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


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Green Turtle Rescue

Our rib edged closer to the turtle which was clearly visible on the surface of the sea due to the fact that it had a large white bag wrapped around its neck. A few more metres and we would be able to catch the poor reptile, but it dived before a rescue could be attempted. We stood forlorn on our small boat in the vastness of the blue Atlantic. Turtles can dive for up to thirty minutes at a time so the chances of it surfacing nearby were remote indeed.

I had travelled to the popular holiday island of Tenerife with my girlfriend’s family for a well-earned break of sunshine, sea and, of course, wildlife watching. I had already caught up with some of the area’s endemic species such as Blue Chaffinch, Berthelot’s Pipit and Canary Island Chiffchaff and Canary Island Goldcrest, not to mention fantastic views of the resident Pilot Whales. But a local dive company was offering trips to snorkel with Green Turtles, a species I had never seen before, and I need little excuse to indulge my love of wildlife watching from boats so we booked four places.

The fast rib boat left the beautiful harbour at Los Gigantes overlooked by the precipitous cliffs that give the area it’s name. These cliffs hold a few pairs of breeding Osprey which are unfortunately a declining species in the Canaries but we had been lucky to see one at close quaters the previous day over the sea at Los Christianos. The flat calm sea was perfect for cetacean watching and we had only been out for ten minutes when a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins surrounded the boat. The skipper cut the engine and we all enjoyed the beauty of these graceful animals as they surfaced and dived within touching distance of the rib. But our main quarry, the Green Turtles where in a bay further to the west so we resumed our journey in the hot sub-tropical sunshine.

I was on the lookout for seabirds when I saw something shoot into the air from the surface of the water; a flying fish! It flashed silver and blue as it sped over the flat calm sea before crash landing a considerable distance from its launch spot. This was one of many sighting of these remarkable and surprising fish.

After half an hour we reached our destination, a quiet bay on the southwest coast of Tenerife. This area is a designated turtle sanctuary and any turtles that are caught in fishermen’s nets are released here. I was the first in the water and swam around most of the bay admiring the colourful fish that make this area their home. I have the skills to identify most birds but fish are a bit of a mystery to me, so I was happy to just enter their world and admire their colours and shapes without the desire to identify each individual. But where were the turtles?

Mike, the group leader, had said that on his last trip he had seen at least four Green Turtles swimming in the bay so he was surprised that we could not find any. But in the style of a good tour leader, he used his strength as a swimmer and scoured the whole area for turtles. Soon, his frantic waving from an area of open water just outside the bay indicated that he had found something, but was it a turtle? Using my flippers to power my usually slow swimming stroke I managed to reach Mike and a couple of other snorkelers in time to see a Green Turtle gliding away underwater. Its grace and beauty in its natural environment as it flapped it flippers and disappeared into the deep blue was in stark contrast to my floundering in the water. Unfortunately, because the turtle was close to the open sea only a few of the members of our trip managed to see this individual.

Time was pressing so we climbed back onto the rib and refreshed ourselves with fizzy drinks and crisps as we enjoyed the return trip along the coast.

I continued to scan for seabirds as we travelled and was intrigued by a small group of Yellow-legged Gulls that were investigating something floating on the surface. As we sped past I could see a white bag, but on closer inspection saw that a poor Green Turtle was caught in this man-made noose and would succumb to a lingering death if it could not be rescued.

The skipper turned the boat and Mike jumped in the water but unfortunately missed the turtle which naturally dived to escape capture. We sat on the calm waters for what seemed an age in the vague hope that it would resurface somewhere near the rib. And, miraculously it did just that, appearing on the surface less than ten metres away. Mike again readied himself for the attempted rescue, but as we got closer, one of our fellow snorkelers unexpectedly leapt into the water and executed a stunning capture. We helped him back onto the rib with his thrashing prize, being careful to avoid the frightened animal’s sharp beak. Once on board we realised that it was no ordinary plastic bag that had ensnared this turtle, but one composed of a synthetic mesh, like the type used in garden centres to hold soil or gravel, a robust fibre that would clearly have caused the demise of this reptile.

Unfortunately, despite extensive searching of the boat we had no items with us that were sufficiently sharp enough to cut away the bag. Yet again another intrepid member of the trip stepped forward and volunteered to bite his way through the offending bag! Naturally this took some time, and while our hero was nibbling away close to the neck of the turtle he quipped that normally he likes to take a girl to dinner before achieving that degree of intimacy!

Eventually the Green Turtle was freed from its noose and photos were taken before it was released gently back into the clear waters of the Canaries. A happy ending for this animal but many others suffer slow and lingering deaths due to our overuse of synthetic materials in our everyday lives and our carelessness when it comes to the disposal of this deadly waste.


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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

White-beaked Dolphins

Planning  a cetacean-watching trip can be a fraught experience. Will the weather be ok? You really need a calm sea to spot cetaceans, poor visibility due to mist or rain would really hamper things as well. And even if you feel bold enough to venture out to sea in rough weather the skipper of the boat might deem a trip too dangerous in such conditions.. Then there are the animals themselves; the sea is vast. I know that sounds obvious, but when you are looking for distant fins breaking the surface of the water or trying to distinguish the splash caused by a diving Gannet from that of a dolphin you begin to realise that the sighting of any cetacean is not going to be easy when you are bobbing around in a small boat some considerable miles from the shore.
But with the dolphin-finding skills of expert Ben Burville and the boat handling skills of Alan Leatham the odds of finding something exciting increase dramatically. This was my second trip to the Farne Deeps on board the RIB (rigid inflatable boat) Ocean Explorer in search of White-beaked Dolphins. Last September I had ventured north to the beautiful Northumberland coast to join a group of like-minded cetacean watchers in the hope of finding this enigmatic species. Ben is licensed to swim with these dolphins as part of ongoing research with Newcastle University. My trip last year (click here) failed to find any White-beaked Dolphins, apart from the decaying corpse of one unfortunate individual that was providing rich pickings for a few Fulmars. But we did see two Minke Whales and, amazingly, a pod of White-sided Dolphins which are reputedly rarer than the White-beaked Dolphins in this area.
I took my place at the front of the RIB as I believe this is the best spot from which to view any wildlife as it has unhindered views in the direction of travel. But there is a downside to sitting at the front, in all but the calmest conditions, the boat travelling at some considerable speed smacks into the troughs between the waves and your backside and spine truly understand why the boat is called "rigid"! Despite the considerable skill of the skipper who managed to slow down enough to lessen the shock of some of the bigger impacts I did return to harbour with a few bruises, but this is a small price to pay for the chance of viewing some of the world's most beautiful dolphins.
We cruised out of picturesque Beadnell Bay and then put the hammer down to reach the best areas for the dolphin search. After about half an hour Alan put the boat into idle and we eagerly scanned the sea for any signs of activity. Gannets were plunge diving in significant numbers a twelve o'clock from the front of the boat. The feeding activity of these  magnificent Daz-white seabirds are always a good indication of the presence of shoals of fish, which in turn also attract cetaceans.

And, right on cue, a fellow passenger spotted splashing in the distance; dolphins! And they were heading our way. I have seen plenty of dolphins before but never any species that create quite as much splashing as these. Ben confirmed that they were indeed White-beaked Dolphins; success! And wow did they come close! An estimated fifteen or so individuals swam straight towards us and began an amazing display all around the boat; bow-riding, diving, surfacing, blowing and zipping straight under the bow like black and white torpedoes. The markings of this species are stunning with a jet black fin contrasting markedly with blue-grey flanks, black back, a dark slate-grey saddle and a white patch behind the dorsal fin. This along with grey/white flank stripes and white beak make this a very distinctive and beautiful dolphin. Although, interestingly, not all members of the species have white beaks.


Some species of dolphin such as Bottlenose can be individually recognised by having distinctive dorsal fin shapes, the various notches and nicks acting like the wavy lines of a fingerprint. Researchers photograph the fins and assign names to recognisable animals; this proves invaluable when it comes to conducting research. But White-beaked Dolphins create such a splash when they surface that photographing their dorsal fins is not an easy practice. Instead, Ben enters the sea with the dolphins and takes photos of them underwater.

The splash of a White-beaked Dolphin may obscure the pattern of the dorsal fin
and may not be conducive to research, but it does create a very photogenic image.
 Some of the dolphins were clearly eyeballing us as they swept past underwater on their sides trying to get a better view as we hung over the sides of RIB snapping away with our cameras. But after about fifteen minutes they grew tired of us and headed away from the boat. This is apparently normal for White-beaked Dolphins. But there were big grins form all the occupants of the boat as we finally had time to take stock and appreciate our amazing encounter.
We spent the rest of the afternoon searching for more cetaceans but to no avail despite seeing numerous flocks of diving Gannets. But we were not too disappointed; our early encounter with these beautiful dolphins could surely not have been bettered. Thanks goes to Ben, Alan and the rest of the dolphin enthusiasts; what a great wildlife experience we all had!