Friday, 29 July 2016

Playing Damsels and Dragons at Darcy Lever Gravel Pits in Bolton

At this time of year when things can be a bit quiet on the birding front, many bird photographers turn to photographing other things, with damselflies and dragonflies being a particular favourite. I've never really done this yet, mainly because I thought you needed a macro lens to get anything like decent shots.

But after having done my first foray into this microworld of insects with the Red-eyed Damselfly at Pennington Flash last week, I decided I would experiment a bit more in playing Damsels and Dragons.  This time however, I would be using my Nikon D810 32 megapixel full frame camera to try to get as much closeup detail as possible.

Darcy Lever Gravel Pits in Bolton is a well-known area for such little beasties and as is it fairly local to me I decided to start there.  I often go to Moses Gate Country Park in the winter months, but never cross the main road to visit the Gravel Pits on the other side. I say 'never' but I have been once before to find out where it is.

After a quick look at the map board I decided on a roughly circular route around the area taking in the main ponds.  However, the one main thing I can remember from a half-day course I did on pond-dipping and associated insects was that dragonflies only really come to the ponds to lay their eggs, and they spend most of their time away from the water in the grasses and other vegetation close by.

After walking along the old canal towpath, my first port of call was the Education Pond as shown on the map above. There is quite a lot of open water here and I immediately saw some Common Blue Damselflies hovering over the water and later mating. Eventually I managed to get one on a stalk and close enough for a photograph. There were also a couple of red-coloured dragonflies about, but they never settled anywhere for me to see them properly. A Brown Hawker did fly in and start ovipositing on a piece of vegetation floating in the water.

I also looked in the nearby piece of grassland where I found quite a lot of Gatekeeper and Meadow Brown butterflies as well as this immature male Common Darter dragonfly which was well camouflaged amongst the moss and ground vegetation.

From the grassland I took the path towards Old Hall Farm, but the ponds along this route were very overgrown with vegetation and I couldn't really see anything in them. From the farm I took the left fork in the route through the access gate where I found the most productive patch of vegetation for today. This male Ruddy Darter landed closely and there were lots of bees and other insects on and around the Yellow Ragwort plants.

There were also more Gatekeeper and Brown Meadow butterflies here (some of which were mating) as well other flies of various sorts. Here's a small selection:

Finally I found this male Ruddy Darter dragonfly. I thought this was a female at first due to its orange colour but apparently not.

After this I headed off back to the canal towpath and on my way back to the car called in at the Education Pond again and the first overgrown pool which I had bypassed at the start of my walk.  There was nothing much new to report at either place

What I learnt from today was that you don't absolutely need a macro lens to take photos of small creatures like dragonflies and butterflies, but it may help you with getting close and filling the frame as well as controlling the depth of field. Also an f/2.8 105mm macro lens will be a lot easier to handhold steady than my f/2.8 300mm.

Useful Links

Don't think for a minute that I knew what all these creatures were called when I took the photos - I used these two websites plus confirmations off the UK Dragonflies and Damselflies Facebook group page to help identify them - thanks guys!

UK Dragonflies & Damselflies

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Rare Red-eyed Damselfly at Pennington Flash

Following the inaugural planning meeting of the L.O.S. Pennington Flash Volunteer Group this morning, I decided to take the opportunity to look for the Red-eyed Damselflies that have recently been reported up on the Leeds Liverpool Canal at the northern end of the Flash. Graeme Robertson was at the Volunteers meeting and he was intent on doing the same, so we paired up and went off in search of them together.

Fortunately, Charlie Owen was also present at the Volunteers meeting and, as he knew where they had first been spotted by Colin Davies, he was able to give us information about where to look.  It was good to see Charlie out and about after having suffered a stroke earlier in the year. And he's no more at home than at Pennington Flash.

After a quick look in a couple of the bird hides en route to the canal, we were soon up and over the bridge and searching the lily pads for these damselflies which are new to this area. It wasn't long before we found some suitable lilies and shortly after that the damselflies themselves. The Red-eyed Damselfly is quite rare this far north and I'm told that this is the first time one has been reported in this area.

I'm quite new to this kind of photography and I don't yet have a macro lens suited to taking closeup photos of dragonflies and other insects. After my first couple of shots I realised that the 1.4x teleconverter which is almost permanently attached to my 300mm lens wasn't going to be needed and so I removed it.

Depth-of-field is the watchword with this kind of shot and this means a high f-stop number and good light. Today the light was variable but I did manage to get a few acceptable shots of the four or five males that I saw today. However, I've still got a lot to learn in this aspect of photography.

It was best to shoot the damselflies parallel to the camera sensor plane to get the whole insect in focus - any head shots perpendicular to the sensor tended to have the tail out of focus with my lens. The damselflies would flit around for a while before coming to rest on a lily pad a couple of metres from the canal bank. Once on a pad they seemed to defend it quite aggressively from all corners.

After we'd done our best, Graeme and I set off back to our cars, but on the way we came across this Ragwort plant which was filled with Gatekeeper Butterflies. It was however, quite difficult to get a shot of one with its wings open as they tended to close them while feeding. There were also a couple of Meadow Browns and one stripy Cinnabar Moth caterpillar for whom this plant is a delicacy.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

RSPB Bempton Cliffs

I like to visit RSPB Bempton Cliffs at least once a year and, as it was getting a bit late in the season to see Puffins, it was now or never for this year. I even managed to persuade my wife Sarah to come along on the premise of seeing Puffins and fortunately there were some still about, although more were flying low over the sea than were perched on the cliffs.

Puffins spend most of the winter out at sea where they moult their colourful beaks. The young pufflings, which have already left by now, are abandoned by their parents to fend for themselves once they have fledged.

Much less evident than Puffins were the Fulmars as I only saw four or five of them all day. Fulmars fascinate me because of their tube noses which are used to drain saline water from a gland that extracts it from all the seawater they ingest whilst feeding out at sea. Sometimes the nose and beak can look quite grotesque and deformed whereas the one below is actually quite neat.

The Gannets never fail to please at Bempton and there were all shades of colour from completely dark brown to yellow heads with pure white bodies and chocolate-tipped wings. Gannets behave both comically and romantically with mutual head and bill rubbing being an essential part of their psyche. And those blue eyes are to die for!

Kittiwakes are probably the most numerous birds here and with their pure white rounded head shape and dark red eye they are a very soft and beautiful-looking creature. By now the gorgeous chicks have grown and some are starting to fly - today I was struck by just how stunning the youngsters' markings are particularly in flight.  And they don't half make a racket - Kitty-wack, Kitty-wack, Kitty-wack!

Young Kittiwakes have gorgeous markings, especially when seen in flight. I just love that black bill!

A birder who I'd been chatting to earlier in the day kindly pointed out that there was a young Kestrel perched on the cliff face quite close to one of the platforms. It was constantly surveying the slope below and once in a while would drop down to it as if landing on prey. It never returned with anything whilst I was there however.

Another of Bempton's 'specialities' is the Rock Dove, the ancestor of our feral pigeons, although I'm told that the ones here are no longer a pure breed having interbred with feral racing pigeons over many years. Well I still count them as a tick!

I did manage to get a lifer towards the end of the day in the form of a Great Skua or Bonxie.  The photographs are awful but good enough to confirm it as our largest Skua and a beast of a bird.

On the way back to the car and an angry wife (because I'd been two hours since she returned to read in the car instead of one) I met a solitary Tree Sparrow, many of which frequent the feeders and car park here. Not the best photo but, as with the Great Skua, I've included it for the sake of completeness. It was 5:15pm and the new Visitors' Centre was closed and shuttered so I never did get chance to look around to see how they'd improved things.

P.S. I may be adding some photos of  Guillemots and possibly Razorbills if I can find any half decent photos of them. They weren't as evident today as they are earlier in the year and so I didn't have any really good photo ops.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Scotland Trip - Day 9

Kincraig, Loch Insh, Osprey, 60th birthday party.

Report to follow soon ...

Friday, 15 July 2016

Scotland Trip - Day 8

Loch Shin, Falls of Shin, Loch Ness.

Report to follow soon ...

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Scotland Trip - Day 7

Strathpeffer for Slavonian Grebes, Tollie Red Kites and Dolphins at Chanonry Point.

Report to follow soon ...

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Scotland Trip - Day 6

Aviemore Ospreys and Kincraig.

Report to follow soon ...

Tuesday, 12 July 2016