive from Perth but saw none so this was a real bonus. The hoodies took no notice of people (including me) walking along the esplanade but as soon as I stopped to try and photograph them they were off. Fortunately the lure of the jackdaw was too great an opportunity and they soon returned and I got a few shots.
In normal times I would have spent more time with them but we still hadn’t seen a black guillemot so we moved on. Half way along the esplanade I spotted some movement way out to sea – my first black guillemot - then Angie spotted a head poking out of the sea wall a hundred yards or so away. The guillemots nest/roost in the storm drains and lot of shots are on the internet showing them looking out but it was great to see it.
Black guillemot from a storm drain

The next hour or so was spent watching a lone pair of black guillemots. Their time was spent in the drain, flying in a circle out to sea and back and resting on a small jetty covered with sea weed. They did allow me to get pretty close when they were on the jetty but they didn’t land on the prom itself – something they are reported to do. Eventually we spotted another pair way out to sea. 

Black guillemot

After dinner (~9.30pm) we walked along the prom again but there was still only the two present..
The next morning was dry but overcast and I got to the prom at 5.30. Still no guillemots around the pier but along the prom up towards the cathedral I could see several sitting on the top of the sea wall/prom and hurried off for a closer look. I needn’t have bothered hurrying because they were there all morning.
I quickly marched up, ignoring the hooded crows, and started the taking pictures of the birds sitting on the prom (despite the light being rubbish).
As I hung around the guillemot numbers increased to 26 and the views were outstanding - at times they were too close to photograph – whilst standing above one of the storm drains they would fly straight at me into the hole or land 4 or 5 feet away from I was standing then even walked towards me. The experience was similar to the puffins at Skomer and like Skomer I took hundreds of pictures of them - on the prom, on the weedy jetty and on the water.

As the tide was in there was 2 or 3 feet of crystal clear water beside the sea wall so you could watch them flying underwater as they fished. The light slowly improved a little and some very pleasing shots were obtained but it was not good enough for BIF. Around 8.30 I returned to the B&B for breakfast and we packed up to leave. Just as we were getting into the car the sun came out so we had to delay our journey south whilst I took some more pictures. I concentrated on BIF shots but despite the light being better I still struggled – dark birds, loads of glare from the water and them flying at 200 mph – it was very like trying to get shots of puffins in flight.

I’m not sure where they were in their breeding cycle because some seemed to be courting and there was no evidence they were bring fish to the nest. There was also the occasional fight which was somewhat more dramatic than coots because the fight took place on the water, under water and in the air:

Scrapping black guillemots
After a while the sun disappeared and It was off the Ambleside (Lake District) for 3 days where we had a great time walking, sight-seeing and eating but the birding was poor. I only birded pre-breakfast and the first morning I went looking for dippers. I tried several different streams in the area but no luck. It proved very difficult to follow a stream for any distance because they either disappeared into deep gorges with no stream-side paths or off into private gardens/land. Also the streams were also more like raging torrents after all the rain the NW had suffered.
The second morning I drove up into the hills (Kirkstone Pass on the A592) to try my luck with some upland species. The drive up provided mippit, pied wag and skylark then I parked at what I think was Broad Stone (just a car park and a pub) and walked up the very steep track towards the rocky outcrops. On the way up I could hear a golden plover calling but I couldn’t find it though whilst searching I did find 2 male wheatears  and I heard a ring ouzel call once but that was it really.
The lakes themselves were pretty devoid of bird life. The only wildfowl we saw were species who liked being fed bread – mallard, mute swan, plus greylag and Canada geese; we didn’t see any other duck species.  Before we went I searched the internet for birding reports from the Lake District and found very little and what I did find was about the coastal reserves. There was nothing about the lakes and hills...........I think I found out why!.
More pictures of the guillemots will appear on my Flickr site for anyone interested

Thursday, 14 June 2012

A Tour of the Recording Area

Sorry about the lack of activity over the last couple of weeks but the reality has been that I’ve had nothing much to report – in part due to the weather and in part due to the dearth of birds in East Kent.
After a few days stuck inside due to the weather today (Wednesday 14th) promised sun so I decided to go for the big one – a walk from Newdowns Farm to Backsand , then along the river bank to the point and back to the car along the beach and across Princes.
The day started well with a grey partridge feeding close to the Ancient Highway as I drove to Newdowns. 
Greyt Partridge
The walk from the poly tunnels to Backsand revealed the normal summer residents – sedge and reed warblers, a few whitethroat, a lone blackcap, and a few skylark and mippit but it was good for hares – there were 3 in the first field (alongside Newdowns reservoir) and another 3 in the last field before you turn back on yourself to get to Backsand itself. In the same field was a red legged partridge.
The water levels on the scrape are very high after the rain so there were no waders at all, just a few ducks – mallard (25) and tufties (9) mainly plus a couple of grey lags and shellduck and a little egret. If the weather carries on as it has (ie raining) then Backsand may have to be pumped out for the wader migration. On the warbler front I only had singles of sedge, reed and Cetti’s warbler and a lone whitethroat
After Backsand I went up on the river bank and walked to the point. The bank-side scrub held a good head of whitethroat (16 singing males) and lesser whitethroats (6 singers) but the numbers of other warblers were very low. I did try several times to photograph a lesser but they would have none of it. A juvenile whitethroat was much more obliging:
On the salt marsh I had a couple of little egrets and a grey heron but no waders other than 6 curlew and a few oyster catchers. Up near the point  38 seals were sun bathing.
On the Shellness Nature Reserve (or 100 acre field if you prefer) there was very little other than skylarks, linnets and mippits (8 to 10 of each). The highlight was a pair of stonechats and I found a lone corn bunting. The beachside sea buckthorn produced even less – it was more or less lifeless.
Throughout the walk the shortage of  reed bunting was really apparent – I only noted 8 for the whole walk and I didn’t see a single raptor. Orchid numbers were very good though (Marsh orchids on the 100 acre field and pyramidal on the beach track) with most now coming into flower.
After a coffee in the Obs I stopped off at Dickson’s corner because a hobby was in residence. It was joined by a second for a short period but the second bird didn’t linger. I did on several occasions manage to get pretty close to the bird perched on a fence post but always when I was shooting more or less into the sun.
Hobby on a stick
I was making my way back to the car and standing on the road when the bird flew along the track and landed on a post quite close by but low(ish)shutter speed/poor panning technique ensured the pictures were not very sharp. Still it was a nice way to end the session.

Hobby landing

Monday, 4 June 2012

Small stuff in Mid Wales

This last posting on our trip to Mid Wales will concentrate on small birds - redstarts, flycatchers and finches.
After breakfast each morning we went to Gilfach and I spent 2 sessions there with the pied flys and redstart, my principle aim being to get a decent redstart picture.
On Monday we eventually managed to leave the hotel at about 9.00 the delay being because Steve was trying to stop his camera sling from squeaking! We did see the garden redstart and spot fly whilst we waited but they were very shy. It was the only spot fly I managed to see during our visit.
Spot flycatcher in hotel garden
Once at Gilfach we stopped at the Otter hide and asked the only guy there how things were. Very quiet he suggested, with the birds keeping high in the canopy or in the nest boxes - 2 were occupied by pied flycatchers within 10 yards of the hide. Well, we put out some meal worms (as he claimed to have done) and within a minute or two we had pied fly (male and female) and a pair of nuthatch feeding within 4 or 5 yards of where we were standing. We weren’t in the hide, we were outside and in full view of the birds! I don’t know whether the guy in the hide didn’t want us there or was blind but we got some cracking shots.
Male Pied Flycatcher

Female Pied Flycatcher

The only downside was there was no sign of the dipper that nests beneath the adjacent bridge.
We then went up to the visitor centre. When we arrived there were 2 photographers already there, one with a blue hat (referred to in the dipper post as Pillock) who had a 500mm lens and was standing about 4 yards from the wall upon which the redstart lands and another guy. Pillock told us the redstart wouldn’t be put off by how close we were so we put out some meal worms. He then talked to his mate and anyone else within 20 yards at the top of his voice for the whole morning – normally about some football team or another or how he was a professional photographer working on a commission.  Amazingly the pied flys were not put off by his noise but the redstart was very cautious and wouldn’t come into feed.
Male Pied Fylcatcher
Also seen around the visitor centre was siskin and redpoll but they too were pretty skittish and didn’t linger long on the seed feeders by the wardens house and on one of the days we had a singing and displaying crossbill high above where the redstart was feeding.
We returned to Gilfach on Tuesday morning but this time went straight to the visitor centre. At the beginning we had the place to ourselves, we set up the cameras a little further away from the wall from the previous day, put out some meal worms and waited quietly. We soon had the male redstart feeding pretty freely, though it was never as confiding at the pied flys who would sit there for ages as we fired away with the cameras.

Male Redstart
As the morning progressed a few more photographers arrived (but thankfully not Pillock) and although the redstart continued to come to the wall I went down to the Otter hide hoping for the dipper. I saw it but that’s about all you could say.
Tuesday, after Gilfach we went to Nant yr Arian for the kites (see earlier posting) but the real highlight for me were the feeders. They were right by the visitor centre so you could watch siskin, chaffinch and green finch at close quarters whilst having a cuppa – my type of birding. Also in the adjacent woodland was a pair of bullfinch. These wouldn’t come to the feeders but they did feed on the ground below them and land in the bushes 30-40 yards away. Getting siskin shots on the feeders was trivial as there were normally 3 or more on the feeders at any one time but getting them on twigs, in the sun and un-obscured by twigs took a bit more effort...... but not a lot.
Juvenile siskin

Male siskin with eye infection

Male bullfinch

Our only disappointment with the feeders was the lack of redpolls; we didn’t see any in the reserve but we did see  redstart and pied fly on the path leeding to the kite feeding area.
So that’s about it for my Ashton Tours account. We had no rarities but then we didn't go there for that reason. We succeeded in photographing most of our target birds - red kite, buzzard, dipper, redstart and pied flycatcher but failed with  wood warbler though they were in the Elan valley.  We found one on the hill a couple of hundred yards from the hotel and there was a pair on the hillside near the dippers but the views were at best fleeting and always distant though in reality we didn;t put much effort in.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Elan Valley and Dippers

Each morning everyone would go out birding in their own time meeting up at 8.00 for breakfast before going out for the days birding.
The first morning I went from the Elan Valley Hotel downstream towards Rhayader to the iron bridge where we had seen dipper on our previous visit. On the way I was treated to the continuous singing of willow and garden warbler, blackcap and chiffchaff as well as at least 6 groups of goldcrests. Song thrush were also constantly calling. The footpath spends a lot of time under what is effectively a tunnel of trees and a few hundred yards from the hotel I found a buzzard roosting only 20 feet in front and above me. I stopped and looked at it looking at me (too dark for a picture) but in the end it decided to move, however it could only fly along the tunnel. 100yards further along I found it again and the episode was repeated. This happened 4 times in all until it finally came to a gap in the trees and disappeared over the fields. At the iron bridge there was a drake mandarin duck(!!), pied and grey wagtail and eventually a dipper which came from upstream and flew up the side stream. I waited hoping it would return and land on one of the mid stream boulders but it didn’t. It or its mate did fly out of the side stream but disappeared downstream in the direction of Rhayader.
I met the others at breakfast who had had an even better morning than I. They had gone upstream of the hotel and back along the opposite bank. They had added goosander to the list and had found a dipper nest! Steve had also found a spotted flycatcher and a redstart in the hotel garden, the latter, we later determined, was actually nesting in an old ventilation duct of the hotel.
The rest of my pre-breakfast sessions  were really spent trying to get dipper pictures either at the nest place or in the shallows where they fed.
Near the nest site
We also found dippers in the Gilfach reserve,  in the river just before you enter the Gilfach reserve and near the Halt Cafe (on the A44 just before you reach Rhayader). Finding them proved relatively easy with a bit of effort but getting a decent picture was entirely a different matter.
At the nest site in the Elan Valley they were on show under the far bank/overhanging trees every time I went there and would then disappear off to feed. Since the birds were not feeding young the brooding swap only occurred once every hour or so, so a lot of the time was spent waiting in hope and feeding the midges.
The same was true at Gilfach where you only saw the birds as they came to and from the nest to swap over.
In an afternoon session Alan and myself did find both Elan valley birds feeding in the shallows:
The pair at the shallows

Looking for lunch

Swimming or walking along the bottom
We also found a feeding bird on the Gilfach stream as we walked the nature trail from near the reserve entrance to the Otter Hide but this latter find was ruined by a loud mouthed pillock who could see what we were trying to photograph but insisted on coming up anyway and talking very loudly to Alan about how he didn’t want pictures of the dipper on the wooden sheep fenmce on which it was standing. He clearly didn’t want us to get pictures either.
Gilfach dipper feeding

Gilfach bird on a sheep fence over the stream

This was the second time this pea brain ruined our day – the first being when we tried to get redstart pictures at the Gilfach visitor centre (more about that in a later post).
Finally, during my penultimate pre-breakfast session, my luck finally changed and one of the Elan birds landed directly opposite where I was sitting then had a wing flap and a twitter as it called to its mate. They both then disappeared up to the shallows. The shots were at the extreme range for my 400mm f5.6 but they were by far the best shots I managed.

Dipper showing it's white eye lid

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Buzzards at Grigrin

Whilst we see buzzards in East Kent they are still not that common bird (in most areas) and the sighting are normally restricted to seeing them high in the sky as a consequence they are, to me,  as important a part of Grigrin as the kites.
This week there were not a lot around – 5 or 6 perhaps - but normally there was one or two on the grass 30 or so yards or so from the viewing hides and occasionally one would do a fly past. Since they normally fly straight and at constant speed they are easier to get a shot of than the kites. In addition the full range of the colour morphs were on display allowing you to look at the variations at close range.
Dark Morph


Light morph (juvenile)

The light morph was especially striking though the pale eyes means this is a juvenile, another indicator of it's age being the comma on the underwing instead of the carpal patch of the adults. This bird seems to be paricularly pale compared to the illustrations in my Collins.
Raven numbers were also low with only 2 (I think) being present and normally distant this one being the exception.

Rhayader - May 27th-31st

This last week was the annual outing of the Steve Ashton Photographic Tours  and this year the Guru (as he likes to be called when we are away) took us back to Elan. All his normal followers were there – Mike Gould, Alan Ashdown and myself plus 2 new acolytes Tim Gutsall and Pete Hemmings (though Pete did stay in the same hotel as us last year at Skomer).
As normal red kites played a significant role in the week with Gigrin being visited twice by the team (though only once by myself) and we also had another go for them at Bwlch Nant yr Arian ( Nant yr Arian is undoubtedly a lovely place to watch kites but for the hopeful photographer Gigrin is the better place. The rest of the week was spent in the Elan valley and at Gilfach with dippers, redstarts (common) and pied flycatchers being the main quarry.
So if you have no interest in the above destinations or species don’t bother looking at the next few posts.
We drove down on Sunday 27th in glorious sunshine and arrived in good time to take in Gigrin in glorious sunshine. Kite activity was very low prior to the food being put out but once the dinner going had sounded we enjoyed the normal sight of birds swooping down plucking meat from the deck.
Photographically it was a bit of a challenge due to the wind direction – it was into our faces meaning the birds were often flying away from us as the swooped down for the food. The bright sunlight also meant a lot of shots were compromised by deep shadows across the birds but a few reasonable images were obtained from the 600 or so pictures I shot. Despite the bright sunshine the Exif data most of the shots was around 1/1200 sec f5.6 and ISO 400 which seems to be insufficient speed to routinely capture the action especially if you are trying to capture the birds and they swoop My lens also lack IS which may have compounded the problems..
Buzzard numbers were very low this year (only 3 or 4 I think) with them being on the floor most of the time and few close flybys. Raven numbers were also low – only two being present (I think) but I’ll deal with both these species in a later post.
Some action shots from Gigrin:

Red Kites from Gigrin
Some pictures from Nant yr Arian
Typical setting when they are low


The setting at Nant yr Arian was superb but the kites are further away than at Gigrin and you are often trying to photograph them against a complicated background of trees and with my set up I found it very difficult to lock onto the birds. Mike said he had no trouble so I look forward to seeing his efforts. The kites are fed on the opposite side of a small lake and on occasions they drop the meat into the lake which means you are treated to them plucking it, osprey like, from the surface. I tried on numerous occasions to capture this but never got the timing and focus right in the same shot!
The birds here also were more agressive with each other prefering to fight for a scrap of meat rather than pick a bit up for themself.
So that's it for the kites for this year.