Thursday, 31 January 2019

Lunt Lures Me In Again

The weather was great, blue skies, cold and sunny and the Owls had been showing yesterday, so off I went to Lunt Meadows again in search of them.  I am desperate to get some of those stonking close shots that many others have got, but as yet it just has happened for me.  It's largely down to a matter of luck, and fieldcraft of course.  And, as we always say, 'the more you go out the luckier you get.'

I met up with Phil 'Mossman' Boardman for the second time in about a week and we had a really good chat whilst walking slowly up and down the River Alt embankment, but seeing very little of particular interest.  Phil pointed out the locations that the Bitterns and Bearded Tits favour and a Sparrowhawk went for a Snipe over the Pumphouse Pool, but alas there were no Owls.

I took these two Stonechat photos at the wooden bridge over the Alt just to keep warm as it gradually became colder during the day. A Reed Bunting also appeared briefly.

One of the local Kestrels was hunting over its regular patch and so that became my next target for something to do.  Lunt is a great place to take Kestrel photos as you can get at eye level in many places as the quarter the fields near the embankments.

And, as it turned out, I got one of my best Kestrel photos ever, mainly because of the background I think. But still no killer Owl shots.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

A Disappointing Day in Lincolnshire

I been planning this day for a few weeks now and when the weather was predicted to be sunny I decided today was the day to go during last week.  By coincidence one of my Facebook birding friends had messaged me the day before to say that the Bitterns were starting to show well again at Far Ings and, as that was one for the reasons for returning, it gave me even more hope of a grand day out.

I set off at 6am in the dark up the M62 motorway to do the two hour drive to Far Ings, which is just over the Humber bridge in Lincolnshire. I arrived at about 8:30am due to stopping for fuel and missing the turning for the Bridge due to confusing roundabout signs.  I ended up back on the M62 going the wrong way, and you what it's like when this happened to you, there isn't another exit for miles!

Goldeneye here ...

Anyway, I was first at Far Ings, but I was soon joined by Sam Gosnay from Wakefield and we had a nice chat whilst seeing very little.  There were two Mute Swans, some distant Goldeneye, a Grey Heron, some Cormorants and not much else.  A female Marsh Harrier did fly past at one point followed by a male shortly after, but they were on the far side of the reserve so too distant for the sort of photos I wanted.

Mute Swans here ...

The Ness Hide at Far Ings is often said to be the coldest hide in Britain, and after about three hours in the freezing cold wind which blows in off the Humber Estuary, I'd pretty much had enough. No Bitterns or Kingfishers, so two of my targets were dipped.  I left Sam wandering around some other parts of the reserve whilst I headed south into Lincolnshire proper in search of Short-eared Owls.

Marsh Harrier here ...

At the undisclosed location I met up with regular birder Don Davis and his friend and we chatted about all things Owls and other birds. None had been seen so far today and they'd been there since 8:30am - at least I hadn't missed anything.  The day drew on and although the sun was out, it got colder and still no birds were showing. Eventually Don and his friend left as they had things to do

Sam reappeared at around 1pm and later his friend Tony, who I had met the last time I was here. We chatted and chatted and chatted and still no birds appeared. And then one did.

Eventually we counted at least three, possibly four Short-eared Owls in various fields, but none of them came anywhere near close.  We walked up the road and back down, but they always remained just about as far away as they could.  One of the Short-eared Owls had a brief tussle with a Kestrel, which had seen it with some prey on the floor and mobbed it to steal the prey. The Kestrel Didn't get it.

The best bird of the day for us was this Kestrel which briefly landed in tree nearby the three of us.  Unfortunately its wing cast a strong shadow across its face in most of our shots due to the very bright sunlight.

The shot of a distant Short-eared Owl below hasn't actually turned out too badly.  Sometimes a background can make a shot and leaving it uncropped works best.  Looks made for a book cover to me!

Towards the end of the afternoon when the sun started to go down, a Barn Owl came out and then another one appeared and soon we had spotted three.  Just like the Short-eared Owl, the Barn Owls all stayed distant and so only record shots were taken.

Barn Owl here ...

We all decided it was time to go but had one last stop on the way out because Tony had seen a Barn Owl land in a field close the road.  Both he and Sam had missed this Short-eared Owl perched in a tree which I pointed out as I got out of the car.  This was probably the closest we got to one today, but by now the light had dropped completely.

I left Lincolnshire quite disappointed that I hadn't got any good shots of the Owls, Harriers, Bittern or Kingfisher. I can get shots of Kestrels, Cormorants and Mute Swans close to home without travelling over two hours to see them, but that's nature and wildlife for you - totally unpredictable.

When I posted some shots on Facebook today a friend of mine commented that if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.  Funny thing is, I see so many people out there with equipment ranging from cheap and cheerful bridge cameras to expensive DSLRs with big lenses that I thought they were!

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Brambling Ramblings

Lead Mines Clough in Bolton is a place that I first discovered as a geology student and later as a geology teacher, when I used to take my students on an annual excursion there in my pre-birding days.  It's not an easy place to find if you're not familiar with the area and is best done with an O.S. map.

I'd got wind of the fact that some Bramblings had been seen at the entrance of the Clough close to Alance Bridge which is a popular place for people to leave seed for the woodland birds here.  And sure enough after half an hour or so of waiting, the first Brambling appeared.

As an added bonus I got my first Nuthatch of the year and some decent photos to boot.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Scottish Mountain Hare - “Ready to run”

I recently had a request from Lisa Carlson, an artist from Calgary in Canada, who asked if she could use one of my Mountain Hare photos from Scotland as reference material for a painting.  Here's the original photo which she chose to use:

Here's her first sketch:

And here's the finished painting entitled "Ready to Run":

I think you'll agree that Lisa has developed quite a distinctive style of her own, and that she has captured the essence of the hare and its mountain habitat.  Here's a link to her Facebook page where you can see more examples of her excellent work:

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Hide Tide at Parkgate

With the high tide being around 10 metres today, I set off for Parkgate on the Wirral wondering if it would bring the raptors in close for some decent photos.  Unfortunately the signs weren't good because the weather was just too nice for once!  It was sunny, calm and settled with high pressure dominating the UK.  For a 'good' high tide you really need low pressure and strong north-westerly winds to help blow the water further inland, and that just didn't happen today.

Nevertheless many raptor species were present including Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier (male and female), Merlin, Peregrine and Short-eared Owl.  The only regular here that I didn't see today was the Barn Owl but I did have a brief glimpse of a distant Bittern when it sat upright in the reeds across the Marsh.

I thought I'd give the Cottage Lane end of Parkgate a try as the water comes in fastest here along the channels. Almost as soon as I got out of the car there was a Short-eared Owl flying in front of me, but when I went for my camera it soon disappeared over the golf course.

The next bird of note was a distant Merlin on a post. Everything is wrong about this photo - a distant bird, camera looking into the sun with heat haze, but hey, it's the best photo of a Merlin that I've got to date. A female Marsh Harrier also passed by in the distance little later and there were quite a few Reed Buntings in a small patch of Phragmites in front of me.

I walked further down the old sandstone quayside to where the path was a bit wider allowing people to pass me without having to move my tripod. It's amazing to think that in the days of sailing ships the River Dee once lapped against these walls before it eventually silted up and created the salt marsh we have here today.  From here I saw both ringtail and grey male Hen Harriers, but all too distant for decent shots.

At about 1:30pm I decided it was time for lunch, and in this area there is only one place to go as far as I'm concerned - the fish and chip shop in Parkgate. I was a little concerned that I might not get there in time as I had to get back to my car first of all, drive round to Parkgate, find somewhere to park (high tides are always busy days here and parking is very limited) all before 2pm when it shuts.  Luckily I got in and joined the queue of about nine people shortly before the door was closed.  You always know somewhere is good if there is a queues of people willing to wait to be served.

With a small fish and small chips parcel in hand, I drove back to the Old Baths car park at the northern end of the promenade to eat it.  As I arrived I noticed Phil Boardman, a birding friend from Lunt Meadows, standing at the wall with his camera.  I offered him some chips before having a look round to see if anyone else I knew was here.

Phil and I wiled away the afternoon chatting about birding things whilst looking for raptors and bitterns.  An indeed it was here that I got my best photos from today, a Short-eared Owl which appeared in the late afternoon.

It did start to get very cold towards the end of the day, but Phil was determined to see the Bittern fly to its roost, so I left him at around 4:30pm when the light was still OK for viewing but not great for photographs.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Waxwing Lyrical Again

As I've not left the house for a few days due to the recent depressingly leaden skies, I was itching to get out today at the slightest hint of a bit of sun or blue sky.  Well, that's all there was as I left for Banks in Lancashire with Bewick Swans high up on my agenda, followed by Waxwings and Little Owl.

As I was going directly to Banks I took a slightly different route than my normal one through Southport and as I neared Rufford on the A59 I found a field full of Whooper Swans - a great candidate for some Bewick searching. Unfortunately after three passes in front of the field I couldn't find anywhere to stop and so I had park on the verge just off the road which is something I don't normally do.

A quick count revealed that there were at least 350 Whoopers in this field with a mixture of adults and juveniles.  I was soon getting a few strange looks from a couple working in their garden and so I walked over to explain what I was doing.  They were completely OK about it and where I had parked, but I didn't feel comfortable getting out my scope to scan for Bewick's, so I moved on after about 10 minutes.

My next stop was to see the famous Banksy, a Little Owl who lives on Gravel Lane.  A ping on my phone had told me he was out sitting on top of his barn roof in the usual place, and indeed his missus had been there as well.  When I arrived there was only bird present and fortunately no-one else around.  So I took up prime position for once here and managed some shots from inside the car.

And so on to the Waxwings which had been reported in the trees on the central reservation along the A565 Southport New Road.  There was a convenient lay-by to stop in and I soon found the birds as two other birders were already there looking at them.  The first two birders left and I was joined by Les Brown for a while. After a few shots on one side of the carriageway, I decided to move to the other side because the berries they were feeding on were more easily seen there.

Over here I was joined by another birder and we had a nice chat whilst waiting for the birds to drop down from their high perches to the hawthorn berries which were lower down.

There has been a good influx or irruption of Waxwings in the UK this year and people don't half like to moan about people getting to close them, particularly to take photographs. Here there was a natural limit to how close you could get - the A565!  The cars and lorries were nosily whizzing down here a tremendous speed and the Waxwings were not all bothered, as indeed they aren't in every other place I have been to see them.  People just like to moan, it seems.

The light wasn't great and the berries not particularly attractive or plentiful, so I moved on along Marsh Road to Hundred End where the Whoopers often congregate.  Sure enough here they were, and for a very short while some were close to the road.  I stopped the car, rolled down the window and started scanning them with my bins.  The moment I did this the birds at the front turned to walk away and soon they were all walking away before taking flight to the furthermost field they could find - ah well, I'll have to look for Bewick's on another day.  I did come across this rather bedraggled looking Kestrel as I left Banks on the way to Marshside RSPB.

After a quick butty break on Marine Drive where I only really saw Lapwings, Wigeon, Teal and a single Grey Heron, I set off for Sandgrounder's Hide.

At first there was absolutely nothing in front of the hide, but a very nice Pintail pair did approach before turning back.  It's not often that you see them out of the water.

I moved on to Marshside Road and then Hesketh Road where there were a good number of ducks and some waders but nothing unusual that I could see.

So I had a very pleasant afternoon out to blow away the cobwebs after coming back from Scotland.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

A Week in the Scottish Highlands

My wife Sarah and I have just returned from a week in the Cairngorms National Park where we stayed mainly in the north at Grantown-on-Spey before moving south to Blairgowrie to visit the Glenshee area. The wildlife was very subdued for much of the week and there was virtually no snow, even on the highest peaks of the Cairngorms - this was something that really surprised me as I thought it was pretty much guaranteed here at this time of year. But thankfully we had a good time and I did manage some decent shots here and there.

I had booked a couple of things in advance - a day trip with a local guide to the Caledonian pine forests around Rothiemurchus in search of Capercaillie and an evening visit to a hide to hopefully see wild Pine Martens and Badgers.  Neither of these turned out to be very successful although we did get a five minute view of a young Pine Marten after waiting nearly three hours to see it.

Day 1

This day was mainly concerned with the journey up to Grantown but we did call in at the Cairngorm Ski Centre to look for the famous Snow Buntings on the car park as well as the Loch Garten car park to look for Crested Tits which are often photographed there - no joy on either I'm afraid.  We did have a nice chip butty tea in Grantown (pronounced Grantun by the locals) though.

We stayed at the very grand-looking Craiglynne Hotel, a large rambling building with 56 rooms and only eight guests.  Like many hotels of this age, it was well past it best with most of the furniture and carpets being very tired.  It must very difficult for large places like this to keep going, especially in the winter and it clearly owed some of its past history to the single malt whisky-drinking hunting, shooting and fishing brigade. Nevertheless the staff were very nice, the room was OK and breakfasts were good - good value for money.

Day 2

This was taken up my trip out with a guide to look for Capercaillie.  I was picked up at the hotel at 8:15am and so Sarah had the car to go exploring around Carrbridge - I think she had a better day than I did as she came back exhausted having done around a ten mile walk.  My day involved walking slowly through the pine forest looking up at trees where the guide has had a good success rate in finding Capers in the past, but although we visited two areas with the right habitat for them, none were seen and this was very disappointing as it would have been a lifer for me.  This was the only photo I took all day - good Capercaillie habitat, but none about!

Day 3

Today was our first day out together exploring the area to the the north of the Cairngorms National Park. We started in Anagach Woods near Grantown where the guide had suggested we'd find Crested Tits and Red Squirrels and indeed we did, although only one Crestie and two or three squirrels.

The favoured area was at some feeders in the woods, but the area was very dark and the birds moved very quickly without settling for long.  It was 'Coal Tit City' here, with up twenty or more of them constantly flitting around whilst I awaited the lone Crested Tit to return every 15 minutes or so.

The Treecreeper shot above is one of my favourite photos from the week. I love the plumage detail on these little 'tree-mice' as well as the textures of the pine tree bark.

We then moved on to the picturesque Lochindorb to look for Red Grouse and perhaps Black-throated Divers and Raptors.  The grouse were all over the place, but we didn't see anything else apart from a few distant Goldeneyes on the loch.  Here's a photo of the Famous One, can you feel yourself humming that tune?

Below is the Red Grouse hen which doesn't have the fancy eyebrows and 'ears' and which is slightly redder in colour - hence it's not quite as famous!

Our next stop was Strathdearn, known erroneously by many as the Findhorn Valley.  I'm told that the reason for this is that the area was given this name in a famous birding book because the River Findhorn flows through it, and the name has stuck.  However, it is nowhere near Findhorn Bay which is where the river flows out into the sea on the northern coast of Moray.

It was here that we had our first glimpse of a Mountain Hare in its full winter coat. I spent half an hour looking through my binoculars and scope whilst Sarah went for a short walk to the properties at the end of the road.  Although there was no snow (unlike last time I was here when I climbed a slope to get some close photos), finding them was made very difficult by the many white lichen marks and quartz veins in the rocks. I still hadn't found one when Sarah returned, but within five minutes or so my eagle-eyed wife had got one in the scope.  Well done you!  

I then regaled the tale that I tell everyone of how I met Iolo Williams here when he was guiding a party of people, many of whom seemed disinterested and more concerned with having a fag and a cup of tea.  Iolo pointed out a Mountain Hare in much the same place as this one, although it was in the snow and much harder to see, and he let me use his scope to view it - we had a short chat and he seemed a very nice chap.

Our last stop for the day was at a Pine Marten hide near Aviemore, so we took the opportunity of having a Costa coffee and cake and going to the toilets in the town, before heading off in the dark into the pine forest on the Rothiemurchus Estate to a viewing hide.  I'm not a fan of hides, and I don't normally like paying for viewing wildlife (especially as you always run the risk of a no-show), but there are some things that you can't easily see any other way and so I but the bullet and coughed up for this one.

The hide was heated and spacious, with seats and double-glazed windows - and that was the main problem for me wanting to take photographs.  Although some of the windows did open, we weren't allowed to one them for fear of scaring the Pine Martens away.  The outside of the hide had lights which were left on and that gave the appearance of looking into a glass case, although we were actually the ones inside it!  The guide also scattered peanuts everywhere to attract the Martens and this made my photos look really artificial and unappealing.

And so we waited, and waited and waited ... After two and a half hours I was actually hoping for a no-show so that we could could back for free on another night. But after nearly three hours of waiting in the hide, a young female eventually appeared ten minutes before we were due to leave, and so we have to call that a success, although I'm not happy with any of the photos I took during its very brief visit.

And that was it for today, that is except for a Kingfisher which I had with a very nice curry in the local Indian restaurant at our home for the week in Grantown.

Day 4

We had this day to ourselves with no commitments to be back at any particular time and so I chose to go to the Moray coast at Burghead and Findhorn Bay.  But first we returned to Anagach Woods to try for some better Crested Tit shots.  This time I took some food and poles on which to hang a fat candle in the hope of attracting the birds to a fixed location making them easier to photograph.

Again I think that there was only one Crested Tit about and, as you can see, I didn't really get any better shots but the Treecreeper put in another appearance so I went for that.

And then onto Burghead, which is a small headland which sticks out into the Moray Firth, making it a good place for seawatching.  The rain came down as we arrived, so our first views were though the car windscreen whilst intermittently using the wipers.  We soon spotted male and female Long-tailed Ducks, Shags, plenty of male and female Eiders and a few Gulls.  Later we saw a Red-breasted Merganser pair and at least three Red-throated Divers. This Redshank came in very close below me and so it would have been rude not to photograph it. There was a flypast by a small Common Scoter flock which included a few Velvet Scoters with their white wing bars and a couple of Grey Seals also put in appearance a little later.

We finished off here by driving round to Burghead Harbour where I managed to take the best photo of the week in my opinion - a drake Long-tailed Duck in breeding plumage which came part way in to the harbour and very close.

From Burghead we went westwards along the coast to Findhorn Bay where we had a quick walk to the the beach on the seaward side of the Bay and then a drive round to the dunes in Burghead Bay.  Birds of note here were a Little Grebe, a drake Goosander and a Hooded Crow as well as several Cormorants.

As a reward for our efforts, we decided to have a buffet meal at the Taverna in Aviemore for supper.

Day 5

I decided that we'd pay another quick visit to the main car park at Loch Garten on the way to our target for the day, which was walk up to Coire an t'Sneachda which I'd first visited in 2016 to look for Ptarmigan and Snow Buntings.  At Loch Garten I only saw one Crested Tit briefly but I was pleased to get a female Brambling in amongst the Chaffinches.  We also had fun getting the Coal Tits to feed out of our hands.

Loch Garten has been ravished by so-called photographers doing all sorts of dubious things to get their shots including plastering the trees with peanut butter and even spraying fake snow on the the trees.  There are now notices up to ask people to stop doing this type of thing, but putting a little seed down is OK in my opinion.

The birds here are very tame and will feed out of your hand as both Sarah and I found out when we tried.  Coal Tits were the bravest with their tiny sharp claws gripping your skin to support their amazingly light bodies, but Great Tits and Robins also joined in.  The Chaffinches seemed a lot more wary for some reason.  Here's one that Sarah is feeding.

One bird that definitely won't feed out of your hand is the Great Spotted Woodpecker, which flies off as soon as you turn your head and always seems to manage to be on the other side of the tree.  It was still great to see one just before we left.

At the Cairngorm Ski Centre car park I only had one brief view of a Snow Bunting as it flew away from me whilst I was ascending the steps to the picnic table area.  I took some sunflower hearts to put down but soon discovered that there was tons of the stuff all along the tops of the walls and even on some tables.  Some of it was very wet and had probably been around for a couple of days, although there was none there on my first visit on Monday.  They obviously weren't going hungry and many must have gone down to the coasts where they're often seen in winter.

As we walked along he well defined pathway to Coire an t-Sneachda I told Sarah about the last time I came here when it was deep in snow.  If I hadn't been with someone who knew the way I wouldn't have known where to tread or go and this could have been dangerous with all the water channels and streams crossing the path.  But this was going to be easy, wasn't it -  er, no!

After twenty minutes of walking we notice other people higher up to our left and a choice of paths to our right.  We decided to have a look at the OS Maps app we have on both our phones. It was only then that we discovered that there were three possible routes which branched out from the initial path, and we were on the worst one.  Of course I didn't know this as last time I was here the whole area was covered in snow and I couldn't see any paths at all. Fortunately we could cut across to another route and continue, but after doing this for about ten minutes we decided to have a look at the map again.

By now we could make out that there was a much higher path along the valley side and that was the one we should have been on. But to get up to it would have been very difficult from our current position, so we decided to continue where we were headed for now.  As it happened I knew this would be OK as it was Coire an Lochain at the top because someone had reported Ptarmigan there last week.

We continued for another hour and a half before deciding the mist and light rain wasn't going to clear, so we wouldn't be able to see anything if we got to the Loch.  And so after a bite to eat, we returned the way we came to return to the car park.  Although there were no birds to see here except a few Red Grouse, the scenery was stunning and we enjoyed ourself.

After getting diesel in Aviemore we set off at about 3:45pm and it was soon going dark as we travelled down the A9 towards Blairgowrie and tea at the Royal Hotel.

Day 6

After a very quick and unsuccessful look for some Waxwings which had been reported in Blairgowrie this week, we headed off on the lovely drive to Glenshee.  This was mainly to be a fact-finding mission to get the lay of the land and we already knew there was no snow to speak of in the glen.  I was fairly confident of seeing Mountain Hares as they are plentiful around the Ski Centre here, but what I really wanted was to see some Ptarmigan.

I got some good information about where things were likely to be seen from Jason in the tea@theshee cafe and soon we were heading off up the steep slope to a very specific 'Chairlift Pylon Number 7' near which Jason informed me that Ptarmigan had bred this last year. It wasn't very far, but some of it was tough going for me being old and fat, not to mention carrying a big camera.

On the way up we had our first glimpse of a Mountain Hare, but as I got my camera out of the rucksack it ran. I was going to have to be a lot more careful if I had another encounter.  We didn't see any more for a while and no Ptarmigan around the rockier areas near the Pylon, but the views were simply breathtaking.

We'd taken a reasonably direct route up the slope to Pylon 7 and some of it was covered in loose rock on which it was easy to slip, so we looked for a gentler way down. It was whilst doing this that we started to spot more and more Hares - at one point we had eight Hares altogether in our bins and there might have been as many as twelve in total.

As there was virtually no snow anywhere except for a few very small patches on the highest peaks, finding the Hares was quite easy here, especially when they moved.  They were mainly sitting in heather patches rather than in amongst the rocks and so, unlike in Strathdearn, there were no patches of lichen or quartz veins to confuse the issue.

I really do need to come back and spend a day here photographing them in the snow and trying to get a lot closer, but for this week, I was very happy to finish on a 'high'.

So looking back on it perhaps the photos aren't that bad after all, there's certainly a variety of animals in there and we had a good time discovering new places in a fabulous part of the world.  We'll just have to go back!