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.


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