Hello & Welcome!

This is the new home for my online Blog, I'll update and add to it from time to time with posts of interest to me, and hopefully that will interest you also!
This is yet another learning curve to me, so hopefully there will be various improvements as I go along in areas of layout, variety of content, narrative and hopefully photographic imagery - Please revisit and comment as often as you like :)

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Sealife camera workshop

Being a keen birdwatcher, wildlife enthusiast and enjoying photography is a great blend for me, and regularly gets me into the great outdoors, away from the hustle and bustle of my regular job. Being in a birding group gives me an opportunity to extend my birding knowledge, and visit new areas, but improving my camera abilities is largely hit and miss. Every now and then I take the opportunity to go on a day-course workshop with a wildlife photographer, sometimes alone, and sometimes, as yesterday, with a like-minded friend. 

Our venue was the NE coast, Bempton Cliffs RSPB - one of my favourite Seabird colonies, and Filey Brigg - a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI or triple SI), most of which is a country park a mile north of Filey, extending into the North Sea from Carr Naze along a peninsula of Limestone and Sandstone, with 15m cliffs and sea-swept rocky coastline - ideal habitat for waders as the tide turns.

Due to the tides, we headed into Filey, and out on to the Brigg first (getting cut off here is a real hazard for the unwary!) and were rewarded with a slowly receding tide and incoming waders making the most of invertebrates exposed as the water dropped. Initially the weather was calm with good light, and Steve Race of Yorkshire Coast Nature, our workshop leader, helped us with camera settings to make the most of the habitat and conditions. There is a local Filey Brigg Ornithology Group with a manned hide on the Brigg, for anyone who would like more information on the seasonal birds and wildlife.

There were several Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), already moulting out their resplendent summer plumage, but still strikingly colourful as they scavenged amongst the seaweed covered rock.

A few Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) were also spotted. These three species were ideally placed, we had the sun high to our right, making for idea subject lighting.

More of a challenge were a small colony of Grey Seals - Halichoerus grypus meaning "hooked-nosed sea pig"- Not a very fetching name for our largest carnivore, or one of our cutest!

Their curiosity, almost human faces and pure laid-back indifference make them a great subject to take images of. This group of 10 or so, from a UK population of around 120,000, were unfazed by the small group of people taking pictures of them from as close as 10' - although there was always a channel or inlet between us and them.

The Greys are the most numerous of the UK seals, and feed on a wide variety of prey – fish, shellfish, squid and octopus. They are opportunistic feeders, and will eat whatever is available, including cod, herring, flounder, salmon, mackerel, sandeel, shrimp and whelk. Their fishy diet often brings them into conflict with fishermen and drowning in fishing nets is occasionally an unfortunate consequence of this. Grey seals were the first mammals to be protected by modern legislation with the Grey Seals Protection Act of 1914.

Following lunch at an excellent local cafe & tearoom, where Steve also has a photography exhibition, we headed out to Bempton. Our Birding group had ventured over to Bempton in June, and the change was astonishing. The Razorbills and Guillemot had gone as had, we were assured, the Puffins - the one bird we had hoped to be able to get shots of with their young. 

The Gannets were still here in good numbers, although nowhere near the vast flocks which had been around less than 8 weeks previously - definitely a huge benefit for the nostrils, if nothing else!

Here and there along the cliffs a pair of Gannets were still tending a huge, and very fluffy youngster and as we watched we were advised on how to sex adult Gannets, the feet of the male have a turquoise/greeny blue line along back of each toe, whereas those of the female are a more yellowy-green.

Also still around were one of the prettiest of the 'gulls', the RSPB page describes them as 'Gentle looking', they are the Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla). Around 8% of the world population live in UK waters, although they are in serious decline, which has been attributed to a shortage of their food supply of sand eels, krill and small surface feeding fish.

In view of their struggling numbers, it was good to see several young Kittiwake on the cliffs. These young Kittiwakes were much further advanced than the straggling Gannet chicks, and could be regularly seen taking off and doing ever increasing circular tours of the cliffs. Getting good shots of airborne birds is a skill I have still to work at, but I took the opportunity here, and was reasonably happy with the results. After choosing one of the 9 Canon focal points, the trick is to try and get it, and hold it, on the eye of an unpredictably moving target..

Young Kittiwakes have very distinctive markings, with a black fore-edge to their wings, and a similar black edge to their tail feathers, and a shirt-collar across the back of their necks.

An area I have struggled with in the past has been holding detail and definition on white (or black) birds, where too much light burns out detail, and too little (on black) causes it to fill in and become just a white or black, blob. Again, taking advice from Steve, and tweaking the settings, I combined trying to get flight shots with holding detail, and was happy with this shot of an airborne adult Gannet. 

Despite being assured by our Guide and mentor-for-the-day that the Puffins "Had all left", we found one solitary bird, perched just below one of the viewing areas.
After allowing us ample time to take several shots, this single individual too headed out to sea for the winter. It brought home to me just how little time these tiny (26-29cm) birds spend on the cliffs, back in June we had been assured that, due to the lateness of the season and appalling weather conditions, very few of these colourful little characters had arrived. In the intervening 8-9 weeks, they had arrived, nested, mated, laid eggs, reared their young to fledging, and headed out to sea once again.

We had gradually become aware that the temperature had dropped and time was rolling on so, we too headed off, back to our cars for our return journeys.

I'd like to thank Steve Race for a very enjoyable, entertaining and informative day out. Much was learned, and hopefully remembered. I look forwards to joining another of his workshops in the not too distant future.


Sunday, 30 June 2013

Talk to the tail - A few friends and a trip to Leighton Moss RSPB

Leighton Moss RSPB

The end of June should be a time of blazing sunshine, fledglings & wildflowers, so a trip to the RSPB reserve at Leighton Moss in the Lake District was full of promise. But as we know, Spring is running late this year!

The bird count started as soon as I parked up with Collared Dove and a very cheeky Robin putting the first appearances. The new ‘touch garden’ to the rear of the reception building is a very pleasant addition to this reserve, being an ideal meeting and eating area.
En route to the first hide and the first of the fledglings was seen - a brown speckled Robin being escorted by one of its parents. It was along this section that a Chiff-chaff was also heard calling. All the hides at LM seem to have been replaced or refurbished since my last visit, and at Lillians Hide there was a live-feed link from a Marsh Harrier nest somewhere out in the vast reed-beds, close-ups of a chick being fed providing a good talking point amongst the gathered birdwatchers. 

Seeing several adults patrolling the reeds from various vantage points during the course of the day was a real treat. The noisome Black-headed Gulls were extremely vocal during throughout the trip and they seemed to have young in all stages of development, from fluffy chicks to fully fledged juveniles. 

From Tim Jackson Hide we saw Grey Heron, Little Egret, Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing, & Greylag Goose before being treated to excellent views of one of the reserves female Red Deer gracefully waded across the shallow water between the standing reeds.

Walking along the causeway out to Griesdale Hide a Reed Warbler was heard singing clearly and after several minutes it ventured high enough up the 6’+ growth of reeds to give good views. 
Once in the hide an adult Moorhen was escorting 2 tiny black fluffy chicks across the mud-flat area directly in front of the windows whilst an adult Coot with a huge single ‘chick’ emphasised just how mixed up the seasons have been this year. From here two Mute Swans also gave good views, whilst further out a Reed Bunting was picked out in the distance, as were Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Teal, and Gadwall already in eclipse plumage. Small numbers of Swift were also seen. It was from here that emotions became mixed as one of the Marsh Harriers was clearly seen making a distant kill, and carrying it’s (unidentified) prey off to an awaiting family. Walking back through the wooded area we had good views of Tree-creeper and both Great & Blue Tit feeding their respective fledglings.

Lunch-break was taken near the feeding station back at the Scented /touch garden and we were plagued by Mallard whilst watching Great Tit, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Willow Tit, Bullfinch, Greenfinch, Nuthatch, Chaffinch & a Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker all availed themselves of an ample supply of free food.

After lunch, the sun finally broke through as we headed out towards Jenny Brown’s Point and whilst walking, were buzzed by good number of Swallows as the adults strove to feed their fledglings perched on the barbed wire fences. 

A Buzzard was spotted circling above the distant wooded hillside & Shelduck could be seen out towards the incoming tide-line. Carrion Crow were spotted in the fields amongst the grazing sheep and Lapwing were again seen here although in lower numbers. Oystercatcher were first heard and eventually spotted with their distinctive plumage. A Pheasant was also heard calling from the woods and a Skylark was heard as we walked back to the car park where another Greenfinch was seen singing. As we walked out towards Allen Hide, large numbers of nest boxes were spotted to the far side of the fields, hopefully they will serve to attract Tree Sparrows in the not too distant future, sadly there was no sign of activity in them this year. It was along this section that Red-backed Shrike had been reported only 2 days previously, but our only find was a young Whitethroat, perched high on an Elder twig. Allen Hide proved disappointing with a small colony of Black-Headed Gulls having taken up noisy residence, a single Redshank and a sleeping Oystercatcher being the extent of our spots. 
Onwards to Eric Morecambe Hide, and the incoming tide seemed to have pushed a few more waders inland. 
Good numbers of Redshank, Lapwing and Black-tailed Godwit and Pied Wagtail all gave excellent views before we again headed for the cars. As we walked back along the path a scattered group of fledgling Sedge Warblers were spotted less than 3’ from the path and afforded several excellent photo opportunities – for me this was the highlight of the day. 
Leaving the young to be fed, a Wren was briefly spotted in a small wooded corner before a Goldfinch was seen high on a bough and a Curlew flew overhead calling loudly. Heading off towards the Public Hide, I spotted a fearsome-looking Diving Beetle nymph (Dytiscus Marginalis) on the path, probably dropped by one of the avian inhabitants. Once at the hide we saw only more BH Gulls before venturing to the furthest vantage point on the reed-beds at Lower Hide. Along the path we commented on the high numbers of yellow Flag Iris, wild Orchids, Ragged Robin and Angelica. Once at the hide we found Cormorant and had more good views of Sedge Warbler before one of the resident Marsh Harriers came over. A Sand Martin was also seen amidst a large number of hunting Swifts but no one else managed to pick it out. Heading back to the cars before departing, a young Magpie gave good views as it sat in a path-side tree.

45 spots and 3 ‘heards’. All in all, not a bad days birding!


Sunday, 9 June 2013

Bempton Cliffs

And so Spring 2013 comes around, finally, the inland migrants have well and truly arrived. The seabirds however seemed very late coming in to nest and reports of low Puffin numbers were causing particular concern all around the UK coast. It was therefore with some trepidation that I ventured over to the famous Gannet colony at Bempton Cliffs near Scarborough on the first weekend in June.

The weather report was promising, a late arriving Spring was actually feeling very summery, and the previous few days had seen glorious sunshine across the country.

On the winding roads en route to Bempton, a small bird perched on the telegraph wires drew our attention.
 It was a 'lifer' for me, my first ever Yellowhammer! Just a shame that the promised sunshine hadn't arrived in time to highlight his brilliant colouring!

But Bempton is all about Gannets, the immense cliffs provide both nest sites and up-draughts, for these fantastic birds to soar and glide effortlessly. The suspense rises as you walk from the car park towards the cliff path - you can smell seabird colonies from a great distance! We weren't going to be disappointed, and as we neared the edge,  birds could clearly be seen circling as they returned to their territories.

Juvenile Gannets are clearly identifiable by the black markings on their wings and backs, although this one seemed to be sporting more black than most!

Amongst the many Gannets were a small number of Fulmar, and although I have been to Bempton previously I don't recollect seeing them before.

The buildings at Bempton are home to a growing colony of Tree Sparrows, and the clay roof-tiles are honeycombed with small holes which these charming little birds have commandeered for nesting in!

Such a huge expanse of cliff space is a very des-res for more than just Gannets, and Razorbill are also present in good numbers, the elegant white pin-stripe markings along the beak are a dead give-away to ID'ing these birds.

Guillemots on the other hand lack the white markings of Razorbills, and have an altogether more streamlined beak and chiselled 'eyebrow' in their chocolate brown head and back plumage.

Spring is surely the best time to hear and see birds in their prime, immaculate plumage displaying the heightened colours required to attract a mate are eye-catching in many of our often overlooked 'garden' birds, but this male Chaffinch was showing himself well less than 15' from us!

 We'd heard rumours of low Puffin counts from various sources before we arrived at Bempton, but the Puffins themselves clearly hadn't read those reports - a good number of these colourful & comical looking little birds were charging backwards and forwards to their roosts or perching precariously on seemingly impossibly narrow ledges!

Despite the earlier rumours of "only one" or "only a couple" It was thankfully clear that these charming little birds were merely another of the many 'late arrivals' for the chaotic and disjointed 2013 breeding season.

Bempton Cliffs is surely one of my favourite sea-birding venues, being able to get so close to such huge numbers of our most iconic seabirds is a true privledge. One that I hope to be able to return to time and again, for many years to come.