Thursday, November 22, 2018

Exploring Extremadura: Day 4 - Hoopoes and Wind

Steve and I were going in separate directions very early in the morning on the 4th day. He was heading off to try Little Bustard, more of that later in this post, and I was booked in for a session with some Hoopoe. I was met by a brisk and surprisingly cold wind as I stepped out of the hotel to be whisked off to the Hoopoe hide. Steve was already long since departed to get into his hide during darkness.

Once more I was locked into a small wooden hide which was setup behind some old derelict farm buildings. Looking out front and there was an area of grassland with well spaced trees, with the nearest tree having an obvious perched wedged into its base, just below a hole where the birds were nesting. An overcast sky only providing some fairly 'flat' light.  The general limited activity suggested the female, which only made one brief appearance for a stretch during my time in the hide, was still sitting on eggs in the base of tree.

The male bird was out foraging and would occasionally return with a small grub to pass into the unseen female.

The low frequency of visits made attempting any flight shots impractical. The light did improve towards the end of the session but rapidly became side-lit at that point.  Having taken a few photographs of the male bird on the single perch there was not much else to do. Before me was certainly not a very imaginative setup conducive to obtaining a variety of images.


As some you will know I am not the greatest fan of the fixed hides particularly when little thought has been put into the setup in front of it greatly limiting photograph opportunities. With this hide it was obvious after the first 30 minutes I was not going to get any different images to those already on the memory card.

The increasing frustration with the setup as time passed was broken by the welcome arrival of a Turtle Dove. This was the first one of these beautiful birds that had ever been seen from this hide and was only present briefly on the solitary perch.

After around 4 hours in the hide the sound of an approaching vehicle to collect me was a welcome one. It had not been one of the most enjoyable hide sessions.

I sent Steve a text to give him an update. It seemed that it wasn't going to well at his end. He had to walk out to a tiny hide in the middle of huge field in darkness. As the light dawned he realised he was surrounded by 0.75m high grass waving in the stiff cold breeze. The only view he got of the Little Bustard was brief glimpses of its head through waving grass stems making getting any photographs impossible. He was not in the best of moods when he returned to the hotel. Again another example of a poor thought put into the setup.

Given the ever strengthening and cooling wind we decided to cancel the afternoon hide booking and just go out in the car around some local farm tracks to see if we could find some birds to photograph. It quickly became obvious that the strong winds had suppressed bird activity and despite slowly driving around many kilometers of farm track the only birds we could find within photography distance were the occasional Corn Bunting and Crested Lark.

Overall not our most successful day. What would tomorrow bring as Steve was heading to the Hoopoe hide and I was destined for one of the Little Bustard hides. Hopefully I would be put in a different one to which Steve had been placed that morning which turned out to be useless from a photography perspective.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Exploring Extremadura: Day 3 pm - An Evening on the Tiles

After waking from the afternoon siesta, I stepped out of the darkness into the brilliant sunshine bathing the small balcony of my room. It did not look promising for our planned evening session. The sun was drifting slowly and downwards to the right and a strong breeze was blowing from the left. With wind and light coming from opposite directions we were going to struggle in the hide as the birds would be landing or tending to face away from us.

We were collected outside the hotel and a after a short journey, we head down a rough farm track to an abandoned and derelict building with a partially collapsed roof which was being used a nest site by a colony of Lesser Kestrel.  A small hide, raised up on scaffolding had been constructed alongside of the building providing a birds eye view over the roof area. As predicted the light and wind were in completed opposite directions and the first kestrel there came into the land came in from behind us to land facing away from us and sat on the sloping tiles looking in the opposite direction. We were going to struggle for photos a little here. The photograph below gives a view from the hide to give you some idea of the scene before us.










Two things to note from this photograph. Firstly in the centre of the image is a male Lesser Kestrel facing away from us. The second is the Spotless Starling on the crest of the roof to the left. The Spotless Starling was very entertaining, as we sat in the hide waiting for the kestrels to appear, as it was singing continuously in winging fluttering full volume throughout our visit. It was also imitating the calls and songs of around a dozen different bird species and including Golden Oriole.


After the small disturbance of our arrival at the hide, the Lesser Kestrels quickly started to return. My estimate there was probably around 4 pairs nesting under the tiles on the side of the roof we could see and probably others on the other side of the roof.


Over the next 3 hours as the sun slowly dipped behind us, there was a steady stream of kestrels appearing in front of the elevated hide. Males would frequently arrive with giant centipedes to present to the female that would usually appear from under one of the terracotta roof tiles. It is obvious why these warmer areas are so productive for birds with the abundance of large insect prey. A feature that is notably absent from the cooler climate and more intensively farmed lands of the UK.


The wind being in the wrong direction was annoying as it not only prevented any flight photos but also on a few occasions we had pairs of kestrel mating on the tiles in front of us. However, it was always with their backs to the hide. 

Given that we had plenty of time left on the trip, we decided we would book another evening session in the hide when the wind would be in a more favourable direction.


As the light became low behind thin hazy clouds, we heard the rattling engine of the car approaching up the farm track to collect us. It has been enjoyable session watching the Lesser Kestrel and their interactions at close quarters but at the same slightly frustrating as a much greater variety of images could have be achieved if the wind had been in a more favourable direction.


Back hotel we went straight into the evening meal which was particularly unmemorable and not great at all, before going through the evening ritual of sorting kit and images out. The alarm clock was set to stun for another early start in the morning.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Exploring Extremadura: Day 3 am - Azure Wings

The phone alarm vibrated into life on the side cabinet beside the bed to announce the start of another day in Spain. It was still dark outside, as I rolled out of the bed into my clothes and downstairs to the bar for a quick coffee before we departed to our hide for the morning. This morning's session was to concentrate on Azure-winged Magpies. Regular readers will know I am a big corvid fan and was looking forward to seeing some of these birds having only previously seen them in my local zoo.

The weather was not looking typically 'Spanish' with thick grey clouds above with the occasional light shower but it appeared likely that the clouds would break during our session and let some light through. It was around a twenty minute drive to the magpie site and which ended in the usual long winding farm track into a lovely looking area of rough grassland interspersed with clumps of mature trees.

It looked like we would be in for another cramped hide session given the size of the hide, which was also fitted at the front with glass to photograph through. I am not a big fan of glass fronted hides but I understand why hide operators use them. To get the best quality images requires the lens hood to be removed and the front of the lens placed as close and square to the glass as possible. It also seems to help if the lens aperture is stopped down a little rather than using a wide open lens.

In front of the hide there was a large table structure which had a lined shallow pool of water on top, a grassed area at the back and a number of perches strategically placed around it. Before our hosts left some peanuts were scattered strategically around the drinking pool and perches. We did not have long to wait before the first birds arrived, in the shape of Spotless Starlings, although the light was still fairly low with the dense cloud cover above.

These birds have a very glossy feathers with an attractive iridescent sheen and almost look like they have been dipped in oil.
They were also being very vocal and had a wide repertoire of calls and songs that included mimicking some other birds.
Behind the pool and perches we could see a pair of Woodchat Shrike and the female paid a brief visit to one of the perches.
The first of the Azure Winged Magpies started to arrive. The light was still poor so the most of the early images ended up getting deleted. These are such beautiful birds and easy to see where they got their name. This species of magpies appeared slightly smaller and milder in manner than the European Magpie than I am accustomed to.
The clouds above were starting to break letting some soft warm early morning light through as the numbers of magpies arriving increased.
 At one point the magpies all disappeared for some unknown reasons resulting in some the appearance of some other species. Such as Spotless Starling and a Corn Bunting in 'key jangling' song.
A cuckoo was also moving around and perched on a branch above the water pool but we frustratingly could not take photographs of the bird due to the confines of the cramped hide and problems with shooting up through the glass at an angle. Whatever had put the magpies off from visiting had obviously now passed and they soon started to return once more. This gave plenty of opportunities for some additional photographs of the birds.
I suppose my main disappointment was the hide didn't really offer any good opportunities for any flight images, particularly with the glass. I was looking forward to getting some flight images having spent hours photographing the European magpie in flight.

All too soon the familiar rattle of a the car engine was approaching and the session was over. It was time to return to the hotel, find some lunch, sort out the camera gear and morning's images and hopefully fit in a a quick siesta before leaving for the evening hide session.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Exploring Extremadura: Day 2pm - Flying Rainbows

Fully refreshed from the afternoon siesta, it was time to get ready for the late afternoon / early evening hide session. We arranged to meet outside the hotel around 5pm by which time the heat of the day was beginning to subside and the harsh sunlight starting to soften. This hide visit would be dedicated to photographing European bee-eaters. This is a bird I have photographed on several occasions in Hungary and Romania. However, Steve had never photographed them from a hide setup before and so was looking forward to some time with these birds at close quarters.

Bee-eaters are always fun birds to photograph. Not only are they beautiful birds with their bright plumage of 'rainbow' hues but also usually very active that offers some interesting photograph opportunities.

It was about a 10 minute drive from the hotel to the bee-eater site. We pulled off the main road and into a small farm and followed a dusty tracks around the edge of a small lake. A short distance further down the track we started to hear the distinctive calls and could see some of the 'flying rainbows' gliding around a small meadow area between two fence lines. On the edge of the meadow next to the track was a small hide for which no expense had been spared in it fabrication, in fact no expense at all. The hide was constructed from a folded wire mesh covered in false grass and all held together with cable  and wire ties. Inside folding  chairs completed the setup. The hide was very a small considering we were both going to be using it and it was going to be a cramped session. I think Steve was taking this hiding business to literally...


A great characteristic of bee-eaters is that if you give them a perch close to where they are building nests, which in this case was a shallow slope in the field, then they will generally use it straight away. I have to say I was disappointed in the three perches that had been set out which were cable tied to metal reinforcing bars. One was completely snapped off and completely unusable, the other two has also been snapped by livestock and just about usable. With no other plants suitable for use as perches in the short-grazed meadow or other spare perches next to the hide as alternatives, we were unfortunately stuck with the the two and bit rather sorry looking perches. It is the small attentions to detail that make the important difference on photographer enjoyment and resulting photos when using fixed hides. The hide operators should think carefully about perches, with regular changes, and also what is surrounding and behind those perches. I think this part of the reason why I find fixed hides slightly frustrating as I can always see how they could be set up better.
Anyway there was no worries about the bee-eaters using the perches in front of us but activity was fairly low as it looked like the birds were just starting to construct their nest tunnels on the small sandy slope in front of us. Needless to say we would have both been happier with some decent perches and tried to make the best of what was in front of us, aid by some soft evening light. A selection of images from the session are below:

About 40 minutes before the end of the session, the birds departed, presumably heading off somewhere to roost. With no signs of any birds for 30 minutes, we did decided to escape the cramped confines of hide. This took some effort as the door had been wired shut on us.  When we were collected, it was made clear they were not happy we had got out of the hide. Now Steve and I have each been photographing birds for over a decade and both  know the importance of entry and exit of hides at the right time to prevent disturbance. We would not have left the hide if we thought there was any possibility of disturbance which was impossible as the birds had long since departed. I must admit I had found the whole experience with the inadequacies of the hide set up and the subsequent attitude as if we were some kind of idiots, slightly annoying. On a positive note it was good to be back up close to some beautiful bee-eaters in wonderful evening light.


Back at the hotel we dumped our kit in our rooms, a quick clean up and headed downstairs for our first evening meal. We were served a bowl of stuff. Stuff is the best description I can give as I could honestly not recognise which part of the what animal was floating around in the thin gravy. I decided to pass on it and just ate some bread.

Back in the room it was time for the regular nighttime ritual of image download and back-up and charging batteries.  It was probably gone midnight before I hit the bed accompanied by the sounds of the wall vibrating snores from down the hotel corridor and persistent Scops Owl outside. An early start again was scheduled for the next day with a morning session photographing a local speciality, the Azure-winged Magpie.

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