Friday, April 27, 2012

Return of the Chats

A few years back Stonechat were a common sight, perched on the scrub and gorse of the coastal strip, along the north of the Wirral peninsula. These birds always raised a smile with their rusty round bodies giving them the appearance of a large bumble bee in flight as they dash between prominent perches.  I have also always really liked their characteristic call that sounds like two pebbles being tapped together.
The Stonechat have been nearly completely absent for the last couple of years locally, and I suspect the population of these very small birds were probably hit hard in the long harsh freezing winters of the last three years. The general rule is the smaller the animal the quicker it loses body heat due to its volume to surface area ratio which creates a need to consume more food in order to maintain itself and body heat. This is the reason that an animal such as the tiny shrew has such a voracious appetite. You can obviously see why a prolonged very cold winter could easily impact on these birds when energy demands are high and food becomes scarce under the freezing conditions.
So finding a pair of Stonechat had returned to the coastal area was very welcome after their prolonged absence. These birds are generally quite approachable which always helps with photography and on this occasion I concentrated my efforts just on the male as it was in such perfect condition. The main difficulty with photographing these birds is getting the photo exposure correct and retaining feather detail in the combination of the black head and bright white 'collar'. It is very easy to overexpose the white area.
With certain species of birds I tend to associate then with particular types of plants. For example a Grasshopper Warbler on brambles or Goldfinch on teasel. For Stonechat I always associate them with gorse as this is where they are most commonly perched in our local area. Despite having an extensive library of Stonechat images I have never managed to photograph them on flowering gorse and so was pleased to finally capture some images.
It also pays to sometimes switch to a shorter lens to give a wider angle of view to give a greater feel of the bird in its habitat. The difference between the image above and below is the result of switching from a 500mm lens to a 300mm lens.
These birds were only present for around a week and seem to have disappeared once again. It may be that the pair were just moving along the coast looking for suitable habitat to set up a breeding territory. However, the brief visit gives some hope that before long they may hopefully become once again a regular and welcoming sight along the local coastal strip as it has certainly been a poorer place for their absence.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Flighty Twitters

The most common view of a Linnet is of a small flock of about a dozen twittering small 'brown' birds in characteristic 'bouncing' flight across an area of grassland. There is quite a good population locally that use the habitat of the coastal rough grasslands and nest in clumps of gorse. However, the status of the national population is not great with the birds showing a 57% decline between 1970 and 2008 and therefore afforded a 'Red Status' of conservation importance.
From a photography point of view they are generally a difficult bird to get close enough to as you need to get past the many keen eyes of the flock. Therefore they tend to be a very flighty species often disappearing before you have got anywhere near them. The exception to this is very occasionally when you find a solitary bird in the Spring but it still takes a good deal of crawling and using any available cover to get close. This is how I have managed to photograph most of the birds in the past although crawling around through spike-laden gorse bushes in not recommended.
A couple of friends have been working hard to try and get Linnet feeding in one area through daily and liberal feeding. It has taken a lot of effort but finally the birds started using the area and free food supply regularly. This has probably helped these slim small finches through the lean times of late winter and early spring when seed availability is generally in short supply. Once you get birds feeding in an area like this, then the photography suddenly becomes much easier and you have much more control over the situation in terms of light direction, backgrounds and perches.

It is not until you are up close to these birds for a while that you realise that they are actually very beautiful and not just the plain brown bird that you thought. The black and white wing and tail feathers, chestnut coloured back and streaking across the breast all add up to a very striking bird.
The males in particular can be particularly attractive as they develop a reddish pink blush to the breast and forehead feathers. This red colouration shows quite a bit of variation and as you can see is not particularly well developed in the photograph above. However, in some birds the red gets stronger through the year as the light tips of the new feathers wear revealing the red breast below. There were two well coloured males visiting the feeding area and I was particularly keen to try and get some photographs of these birds.

The other point that a close encounter reveals is that their calls are much more complex than the twitter of the birds in flight and they have quite a repertoire of call and song. They were once a popular cage bird back in the times when such practices were legal and definitely sound a bit canary like in elements of their song.
Hopefully this has given you a bit more insight in to the Linnet and may give you a greater appreciation of them the next time you see a passing twittering flock of these wonderful little finches.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Easter 'Bunny'

To put the record straight, the original Easter Bunny was not supposed to be a rabbit but a hare. Hares are mostly commonly seen in the spring as the males energetically pursue the females. Their hormone driven pursuits have given rise to the phrase 'Mad as a March Hare'. If you have ever watched a male hare catch the scent of a female you will see how they become possessed and it is a common sight watching them sniff along the ground in pursuit during the Spring.
Hares were believed to lay eggs, which was probably a case of mistaken identity with Lapwing nests which share the same open field habitat. However, I suspect the giving of eggs at Easter has more to do with a symbol of fertility and renewal.

At this time of year hares will often sit up, as shown in the following photograph, presumably to give them a better view as the look out for females.
I love to photograph hares throughout the year. In fact my preference is actually to photograph them in late summer when the bird photography is poor and hares much more relaxed.  The only relaxed hare in the Spring is one that is taking the time to groom its fur. The one below was having a quiet moment.
Once the scent of a female is picked up a hare will follow it anywhere including across roads. Fortunately at the site where I photograph them traffic is virtually non-existent which is just as well as they will often pause mid-way across to try and get a better bearing on the direction of the scent trail. Obviously if there was traffic the consequences of this behaviour could be deadly.
Whatever they are doing they are wonderfully enigmatic animals and its worth taking some time to go out and look for them in the Spring which offers your best chance of seeing them. Unfortunately they are also a species which is under a great deal of pressure in the UK and one that is sadly in decline. However, on there side are a number of organisations such as the Hare Preservation Trust. Our countryside would be a much poorer place without them.
So I will finish this post with an image of Spring as a hare runs past a patch of daffodils and wish you all a happy and peaceful Easter break.


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