Saturday, June 25, 2016

Minsmere in May

My son Adam and I spent a highly enjoyable few days in the lovely county of Suffolk in early May this year. His primary objective was filming along the coastline, while I took the opportunity to visit the RSPB's flagship reserve at Minsmere at every possible opportunity.
I recorded 87 species of bird without much difficulty. The highlight was undoubtedly some of my best ever views of Bittern, along with sightings of two Cetti's Warblers, Barn Owl, Green Woodpeckers, lots of Bearded Tits and a personal favourite summer-plumaged Mediterranean Gulls. Non-avian highlights included intimate views of Adder, a Stoat attempting and succeeding to pull a large Rabbit through a tiny hole in a fence and butterflies including Brimstone and Small Copper.
It's easy to see why BBC's  Springwatch has chosen this site for their broadcasts for the past three years. Time precludes me from writing a more detailed post so just enjoy the photos.
And do visit the area if you can, you will not be disappointed.


Sunday, March 20, 2016


Made the short trip to Conway RSPB last night to try and catch the murmuration of thousands of starlings. We were told that the best place to stand would be on the top of a small raised area just behind the café. At 6 pm the first flock of about a thousand starlings began to circle overhead. This soon built up to a flock of an estimated thirty thousand birds, and we were right underneath!
In the 1980's the metal band Slayer wrote a classic tune called "Raining Blood", but for the brave souls directly beneath the murmurating flock it was raining poo! The sound of the starling droppings was like a heavy rain shower; it was definitely an evening for keeping your hood up. And there were avian slayers present in the shape of two dynamic sparrowhawks. Their presence caused the flock to bunch and twist in a black ballet designed to confuse the would-be predators. As the flock coalesced their calls became incessantly louder; they could well have been shouting "sh*t, sparrowhawk!" And yes the poo rained down even heavier, although this could be a fear response, it might also serve to soil the sparrowhawk's plumage and act as a deterrent.
At one point part of the main flock pealed off and dived towards the ground like a waterfall of oil; some birds took refuge in the trees and bushes while another part of the flock streaked along the footpath barely inches from the ground, all determined not to become a meal for the sparrowhawk. I have never seen starlings flying so fast! It was a breath-taking spectacle. But both sparrowhawks successfully caught starlings. The flock then reformed and after a few more sweeps over the reserve dropped into the reedbed like one vast organism.
As the last vestiges of daylight disappeared a lone peregrine shot overhead and up the Conway valley, he was too late for a starling supper.

Sparrowhawk on  the edge of the starling flock


Sunday, January 3, 2016

New Year at Martin Mere

New Year's day 2016 dawned grey and cold but at least it wasn't raining! I ran an easy 6 miles along the Wirral coast and ticked off a pair of Stonechat at Leasowe Bay. After a quick lunch I headed for Martin Mere in Lancashire. The light hadn't improved much but I still rattled off a few photos. Highlights of a fabulous afternoon's birding were Tawny and Barn Owl, though neither were photographable, and four species of raptor; Peregrine, 2 Marsh Harrier, numerous Buzzards and a Kestrel. It was lovely to see good numbers of Tree Sparrow as well.


Whooper Swan

Whooper Swan family

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier

Tree Sparrows


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Stags and Stoats

As the weak late-Autumn sunshine finally broke through the clouds, the blanket of mist nestling over the marshy grassland slowly began to rise and disperse. In a scene unchanged since the Pleistocene, a red deer stag's antlers appeared above the tall grass and were slowly swept backwards towards the animal's russet-coloured back, as it put it's head in the air and roared it's call. And, no doubt like my ancient ancestors, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I felt a pit in my stomach in response to this primeval sound. Then a Virgin Atlantic 747 cruised low overhead en route to Florida! I was deer-watching in Tatton Park close to Manchester airport.
My girlfriend Jane and I arrived early on Saturday morning to try and catch some of the red deer rutting action in this beautiful park. We parked beneath the trees near one of the meres and as soon as we got out of the car a stag sauntered towards us. We stayed near the car as this magnificent deer strolled past only metres away; these testosterone-infused males can be unpredictable at this time of the year so we were taking no chances.
We had spotted a group of red deer hinds across the road from the carpark as we drove in, so we set off to see if there were any stags with them. In the long grass quite close to road I saw a massive pair of antlers; what was clearly a defeated stag was lying down trying to recouperate from his exertions. He appeared exhausted, and was struggling to even keep his head off the ground, the rigours of the rut had taken their toll on this beautiful animal, so we left him in peace.
We crossed the road and headed for a small piece of woodland where some red deer were currently grazing. So as not to disturb the deer we headed around the back of the trees, and as we did so a familiar "winking" call of geese prompted me to cast my gaze skyward just in time to see a flock of about 30 pinkfooted geese heading east in perfect v-formation. We watched as the lead goose changed positions with another member of the flock in a manoeuvre that would have drawn admiring glances from a well-drilled Tour de France time trial team! And the purpose is the same; drafting from you fellow team mate or flock member saves energy.
We settled down on a fallen tree trunk in a perfect position to watch the deer. There was at least one stag who was staking his claim on the hinds and declaring his fitness for battle by constantly bellowing. But there were no challengers to his position as top stag. A few younger males made half-hearted attempts to usurp the alpha male but they were easily thwarted without the need for a clash of antlers; there was going to be no fighting today. And just as well, although I had my camera with me, most of the, albeit tame, action was taking place beneath the trees so any photos of the rut would have been obscured by tree trunks and branches.
At about this time I noticed a grey squirrel perched on one end of  our log with a sweet chestnut  clamped securely in his mouth. He was obviously caching food in preparation for the leaner months ahead, but we were clearly sitting on one of his favourite highways! He glared at me and swished his grey fluffy tail in annoyance, but it was a perfect opportunity for me to grab a shot of this much-maligned alien. I rattled off a few snaps before he sprang from the log and bounced off through the long grass behind us.

I took a few record shots of the deer before we decided to have a stroll back around the trees. As I approached the edge of the small wood I spotted what I thought was another squirrel dashing through the undergrowth; but hang on a minute, it was too dark, sleek and sinewy to be a squirrel. I raised my binoculars and was delighted to find myself watching a beautiful stoat! He shot around a tree and disappeared beneath a small pile of logs. I crept closer and crouched behind a tree whereupon the stoat started scrambling over and under the logs, pausing occasionally to glance in my direction. He was so close that I could see his dark brown nose twitching as he sniffed the air. Despite the poor light I managed to take a few nice shots, before the stoat once again dashed off, no doubt in search of rabbits.
What an amazing encounter; it more than compensated for the lack of rutting action by the red deer stags.

Roe Deer are also present in Tatton Park


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Llandegla Macro

Despite being a keen birdwatcher I have also always had an inordinate fondness for insects, with dragonflies and butterflies being particular favourites. On a visit to Llandegla Forest a couple of years ago I managed to take some good photos of Black Darters, so a sunny day in September prompted me to make a return visit with my camera and macro lens.
As a bird photographer I am used to lugging around a hefty 500mm lens, so it made a nice to change just to be carrying a small macro lens. I even forsook my binoculars, so I was really travelling light. This change of focus forced me to examine my surroundings in a totally different manner, and searching out subjects for macro photography opened up a whole new perspective on the forest.
Unfortunately, I only found one dragonfly and that was a fly-past Common Darter, but as with all wildlife photography there is always something to try and capture, including Speckled Wood butterflies, a Silver Y moth and I even tried my hand at plant photography. The macro lens is quite versatile and can even take narrow landscape shots.
But I didn't totally ignore the birdlife, my ears picked out Coal Tits, lots of Siskins, Raven, Goldcrests and I was alerted to the presence of a Crossbill by its "chip chip" call and looked up just in time to see a red bon-bon of a male torpedo between two stands of conifers.

Hoverfly Syrphus ribesii

Silver Y moth


The seeds of Rosebay Willowherb blew around like a September snowstorm


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Kites and Dolphins

Early in August my girlfriend Jane and I spent a weekend in the beautiful seaside town of New Quay in Cardigan Bay, with the intention of watching the Bottlenose Dolphins for which the area is famous.
We visited the Dyfi Osprey project on our journey down and were mightily impressed with the new 360 hide from which we had excellent views of the adult Ospreys. Monty the male helped raise three chicks this year and they were still in the area at the time of our visit. Our last visit in 2012 coincided with some of the worst weather in a century and the road to the reserve was impassable due to flooding. Unfortunately only one of the three chicks that hatched that year survived to fledge and that was only due to human intervention to help with the feeding. But nature bounces back and this year Monty and his current mate Glesni have had a successful breeding season and at the time of writing this blog have both now headed south to Africa for the winter.
Our second detour took us to Bwlch Nant Yr Arian, a lake and small forest not far from Aberystwyth where they have had a Red Kite feeding station since 1999, and boy has this area changed since my last visit some fifteen years ago. The forest has been felled in some areas, there is a fantastic visitor centre and café and there is an excellent hide from which to view the Red Kites which are fed every day. And for the outdoor enthusiast there are walking and mountain-biking trails. Raptors, bikes and great food; what more could I need!We only paid a brief visit to this area but vowed to drop in on the way home to try and photograph the Kites.
The steep streets and seaside cafes of New Quay were bustling with summer visitors enjoying the sunshine when we arrived and checked into our B&B overlooking the harbour. A quick scan of the sea from our room didn't reveal the expected fins of Bottlenose Dolphins. But after checking in we were soon seated on the seawall scanning the blue waters for signs of Cardigan Bay's most famous residents. As usual, we were soon rewarded with views of an adult with a calf; time to crack open a beer and celebrate.  After a delicious evening meal and good night's sleep we rose early to enjoy a hearty breakfast and then again walked the short distance to the harbour to settle down for some seaside wildlife watching. There were more dolphins present, but not as close as we've seen them in the past, but I did mange some record photos with my 400mm lens. Apart from the usual gulls and a few shags, seabirds were a bit thin on the ground (sea?). There were only a few very distant Gannets and this indicates that the fish shoals must have been some way from the harbour that day and along with them most of the area's dolphins. We did see the mother and calf again and the occasional distant dolphin leaping and splashing in the pursuit of fish. But I'm not complaining, it's always a treat seeing any cetacean from land.
Suddenly an unexpected fin appeared in the water, it was more triangular than the falcate fin of a Bottlenose, and was that the swish of the tip of a tail in the fin's wake? Yes it was a Basking Shark! Not what I was expecting to see on that sunny Sunday. It too was quite distant, but I did manage to put some other dolphin watchers on to it to  enjoy views of this rare visitor.
The day was passing quickly so we decided on a return visit to Nant Yr Arian to witness the Kites being fed. On our arrival, there were over a hundred Kites circling on the thermals and perched in the conifers that dotted the hillsides of this natural amphitheatre. We made our way down to the lake where I photographed a smart Black Darter sitting in the reeds. Despite the food being put out on cue the Kites were somewhat reluctant to come down and feed, now doubt in some part due to the large and noisy crowd of holidaymakers that had gathered to view the spectacle. We returned to the visitor centre where a number of bird feeders were attracting House Sparrows, Greenfinches, various tits and gorgeous Siskins. After taking a few shots, we walked up the hillside where we were treated to stunning views of the Kites which were now descending to feed in peace as their audience had dispersed. A great way to end an excellent weekend of wildlife watching.

Herring Gull profile

Black Darter

Red Kite playing at being an Osprey

Male Siskin

Juvenile Siskin