Saturday, July 28, 2012

Hungary for Birds - Day 4: Stunning Storks

This is a continuation of my previous post which saw us sat in a hide in front of a small open pool in the middle of the grassland plains of eastern Hungary. For me the star birds of the days were the storks but before I get to them an for completeness I will just post a couple of other species that visited the pond.

Late in the day a Night Heron appeared briefly. I suspect if we has stayed later into the evening more and more of these birds would have arrived. The bird landed on a log and stared with those large penetrating red eyes adapted to feeding in low light conditions.
Clearing up the remnants of fish left around the from the feeding of the large birds were a couple of opportunistic Hooded Crows. Corvids are such intelligent birds especially when there is a free or easy meal on offer.
I have seen storks previously in my wanderings around Europe but they have always been perched up high on their huge nests on a building. When I was making the plans for our trip to Hungary I had a reasonable idea of the range of species I was likely to be photographing but Storks did not appear in the list so this day was a real bonus and a treat. So I make no apology for the number of stork images to follow. We had five White Storks in front of us throughout most of the day. They are an impressively large bird with their striking colour combination of black, white and red.
We had the birds right up to the hide and peering in through the special one-way glass.
The stork fishing technique is interesting and surprisingly effective and involves repeatedly stabbing the water until the bill makes contact with a fish.
The fish is then carried to the side of the pond and repeatedly stabbed until it sufficiently subdued to be swallowed.
The white undersides of the White Storks were generally quite mud stained and one bird made a rather half-hearted attempted at bathing before moving to the side of the pond to shake the excess water off its sodden feathers.
My last photo is of one in flight and as I suspected the carrying of a baby in a blanket is a myth, unless it was just the wrong time of year for that :).
The White Storks were good but it got better as the majority of Storks in front of us were of the black variety a much less common bird. I have seen Black Storks in Zoos and have always stopped to photograph them as they have an amazing iridescence to their plumage. What a joy it was to have 17 wild birds in front of us going about their daily basis. One of the younger birds was ringed with the word 'Poland' clearly stamped on the metal band. I must admit I spent a good proportion of the day photographing these birds as I suspect such opportunities are rare.  I will start of with a couple of portraits of the bird to give you an idea how beautiful they are.
Moving on to some of the action. In flight these birds are impressively large with their huge broad wings that they use for gliding on their long distance migrations. This is a juvenile and young adult birds coming in to the pond.
No fish in the pool was safe when these birds arrived and they moved en mass repeatedly from one end to the other. Fish were being captured all over and a few days of this and I expect there would not have been many left. The appetite of these birds seemed inexhaustible as one large fish after another disappeared between those bright red bills. A series of images below give a small impression of this fish eating frenzy.
Even the birds in juvenile plumage showed a similar voracious appetite and it was not always the prettiest of sights as the young birds tried to swallow large fish whole.
As you can see from this post and the last, which only contain a proportion of the images taken on the day, it had been another amazing and productive in Hungary. As we sat in the hide in the early evening it looked like the sun was about to put in an appearance but in the distance we heard the low rumble of the 4x4 engine making its way across the plains to collect us. The sudden departure of the all the birds indicated our driver had arrived and we could finally leave the hide and back out in to fresh air. This is a day that will remain in my memory for many years to come and I felt almost numb immediately after the experience as we drove back to the hotel because the whole episode had been almost too much to take in.

Plans for the next day were made. A good meal later, a shower, images backed-up and then straight to a welcoming comfortable bed for some well earned rest before the nest day's adventures.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hungary for Birds - Day 4: Big Bird Bonanza

I woke in the middle of the night to a familiar sound from the UK, that of heavy rainfall outside. Its looked like the forecast for the fourth day of being less than favourable weather was going to be correct. I drift back into sleep for what seemed like a moment before the alarm clock burst in to life. A couple of coffees later and we were waiting in a puddled filled car park under grey skies to be collected for the day's photography in what was known as the 'Egret Hide'.

A short drive later and we came off the main road and bumped our way along a dirt track across the grassland plains. A small tree line in the distance marked our destination and as we drew near a number of large birds took flight and glide off to land several fields away. In the middle of the grassland was a small muddy pool approximately 60 metres long by 25 metres wide with two hides set at one end. One of the hides was only used for winter Crane photography and we took up our position in the other.

Each of the hides in Hungary has its own specific set of rules to prevent disturbance to the birds. The rule for this hide was that you couldn't leave it until our driver returned in the evening. He pointed to a bottle and bucket in the corner and we were told to use as the call of nature demanded.

I am going to split this day across two blog posts otherwise it will be a post with a huge number of images from what proved to be another very productive day in Hungary. For this first post I will concentrate on three of the day's species Grey Herons, Great White Egret and Spoonbill. The others I will save for my next post.

The pool in front of us had been emptied of birds by our arrival, so while we waited for their return Gerhard decided to have a snooze to catch up on some sleep. The repeated early mornings were starting to sap our energy levels. It was not long before the first bird swooped in in the shape of a Grey Heron, then another appeared and another until there were seven birds poised in motionless stances around the pool.

A large black shape glided across the surrounding plains and came in to land like a stalling barn door, the first Black Stork had arrived. Over the next 5 minutes this was joined by a further 17 young non-breeding Black Storks ranging in colour from young to adult plumage together with 5 White Storks, A Great White Egret and a Spoonbill. The small pond was now very crowded with these large fish-eating birds looking for breakfast and they all went on an early morning fishing spree. This was not a good place to be a fish and Crucian carp of between 15 to 30 cms in length were being pulled out all over the small lake.

It was interesting to compare the different fishing techniques of the birds. The storks walked purposely up and down stabbing the water to the left and right until they made contact with a fish. The herons stood motionless waiting for a movement in the water at which to lunge their attack. The spoonbill waded up and down the lake scything its long bill backwards and forwards through the water until it made contact with its scaly snack. The Great White Egret just followed the Spoonbill around and chased it until it dropped the fish it had just caught. As you can imagine given this high density of large birds the inevitable squabbles broke out between birds whenever a fish was caught. Hopefully you now have a picture in your mind of the scene so I better post some photos starting off with a familiar bird from home, the Grey Heron.

We had brief heavy showers through the day.
Another carp bites the dust. I have not seen a heron stab a fish like this before but when you have three Black Storks in pursuit any method of carrying the fish away to safely eat will do.
It was good to finally get up close to a Great White Egret. I have seen these birds on a couple of occasions in the UK, and they have successfully bred here  the first time this year in Somerset. Hopefully a sign of greater numbers being around in the future. I have also seen these birds in Mallorca, however on both occasions they have always been a little distant for my liking. On this occasion they were often too close being right in front of the hide, so that all you could fit in frame was a head.
Preening those long breeding feathers during a brief down pour.
They are elegant looking birds in flight.
Spoonbills are another bird I have seen in the UK but only at a distance that is too far away to photograph. Again I had an encounter in Mallorca with a young bird which provided my first photographs of this species. I am not sure what it is about Spoonbill but I must admit I find them very appealing birds. The Spoonbill that visited the Hungarian hide was in full breeding colours with a yellow tipped bill, red and and yellow throat patch and apricot coloured shoulder band. There could have been three Spoonbills but this bird made sure no others used the pond by chasing them away every time they tried to land.
Again this bird came incredibly close, unaware of the photographers concealed behind the one-way glass of the hide. It was great to see that amazing ridged paddle bill in close-up.

Despite the weather it was turning in to another special day in Hungary. For me the real star birds of the day were the Black Storks, a species I have only previously admired in zoos, and which will be the main focus of my next post.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Hungary for Birds - Day 3: Close encounters of the Fox kind

As we sat in the drinking pool hide, the temperature started to increase in the afternoon and there was a mid-afternoon lull in activity. My companion Gerhard decided to make the most of the quiet moment and indulge himself in a bit of a siesta to recharge his batteries after the early morning start. I decided to stay awake and on 'lookout' duty just in case something unusual happened to arrive.

I sat their watching flies buzzing around across the surface of the tranquil woodland pool, serenaded  by the exquisite song of a distant Nightingale in woodland behind which could just be heard above the slow snoring from the corner of the hide. I must admit I was struggling to stay awake myself when the head of young fox appeared at the end of the pool which immediately jolted me back in to life.

The opportunity to photograph foxes occurs fairly infrequently and is always a real pleasure. They are such attractive and photogenic animals. However, occasionally they are in very poor condition but this one was in good condition. This young one had obviously decided to visit the pool to quench its thirst. It is at moments like this when you wish you had decided to pack another lens. For the trip I had only brought my 300 and 500mm lenses and what I really needed now for a fox at such close quarters was the flexibility of the 70-200mm. So I had to make do with the 300mm which met the need while the fox was at the far end but left me only able to take head photos as it came closer to the hide. Close it did come with its nose pressed up against the special one way glass at one point.

The fox did not stay long before disappearing back in to the undergrowth so we decided to see if we could entice it back with a bit of chicken from one of the sandwiches. Half an hour later it put in another appearance and got a free snack for its efforts.
So this post really finishes off Day 3 in Hungary, a busy but enjoyable and relaxing session with a great variety of birds and the magic of the fox. Back at the hotel in the evening the plans were hatched for the next day's photography. The weather forecast was not looking promising with some rain forecast and overcast skies so it was decided that we spend the following day photographing some much large birds in what was known as the 'Egret hide' which will be the subject of my next post. My camera shutter finger was already twitching in anticipation.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Hungary for Birds - Day 3: Reflective Bathing

We returned to the hotel after our productive first day in the Tower Hide and the plan was made for the following day's photography. Given that some rain was forecast for the day after the next it seemed sensible to try the Bathing Pool Hide. After a good meal we made our preparations for the next day. When you are on a photography trip the day does not end when you get back to hotel as there are images to download and back-up, batteries to charge, lens to clean etc. I certainly slept well that night.

An early start the at dawn saw us heading further east to an area of woodland just outside the second largest city in Hungary, Debrecen. In the UK we tend to use food to attract birds but in dry areas water can be equally if more attractive for the birds to drink and bathe in to keep their feathers in good condition. The quick draining sandy soils of eastern Hungary makes water a premium and an established pool in the right location can attract a large number of birds from a wide range of species.

I will just take a moment to describe the hide which was accessed down a short track in to the forest. The hide itself was set in to the ground in front of a slightly raised pool of around 5.5 metres in length. This effectively puts the photographer at water level. The pool tapers in width from the hide to the narrower far end, where water spills over like an infinity swimming pool. The sides of the pool were vertical with logs placed on top to create a significant height above the water. The effect of this design is to concentrate all the bird activity in to a small area at the end of the pool. A small clearing was present in the forest beyond the far end of the pool to provide clean backgrounds to the resulting photos.  Such a set up can provide perfect reflections although on the day these were disrupted by a slight breeze rippling the water surface.

Before we settled in to the hide, we made some adjustments to the set-up and laid some moss covered bark at the far end. Within 10 minutes the first birds were arriving. Like a feeding station, the birds came in waves  and as soon as the first appeared it would be joined by many others, no doubt on the basis of safety in numbers from predators like Sparrowhawks.Quiet periods in the day were therefore punctuated by frenzied photography.

The sun beamed down for most of the day creating some quite tricky light conditions as it filtered through the canopy of the forest behind the hide, keeping both us very busy adjusting camera settings to keep a grip of the constantly changing exposure values. So having given you all the background I guess its time to show you some photos of the birds which include some species that were new to me. Given the variety of birds that came through the day I will only show one of two images of each species, and I will not show all of them or this will turn into a very, very long post.

The first birds to arrive were Song Thrush which wasted no time in getting down to the important job of bathing.

The small and highly energetic Blackcap. This was a bird I was going to concentrate on this spring but never got round to it.
Taking a dip.
Usually Blackcap photography is frustrating due to the birds love of lurking in undergrowth so it was good to have them out in the open and I also managed to get my first photos of the brown-capped female.
A female Collared Flycatcher visited regularly but we only had one visit from the black and white male, which had worn  plumage and not looking its best. The male also visited late in the day when the light had become particularly tricky, especially when trying to a pied bird.
Some more familiar birds were amongst the new. These included Jay.
Yellowhammer and Great Spotted Woodpecker.
I will move on to what for me were the 'star' birds of the day. We had a brief visit from a pair of Turtle Dove, which obviously had not been given away to some true love last Christmas ;).These beautiful birds are now sadly a rare sight in the UK.
Throughout the day, we could see a Red-backed Shrike perched in the a tree at the edge of the clearing at the far end of the pool. We were both willing the bird to come in to the pool which it only did once, and very briefly, and landed along the raised side of the pool. Its not the greatest photo, and I will obviously need to return to Hungary to improve upon it :), but my first of the species which is now extinct as a breeding bird in the UK.
A bird which arrived quite late in the day was the beautiful songster, the Nightingale. A bird which I have only previously caught fleeting glimpses but know its liquid song well.

To finish off this post, I have saved one of my favourite birds of the day until last, the Hawfinch. I have wanted to photograph this bird for a long time but it is a difficult and scarce species in the UK with only a couple of distant sites where there are some possible photo opportunities during the winter. We were spoilt with young, females and males all visiting the pool regularly throughout the day.

A young bird.
Female drinking.
The more colourful males.
Sun bathing birds often look slightly strange but this is particularly the case for Hawfinch.
As this is only a small selection of photos from the day, you can see we had a very busy time. The day also brought our only very close encounter with a mammal in Hungary which I will save for the next instalment.


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