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Thursday 23 February 2012

Bitting and Bobbing (and an owl or two!) - mid-February, 2012

Just been ticking over on the birding front for the last couple of weeks - mainly due to three projects at home, which aren't going as quickly as they might as I've been full of cold for the past five days. 

The Redpolls are still with us in the garden, and reached an all-time high of six birds in the garden this morning!

Lesser Redpoll - our garden, on 15th February, 2012

Lesser Redpoll - or garden, on 16th February, 2012

We see Long-tailed Tits in our garden every year, but they're very infrequent visitors.

Long-tailed Tit - our garden, on 16th February, 2012

It's not every year that we see a Bullfinch in our garden. So far this year we've been lucky enough to have three sightings (once a male and twice a female). This is the only image of one in the garden that I've managed this year - a poor result on a very dull and dismal day!

Bullfinch (female) - our garden, on 17th February, 2012
For a week now, I've been looking after a feeding station at Oakthorpe Colliery, that has been set up by a friend to help him try and photograph Jays. He's away from home and doesn't want to loose the momentum by letting the feeder run dry. So far I've only seen one Jay there, and that landed on the ground beside the feeder so briefly that I didn't have time to get my camera onto it. I have, however, delighted in watching the other birds here.

I've found my friend's feeder very difficult to use photographically - it's a strange set-up, so most of my own images from here are of birds in the nearby bushes, or on the ground. However, here is one from his feeder.

Robin - Oakthorpe Colliery, on 20th February, 2012

Reed Buntings are here in reasonable numbers - I've seen up to eight at a time recently. The birds are just starting to move towards breeding plumage.

Reed Bunting (female) - Oakthorpe Colliery, on 20th February, 2012

Reed Bunting (male) - Oakthorpe Colliery, on 20th February, 2012

The real treat here at the moment is the number of Yellowhammer that congregate. There can be up to twelve at a time, mostly males. I make no apologies for posting several images here of these spectacular birds.

Yellowhammer (female) - Oakthorpe Colliery, on 20th February, 2012

Yellowhammer (male) - Oakthorpe Colliery, on 20th February, 2012

On Tuesday, rather than hang around at Oakthorpe Colliery, after topping up the feeders I called in at my local Short-eared Owl site. Two owls were out whilst I was there. The weather was a bit dull, and light levels low, but I got some 'owl on post' images. I wish someone would decide that it's time to remove those horrible green protective sleeves from the young trees!!

Short-eared Owl - near Ashby de la Zouch
In past posts I've mentioned the 'going home shot' - a 'throwaway shot' taken as I'm leaving, after the light has got too bad, and turns out to be usable. The 'going home' shot on this day is one of my favourites.

Short-eared Owl - near Ashby de la Zouch

Now to get back to that decorating!

Sunday 12 February 2012

Size Matters! - Small is Beautiful!

I've got to the point that I now realise that I've had my head turned by the Short-eared Owls that are just up the road from me, and my Little Owls have been sadly neglected. It's probably not too difficult to work out why. The SEOs are close at hand, and they're always there (for the time-being, at least). I've been going to see the SEOs two or three times a week since the beginning of November, and only not seen them once - when it was blowing a gale, and I only went to confirm that this was just too much for owls to be out in. Little Owls require a little more work and, even when the weather is favourable, it's anybody's guess as to whether you'll find one, even if you know where they live. In summary, I've been taking the lazy option (although I've put in a lot of hours at the SEO site). There's also the social aspect too. For the most part, Little Owl watching is a solitary pastime, whereas it's a rare day that I don't have someone to chat with at the SEO site.

Anyway, with renewed resolve I have started to do something about my Little Owls.

Thursday 9th February

The weather was not brilliant (dull and +1deg C) but I had a couple of hours to spare in the afternoon and popped up to my local patch. At my Little Owl Site No.12 I found an owl in a barn where I'd never seen one before. I took a few shots, before continuing to check out the area.

Little Owl - my Site No.12
I didn't find anything else of interest during my travels, but the owl was still in the same place when I returned!

Little Owl - my Site No.12
After this, I took a trip down the road to my Site No.02, but nothing was showing. I then went another couple of miles and took the walk to my latest LO site - Site No.25, but no sign of any owls there either (I've only seen an owl here once, and then missed getting an image).

By now I was weakening, and set off for my local SEO site. Three SEOs were seen but, as penance for my weakness, I'll not publish any images here!

Friday 10th February

In response to a call from someone who had seen Little Owl in his garden, and had found some pellets under a tree, I had a late afternoon appointment to visit and investigate. On the way I called in at my LO Site No.02. An owl was sitting out on the barn.

Little Owl - my Site No.02

To my amazement it flew, but landed in a tree somewhat closer to me. I am a little concerned as I see that this bird now seems to have a growth on its forehead.

Little Owl - my Site No.02
Saturday 11th February

In the morning I went out to get some bird food. The garden birds are eating me out of house and home - my shopping list included 60 kg bird seed, 5 kg peanuts, and 2 kg niger seed. I'm hoping that this will last until the end of March, but at the current rate of consumption I don't stand a chance!!

My route, with only a minor diversion, takes me past my only Staffordshire LO Site. Both birds were out but their tree is in the middle of a field that is currently under cultivation, so I could not approach for photography. Both birds are in the image below, but you're doing well if you can find them!

Little Owls - my Site No.15

After lunch I went out for a little more serious owling. Nothing was visible at my LO Sites Nos. 16 & 17, but at my Site No.03 I was lucky enough to find two birds out. I spotted the one in the nest tree first, but as I approached (this is the site where I have to walk past the bird without looking, and then turn round to take the photo) I found the second bird on a distant post.

Little Owl (B) - My Site No.03
I then turned round for the photos of the first bird. The second of the two images shows just how well camouflaged these birds can be in this tree.

Little Owl - my Site No.03
After this, I visited my LO Sites Nos. 9, 5, and 6, but without success. At Site No.06, however, I couldn't resist a photo of a Brown Hare in the warm (in colour only!) evening sunlight.

Brown Hare - my LO Site No.06
 The light was failing fast and I decided to divert back to Site No.16, and ominously found a Sparrowhawk on top of the building where I sometimes see the owls.

Sparrowhawk (male) - my LO Site No.16
By now it was far too dark to contemplate any more Little Owl photography, so I set off home, via my local patch. As I reached the boundary of what I consider to be my patch, I spotted a suspicious shape in a tree - Little Owl!! This was over half a mile from my nearest LO site, so I'm calling it my new Little Owl Site No.26. As it was all but fully dark, I only managed some poor images at ISO 3200 and 1/60 second exposure. I must now return and try for some better ones!!

Little Owl - my NEW Site No.26

Am I pleased to be back with the little'uns? You'd better believe it!! OK so there is something awesome about a larger owl, and watching them fly is inspirational, but the Little Owls are just so appealing.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Early February Shorties

I'll try and keep this post somewhat shorter than my last one!

Thursday 1st February

We came back from Scotland on the last day of January, and I was champing at the bit to get out and see if the Short-eared Owls were still at my local site. It was 16.35 before two owls showed, but I still managed to get some images. It looks as if the bird shown in the second image (different to the one in the first image) is my old cross-eyed friend!

Short -eared Owl - near Ashby de la Zouch
It started getting dark soon after this and I started heading for home. For some reason I seem to have made a habit of grabbing a last minute shot in terrible light, and then coming up with something that I quite like. This day was no exception, with some images back-lit by light reflecting off the lake behind the bird. The dark splot to the left is an island in the lake.

Short-eared Owl - Ashby de la Zouch

Sunday 5th February

Having been pretty much preoccupied with processing hundreds of images from the Scottish trip, I didn't get out again until this day. I couldn't resist trying to get some images of the owls in the sunshine, with deep snow on the ground. Arriving just after 14.00, two owls were located almost immediately. However, disappointingly, the only shot I managed which showed any amount of snow was a distant one.

Short-eared Owl - near Ashby de la Zouch

The disappointment was partly allayed by some flight images where the underside of the bird was beautifully lit by the light bouncing off the snow below. I've never seen a SEO looking so white underneath!

Short-eared Owl - near Ashby de la Zouch

I managed to get some further shots of one of the owls on a post, and the other in a tree. 

Short-eared Owl - near Ashby de la Zouch
After this, the clouds suddenly started rolling over, it went quite dark, and looked as if it was going to start snowing again, so I beetled off home, not even stopping to take the parting shot. Now I must try and re-connect with the Little Owls - not seen one since 17th January!

Monday 6 February 2012

Speyside Break - January, 2012

My wife and I recently had a winter break at the excellent Grant Arms Hotel at Grantown on Spey. This was our fourth stay here in 18 months, so you might conclude that we are rather fond of the place!! I should point out that this was a holiday, rather than a serious bird-watching trip!

Wednesday 25th January

It's about 500 miles (800km) from home to Grantown, so we break the journey with an overnight stop. This allows us to take some scenic diversions en-route. On this occasion we pulled off the A1 near Bedale and had a picnic near Thorpe Perrow. Having finished our picnic we decided to try and see some scenery by setting the SatNav to 'shortest' route to Barnard Castle. This was nearly our undoing as we found ourselves on a road which degenerated into a farm track with no places to turn round, so we kept going. For about a mile the track was so badly rutted (the ruts being filled with muddy water), that the underside of the car was scraping on the centre ridge! Eventually we made it, and kept to the main roads for the rest of our journey to the outskirts of Newcastle.

Thursday 26th January

Still determined to take a scenic route, rather than the quickest route, we headed off on the second leg of our journey. We stopped for a coffee at the Dalmore Inn, just before Blairgowrie, and ended up having an excellent lunch there.

We next stopped at the Glenshee ski area in the hope of seeing Snow Bunting, but were not successful. However, we did find a a group of mountain ponies nearby in their white winter coats. 

Ponies - Glenshee area
 This was followed by a brief stop at Braemar (comfort and shop). As we approached the ski area of Lecht, I noticed a flock of small birds rise up from beside the road. It turned out to be about 50 Snow Buntings. I tried some photos but the snow was blowing at ground level so my photos of them on the ground came to nothing, but I did manage an image of some of the flock in flight.

Snow Bunting - Lecht
Everywhere were Red Grouse, but distant. I didn't bother trying to get images of them on this break, but here's a token image of one taken on this day!

Red Grouse - Lecht

We arrived at The Grant Arms to be greeted with the news that I'd won one of the two runner-up prizes in the hotel's Bird Watching and Wildlife Club's (BWWC) annual photographic competition - not for a bird image but one of a Red Squirrel! Now that's a good start to the break!! An excellent dinner that night sealed the feeling of well being, and so fortified we set off for Lochindorb, being an open area with virtually no light pollution. Our target was to see the Northern Lights and although it was probably 80% cloudy we were successful - a lifetime first for both of us! .

Friday 27th January

Since our last visit, the BWWC have put up feeders in Anagach Wood, behind the hotel. We started the day, after a good breakfast, by visiting these. I've seen Crested Tit on Speyside before, but this morning I was to get my first ever image.

Crested Tit - Anagach Wood, Grantown on Spey
I guess no visit to Speyside would be complete without seeing a Red Squirrel. I didn't really bother with them on this visit, but here's one that I took that morning whilst waiting for the Cresties.

Red Squirrel - Anagach Wood, Grantown on Spey

After this we set of for Cairngorm in the hope of seeing Snow Bunting, and maybe something more exotic. We arrived to find that there was little snow, but had a look round and couldn't see anything, so called in at the Ranger's office. He seemed quite upset as he told us that this winter was the first for fifteen years that he'd not seen Snow Bunting there, and everything else was only at a higher level. We gave up and set off on a scenic route back to Lecht.

We arrived to find that no Snow Buntings were visible, but we only had to wait a few minutes before eight of them landed on the apex of the ski centre roof. I made sure that they were watching as I laced the top of a wall with seed. I'd only been back in my car for a minute or two before they were down. I'd really not thought things through as, although I took well over a hundred shots, most of them clearly show 'the bait' - something that I don't like to see in images - the distant background of the ski centre was not as 'lost' as I'd expected it to be, and for virtually all images the focus was soft (I don't know why). Here are some of the better ones, although not good. The plumage of these birds at this time is very variable and to a novice like me it is difficult to tell males from females. I am pretty sure that the first is a female, and the second (with the white wing bar) is a male I'm less sure about the 3rd and 4th images.

Snow Bunting - Lecht

That night, after another excellent dinner, we went to Lochindorb again, where there was a star-filled sky, and somewhat better views of the Northern Lights - fabulous!!

Saturday 28th January

Our destination today was the Moray Coast. I was particularly keen to try and catch up with Long-tailed Duck, as I'd only got some relatively poor images of them from our previous January visit in 2011. We arrived at Burghead to find a group of Eider and a female Long-tailed in the harbour. Game on !!

Long-tailed Duck (female) - Burghead

On the wall on the opposite side of the harbour mouth was a group of Cormorants, sunning themselves (it was a beautiful still and sunny day).

Cormorant - Burghead

I thought that the lighting on the drake Eider in the harbour was interesting.

Eider (male) - Burghead

We then walked round the harbour and had a walk up the steps that lead to the head. I then noticed a pair of Long-tails just outside the harbour and set off back on the side of the harbour that the Cormorants had been on, taking a few shots of them as I passed. I always describe myself as a novice birder, and I can now reinforce this claim by admitting that I'd not noticed that the Cormorants had been joined by a Shag (third from left below) until I got home!!

Cormorants, plus Shag - Burghead

As I passed by, they all took flight except one, which was very confiding, so I took some close-up photos of this - and still the penny didn't drop!!

Shag (juvenile) - Burghead
The rest of the visit was a bit more sane, and some images that I'm quite pleased with (particularly the stretching drake Long-tailed) were obtained.

Long-tailed Duck (juvenile male) - Burghead

Long-tailed Duck - (male)
The last image is there because it illustrates the very flat nature of the head of the Long-tailed Duck!

Eider (juvenile male) - Burghead

Eider (female) - Burghead

Having refreshed ourselves with a pot of Earl Grey at the Bothy Tearooms we visited the other side of the head, where we found the usual assortment of waders, including Redshank, Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Curlew.

Redshank - Burghead
Curlew - Burghead
The next place to visit was Lossiemouth East Beach, where we'd seen Long-billed Dowitcher last October. Here we found Snow Bunting on the beach, a couple of hardy souls surfing in the sea - in January!!!, and as we returned over the footbridge a Shag was fishing in the river - no I didn't miss it this time!

Snow Bunting - Lossiemouth East Beach

Shag - Lossiemouth East Beach

We had to set off back to the hotel fairly early as we were booked to visit the Speyside Wildlife hide that evening. We had to do some soul searching before booking this as it would mean missing dinner at the hotel. We needn't have worried however, as the hotel provided us with a picnic to end all picnics. We had a huge flask of carrot and coriander soup, and a large hamper containing a round of generously filled beef and horseradish sandwiches, a round of prawn sandwiches, a plate of smoked venison, a plate of smoked salmon, a cheese platter (3 cheeses and all the trimmings), pots of relish, oatcakes, crisps, yoghurts, and fruit!

The session was due to start at 18.00, but we were the only two people booked and the ranger arrived at the meeting place 20 minutes early - just as we were tucking into the sandwiches. We quickly packed it away for later and set off to the hide.

I knew almost immediately that I was in trouble. I'd been expecting to see things at a distance and so only taken my 150-500 lens with me - BIG MISTAKE!!! The ground outside the hide had been baited less than a metre from the windows.

Having settled in and the lighting sorted out, the first thing to appear was a Wood Mouse. I just about managed to get this in frame! - Please note that, due to the low light levels, all the following images are taken at ISO 6400.

Wood Mouse - near Loch an Eilean
When the next creatures appeared I didn't stand a chance - three Red Deer! If I stood as far back as possible in the hide and shot at a very oblique angle I could just get the head of the young stag in frame - the zoom was permanently wound down to 150mm.

Red Deer (stag) - near Loch an Eilean
It was virtually impossible to take photos without the bait included in the image, but the deer did their best to 'hoover up' all that was there. John, the Ranger, kept having to pop outside to replenish the food.

Next to appear were the badgers. These were, for me, even more difficult to photograph as the light levels were lower on that side of the hide, and the ground was lower too. If I stood back to get the distance, they were below the level of the windowsill. This is the best image that I could manage.

Badger - near Loch an Eilean

John was an absolutely excellent host, and gave us a detailed account of the Pine Marten - the prime objective of the visit to the hide. We'd been there for about two and a half hours before one appeared. It was a very large male, and John was delighted as this was the first time that John had seen him from the hide since November. The Marten was much bigger than I expected, and I was lucky enough to get a vaguely usable image of him when he was at a distance and away from the lights. The last image was the best that I could do at 150mm when the Marten was feeding.

Pine Marten (male) - near Loch an Eilean

This was an absolutely magical evening, for which John gets a great big thank you! We shall certainly come back here when next we stay at The Grant Arms, but with a more suitable lens - I suspect my 17-70 f2.8 would be most appropriate! Back at the hotel at 22.00 we finished off our hamper in the Capercaillie Bar.

Sunday 29th January

Our objective this day was Chanonry Point (on The Black Isle), and the Dolphins. It was another amazingly good day weatherwise, with sun and no wind. We arrived at low tide, and I was immediately taken with a flock of about 150 Dunlin at the water's edge. I was subsequently told that there was a lone Knot amongst them, but I didn't see it! My wife, meantime, had gone off to look for the Dolphins.

Dunlin - Chanonry Point, Black Isle

When I rejoined my wife she asked for my tally - I'd seen the birds and she'd seen five Dolphins! We then stood out and waited for the Dolphins to appear again. I kept myself amused by looking at the birds that were around - nothing amazing, but Razorbill, Guillemot, Red-breasted Merganser, all passed by either on the water or in the air.

Red-breasted Merganser (male) - Chanonry Point, Black Isle

Razorbill - Chanonry Point, Black Isle

Needing a comfort stop and some refreshment we headed across the golf course into Fortrose for a pot of Earl Grey and a delicious cake at the excellent Eileandubh Restaurant. Soon after our return to the point the Dolphins put in an appearance. I understand that Bottlenose Dolphins (which are what are seen here) do not breach (leap out of the water) as much as most other sorts of dolphin. Most of the time, what you see is the arched back with dorsal fin briefly protruding from the water. Predicting when they will next show on the surface is not that easy. Most of my shots are of backs with fins sliding back into the water. On this occasion we did not see a dolphin breach (although we did a couple of times in October). However, I did manage some images, including some with a head out of water (known as 'spyhopping'). A selection follows.

Bottlenose Dolphin - Chanonry Point, Black Isle

Time was running away with us - we'd spent virtually a full day on the beach (!) - but before we set off back to Grantown I managed an image of a passing Long-tailed Duck.

Long-tailed Duck (male) - Chanonry Point, Black Isle

Monday 30th January

This was our day for setting off homeward. A brief stop at Lecht revealed a largish flock of Snow Bunting, but nothing more exciting was seen. Another brief stop, at Aberlady Bay, gave us little more than Redshank, and so we continued to North Berwick. I'd never seen Bass Rock before, and when we arrived at the end of the afternoon the light on it was fantastic. We had a brief walk about here and I took a few photos. I'd never seen a Turnstone looking so upright and slim! I'm also quite pleased with the Redshank image.

Bass Rock - from North Berwick
Turnstone - North Berwick

Redshank - North Berwick

That night we slummed it in the Travelodge at Berwick upon Tweed with dinner at The Scottish Restaurant, and the next day it was straight home for a late lunch.

Our thanks to everyone who made our break so enjoyable - one of the best ever! Our particular thanks, however, are to all the staff at the Grant Arms Hotel - all things being equal, we'll be back soon!!