Saturday, February 28, 2015

Call of the Curlew

I still clearly remember seeing my first ever curlew. I was around 12 years old at the time and on a summer holiday break staying in a bed and breakfast in a quiet Yorkshire valley. A very different landscape to the area around the family home in the urban sprawl of south-east England. At that time I was a keen jogger and every evening I would head off on a run up the very quiet country road that wound through the valley. The light was starting to fade rapidly and on the hillside to my left I heard a sound that was completely alien to me, a plaintive bird call that evoked a beautiful sense of wilderness as it echoed through the dusk. It was then that I saw this fairly large bird,  silhouetted  as it skirted the hill ridge,  with a very distinctive long curved beak. My first curlew and as you tell it made quite an impression on me due to the fact I can recall the moment so clearly all these decades later.
Since then I have heard that wonderful sound of the curlew on many occasions and it always brings a smile. If you haven't heard one before then there is a recording on the link HERE . I am fortunate to have relatively good numbers of curlew close to my home in the winter. The birds descend from their summer upland breeding areas and gather on the coast to overwinter in the milder climate provided by the sea. The birds have used the same rough wet grassland field, which I have unimaginatively named the 'curlew field', to roost over high tide periods for many years. Typically there are around 50 birds present. Both male and female birds look identical except the females generally have the longest bills which they use to great effect to extract worms from deep within the soil below.

Curlew are wary birds which do the best to maintain as much distance between themselves and people. Typically they will start walking away from a person if they come within a 100 metres of them. So when photographing them everything has to be down very slowly and quietly. So for most of these photographs I was using kit that gave maximum reach so as not to disturb the birds. However, this does make it tricky when trying to photograph the birds in flight or if one does walk over very close. The Canon 7dmk2 performed very well and all of these were taken with this very capable body combined with a 600mm lens often with the tele-convertor added on the back.
It was particularly some flight photographs that I was interesting in trying to capture, although no easy task with an effective focal length of 1344mm!

In this high tide roost the birds spend long periods standing around sleeping and occasionally preening unless there is predator nearby. During one session a fox thought it would try and stalk the curlew but had little chance with 50 pairs of keen eyes watching and it gave up before it even got close.

The crows and gulls hassle the birds at the roost and occasionally a sparrowhawk will wing through that will put them to flight but generally all is relatively inactive. As the high tide passes on the coast, which about 150m to the north, the curlew start becoming more active. You can sense a restlessness amongst the birds which start stretching and preening, whilst small groups break away and start feeding. This period before they fly back over to the sandbanks as they are exposed by the ebbing tide provides the best opportunities for photography.
Before I started this post, I processed the images, and it was only then that I realised that this winter without any specific plan appears to have turned in to a bit of a curlew project. Time well spent in my opinion as these birds continue to hold a strange and strong fascination for me. The photographs below are from three brief afternoon sessions under the low winter sun. This soft golden light is always a pleasure to work with. They may not be the most colourful birds but I think you will agree that the patterning across the feathers in good light is beautiful.
It will not be too much longer now before the curlew start to depart and head back to the upland areas for breeding and the hills and valleys will be penetrated by that atmospheric call once again. I hope you are lucky enough to hear it yourself one summer's evening.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Beach Buntings

I have spent a bit of time in the past photographing Snow Bunting along the shores of North Wales. This year I have been fortunate to have two buntings on the 'doorstep' which have taken up their winter residence literally a 2 minutes drive from home. These are birds that have been around the coastline since the autumn and after a short absence reappeared and now seem firmly settled in one area of the beach.

Snow Bunting commonly spend the winter along the coasts having descended from their upland breeding sites to look for seeds that have floated down rivers and end up amongst the seaweed and debris along the tide line. After the winter storms, the local area of sandy beach where they are favouring is covered in debris. Pieces of dried blackened bladderwrack sea weed, assorted bits of human plastic debris, together with empty whelk and dogfish egg cases. All this is set among many shell fragments, particularly cockles and razor-clams, that have been sucked out of the sand by the raging winter seas and smashed against the seawall and its rock and concrete defences. The effect is the resulting debris field actually makes photographing the birds in a relatively clean and attractive setting fairly difficult. It requires some patience and carefully watching to where the birds are moving and waiting for them to appear in small gaps and areas of clean beach between the shore 'junk'.  The task was made slightly easier as during my visits as the local council was digging up the wind blown drifts of sand and dumping it back on the beach. The track marks from the dumper making clean sand ridges which proved to be a useful place to try and photograph the birds when they occasional moved there.

These two birds are particularly approachable and fairly oblivious to people and even free running dogs on this busy beach as they shuffle around the beach in characteristics snow bunting fashion looking for seed fragments. Snow Bunting are often a fairly easy species to photograph as long as you wait and let them come to you, as is the case for the majority of bird species. As with most birds on the ground or water, the best viewpoint is a low one to let your photos reflect their world. In the case of small Snow Bunting this means lying down and getting very close to the sand with your camera. It never ceases to amaze me after one of these sessions how sand seems to permeate into everything no matter how careful you are. I think my car currently has half of the beach in it and is certainly overdue a good clean out.

The photographs in this post are a selection from two fairly short consecutive morning sessions I spent lying on the beach one weekend recently. It was a very cold experience but fun. Strangely I only seem to ever find myself lying on a beach in the winter. On the first session it took me a while to locate the birds which can be quite difficult to spot. I was wandering along the sea wall scanning the beach and fortunately stopped to suddenly unexpectedly see one of the birds on top of the wall about a metre in front of me. I had almost 'tripped' over it. Since that weekend I have done one more session, which I will show in another post, which was at the end of the day and managed to catch the birds in the last orange glow of light on a sparkling clear winter's day.

Some occasional wing stretches

Currently we have a rare bird on the local marine lake in the shape of a young Laughing Gull from America. This bird is attracting bird watchers and photographers from all over the country. Many of these visitors take the time to look for the two Snow Bunting, after the gull, and so these wonderful little birds are getting a fair bit of attention at the moment. No doubt they are giving delight to most that see them , although I suspect for some they are just another tick on this year's expanding species list. Hopefully they will stay a while longer yet as it will be good to spend a bit more time with them before they head back to the hills for the summer.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bang Bang ... Go the Goosander

My first photography session of 2015 saw me heading to an upland lake with my friend Steve. The weather was forecast to be mixed with a brisk wind and intermittent sun but looked good enough to make the trip worthwhile. We have been photographing Goosander at this site on and off now for several years but were both surprised to find our last visit was  back in 2012. Needless to say we were both looking forward to it.
After a 90 minutes drive, we arrived at the site and three things were immediately obviously. Firstly the lake level was much higher than usual and our favourite spot to photograph the birds, a concrete jetty set just above water level, was under about a foot of water. Secondly the sun was well and truly blocked out by a long line of cloud that seemed to be developing as it was pushed up over the hills and thirdly there was not a single Goosander to be seen. Not a very promising start!

A close view of a female to show why they are called sawbill ducks.
So we waited and waited and were just thinking about perhaps looking somewhere else on this large elongated lake when a pair of birds flew in. The sun was still stuck behind the stubborn bank of dense grey cloud. We starting taking some photographs but the male birds with their dark heads with its iridescent green sheen really do benefit from a bit on sunlight.
Far in the distance the clouds seemed to be breaking and a patch of blue sky, which was heading our way, was opening up. At the same time a second pair of birds arrived. The situation was definitely improving fast and even the lake levels seemed to be dropping from its flooded state. Before long the blue sky was by us and the sun appeared and it looked like we were to have a prolonged period of good light ahead.
Preening male. 
and preening female.
We had been photographing the birds for around 10 minutes when there was a loud bang, followed by another and another and another which was echoing around the hills. My first thought was that may be there was shooting party up on the hillside somewhere. The banging continued and seemed to be getting closer. With each successive bang the Goosander were obviously getting more and more unsettled. Then the source of the noise appeared which was a 'customised' small car which was constantly backfiring which was travelling down the road along the edge of the lake. By the time it had reached us, still backfiring constantly, the Goosander had heard enough and all four took off at high speed towards the far end of the lake. How typical, we had patiently waited for it all to come together only to then fall apart in an instant due to a passing poorly modified car. We could hear the car as it was driving around in the nearby town, bang, bang, bang before it eventually fell silent presumably due to the owner parking.
All we could do was wait once more to see if the Goosander would return. This gave Steve time to have a play with his new Canon 7Dmk2 and get a better feel for the autofocus with some flying mallard. As we waited for the Goosander we said that knowing our luck the birds would return and the back-firing car would come back through just as they arrived. We waited some more. Eventually one pair of birds returned. They had been there for around 5 minutes when from the town behind we suddenly heard in the distance the car started back up. We looked at each other in disbelief, surely we wouldn't be twice unlikely which fortunately we were not. However, by this time the patch of blue sky was rapidly closing up once more into dense cloud with no obvious signs into the distance of improvement. So once the sun disappear for the last time we decided to bring the session to an end.
A rare exit from the lake.
One the final photographs in the afternoon before the sun disappeared behind cloud for the last time
It was one of those trips where you think you have not come away with many photographs but I was pleasantly surprised when I got home and went through them. We had obviously worked hard in the moments when we had both sun and birds in front of us. Overall it was an enjoyable day out and a great way to start our photography in 2015.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Waiting for Merganser

Most winters rarely pass without me finding myself trying to photograph some of my favourite waterfowl, the sawbill ducks. There are three species in the UK, the Red-breasted Merganser, Goosander and the Smew. The latter is a rare visitor to the north-west corner of England where I live and so naturally I have concentrated my efforts on the other two.

A local large marine lake holds Red-breasted Merganser every winter. They tend to arrive in early December with up to a dozen birds being present but I tend to leave any photography until after Christmas when they have got a bit more accustomed to the visitors that stroll around this popular lake. Having said that these birds are still very wary and the lake is large and so it usually takes quite a bit of patience before they come into photography range.

Often I like to have a session with these birds on Boxing Day as it is good to get out of the house and in to the fresh air but it also has the bonus of an early morning visit is also unusually quiet. Unfortunately the weather on the last Boxing Day was not great and it was New Year's Eve before I found myself by the lake at first light. I was surprised to find a reasonable number of people already taking the long walk or jog around the perimeter either with or without dogs.

It was an icy cold morning with a brisk breeze and the sunlight was very short lived as it rose from the horizon and disappeared behind a swiftly moving blanket of low cloud. On arrival I decided to take a 'quick' circuit of the lake to see what was present and soon spotted half a dozen Goldeneye and a similar number of Merganser right out in the centre of the lake. On my travels I came across this Redshank, silhouetted against the golden water of first light which couldn't be ignored

As I moved around the lake more Redshank were found, running like Sanderling across the beach. Still the Merganser stayed out in the middle.

After a while I had complete a full circuit of the lake. The target birds were still out in the middle occasionally going on short feeding runs with synchronised diving. I sat and watched in the face numbing wind. Timed passed. More time passed. The Merganser seemed to be gradually moving closer to the far bank. I decided I would walk back around the far side to see if I could get close to them there. As I walked around they appeared to be getting closer and closer to the far bank of the lake but I had concerns about the number of people heading along the footpath towards them. These corncers were well founded as just as I got eventually round to them, after a reasonably long walk, the birds were drifting back out to the centre of the lake once more. However, I did manage a photograph of a couple more female birds arriving.

Back round the lake I walked again as the birds now seemed to be heading towards the bank where I was originally waiting. When I arrived they seemed to have stopped their progress once more in the middle of the lake. By this point I had been there for three hours with little to show for my efforts except a couple of Redshank and Oystercatcher photographs. I was at the point of thinking that this session was going to be a non-starter for the Merganser when the only male bird on the lake came swimming over right to where I was sat and started diving and fishing in front of me for around 10 minutes. Such is often the way in wildlife photography where long periods of inactivity are punctuated by very busy moments.

The light was not great, as these birds definitely look their best with a bit of sunlight on them to bring out the green hues in the black head feathers, but I was determined to try and make the most of the bird being so close. For these diving birds the best approach is move while they are underwater and try and predict where they will surface. My antics were receiving some odd looks and comments by the numerous people walking past. As soon as the bird dived I would jump up, quickly move along the footpath and lie back down to where I thought it would resurface.

Red-breasted Merganser always look slightly scruffy birds with their wayward head feathers compared to the sleeker line and plumage of the Goosander. However, it does give them a certain endearing character and I always really enjoy photographing them. Here is a small selection of the male bird whose eventual arrival was a very welcome relief on a bitter winter's day.

For my next post I will be re-telling an early January session with some beautiful Goosander on an upland lake in some much better light.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Frosty Fieldfare

Firstly I would like to wish all the readers of this blog a very Happy New Year and hope you have some memorable wildlife encounters during the coming 12 months. I am looking forward to many exciting photography projects ahead and already have a trip planned to Iceland for the end of May. I hope you will all join me on my photographic journey this year.

Apologies for the lack of blog updates over Christmas, which is always a busy time, but I have also been trying to make the most of the Christmas break to get some time out with the camera when the weather has allowed. It has actually been quite a productive time for my photography and I will start with a morning session on the 28th December after a very sharp overnight frost.

I set off early from the house to a local site that I have visited for many years now to see if I could find some more Fieldfare. After some snowfall on Boxing Day, which melted very quickly around my home by the coast, I thought there may be a chance that there may still be some on the ground further inland. On arrival it was obvious that this was not the case but the hard frost could provide some interesting photographs. The large noisy Fieldfare flock had long since stripped the Rowan trees of berries but there were still others that were conspicuously heavily laden with berry crop. These were Sea Buckthorn and Cotoneaster. These really are at the bottom of the bird berry menu and usually need several hard frosts to make them palatable to the birds. Sea Buckthorn in particular always seems to be a last resort food choice and the bright orange berries only seem to be eaten when conditions are particularly tough for the birds which the ground frozen for an extended period which stops them finding worms.

I decided to do a bit of reconnaissance to see what the birds were doing before settling on my approach for the morning. As it was still first light the majority of the main Fieldfare flock were only just waking and sat in the tops of the trees fluffed up to insulate them from the cold. They started moving and it became quickly obvious that they were targeting  Cotoneaster. Unfortunately the trees they were heading in to were in a very awkward position in terms of light direction. However, I remembered there were some other Cotoneaster further down the road which may provide a better opportunity and arrived to find a single Fieldfare actively guarding each tree.
I have seen Mistle Thrush do this before but not Fieldfare. Every bird that arrived at the tree would be quickly chased off. These trees were heavily-laden with berries and although the action was going to be slow decided to sit it out as I could see there would be some potentially good photographs to be had with a bit of patience.

While waiting for the Fieldfare to move in to good feeding positions a Robin kept me amused as did a very large brown rat that kept scuttling around under the tree.
Whilst sat there I noticed there was a small number of Fieldfare flying in to frost covered bush about 50m down the road. So I decided on a quick relocation to them before the sun pushed too far round. The low soft winter sun has a lovely quality to it and was just illuminating the birds on the dark frost covered bushes.
Occasionally a bird would drop to the frozen grass below.

I decided it was time to return to the Cotoneaster as visible steam started to rise off the bush in front of me as the sun hit the frosty leaves. This usually plays havoc with the camera focus and achieving sharp images can be very difficult. Every 30 minutes or so one of the birds in each of the trees would move to eat a few more berries. It was just a question of waiting for them to appear in the right place. The action was slow but it proved to be a very enjoyable and relaxed morning in some beautiful sparkling winter weather.

Here are some photographs from the Cotoneaster bush and from the ground below it.

I decided my my next Christmas sessions I would try and get some of my favourite waterfowl the sawbill ducks but these will have to wait until my next post.


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