Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Plan W - Session 1

At the beginning of each year I formulate my photography plans for the next 12 months. Some of the plans are pursued while others fall by the wayside due to time constraints. I have always found the best approach is often to concentrate efforts on a particular species over several sessions. This allows me to gain a good understanding of the animals behaviour and refine my images. My two primary bird species targets for this year were Whinchat and Corn Bunting.

Pursuing Whinchat (which quickly became known as Plan W) was actually a difficult decision due to it requiring forfeit of photographing Common Redstarts which would need to be done at the same time of year. The choice was made tricky as it meant that the private site where I have photographed the Redstart for the last 3 years would probably be lost for good. However, reviewing my extensive Redstart image library it looked like it was time to move on.

My previous photography of Whinchat had been very limited to a handful of images of migrant birds passing through my local area in mid-Spring. To undertake this concentrated effort would require travelling to their upland breeding areas. My first Plan W trip started well, albeit with the wrong species, when I found this Curlew caught in the first rays of the day on the upland moors.
However, it was Whinchat I was seeking and the search began across the extensive area of moorland.
After a while I spotted a male bird perched on a low shrub.
I decided to set up camp there with a pop-up hide next to the bush hoping it was part of a regular route for the bird around its territory. I waited, and waited and waited but the bird never returned but I could seeing them moving around at distance on the low hillside behind. In the end I decided the approach was not working and moved back to the car to try another area. As I was driving along I fortunately spotted a female on a low shrub right next to the road, which she then dropped behind.
A male bird then appeared in the same spot and followed the same route as the female.
It looked like I had found a nesting site and in a very convenient location as I could use my car as a hide. The only downside was that it was a single track road and I would have to move each time another vehicle came along, although that was very infrequently. The rest of the first session I spent just capturing some more photos of the birds, watching their behaviour and building up a small collection as the birds perched on a range of roadside vegetation including heather and bracken.
A larger caterpillar destined for a hungry brood.
I kept the sessions fairly brief as I wanted the birds to slowly become accustomed to my presence. Just before leaving and while the birds were away foraging, I introduced a small perch nearby to gauge their reaction and which the female began to use immediately.
It was a good start to Plan W and as I headed home I was already thinking about and looking forward to the next session.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Heading to the Hills

The other day I saw a Northern Wheatear in its apricot autumn colours heading rapidly southward, a sign of the autumn bird migration getting started. This sighting reminded me of a memorable brief session I had with this species earlier in the year, when the birds were heading northwards to their upland breeding areas, but had not got round to going through the images. We get quite good numbers of the birds moving along the coastal strip of the Wirral during migration. I have generally found the spring birds to be much less approachable for photography. They always seem to try and keep at distance that is just out of photography range and always move a short distance ahead of any approaching person with a flash of their white rump, from where they derive their name.
A spring male bird is a joy to behold and certainly brightens up the mid-March landscape, when they first arrive locally and during their long journey up from Africa. This particular bird shown here I came across whilst out looking for Skylarks during May. I spotted the bird, looking resplendent in its fresh plumage, sitting on a fence post and was surprised in that it allowed a close approach.
The bird then dropped to the ground in a dip in the sandy grasslands, that border the coast, and I could suddenly see a good potential opportunity. After watching the foraging bird for a few moments, I predicted the path it was going to take and went round to the far side of the depression and lay down and waited at the top of the bank just out of view of the bird. The secret to the closest wildlife encounters is often to predict the path of the animal or bird based on your knowledge of its behaviour and hope it keeps wandering in the direction of your position. Obviously luck plays it part with this approach and some say I always seem to have it on my side but maybe it happens a little to often for it just to be by chance alone.

After a short wait a head appeared over the crest of the bank directly in front of me.
The bird paused for a while decided I posed no threat and slowly came up on to the top of the bank where I was lying.
This beautiful male Wheatear then stayed in close proximity for a while allowing me to take quite a few photographs. At times it came very close and inside minimum focusing distance on the lens and I had to wait motionless for it hop back out to a suitable range. It obviously knew I was there but seemed unperturbed by my presence.
The session came to an abrupt end when a dog walker, seeing me lying on the ground, walked right up to me to ask what I was photographing. I pointed to the Wheatear flying off in to the distance.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Back to the Dartford

This is a continuation of my last post on the Dartford Warbler that I photographed earlier in the year. For those who have not seen the previous post it can be found here.

By the time of my return visit the male Dartford Warbler had stopped feeding its adopted brood of Whitethroat, which presumably had fledged and dispersed. The bird was still holding the same relatively extensive territory and so was easy to find especially as it was prominently perched on a fallen conifer next to the path on my arrival.
This displaced lone bird still appeared to be looking for a female but alas its efforts will have been in vain as the nearest population was probably a good 80 miles away.
The bird was on patrol of his patch, appearing very relaxed, and occasionally feeding and bursting in to a brief characteristic scratchy warble.
I watched the bird for a while and it was definitely showing a preference for three particular low gorse bushes along the edge of the footpath, so I just sat quietly nearby, watched and took photos as it went about its daily business.
I was keen to catch it during its occasional outbursts of song, as on my previous visit it had been busy efficiently gathering caterpillars for the waiting brood of Whitethroat.
This was such an enjoyable session being in close proximity to a wonderful little inquisitive warbler in soft light at such a beautiful location. It does not come much better than that. I could have carried on but the photographs I was hoping to capture were on the memory card and so I left him to carry on busy with his daily routine. Hopefully he has now come to his senses and headed further south and found an area with an existing population, where next year he can find a female to help keep numbers of this scarce species maintained.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Over the Top

I recently had to take a trip up to the north east of England. Instead of jostling my way amongst the madness of the motorway and trunk roads, I decided to take a route that would offer a more scenic and peaceful journey over the top of the Yorkshire Dales. The extra travel time was more than offset by being surrounded by wonderful countryside and moorland and with the chance of a roadside bird or two to photograph. I must admit I have an increasing fondness for visiting these more remote areas away from the maddening crowds.

My trip northwards was not accompanied by the best of conditions, in fact it was dire. As I gained altitude I found myself in low cloud with a near gale force driving wind. The first bird I encountered was a Red Grouse who also seemed less than impressed by the conditions.
Lets hope he manages to evade the gun sights of the start of the shooting season tomorrow.
The only bird I encountered on my journey, apart from some distant Golden Plover in the cloud gloom, was this very windswept Lapwing. This species sometimes looks a little scruffy but this one was in immaculate plumage.
I followed a similar convoluted route on the journey home but under brighter conditions. Travelling during mid-afternoon was not the ideal time for finding moorland birds but proved to be more productive. More Lapwing were encountered.
Along with the occasional Curlew and Red Grouse lurking amongst the heather.
Some wader species move from the coast into these upland moorland areas during the summer to breed. Amongst these are Oystercatchers which often seem to chose some odd places to build their nest. I have previously seen them nesting right next to a railway track. I found a family of two adults and a pair of chicks on the side of the road.
One of the chicks decided to take a walk in to the danger zone of the single track road but fortunately with the absence of traffic easily made it safely to the other side.
The last bird of my journey was another upland breeding wader, the Redshank, that was perching on top of the lichen coated dry stonewalls or fence posts and occasionally calling.
The wonderful scenery combined with a few upland summer birds is always going to beat staring at long queues of brake lights and smoking exhausts. The most direct route is not always the best.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Green Nemesis

The Green Woodpecker must rate amongst the more trickier bird species to photograph in the UK. The local population is relatively small, compared to the south, and it has not been a bird I have actively pursued but one that I have come across through occasional encounters. I supposed I should really put in some work to make a more concerted effort to photograph them but have not quite formulate the best strategy for them yet.
They are an extremely difficult bird to approach and unlike many other birds, always quickly depart even with a careful approach in the mobile hide (car). You are lucky if you can get within a 50 metres and even then the bird will often disappear around the back of a tree trunk out of sight, before rapidly flying away in characteristic undulating flight.
They seem at their most approachable when preoccupied with feeding on the preferred ant prey. Please note this image below is quite a heavy crop but I have included it for interest it to show the ants on the beak.
Of course their ground feeding habit amongst grass combined with their colouration also adds to the difficulty in spotting the bird in the first place.
Its is a shame they are so difficult locally as they are such a beautiful bird and I have the image in my mind that I am trying to achieved but that has yest to appear on my camera..
My last view of the male bird that day was when it flew up to a tree trunk and I managed to get a couple of frames taken before it disappeared from sight and took off into the distance.
No doubt one day my luck will improve with my nemesis or maybe its time to take some positive steps to improve my chances!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Stoats - Following the Hunt

At the end of the last post we had just left the Stoat family gradually emerging from the rocks after what I assume was a rest after their early morning vole feeding spree. It took a few minutes for the whole family to appear above ground and the general milling around was accompanied by some stretching and 'yawning'.

Then the whole pack took off at speed in search of more food. The group moved as one and had an almost fluid appearance as they moved across the rocks whilst rapidly searching in gaps between boulders for any signs of prey.
I must admit it was difficult to keep up with them (must be getting old :)) and the rate the hunting party covered ground was impressive. They slowed a little as they crossed a small stream. This gave me the opportunity to get well in front and positioned in the hope they would keep heading in the same direction.

Luck was definitely on my side that morning as the Stoat pack crossed the stream once more and headed straight up the bank and towards where I was sitting. Just before they reached me one of the adults stumbled across some prey and instantly reappeared carrying a vole which no doubt had come to a very swift end by these superbly adapted predators.
The vole was dropped on a large rock in front of me, which I assume was the adult trying to get the nearly fully grown young to become more independent.
It was a wonderful experience to observe while the adults continued their hunting around me, seemingly oblivious to my presence and appearing with captured voles from a nest they had located.
The young Stoats still seemed a bit unsure about what they should do and eventually one of the adults picked up the vole and carried it over to them. Obviously they still had some learning ahead of them.
One of the adults decided to then eat eat a vole in front of me, which was undertaken as with all activities in Stoat world, at a very fast pace. This produced some fairly gruesome photographs with the one below being one of the less graphic ones that ended up on my memory card.
Having fed, the Stoats then went to ground once more, leaving the solitary adult on guard duty before that too disappeared.
I decided that as they had just fed so well and the day was progressing, that they would probably now have an extended sleep. So having been privileged to witness such an extended insight in to the world of the Stoat family that morning, it seemed an appropriate time to finish the session and one very happy photographer set off on his journey home.


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