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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