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.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Seven Year Itch for 'Storm Bats'

Regular readers will have noticed I have not updated this blog for a while. There has been a couple of reasons for this. Firstly I thought I needed to have a break to recharge the 'blogging batteries'. After all I have been writing this journal now continuously for 11 years. Secondly I have effectively 'lost' the first 5 years or so of photographs from my musings which as you can imagine I was none to impressed with. This came about as for a period when producing the blog in the early years, I started hosting images on here through Photobucket. Unfortunately, Photobucket has now started charging for 3rd party site hosting and frankly I am not prepared to pay the $400 per year they are now charging that would bring the images back. I could go back through and re-enter all the post images but as you can imagine for a 5 year period this is no small undertaking and probably something I may actually never get round to.

Anyway, I have decided to start blogging once more, and in my 7 month absence have had some wonderful wildlife experiences which I look forward to sharing with you. I will start with the most recent which took place only this week.

I am fortunate to live at the end of the Wirral Peninsula which is probably one of the few and best places in the UK to photograph Leach's Storm Petrel from the shore when the conditions are right. The ideal conditions are strong north-westerly gales for a period of two to three days, ideally couple with some large tides around the middle to end of September. The last time this occurred and big numbers of Leach's Petrel were blown into the shore was way back in 2010. Every September since, I have carefully watched weather and tide conditions hoping and waiting for a repeat performance but it has just not developed. It seemed that every September that came round was accompanied by settled conditions with a lack of the necessary storms. People often ask me how long did you have to wait to get a particular photograph? Often it is not as long as you would imagine but for the Leach's Petrels, the 7 year wait has felt like a very long time.

At the end of last week, I was on my usual September weather watch and it appeared that all the right conditions were suddenly going to converge to bring in goods numbers of Leach's Petrel into the local shore. The winds were right, the tide heights and times were all looking good. Before I get on to some images I will take a few moments to describe why these are such challenging birds to photograph from the shore beyond the waiting for all the right conditions to come together. The Leach's Petrel is a small bird  about the size of a starling and tend to be very erratic in their moments in the onshore gales. To me they often resemble a large bat which is why I call them 'Storm Bats'. The conditions that bring them into shore makes for some tough photography. They require use of long lens that usually need to be handheld to try and keep on the birds, the strong winds buffet both camera and photograph and also this is accompanied by a constant sea spray off the raging sea. The birds appear and disappear within the rolling breakers and twist and turn as they try and battle their way back out to sea. You have to admire these birds that appear so small and delicate but apparently totally fearless in these conditions as they characteristically patter across the turbulent water surface. Below are a couple of images to give you an idea of the conditions that birds and photographers are battling with.

So on to the session itself, I left home at lunchtime on Monday and after a couple of minutes drive and I was at the mouth of the River Mersey. Groups of birdwatchers were parked up or huddled in groups against the Perch Rock Fort out of the pummelling wind looking for these elusive birds. A chat with a couple of them confirmed that the Leach's Petrel were appearing. This meant they would slowly make their way along the north coast of the Wirral as the tide dropped. I moved on further along the coast to park at the top of an embankment where I spotted around a few birds struggling their way through the waves, however too distant for photography. However, if the birds were here it should mean they would hit the shore at my favourite spot which is where I headed to next. My friend Steve arrived quickly followed by a sharp downpour of rain which was whipped horizontally by the onshore winds. However, the skies then cleared and we started to get some good light as the first of the Leach's Petrel made it way along the edge. Over the next 2.5 hours we had around 20 birds pass close to where we were stood, sometimes too close, allowing us both to make some of our favourite Leach's Petrel images to date. The will be many images below as all my previous images of these wonderful birds from back in 2010 have currently disappeared in the Photobucket 'black hole'.

So will I have to wait another 7 years before the next petrels to appear? Well possibly not. With the series of hurricanes currently battering the east coast of the USA it may be possible that remnants of these storms may wind their way across the North Atlantic bringing more birds into shore. As usual during the rest of September, I will be keep a close eye on the weather with the hope of another encounter with these wonderful ocean wanderers.


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