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.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Exploring Extremadura - Days 1 and 2am: The Vultures Descend

Back in mid-April, I headed off on my annual overseas trip. Having spent the last two trips in cold places, Iceland and Arctic Norway, I decided this year I would head southwards and to warmer and sunnier climes. So starting about 6 months before the trip arrangements were made for a trip for myself and my friend Steve Round to spend 10 days in Extremadura and the surrounding areas in Spain. For those of you who have not heard of this area, it is about 1.5 -2 hours drive South-West of Madrid. An area of mountains and expansive steppe grasslands that is renowned for its diversity and abundance of bird life.

The plan for the holiday was a flight from Madrid, pick up a hire car, drive down to Calera y Chozas which would be our base for the stay. The first 5 days would be spent photographing birds from some hides setup and operated by Hides de Calera and the remaining days would be spent wandering the hills and farmland to see what birds we could find. Regular readers will know I am not a great fan of fixed hides but they are a means to an end.

Equipment for the trip would be a Canon 1dx2, Canon 5dmk4, 600mm II F4 lens, 100-400 II lens with both the 1.4x and 2x extenders. A tripod, monopod, skimmer, and a Uniqball head completed the setup. Of course this was combined with the usual laptop and double portable drive back up.

The day of departure was a fairly relaxed affair as we had a late afternoon Easyjet departure from Liverpool to Madrid. This was fairly stress free with the speedy boarding, extra leg-room seats and easy hand luggage restrictions for the photography equipment. All went smoothly and we were soon collecting our luggage at Madrid. Collecting the hire car was a long-drawn out aware as the hire company insisted on photographically recording every minute dent and paintwork scratch on the Opal Mokka. We were soon on the road but it took a couple of laps of the complicated road system around the airport before we hit the right road towards our destination. It took a little while to find our hotel once we reached Calera y Chozas at around 11:30 pm, mainly because we had driven right past it in the dark. Our accommodation for the 10 nights was the low cost Hostal Restaurante Cuatro Caminos. Our rooms were large and clean but rather spartan.

Once in my room, I quickly sorted out my stuff and got a pile of clothes and the camera equipment ready for the next day as we would be getting picked up around 5:30am for the first hide session. I got into bed, slightly weary from the travel, to find the walls gently vibrating to some extremely loud snoring coming from a room two doors away down the corridor. I could only guess how loud it must have been in Steve's room next door. Outside, a Scoops Owl started its monotone repeated call...which went on for most of the night as I drifted in and out of a restless sleep. I never sleep well anywhere on the first night.

The phone's alarm rattled into life at 5am and could just about be heard above the snoring rumble. I was quickly dressed and downstairs and managed to grab a quick coffee and a pre-packed choc-au-pain for breakfast. Steve and I joined two other photographers in the darkness outside the front of the hotel and after a short wait two cars arrived to collect us. The hide session for the morning would primarily be aimed at vultures and other birds that arrived at a feed site around 50 minutes drive to the north. It looked like we would be in for a morning of good weather and light. We came off the main road and headed up a track that wound its way through rough grazing pasture before arriving at two small hides. The hides were situated at the edge of a large meadow with a back drop of the snow-topped Gredos mountains. Jose had explained that the flowering of the meadow has been inhibited by a recent prolonged dry spell.

Steve and I were allocated the left hand hide which I was pleased with as we had an attractive patch of flowering lavender to the left together with various old bits of tree stumps for the birds to perch on. This was the scene in front of the hide.

 As we settled in to the hide, Jose emptied and spread a dustbin of meat scraps around the area in front of the two hides. All we had to now was wait for the birds to arrive and it didn't take long. The first birds to arrive where White Stork and we soon had a dozen birds strutting around picking of bits of meat scrap in front of the hide. The soft early light making it easier to get a nice exposure on the the extensive white of these birds. I have photographed Stork previously, and it is always challenging to find a nice clean bird but there were a couple amongst the group.

Next to arrive, where half a dozen Ravens and a number of Black Kites. The ravens, although a large bird, seemed strangely dwarfed by the birds around them and arriving.

Typically the Kites were tending to swoop down and grab pieces of meat from the ground but we did manage to a couple of perches that stopped briefly to perch.

By this point we could see the vultures were circling in and descending downward into the site. They were landing away from the feed area and numbers were now quickly building  to around 80 birds with a 50 / 50 mix of Griffon Vulture and the larger Cinereous Vulture. It seemed that the numbers of vulture needed to build before they got sufficient 'courage' to move in on the food by foot.  These are massive and impressive birds.

Starting off with a selection of the Griffon Vultures.....

....and the larger Cinereous Vulture

After a short frenzied feeding spell by the birds, everything quietened down and the majority of vultures seemed to go into sun-bathing mode soaking up the early morning rays. After a while they started to slowly disperse presumably to take advantage of the developing thermals in the rapidly increasing temperature. However, the departure of the birds  did give some nice opportunities for some low level flight photographs as these birds require a long 'runway' to get airborne.

In the late morning, we heard the sound of  an approaching vehicle up the farm track and it was time to depart. It had been enjoyable and productive start of our Spanish trip. Arriving back at the hotel we sorted out the camera gear and photo downloading and backup before heading out into the midday sun to find some well needed lunch. While we were out we popped into the local supermarket and stocked up on some food and drink supplies for the week ahead. There was just time for a quick siesta to make up for the relatively early start before heading out for an evening session with some bee-eaters which will be the subject of my next post.


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