Sunday, 14 September 2014

Hastings celebrations

This weekend I've been in Hastings to help my father celebrate his 83rd birthday. So a fish and chip supper was in order, and that was very nice. This morning I headed out early to have a look along the seafront. It was sunny and a little breezy. The tide was on its way out, and I headed towards the rocky bit east of Rock-a-nore beach, where there used to be a sign gently discouraging people from going further because of the risk of rockfalls from the sandstone cliffs above. I found that the gentle sign has been replaced by an altogether more robust one, saying (in as many words) 'no, really, don't do it, there have been lots of actual rockfalls in the last few months', so I didn't.

Oh well. There are always Herring Gulls.

Juvenile Herring Gulls...

Adult (scruffy) Herring Gulls...

Flying Herring Gulls...

.... and health and safety inspector Herring Gulls. I like those very graphic warning images. It's just occurred to me that the person falling into the deep water also looks like he's being strangled by a python.

You can usually find a few Turnstones on the beach at Hastings, though they are not super-common and in-your-face the way they are at some other seaside towns. This one was on the wall that marks the edge of the 'sudden drop' warned of in the sign above, so I couldn't nip round the other side and photograph it with better light.

I could, however, photograph it with worse light.

I began to walk towards the fishing boats, but the Great Black-backed Gulls were all taking flight before I got anywhere near them, so I turned back, and made my way to the harbour arm via the non-shoreline route, behind the boats.

Once I got to the harbour arm, I walked along its eastern side and photographed some of the many Acorn Barnacles that live on its walls below the high water mark.

The Remains of the Dogfish. I think it has a certain grim beauty. Or maybe it's just grim.

Further up the beach, a few Carrion Crows were feeding. This one's bizarre shape-throwing as it came in to land was accentuated by the fact that it's moulting its innermost secondaries, turning its wings into feathery ping-pong bats.

Looking back across the fishing-boats bit of the beach at this point, I noticed a man walking down to the shore, escorted by a huge swirling throng of gulls. The reason for their interest became apparent when I saw he was carrying a bucket, the fishy contents of which he chucked out for the gulls to enjoy.

Then I walked around the boating lake, where I have on occasion found Wheatears at this time of year, checking out the little ornamental gardens and grassy patches. Today, no Wheatears, just a skittish flock of House Sparrows including this young male. There were migrants around though - a light passage of Swallows was going through, heading east, perhaps to the lauchpad of Dungeness.

Then I walked up to the top of the East Hill to the start of the Country Park, to have a look over the Old Town and see if anything interesting flew past.

Something interesting promptly did fly past - this juvenile Sparrowhawk which gave me lovely albeit not very close eye-level views until a Jackdaw went for it and sent it diving for cover.

The Swallow passage continued, with probably 100 birds in little groups going through over the half-hour I was there. I didn't manage any photos of them at all, but did get these passing Chaffinches.

Closer at hand, this Red Admiral joined the many bees and wasps making full use of the flowering ivy.

Things were otherwise rather quiet. No sign of any Ravens. Apart from the Swallows, 'vis mig' was limited to half a dozen Meadow Pipits. I decided to see how the D700 liked trying to photograph small, fast-moving subjects against a busy background. It seems to like it quite a lot.

It was starting to look a bit threateningly cloudy, and it was also getting towards mid-morning and time for dad and I to go for a stroll, so I plodded back down the very long stretch of steps, looking over the edge to photograph this fishing boat and attendant gulls on the way.

This is the outside of a house near dad's, which I include just because I think it looks nice. Has mid-September always been this flowery?

Friday, 12 September 2014


Today, I decided on a crazy whim to go to Oare Marshes. It was a sunny day (though breezy) and, excitingly, I have a new camera to put through its paces. New's the wrong word, actually. It's a secondhand and bargain-tastic D700 - it's been well-used but, as far as I can see, well cared-for. After using a borrowed D700 on the Farnes back in June, and being very impressed with its no-noise sensor in the grottiest light, I've been hankering after one for myself. Actually I would have liked the newer D800 even more but it's way, way out of my price range, whereas the D700 I just bought cost less than my (also secondhand) D300 did.

Oare was probably a bad choice to try the D700 on birding shots as you are just that little bit too far from the action, but I fancied seeing some nice waders and I did get a few opportunities to try the D700 on some birds as well as some other stuff.

There were swarms of Starlings moving between the fields and the marsh, and they went by pretty close at times.

Solo Starling. I am pretty happy with how the lens/camera coped with this speedy passer-by.

And some stationary Starlings. These three are all juveniles going into first-winter plumage, quite a variety of head colours going on there. I wonder if the palest-headed one is actually leucistic.

The East Flood was smothered with waders - tons of Black-tailed Godwits, Avocets, Lapwings and Golden Plovers, garnished with liberal sprinklings of Ruffs, Dunlins and Redshanks, plus a few Curlew Sandpipers and at least one Little Stint. The distance thing meant that there wasn't a lot of point taking photos of any but the nearest, though I did much admiring through bins. This is an uncropped shot of the closest bit of mud, to show what I was dealing with...

... and a crop on that rather nice Ruff. Besides the waders there was wildfowl in the form of Mallards, Gadwalls, Teals and a few Shovelers and Wigeons. I heard rumours of a Pintail but couldn't find it. During the time watching the flood I noted three flyover raptors - a very dark Marsh Harrier, a Kestrel and a Hobby, none of which alarmed any of the waders etc into flight.

It was a low-flying plane that put up the Avocets, and none of the other birds joined them.

This Sedge Warbler was slinking about among the rushes lining the little channel that's between the road and the flood.

There were a few Mallards in the channel too, including this one which provided a handy close target for the camera. Also, rather sadly, there was a dead Mute Swan cygnet (full-grown) in the channel, and it was disconcerting to see the ducks feeding right next to it - can't be great for the water quality. I hope some enterprising fox makes away with it during the night.

I walked the loop along the sea wall as the tide came in, and saw very little, did hear some Beardies in the reeds but saw no sign of them.

On the bridge just beyond the seawatching hide was this juvenile Swallow, along with one of its siblings or schoolfriends. It's weird and rather humbling to think that this little, cross-looking scrap will shortly be flying to southern Africa. The path back along the southern edge of the East Flood delivered a few Linnets and a passing Kingfisher, as well as new viewing angles on not-new waders and ducks on the flood.

I wandered down to the hide overlooking the West Flood, which was so uneventful as to be barely worth mentioning... but it did produce one of the day's few butterflies - a Small Heath. I also saw a couple of Red Admirals and Small/Green-veined Whites. Dragon-wise, there were many Migrant Hawkers and a few Common Darters.

The viewpoint was becoming busy when I got back to it. I went down to the sea wall again and had a sit-down. The Swale was, as usual, full of many nice boats, but this one, 'Josie' was easily the nicest with her radical burgundy sails.

Here I took off the birding lens and put on my... new lens. Yep, I bought a lens - again, it's not really new but secondhand. A 50mm f1.8, it's short enough to be OK for landscapes (well, some landscapes), and hopefully will usher in an exciting new era for my blog as I can show you the places I'm looking at as well as the wildlife in them.

When the birding lens went back on, it was to photograph these sow-thistle (I think) seedheads, because there were No Birds. Seriously, I sat here for some 20 minutes looking out over the Swale (high tide by this point) and saw one Black-headed Gull. I would love to visit here on one of those amazing spells when the weather sends streams of seabirds up the Swale. I wouldn't even ask for a Tufted Puffin, I'd be very happy with some 'normal' auks and a skua or two. But they tend to happen early in the morning and so it probably won't ever happen for me, unless I move house.

I took a last look at the now quieter viewpoint, where the Little Stint was showing nicely.

A Curlew Sandpiper had also wandered into the closest muddy inlet.

Finally a couple of flybys - Lapwing, and a motley crew of Mallards. I and my new camera gear are off to Hastings tomorrow and my mission is to find some rockpool life (though I'm sure I'll end up photographing 10,000 Herring Gulls as well or instead).

Monday, 8 September 2014


No, I haven't discovered a population of gorillas in west Kent.

I am taking part in the Great Gorilla Run on 20th September. It's a 8km run around London... in a massive sweaty gorilla suit... to raise money for the Gorilla Organisation. You can find out more about their work here: And you can find out about the run here (in case you want to come and cheer me on...): Aaaaaaaaaand... if you want to sponsor me for this ridiculous venture, the link to my fundraising page is here:

I did this run nine years ago, in its inaugural year. Back then I was a keen (though slow) runner and did lots of races, up to and including marathons. I took my running semi-seriously, followed training plans, wanted to get personal bests and all that... but the Great Gorilla Run was all about fun, and about doing something good for wildlife. And wildlife doesn't get more impressive or more thought-provoking than gorillas, so like us (or like we would be if we were just a bit more gentle by nature), and so desparately close to extinction because of us.

Some might say that conservation efforts should begin at home, and some others might say that gorillas are a lost cause, too far gone and with too little of their habitat left intact to justify the money spent trying to save them. I can see some sense in these arguments. But I also feel, really strongly, that if we allow our planet's most arresting, iconic animals to slip through our fingers, it will be make the battle to convince people to care about all the rest - and about nature in general including the nature on our doorsteps - a great deal more difficult.

My very first book (this one) was about Mountain Gorillas. It was published 10 years ago, and since then the Mountain Gorilla population has risen from 700ish to nearly 900. Which is great, but it's clear that things are still VERY precarious, with poaching, habitat loss and the threat of civil war in some areas making Mountain Gorilla conservation hugely challenging. Lowland gorillas are in even direr straits - their populations are larger but are falling fast, thanks to the spread of the Ebola virus as well as the usual sorry story of hunting and forest clearance, and they are classed as Critically Endangered.

The last race I ran was the London marathon in 2007. After that race it became clear that I had pretty much wrecked my left achilles tendon and ever since I have struggled to re-establish the running habit, for one reason or another. So the Great Gorilla Run will be my first race for seven years. My achilles tendon is STILL not right and I'm much less fit than I was last time, so I'm not exactly expecting a personal best... but I hope to get around in one piece, rediscover the fun side of running, and to raise a few quid for the gorillas. If any of you feel like sponsoring me I'll be incredibly grateful and so will the gorillas. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Murky, grey and quiet, but better than nowt

Apparently August happened recently, but I missed it. Ditto most of June and July. My poor blog has been badly neglected, for which I apologise. As work is currently not completely overwhelming I thought I would go birding today, and the forecast was very encouraging - it would be sunny, they said. They were in fact lying - it was cloudy, quite misty, rather cool and very still, and stayed that way for the four hours or so I spent at Sevenoaks Nature Reserve.

In the wildlife garden, the Purple Loosestrife around the pond is looking great. The pond itself isn't looking too bad either - it contains water, which is always a bonus at the end of summer.

While I was photographing the various flowers I was aware of woodpeckers calling - a peal of laughter from a passing Green, and the insistent 'kick, kick' of a Great Spotted perched somewhere above. I moved around a bit and then saw it, sitting in a bare bit of a tall tree.

It was clearly too busy saying 'kick' to concentrate properly on balancing, because it nearly fell off its perch.

Then it flew across the garden, and I totally fluked an in-focus flight shot, albeit a vastly underexposed one because I'd dialled back to -1.7 just before to photograph (badly) some backlit fancy grass. Photoshop has rescued it, though I'm left with slightly peculiar colours.

On into Grebe hide, where the willows around the feeding station are beginning to turn, and making for some pretty autumnal shades against which this Blue Tit briefly posed. A flight of Long-tailed Tits went through while a couple of Chaffinches lurked on low branches. Somewhere out of sight a Chiffchaff was chiffchaffing, and somewhere else out of sight a Blackcap was giving a hesitant subsong.

I went to Tyler hide but found little to inspire me there and didn't fancy continuing to Sutton hide, so I turned back and headed for good old Willow hide. There were two 'togs in situ already (not surprising - it's Kingfisher season) so I squeezed into the right-hand corner.

It turned out to be a good spot, as I noticed this Chiffchaff through the side window, busily sorting its plumage out after (presumably) a bath.

The lake itself was VERY quiet. Even the handful of Coots seemed subdued. A subadult Great Crested Grebe, a couple of Mallards, some Canada Geese at the back and this lone Black-headed Gull was about all there was to see.

Then a Kingfisher arrived, or materialised silently (when we were all looking the other way) on one of the two posts available to it this year (the nice walking-stick post has disappeared). It's a bit too far away really but still, lovely to see. It hung around a little while, checking out both posts, and catching a tiny something (possibly an Odonata nymph) before zooming off to the island.

Then the Canada Geese set off. And after that it really was quiet, though I did note a steady back and forth of Jays, the odd Stock Dove among the Woodpigeons, and a Shoveler that took off from some hidden corner of the lake and flew a brisk circuit before heading away to the south.

Then the young grebe flew over and spent a couple of minutes very near the hide. I like the flapping shot because it shows that what we think of as a very slim and streamlined bird is actually quite... porky. It just hides it well (by submerging it).

While we were watching the grebe, the Kingfisher rematerialised. I think it's the same one anyway. Its stay this time was very brief.

Looking out of the side window again, I noticed a kerfuffle going on at ground level on the narrow island on the far right - two Robins having a scrap. The action was obscured by closer vegetation though, so all I can offer is this pic of the apparent victor as it hopped out into the clear and sat on a stump looking noble. That reminds me - have you voted for Britain's National Bird yet?

Two more birders arrived then, and because I was feeling unsociable and curmudgeonly, I left, and went down to one of the swims overlooking the north side of West Lake. Here I noticed a bunch of caddisflies dancing about over the sedges at the water's edge, and decided it would be fun (ie extremely frustrating and arm-achingly painful) to try to photograph them in flight.

As you can see, I was not spectacularly successful in this endeavour.

I wasn't the only one trying to catch a caddis. This smart leggy spider was having no luck either.

A Great Crested Grebe and its tirelessly squeaking chick paddled past, distracting me from caddisfly hell. By the time the grebes had moved away (the adult having caught a big fish which it seemed to want to have for itself, and the baby rushing after it squeaking with even more vigour than before), the caddisfly party was over. I looked out over the lake, where a few House Martins were hunting flies and a few Tufted Ducks were drifting about, watching me warily, and decided it was time to go to Long Lake.

Here I saw my first Migrant Hawkers of the day. This one settled quite close, and sat shivering its wings furiously. I didn't think it was THAT cold.

The meadow (which is really starting to turn into a scrubby meadow now) was thronged with spider's webs, and at first glance devoid of damselflies, though a careful search eventually produced a few Common Blues. I went for the classic 'eyeballs' pose with this one, though its wonky wing spoils the effect a bit.

On the way back to the visitor centre I photographed another Migrant, in flight this time, by North Lake, and also saw a couple of Brown Hawkers overhead on the trail past East Lake.

And that's about that. For the last pic of the day, here are several eclipse drake Tufted Ducks and an interloper Coot. I have a couple of trips planned for later this month so hopefully there'll be more blogging to come soon.
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