Sunday, 30 April 2017

Pallid Harrier in Whitendale near Dunsop Bridge

I haven't been out birding for a week or so now as I'm still coming to terms with that fact that my very expensive big Nikon 500mm lens is broken in two and awaiting collection by the insurers for assessment and further action.  However, the news of a Pallid Harrier showing well at Whitendale near Dunsop Bridge over the last couple of days has made it impossible for me to stay in any longer.

Fortunately I haven't sold my previous 300mm lens yet, as I'm at least keeping it until I've been to the Farne Islands later this year and back to Mull to see the White-tailed Eagles catching fish from the Mull Charters boat.  For both of these trips a long 500mm lens is just too big as the birds can be that close. I haven't used the 300mm since getting the 500mm, so today was going to be the time to reacquaint myself with it.  I'm afraid these are only really record shots as the bird was quite distant and the light wasn't great when it did appear.  I do wish I'd had the 500mm, today of all days.

I decided I'd also take my Nikon D500 and 1.4x teleconverter for testing, to see if the damage to the camera was merely cosmetic and didn't affect it's operation or performance. But as a backup I also had my D810 and two other teleconverters as I didn't want to miss getting a shot of this rare bird. As it happens, I only used the D500.

From previous reports I'd learnt that it was possible to cycle the three miles up the Dunsop Valley to Whitendale in order to reach the bird's location and so I also loaded my wife's bike into the back of my Freelander, as mine had a flat tyre. What a good decision that proved to be!

After a lovely drive through the Lancashire countryside I arrived at the little hamlet of Dunsop Bridge. It was very busy here, with the normal walker and day tripper numbers being swelled by the large crowd of birders who had turned up to see this rare bird.

As I cycled up the valley there were many birders returning carrying binoculars, spotting scopes and wide, beaming smiles.  I could tell from their faces that the bird had been showing well and I even said that to one or two of them.

The track up the valley was largely tarmac and ideal for cycling, right up to the point where it started to go uphill steeply.  I had to get off the bike and walk here on the pretence that I was 'just looking for Ring Ouzels', as up to six had recently been reported here. So after a steep but short uphill section I reached the viewing location for the Pallid Harrier, which had a good 360 degree view and which overlooked the Harrier's favourite spot on the fell.  I didn't time it but it only took me about 30 to 40 minutes to get to the right spot whereas those who have walked up on previous days have said that it can take anything between an hour to an hour and half depending on how fit you are.

As I decided to go late in the day, there were only a few people up here by then, and as usual I was told that I'd just missed a good sighting by a couple of minutes.  Actually I'm sure that I did get a brief glimpse of the bird as it quartered the fell before flying over the top, but then it was gone. People came and went, some without seeing it and it wasn't long before a large party on a birding fieldtrip arrived.

It was a good half hour before the bird reappeared, but then I had excellent views of it quartering the fell and flying down the valley.   It was a stunning adult grey male with very distinctive black markings on the tips of its wings. It seemed to do a bit of a hunting circuit and then disappeared again.

After another half hour or so it reappeared and at times was seen to be sky dancing and even carrying nesting material before dropping it in a specific place. I sort of felt sorry for this beautiful bird as it has virtually no chance of finding a mate here.  I also found it strange that it would start nest building before it had found a mate.

With the company of three lovely ladies, I stayed until nearly 7pm and by then the wind had got up quite a bit and the temperature dropped considerably. We got one last sighting before deciding it was time to head for home.  I felt sorry for the others having to walk back as I overtook them on my bike, but there was no way I could have given them a lift.  It only took about fifteen minutes to get back to my car and what a brilliant downhill ride it was!

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Snap! A Day of Two Halves

I was having a really good day in west Yorkshire with Black-necked Grebes in breeding plumage, a booming Bittern and loads of close flying Sand Martins and Swallows.

That was until disaster struck - I was scanning for more Grebes with my bins when I heard a sickening crunch behind me and when I turned around I saw that my tripod had fallen over and with it my D500 camera and my newish 500mm lens. I don't know exactly what happened, I might have touched it with my big camera bag, or the ground might just have been a bit more uneven than it seemed. Whatever the case, it was lying on the gravel path and my heart was pounding.

At first I thought it had survived as this is top of the range professional Nikon gear, but when I picked up the lens I found that it had completely snapped in two and the camera was also dented. And to make matters worse, I still had a mile or so to walk to get back to the car.

I haven't been able to bring myself to look at the lens damage poperly yet, but I know it will be a very, very expensive repair. I'm just hoping that I'll be able to claim it on my house insurance as I specified it for accidental damage. There'll still be a £350 excess but I'll be happy to settle for that under the circumstances.

So at the moment I'm just consoling myself with some of the photos I took like these, before I go out and do some gardening to take my mind off the whole sorry incident.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Modern Technology in Birding

One of the great things about birding today is the speed with which information about rare or interesting birds is made available through the internet.  I for one certainly wouldn't have seen many of the birds I've photographed without the various forums, websites such as BirdGuides or the many Facebook groups. And after working your local patch for a while, you soon realise that if you want to see something different, you usually have to travel a little further afield.

Now of course you can (and I do) go out on your own armed only with your binoculars and camera gear not knowing what you're going to find, but it's always nice to have a target of something new, even if it's only new for this year or this area and with a very good chance of seeing it.  This is where the internet comes in - there's no guarantee that a bird will still be there when you arrive, but through regular reports and updates you can weigh up the odds a lot more easily and you can carry all this information with you on your phone or tablet.

Nowadays high specification digital cameras and lenses are within the means of many people, and although the most powerful equipment does still cost a fair bit, you only have to look on Facebook to see what can be done with just a modest set up. There are some amazing photographs to be seen, even those taken with a camera phone.

Digital photography allows anyone the chance to take an outstanding shot, especially as much of this is down to luck when photographing birds and wildlife. But you don't need to worry about taking too many shots of the same thing as you're not going to run out of film! And better still, you can get a good idea of what a shot looks like just after you've taken it, and so can adjust your settings if necessary.

I know some of the old traditional birders, naturalists and photographers don't like all this new fangled technology, but all I can say to them is that technology has always been a part of birding, it's just got more advanced.  Old school birders usually use binoculars, spotting scopes and sometimes pagers and then often take a photo with 'compact' camera. Modern equipment does the same thing, except much better in my opinion.  Old schoolers often think that this new technology is spoiling birding and even endangering the birds, but let's not forget that many of them started the hobby by collecting eggs and I include some very famous birders and naturalists in that statement.

The last part of the modern technology equation is the increased average that birds and wildlife in general now get on television. Programmes like the BBC's 'Springwatch' and 'The Natural World' and naturalists like David Attenborough and Chris Packham have raised everybody's awareness of the natural world, and many birders I know say that programmes like these were the starting point in them going birding or nature rambling themselves.

So all in all, I believe that modern technology has improved the hobby without any doubt. You only need to go out birding one day to see how many people are now enjoying the hobby with all its accompanying benefits such as getting some fresh air, exercising and making new friends. In addition the number of people now involved in conservation work either as paid employees or just volunteers is also at an all time high. In my opinion, most of this would not have happened with modern technology. Without it I wouldn't have got this photo of a drake Garganey at Elton Reservoir, near Bury on Bank Holiday Monday - I wouldn't have even known it was there.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Garganey and Little Gull at Elton Reservoir

A quick look on our L.O.S. Facebook group today showed me that Martin Loftus had seen a drake Garganey on a flooded field near the canal at Elton Reservoir in Bury yesterday. There was also a Little Gull reported on the main reservoir, so with two good target birds in mind today, I set off at the crack of 11:30am.  Graeme Robertson had also been later and suggested that Withins Lane was the best place to park, and so that's where I aimed the SatNav at.

It took me about 30 minutes to get there, and ten minutes later I'd crossed over Bury Road and the railway track, turned left at the canal and was heading down the towpath towards the floods.  Half way along I met Graeme who had returned today for another look, and he put me straight on to this lovely little duck.

The bird was closer today than when Martin had seen it yesterday and so we had really good views but the light was a bit dull for photographs most of the time, only occasionally brightening up. Much of the time it was feeding with a dabbling motion so it was hard to get a shot with its head out for the water.

Even ducks as beautiful as this can be a little dull to photograph at times, so it's nice when they have a wing flap or do something different.

Graeme left to have another look for the Little Gull and I was soon joined by Dennis Atherton with whom I had a really good chat.  We spent a little time wondering if we could get down to water level for a better shot, but the ethics of getting closer and the steep drop covered in brambles made us decide against it.

The Garganey is a rare summer visitor to the UK from Africa, one of the few migrant ducks that we see here in the summer. There was also a Common Sandpiper bobbing and flitting around the same pool.

After this Den and walked along the canal towpath up the pump house on the side of the main reservoir to look for the Little Gull.  There was no wind and all the gulls were on the water picking flies up of the surface, but Den soon picked out the Little Gull by it's pinkish breast feathers and much darker head.

Back to front comparison shot showing the main diagnostic features:

Back: Light grey wings with rounded tips and white trailing edges and a pure white tail,
Front: Pinkish breast and much darker underwing. No sign of the red feet on this one though.

Look, it does have bright red feet!

This is a Gull which think's it's a Tern with its constantly dipping flight low over the water. Going in for the kill on a small unsuspecting fly.

I popped in to see the Garganey again on the way back to the car but he was asleep.

So another good birding session with great company. And Elton certainly has been delivering the birds again recently.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Sand Martin Roost at Tinker Joe's Flash in Leigh

Well I never, you learn something new every day! I didn't know that Sand Martins flocked together in murmurations like Starlings do before coming in to roost.  Well here's the evidence that they do, even if the video is a little crummy. Keep watching, the birds do eventually appear!

Thanks to Dave Wilson stalwart member of Leigh Ornithological Society for alerting us all to this local wildlife spectacle.  The voices you can hear are of Brain Fawcett, George Pike and Colin Davies as well as my own dulcet tones.

Note to Self

I have the following backlog of reports still to do:
  • World's End (11/4/17)
  • Wooston Eyes (9/4/17)
  • Mull Trip (March 2017)
  • Leighton Moss (5/3/17)
  • Martin Mere (3/3/17)
  • Norfolk Trip (February 2017)
But don't hold your breath!

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Ainsdale Beach and RSPB Marshside

Time for another visit to the lovely Ainsdale beach in search of the huge wader flocks that are often present before they disappear for the summer. And for once today I wasn't plagued by the dog walkers who traverse the tideline putting up everything in sight along the edge of the water.

I started with some lovely Sanderlings. The way these little birds run along the tideline like clockwork toys is very engaging.

This lone Dunlin was also feeding with the first group of Sanderlings.

As I walked further down the beach towards Southport I soon came across some Grey Plovers and Knot mixed in amongst the other birds.

Ringed Plovers can be very difficult to approach, but I didn't do too badly with this one.

At Sandgrounder's Hide in Marshside there were two pairs of Avocets on eggs. This is one of the best places to get close to these iconic birds, which the RSPB uses as their logo.

My last stop was to have another look for the Water Pipit on Crossen's Marsh and once again I failed miserably, so I had to make do with these Pink-footed Geese which were still around in numbers.