Friday, 25 June 2010

Uptown birds

Today I had lunch with Simon in London. I got an early train to do a couple of hours' birding in the nearest park before we met. It was another warm and sunny one, though clouds gathered through the morning. Summer isn't that great for birding and, in the middle of the big smoke, you're never going to be falling over lots of interesting insects either. Nevertheless, there was more than enough to keep me and the 70-300mm lens amused.

To go with yesterday's close-up juvenile Grey Heron, here's an adult. It was sitting nonchalantly on a post in the shallows, ignoring the numerous camera-phones pointed in its direction.

I was admiring one of the fountains, and idly hoping some bird would swim under the falling water for a nice photo, though I didn't really believe any of them would be dumb enough to actually do it. This Coot proved me wrong, battling determinedly through the torrent with its stick.

One of the nice things about bird photography in a London park is how approachable everything is. I took lots of close-ups of things - Mute Swans' eyeballs, Coots' weird feet, and this Greylag delicately nibbling its toenails.

The loudest thing on the lake - a baby Great Crested Grebe. There were quite a lot of these, squealing loudly and persistently for parental attention. I even saw one hanging around an adult which had another, much smaller baby still on its back.

People who've read my stuff in Birdwatch may remember that I tend to use Egyptian Goose as an example of one of the, well, less attractive bird species found in the UK. However, the youngsters are bundles of cuteness, though I do think this little one looks like he's plotting something diabolical.

More cuteness. This Red-crested Pochard had only the one baby, a downy little doppleganger who stayed close by her side. London has lots of feral RCPs, the males with their bouffant ginger hairdos particularly enlivening the typical park lake fauna.

Want to experience extreme frustration? Try photographing a bunch of restless fledgling Goldcrests flitting about in a very shady tree. This pic's probably the best of a bad bunch, but what a little cutie. It was hard to tell how many of them there were - at least three I reckon, plus their knackered-looking (but still lively as anything) mum who I also photographed (badly).

Just before it was time to go, I bumped into this Wren, furiously alarm-calling through its mouthful of unidentifiably squashed insects. It stayed put for a couple of minutes, letting me approach quite closely and get a bushel of pics.

Insect-wise, there were quite a few Black-tailed Skimmers about, a solitary bright green hawker dragonfly which was probably a female Southern, and a few damsels. No butterflies, sadly.

I put the camera away on leaving the park but the birding wasn't quite over. As I had lunch with Simon outside a pub in a side street off Edgware Road, we were serenaded (if that's the right word for such an uninspired singer) by a Black Redstart. The little blighter was high on a rooftop so out of sight, but I was still delighted with a long-overdue encounter with my favourite species.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Football's not coming home...

... because I'm going out.

On Wednesday afternoon I decided to take advantage of the warm sunny weather and have a mooch around Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, in search of damselfly action. There were more people there than I'd expected, given the fact that the England-Slovenia match was on, including a couple of school parties, but they seemed to be confining themselves to the picnic area. The reserve proper was very quiet.

I made my way to Willow hide in a clockwise direction for a change, and met a birder coming the other way, who told me that a juvenile Grey Heron was showing really well just ahead. I figured that it must be the progeny of the nest I'd photographed (badly) last month, on an island tree in one of the small northern lakes. I headed towards the lake, pausing to watch some sizeable Roach flycatching in the river.

The young heron sat on a broken branch by the near shore, and watched with interest as I edged over to get some pics. I'm sure it will lose its trusting nature with age, along with the tufts of baby down.

I scoured the tiny, shallow lake by Willow Hide for Red-eyed Damsels and found none - where have they gone? There were lots of Commons and Azures about though, many in frisky moods.

There wasn't much else around up here so I headed back, pausing to scan the grassy area with the 'Warning! Bee Orchids!' sign. They are there after all, it's just that my orchid-seeing skills are rubbish. I saw two, neither of which were very close hence the unimpressive photo.

Back by the visitor centre, I spotted what looked like a heap of feathers in a bush. Closer inspection revealed it to be a Great Tit, sunbathing with a misleadingly horrified look on its face.

The reserve was quiet birdwise, as you'd expect in high summer. Many of the passerines aren't singing much any more, and the waterfowl numbers are very low. One nice bonus was a Green Sandpiper foraging in front of Tyler Hide, but I couldn't photograph the little git.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Divide and conquer

At the weekend Rob and I made a short visit to Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve. Rob took the Sigmonster while I had the Bigmos and the macro - this meant that we needed two different strategies to get the best out of the place.

I wandered around most of the reserve with the macro out and ready, looking for flowers and insects. The grassy patch on the way to Willow hide had signs up warning of the presence of Bee Orchids, but I couldn't see any, just a single Common Spotted (yes, I did photograph it, and yes, the photos were boring. Should have tried harder, but there were other people taking pics of it too so I didn't want to cram my lens right into the flowers for that ultra-macro shot).

Insectwise, there were a few damsels out and about around Willow Hide, but they weren't very active - it was not a particularly warm day. No sign of the Red-eyed Damsels here. We photographed a couple on the Medway last weekend so they should be about... I'll try again on a warmer day.

This massive fly thing (excuse the biological technobabble) caught my eye as it sunned itself on a much-chewed (presumably not by the fly) leaf. I later found out it was a Pellucid Hoverfly - great name! It's one of the largest Diptera species to occur in the UK, fact fans.

After taking various unsatisfactory damselfly pics, I switched to the Bigmos and sat on a bench near Willow hide to see what showed up. Hearing a Robin singing overhead I swung the lens up to find myself looking at this. (There was a Robin nearby in the same tree so I wasn't going mad). Easily bird of the day, this Garden Warbler sitting in the sun in full view was brilliant. I'm wondering if it's recently fledged - it looks quite fuzzy round the edges and was definitely a bit dozier than the average Garden Warbler.

I had no real luck after this, so went to find Rob. I met him halfway and we swapped notes - he'd set himself up at the shore of the main lake and had been photographing a Mute Swan family.

The four cygnets were quite well-grown, too big now to be easy prey for most of the fearsome beasts of land and lake, though this one still seemed happier to hide behind mum.

His eye-level angle made for some very striking shots. As its 'knob' is immersed (said the actress...) it's hard to tell if this is mum or dad swan, but I'm guessing it's mum (dad was probably far away, vigorously attacking all moving objects within a 1km radius of his family).

Also available for eye-level pics was this Coot. I'm most impressed by the extensive depth of the white reflection of its bill and shield. If I painted it that way, you'd never believe me.

Other people's gardens

June is a bad month to live in a top floor flat with no access to a garden. Luckily, I have some friends who do have gardens, and who don't mind me going over and taking hundreds of photos of their garden wildlife with an obscenely large lens.

Sue's garden in Pembury is a cracker, very long and with several mature trees as well as a wild 'meadow' area which is currently full of flowers. Among them are some Oxeye Daisies, aka 'Marguerites', looking very good at the moment and irresistably photogenic.

With no clue as to size, you could easily mistake this for an ordinary Common Daisy, but those have proportionately longer and narrower white petals (or 'ray florets' if you want me to get all botanical), with a smaller and less sticky-out cluster of disc florets (or 'yellow bit in the middle' if you've had enough of me being all botanical).

The Foxgloves are also looking great at the moment, and their flowers are drawing in the bees, like this Buff-tailed Bumblebee. The Foxglove flower has an enticing trail of spots leading into the tube (which apparently looks even better in UV light as seen by the bee), and its stamens and stigma tip are along the 'ceiling' so they brush the bee's fluffy back as it squeezes up to where the nectar is. Sue's got her eye on some white Foxgloves growing in the verge opposite the house - if the bees do their job and pollinate them there should be some seeds to collect in autumn.

This quartet of adorable Blue Tit fledglings were making short work of Sue's fat balls. Though perfectly capable of feeding themselves, they still stopped what they were doing and begged furiously whenever their careworn-looking parent came to the feeder.

The feeder fun was abruptly curtailed when this raucous Magpie family flew over, scattering the tits. The Magpies landed in a big dense conifer, and then decamped to next door's roof where they indulged in some juvenile horseplay.

 Michele's mum's garden is a smaller affair but still attracts a range of birds. This Goldfinch was singing cheerfully almost the whole time I was there but didn't come any closer than a neighbour's roof.

I contented myself by photographing the pair of Blackbirds that were bouncing around in the garden. I now have pics of them drinking from a terracotta saucer, taking a rest atop an ornamental stone hedgehog and exploring the outdoor furniture. Next time I'm asked if I have any photos of Blackbirds 'obviously in a garden' I'll be able to answer with a confident 'yes'.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Tales from the riverbank

After a slow (really slow in my case) start to the day, Rob and I went for an afternoon walk along the Medway today, the same one that I'd done with Sue a few weeks ago. It was a day of 'sunny intervals' and quite breezy compared to yesterday.

Rob had the Bigmos today and I had the macro lens. Therefore he was in charge of birds and I was in charge of insects. At first, he didn't have much to do but things soon picked up.

I didn't improve on my other recent photos of Banded Demoiselles today. I spent a while trying to photograph them in flight, without much success. This pic, though, was a nice surprise with the damselfly's reflection caught quite well, though the insect itself had escaped from the frame.

I had more luck trying to get a photo of this Buff-tailed Bumblebee in flight, as it moved around a big clump of blue Comfrey. Even the quite speedy Tamron macro lens couldn't even begin to freeze the movement of its wings though. No, I didn't catch it, remove its wings and then drop it and take a quick photo. That would be wrong.

Rob called 'Kestrel', when he saw this. I can't be too hard on him though, as I'd done exactly the same thing with the last Cuckoo I'd seen before taking a proper look at it. This one didn't say 'cuckoo' so was perhaps a female - it was certainly in a hurry (escaping an egg-related crime scene?) flying low and fast over the field of long grass by the riverside.

His next call really got my attention. No doubt about the ID here, a lovely Barn Owl out hunting (for its brood presumably) well before dusk. I have tentatively identified the unfortunate furry bundle in its talons as an ex-Common Shrew. I followed the bird with my bins as it flew west alongside the river, Tonbridge-wards. It was a real joy to be able to just watch it, rather than frantically try to take photos.

We were at the lock by this point, and a pair of Grey Wagtails were flitting around, both of them with bill-fulls of grub (boom-tish) for their chicks. I have been repeatedly amazed this spring by how many little invertebrate corpses one songbird can fit in its bill and still manage to sing, call and pick up even more foodstuffs.

On the walk back, we saw several more interesting insects resting in the long grass, including this female scorpionfly (Panorpa communis)...

 ... and this mayfly, Ephemera vulgata (I think). Also on today's list are Nightingale, Turtle Dove, Kingfisher, Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer, Whitethroat, Chiffchaff, Jay, Painted Lady, Small Heath and Red-eyed Damselfly.


On the evening of Saturday 12th June, three people who didn't care about football decided to do something completely different. But before that, I went to see Michele at her mum's place and we had much tea and conversation, interrupted now and then when I rushed to the French windows to photograph some bird or other.

This male Blackbird was trying to convince us that it was unbearably warm and sunny outside (it really wasn't) by sunbathing in various theatrical poses on the fence.

A Dunnock, cleaning up after the House Sparrows under the birdfeeder. I tried to enthuse Michele about this unexciting-looking bird by telling her about the Dunnock sex-life. I think it worked...

And up on the roof, a parent and kid Jackdaw. Amazing how the same species can look so different in youth and maturity - not in plumage but in facial expression. That intensely foolish-looking youngster would not look out of place in the pages of the Beano.

Rob arrived at about 7.50pm and we set off for what used to be The Warren but is now RSPB Broadwater Warren, an area of mostly pine plantation in between Groombridge and Tunbridge Wells. I've long known it as a good site for Nightjars, and the RSPB's plans for the site (lowland heath restoration) should only make things better, Nightjar-wise. It could also bring in other nice heathland wildlife, though the project is very much in its early days.

We parked on the road as the shiny new car park was closed (opening hours 7am-7pm, which seems weird given that the RSPB is pushing this as a good place for dusk birding!) and headed down the trail. It was a lovely still, clear evening, sweetly scented with pine resin and assorted flowers. Many birds were still singing, including Blackcap and Yellowhammer, while lots of moths and other flying insects were out. Way ahead of us on the path, an unidentifiably distant deer crossed, paused to give us a hard stare and then slipped into the trees.

We stopped at a crossroads with a large 'Nightjar Viewpoint' interpretation board, though I was a bit worried that the surrounding vegetation was too high for Nightjars. I had the Bigmos out, in a spirit of wild optimism. By the time the first Woodcock whizzed overhead, squeaking loudly as it went, the light was actually still not that bad. But those Woodcocks are fast - this blurry pic is down to slow AF rather than camera shake.

We heard, inexplicably, several gunshots from nearby at about 9.30pm, which upset Mushu, Michele's dog. Mush had, up til this point, been enjoying herself taking in exciting new smells and so on, but she is terrified of bangs and now started shivering and looking anxiously in the direction of the car park. Obviously we couldn't wait around too much longer... but within 10 minutes a long-winged, long-tailed bird flitted briskly past, and moments later we heard the wonderful unmistakable Nightjar 'churr' from a nearby tall tree which stood alone among much shorter young pines and birches.

Aren't you glad I brought the camera now? There is plenty of camera shake here, plus distance and low light. Result - a record shot but hopefully a recognisable one. The Nightjar sang away from this perch and we all enjoyed good views through the binoculars, before it hopped off its perch and flew off, unfortunately not in our direction. No doubt it might have returned, but anxious dog plus enthusiastic mosquitoes meant it was time to go.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Dipping at Dunge

I'll begin by saying that we didn't see the Purple Herons on our visit to Dungeness last Sunday. Nor did we see the Red-footed Falcon that was around. Now that's out of the way, let's look at what we did see. It was quite a sunny day, albeit with a bit of chill in the wind (but hey, that's Dunge). We visited the new hides at the ARC pit first.

I chased this Red Admiral around the car park before it deigned to settle on what looks like a pretty uncomfortable Gorse stem perch. The presence of other Gorse bushes just where I didn't want them to be meant this was the best angle I could get.

The ARC pit featured few birds, unsurprisingly in early summer. There were quite a few Greylags and Canadas, some Mute Swans, a Great Crested Grebe, passing Common, Herring, Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a large raft of Coots. Closer to hand were a couple more Coots, looking distinctly fed up with the demands of their two incessantly squeaking chicks.

Way across the other side of the pit, assorted raptors cruised - unidentifiably distant falcons (almost certainly all Hobbies) and just about identifiable Marsh Harriers. We walked around the other trail for a closer look. Not that much closer to be honest, but I have a weakness for sunlit birds against stormy-looking skies, and this male Marshie has a lovely clear pattern and colour combo.

We then went to the reserve proper. En route a Hobby flew right in front of us and I completely failed to get a picture, to my dismay. In the visitor centre, we read the news that Dengemarsh was the current hangout of the Red-foot, as well as the place for the Purple Herons. We set off at speed, but Rob had to turn back when he realised he'd left his tripod back at the ARC pits. I went on alone and walked fast to Dengemarsh, the most distant of Dunge's hides, though numerous birds waylaid me on the way around.

First to catch my eye was this female Reed Bunting, who'd clearly had more luck finding damselflies on the reserve today than I had. Tsk.

Next came this fine male Linnet, twittering sweetly away from a lichen-encrusted dead shrub. Even the promise of a Red-foot wasn't enough to tear me away... well, not for a few minutes at least.

Should I apologise for yet another Sedge Warbler photo? Well, they'll have migrated back to Africa before you know it so let's make the most of them. This one was interesting in that it was strikingly pale, not just overexposed.

And when I finally reached Dengemarsh hide? Not much to see. No falcons on view, no sign of any herons, Purple or otherwise. I amused myself photographing the assorted flyby birds, including this Common Gull, looking pretty in the strong slanting light.

Rob showed up soon after, and got busy pointing the Sigmonster at the nearest birds - an Oystercatcher family on a raft in front of the hide. One of the adults was standing guard over at least two small chicks, while the other was going back and forth fetching little wiggly creatures for the babies. Helpfully, this bird announced its arrival well in advance with a volley of shrill piping calls, enabling Rob to get pics of it on the wing.

I hadn't realised that Oystercatchers provision their babies with food - I'd assumed they just left them to forage for themselves as is the norm with precocial chicks. I suppose, though, this species does often nest on small islands and other spots where food may not be that easy for the little 'uns to find.

It was getting late, and we suspected we'd seen the last of the sun, so we headed back for the visitor centre. On the way, I failed to photograph several Whitethroats and a male Kestrel. This Red-legged Partridge took pity on me and stuck its head out of the long grass by the trail just as one last shaft of sunlight fought its way out of the gathering clouds.

Brighton and Shoreham

I spent the last week of May at Mike's house in Brighton, catsitting the charming Mango and Pepper. I didn't do any birding to speak of, but did find a lovely if slightly battered Poplar Hawkmoth in the back garden. Fearing that the cats would make short work of such a large and succulent moth, I relocated it to the front.

I didn't have my camera with me, as I'd had to stuff my bags with copies of my new book, to deliver to my dad in Hastings. Therefore this photo was taken with my phone. I'm quite impressed by the detail it's captured. Makes me wish I'd taken a few more, and moved the moth to a more photogenic backdrop.

Rob came over on the Saturday and we had a nice evening stroll along the Adur at Shoreham, next to the airfield, just up the road in a westerly direction. There was not a huge amount of wildlife to see, but I had fun with the macro lens.

Cow Parsley, Creeping Thistle and Cocksfoot, all the Cs. The Cow Parsley has almost finished flowering, the thistle is just about to bloom, and the Cocksfoot grass is in full flower, its tufty bunches festooned with soft purple stamens. This tall, tussock-forming grass with its coarse and chunky flowerheads is one of my favourites, especially as it is a foodplant of my beloved Thymelicus skipper butterflies.

On the return walk, heading into the sun, I saw loads of spiders carrying out routine maintenance on their webs in the long grass. I hadn't noticed them at all on the way out, but the light caught the silky strands of their webs on the way back. Rob, with his arachnophobe tendencies, strode briskly on as I crouched down to photograph some of the little spinners.

This is Tibellus oblongus, aka Grass Spider - long-bodied, with a distinctive dark stripe down its abdomen. There were also Garden Spiders and probably other species as well - my spider ID skills are somewhat rubbish.

Carrying the 70-300mm lens, Rob had less to point it at than I did with the macro. The ditch between our path and the airfield was full of Reed Warblers but they were not really close enough for this lens's limited reach. However, the river itself was amply stocked with non-breeding Mute Swans, and the group congregating in this creek made a nice image.