Sunday, November 01, 2015

A Few from Spring

With it being foggy and murky grey outside all day, it was a good time to catch up with a bit of the photo processing backlog. So I turned my thoughts back to Spring which is such a contrast to the view out of the window today. Early mornings filled with bird song, migrants arriving in waves, the birds looking bright and immaculate and the freshness of the new growth bursting forth from the plants. Such a vibrant time of year and always a pleasure to be out at first light and soaking it all in.

So for this post I just thought I would take a few of the bird images from last Spring and put them together. What could say Spring more than a bird on some willow catkins. In this case a colourful Goldfinch.
Living by the coast there is a reasonable number of gorse bushes and normally good flocks of Linnet. I always associated one with the other as the males often use the top of these vibrant yellow flowered bushes to advertise their territory in song.
A bird that is particularly noticeable in the Spring is the Meadow Pipit.  Huge numbers migrate and on certain days it seems they are everywhere. Of course these are a favoured 'victim' of cuckoos who time their migration to arrive when other birds are beginning to lay eggs.  
Many birds look at their best at this time of year as the males feathers finally wear into their fresh breeding plumage. This male Reed Bunting is nearly there with just a few tawny coloured feather ends to change before the transformation is complete. 

One of the earliest migrant arrivals is the Northern Wheatear with the birds typically arriving locally from their long flight up from Africa around mid-March. They bring with them a real injection of striking colour and contrast into what is still a generally drab landscape in the early Spring with the remnants of winter still evident. Often these arriving birds are very flighty and have an annoying habitat of tending to stay just out of camera range, displaying a flash of white rump as they keep their distance ahead of you.

Into April and migration is in full swing with the arrival of warblers and Whinchat. These birds look amazing when they arrive although the orange colours of the breast and flanks seems to quickly fade once they have been here a short while. From a photography point of view they are definitely a bird to try and catch as they arrive.
 Of course Spring is not just about sights, it is also about sounds. Unfortunately I did not get much time to photograph warblers this year with the exception of the Willow Warbler. This bird's song of descending notes I know very well, having had one singing all through the 'night' outside my bedroom when I stayed in Arctic Norway. The songster did not help with me struggling to get to sleep with the perpetual daylight outside.
Well having done this post and reminisced over Spring the grey murk outside suddenly looks a bit brighter. Also it has got me thinking that I should start thinking about and planning my trip abroad for next year. North, South, East or West...decisions...decisions.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Spring Grouse

I want to wind the clock back now to the spring when I spent some time trying to photograph Black Grouse. At the start of each year and try to formulate some plans for some photography projects. This usually includes trying to get some photographs of a new species or two. For 2015 I decided I would try and photograph some Black Grouse, although not through the easy route of paying for a pre-set up hide.
Black Grouse, or 'Black cock' and 'Grey hens' as they are known in Scotland, are very enigmatic and beautiful moorlands birds. Each spring the birds gather at traditional display grounds known as leks at first light each day. On the leks the birds battle for dominance and to impress the females for mating. A Black Grouse lek is truly one of natures spectacles as the  males pumped up with hormones almost seem to vibrate as they square up to each other with fanned white and black lyre shaped tail feathers. Much of the action is display and posturing, such as frequent jumping up and down on the spot or strutting around with the head held low. However, quite frequently this will turn into a full on feet first battle.

The noise from the lek is also atmospheric, especially when combined with first light, with the low bubbling calls interspersed with hissing from the birds which sounds a bit like a tyre being deflated. Quite often there will be a moment of quiet and then some trigger suddenly bursts all the birds into life and a unison of sound rise up out of the lek.

Photographing Black Grouse does present a range of photography challenges. Firstly they will stand the sight of people which means typically you have to get up at some unearthly hour, particularly in mid-spring to arrive in the dark so they don't see you approach. It is fairly punishing getting up in the middle of the night and you really feel it later in the day. These birds are not big fans of staying on the lek long once the sun has risen and will usually all depart together soon after sunrise. I have noticed they do hang around longer on overcast days. Given their colouration of black, bright white and blue they do present some exposure challenges especially when in sun where they seem to quickly become  very contrast subject. My preferred conditions are actually bright overcast skies and it is under these conditions their rich dark colour combination really sings out.

I decided mainly to go for capturing some portrait photographs of the birds as the site does not lend itself particularly for battling shots. Action photos are a challenge given the birds preferences for low light conditions at dawn.
However, I did manage to get a few photos of the birds in flight.

Overall I was pleased how the few sessions went and have posted a small selection of images.

Having spent some time with the birds I now have a better understanding of the their behaviour and hope this puts me in a good position when I hopefully spend some more time on their 'battle grounds' next spring.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Immersed In Iceland: Day 10 - Eider and Out

So the final day of our trip dawned with cold grey skies, a stiff icy wind and intermittent showers. The plan was to just wander around the south-west corner of Iceland, with no particular destination in mind, to see what birds we could find. The weather outside the 'campervan' could only be described as grim. We had not gone too far and we unexpectedly came across an area with huge colonies of Eider and Arctic Terns.  This place had a road running through the centre will low roadside fences to protect the colonies from the attentions of Arctic Foxes. We both smiled at the find as we could immediately see the potential with the added bonus that we could do it all without the need of stepping out of the 'campervan' into the pummelling wind. With a bit of careful positioning of the vehicle we would also be able to get a good variety of photographs.

I have always had a great fondness for Eider. The drakes are such striking looking birds in their black and white plumage, mustard yellow bill, rose tinged breast, and a splash of lime green in a patch at the back of the neck.

The females are also attractive but in a more subtle way with the intricate patterning of their brown feathers which provides superb camouflaged and protection when sat on their famous down nests. It is surprising when you look at a colony how you suddenly spot of female that has been sat quietly still and unnoticed in front of you. The colony was in an attractive setting of scattered rocks and low brown and red low growing vegetation. Given our slightly elevated position the sea provided a layer of blue to the back ground which would have some advantage for photographing the birds in low flight rather than against a grey-white sky

Given the conditions and the wealth of opportunities on offer, we would spend the majority of the day there moving between different promising looking spots along the road. To begin with we started getting a variety of portrait photographs of the birds. Often when photographing from an 'autohide' it is good to look for locations where birds are sat on raised areas of ground at the sides of the roads. This allows you to take photographs with the appearance of being at ground level without the need to go on some lengthy commando crawl. With thoughtful positioning and using a shallow depth of field you can get even achieve those 'birds in the mush' images.
Not forgetting the females of course. This one among the rapidly growing lupins.
After taking plenty of portrait images, we shifted our attention to trying to get some flight photographs. The frequent comings and goings of the birds offering plenty of opportunities.  Eider tend to fly fast and low but the stiff wind aided us by slowing them down a little.

Looking back we decided we had made the best decision, given the conditions, to stay with Eider for the majority of day as it produced a great selection of images of these striking ducks for us both.

We made our way back towards Keflavik, via an elongated route, just to see if we could pick up one or two last birds before calling it a day. Most birds seemed to be lying low given the conditions but we did come across a Whimbrel which quickly disappeared in to the undergrowth. There had been reports of a White-winged Scoter just off the promenade and we eventually spotted the dark bird battling through the rough seas with a pair of Eider. As the birds were pushed closer and closer with the strong onshore wind, the weather deteriorated. We attempted a couple of photographs but it was fairly hopeless in the conditions.

For our last bit moments of photography in Iceland we checked out the area around the docks. In a corner where the rough waters had pushed a load of flotsam and debris we found an juvenile Iceland Gull and a couple of Kittiwakes. Not the most scenic of locations to take the last photographs of the trip but it was good to get some Kittiwakes on water which was a first for us both.

We made our way back to the hotel and went through the motions of sorting the 'campervan' out for return to the hire company and packing all our kit and clothing back into order for the journey home on an early flight the next day.

It has been a superb trip spent in great company, wonderful scenery, 'special weather' and with some amazing birds. A visit that will be at the fore of memories for many years to come and no doubt will definitely not be my last trip to Iceland. If you want to see some of Steve's photographs from the trip then please pop over to his blog which is on this LINK . I hope you have enjoyed the journey and it has given an insight into the potential for bird photography that Iceland can provide in the late spring and early summer.

I apologise that reporting this trip has been so drawn out, it has been busy times. Rest assured I have plenty of photographs from this to summer to show you and hope 'normal service' will be resumed :).

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Immersed in Iceland: Day 9 - Where's the Buntings?

An early alarm call found me out of the bed and minutes later creeping past a slumbering Steve at the far end of our long room in the hotel roof. I am well practice in this art of a quiet exit from early morning departures at home , the only difference was the loud spring loaded clunk of hotel door lock as I tried to ease it shut.

Once outside it was not long before I had a curious Redpoll in front of me once more and this time used the backdrop of the dark ash hillside behind as a backdrop.

I wandered around for a while in the birch scrub and down to a rocky beach but it was generally quiet except for the occasional Snipe whizzing around and Ringed Plover. I made my way back up from the beach along a wide but dry river bed of grey pebbles. You could imagine the torrent rushing over the stone bed after a heavy downpour as the water flowed down off the ash hills behind. I had not gone far when an Oystercatcher sprang forth into the air from behind a gravel ridge and started circling me with an alarm call.

I had seen this behaviour before and knew this meant there was a nest nearby but where was it in the expanse of pebbles? I very slowly walked away keeping a close eye on the ground and glad I did as I nearly stepped on the cryptic nest containing three eggs, leaving the birds to settle back down having seen off the intruder. The only other bird I photographed during my early morning start was a passing Greylag Goose that was nicely lit in the early low sun. Time for some breakfast.

After breakfast we checked out the hotel and continued our journey south and west towards the Reykjavik area. We decided to head for  Heiðmörk which is the place we had skillfully managed to fail to navigate to earlier in the week. This is supposed to be a good area to see Ptarmigan.
As we entered the area we decided to stop in the parking area by the channel that connects the Elliðavatn and Helluvatn lakes as there seemed to be quite a few birds in this area.

By now the sun was shining and haze was starting to develop. We needed some close subjects to photograph and were obliged by a few Red-necked Phalaropes and a very confiding Golden Plover which I probably spend too long photographing rather than looking around to see what other birds could be found. This was confirmed as we left as a Great Northern Diver came gliding across the relatively small Helluvatn and was literally just round the corner out of sight all the time.

After a quick brew we decided to take a tour around the tracks of Heiðmörk to see what birds could be found. There are numerous picnic sites dotted over this large expanse of coniferous forest and upland larva areas and as we pulled up to what seemed a very remote one, we spotted a male Ptarmigan on some short grass underneath a swing in a play area. This looked like a good opportunity but as we drew closer in the car, two young children who didn't seem to be with anyone, stepped out of the forest and made straight towards the swing resulting in a rapidly departing white bird. One of those moments that obviously was just not meant to be. On our slow drive around the tracks, bird life was surprisingly absent and our fairly long circuit only produced one Ptarmigan.
It was time to try elsewhere and we headed towards Keflavik and found ourselves back by the lake which first stumbled upon when we arrived. The heat haze was in full force by now and trying to get sharp images through the wobbly air was proving a challenge. We stayed there a while and this produced some bathing Ringed Plover photographs and I went to check the beach where the was a stone causeway with a some Eider.

Time to hit Google on the phone to decide where to head to next and it was indicate there was a small sea bird colony at Keflavik which we went to check but only found some low empty cliffs. What was interesting though was how much more advanced the Lupins were down in this warmer south-west corner with the first starting to come in to flower. In the north they had only just started poking their first leaves up through the soil.

Coming away from there we did find a pair of Golden Plover which we stopped to photograph for a while in the softening light.

Following the coast road along we ended up at the northern end of the mosy south-western peninsula in Iceland at Garðskagi Lighthouse. Stepping out of the 'campervan' we found a large board information with photographs showing the species that could be found. It stated something like 'Snow bunting are a common breeding species along the seawall' This raised our expectations as Snow Bunting, despite being a relatively common bird in Iceland,  had completely eluded us for nine days except for a possible sighting of one flying across the road several days earlier. Well we separated and walked and walked up and down that sea wall and the beach for ages and over a long distance trying to fine any signs of Snow Buntings but there were none to be found. Not even the chirp of a bunting was heard in our searching.

With nothing else there to photograph we decided to move in as it was starting to get late and we still had to find some accommodation for the night. The last bird of the day was a lone Whimbrel feeding along a grass verge on the edge of a car park.

Driving back into Keflavik we booked into the Hotel Keilir for the last two nights. A nice tidy twin room with a great view. After sorting out the days photographs and kit, we popped over the road to a Chinese Restaurant. We were quite late arriving given the standard 9pm kitchen closing time and it was a strange experience as they started packing up the place as we ate. Chairs went up on the surrounding tables and the floor mopped around us. Following my early start I was more than ready for bed by the point and was asleep within minutes of hitting the pillow. Tomorrow I would be waking to the final day of our trip.


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