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Saturday 29 June 2013

It's Time I Got Back To The Owls - end of June, 2013

I have to confess to losing my owling 'mojo' of late. The reasons are several, not the least of which is the distraction of our garden which is being frequented by Great Spotted Woodpeckers and their offspring! Buying another camera body has also kept me busy. There will be more about this in a later post.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a blog with an emphasis on owls, and so I'd better do something about it.

Most of my owling this month has been ancillary to other activities, so little photography has resulted. The few dedicated owling forays, with hours spent in car or hide, have resulted in nothing!

I pass through my local patch on a regular basis, and the owls seem to be doing OK at my Little Owl Site No.02 in spite of a break in (egg collectors suspected). We've now installed a well-hidden surveillance camera (an amazing bit of kit!). This was the male owl on one of its favoured perches on 12th June.

Little Owl (male) - my Site No.02
On 20th June, my pal Titus and I were on duty at Rutland Water. It was an absolutely foul day day weather-wise, with torrential rain and strong winds setting in just after 14:00. On my way to Titus's place (at around 13:30) the male owl was out at Site No.02. When the weather set in we fully expected that we'd have an owl-less afternoon. Surprisingly, on our way to Rutland Water, an owl was out on a distant fence at my LO Site No.21!

Little Owl - my Site No.21
Our turn of duty was between 17:00 and 20:00 and, at this time of year, we would normally expect to be enjoying good light. However, the visibility conditions were the worst I've ever experienced whilst on this shift. If we hadn't have had the ability to hook into the web-cam, we wouldn't have had a clue what was going on. Just to give you some sort of idea, a Mole put in a brief appearance outside the hide at 18:45 (that's pretty-much three and a half hours before sunset - it was only one day off the longest day). I grabbed some quick shots of the Mole, and then saw, to my disappointment that they were all badly blurred. It's only when I looked at the data that I saw that, in spite of being set at ISO 2000(!), the shutter speed was 1/40th second. No wonder I didn't 'freeze' a scurrying mole with a 500mm lens!

We didn't hold out any hope for owls on the way home that night, but as we passed my LO Site No.23, where I haven't seen an owl since December last year, and then previously not since August, 2011, a  Little Owl was in a tree near the road ahead of us. I called for Titus to stop (he was driving), and we grabbed the safety shot.

Little Owl - my Site No.23
Fortunately the owl obliged by staying there whilst we moved a bit closer - no, the light was even worse than earlier in the evening, but the subject was static this time!

Little Owl - my Site No.23
We were totally unprepared when we found an owl in a tree right beside the road at Site No.21, and it disappeared up the field whilst we sorted ourselves out. I did get some sort of record shot of it in the field, but I won't trouble you with it here!

Other than that, my only other owl photos since the last owl post were taken on my way to get garden bird seed. Again it was a windy day (there have been rather a lot of those this month!), but one of the Little Owls was out at my Site No.15, sheltering on the leeward side of the oak tree that is its home.

Little Owl - my Site No.15
It's virtually impossible for me to get closer images at this site. The tree is in the middle of a field which seems to spend most of its life in crop and, therefore, not accessible.

I'd hate you to think that I manage close-ups of most of my owls. In reality, most of the time I'm only getting distant sightings as depicted above. The close-ups are the occasional lucky ones, and I'm not getting too many of those at present, even with use of the hide.

Weather permitting, I hope to get in some more serious owling next week!

Wednesday 19 June 2013

The Scottish Highlands - Pt.3, 28th to 30th May, 2013

Tuesday 28th May (continued)

After visiting the Falls of Shin, we headed back to base via the scenic route which, of course, included Lochindorb! We entered at the south end and, before we got to the water, stopped to look at a Curlew that was showing well in the bright afternoon sunlight.

Curlew - Lochindorb
Continuing, we were treated to a distant view of an Osprey, but little else was seen until we left the loch at the northern end. Here we had distant views of a Cuckoo with the poor Meadow Pipit that it was parasitising!

Meadow Pipit + Cuckoo - Lochindorb
Cuckoo - Lochindorb
Tonight was the night that Jim Almond was giving his first talk at the Grant Arms. His subject was the Shropshire Peregrines that he monitors. His talk was timed to start at 21:00, but the sun was shining and there was no wind, and Short-eared Owls were beckoning up the road! I made my apologies to Jim, and set out after dinner, arriving at at couple of minutes before 8 o'clock. A SEO appeared virtually on the dot of 8 o'clock!! I was hoping for some close shots in good light, but it kept its distance until just before it departed from the area, when it briefly flew past at about 100 metres away.

Short-eared Owl - south of Dava
I waited until 20:30, but the owl showed no signs of returning, so decided that it was an ideal opportunity to salve my conscience and returned to the hotel in time to buy a drink at the bar, and enjoy Jim's excellent talk!

Wednesday 29th

Having covered over 200 miles (320 km) the previous day we decided to stay closer to base this day. Stopping in a lay-by at Dulnain Bridge where, previously we've seen Dipper, Grey Wagtail, and Common Sandpiper, we found a juvenile Dipper on a nearby rock.

Dipper (juvenile) - Dulnain Bridge
Although we've passed through Carr Bridge many times before, it was only the last time through that my wife had spotted the old pack horse bridge. I didn't see it, so we stopped this time. It was worth the stop!

Carr Bridge - the original!
We then continued to what is usually referred to as the Findhorn Valley (or 'Valley of the Raptors') but more correctly is Strathdearn. We soon saw Dipper, Oystercatcher, Mistle Thrush (many seen during the holiday), Common Gull and Redstart. I tried to re-locate the Redstart, but failed!

Oystercatcher - Findhorn Valley (Strathdearn)
Mistle Thrush - Findhorn Valley (Strathdearn)
Also very evident were several good-sized herds of male Red Deer.

Red Deer (male) - Findhorn Valley (Strathdearn)
These deer were still wearing their woolly winter coats, and the velvet-covered antlers were developing well on some.

Red Deer (male) - Findhorn Valley (Strathdearn)
We got to the car parking area at the end of the public road. There were people here, and not much was being seen. I went for a walk further up the valley, but there was a strong cold wind blowing, so I didn't go far, and saw nothing of interest, so returned to the car (and my wife) and we set off back down the road. We took the very scenic road to Farr and stopping high up on the moors for our picnic but, as usual on this road, very little was seen.

We'd planned to have a refreshment stop at the herb nursery near Farr, but they were no longer offering this service, so we continued to Loch Ruthven, where the RSPB have a hide overlooking the loch, and from which breeding Slavonian Grebes can be seen. As we arrived, we had the best views - before I'd sorted out the camera! We had plenty of other sightings, but more distant. As I got better sightings at another location, I'll just offer the following two images.

Slavonian Grebe - Loch Ruthven
On the way back to the car park, a guide was busy showing his clients a Willow Warbler, in the absence of more interesting subjects. The bird's greatest attribute was that it was relatively confiding!

Willow Warbler - Loch Ruthven
As we'd not been to Lochindorb that day, we thought we'd better pass through on the way. I picked up some shots of Red Grouse.

Red Grouse - Lochindorb
After dinner that night I took Roger and Lynne to the SEO location, and Jim Almond followed in his car, and was later joined by two of his friends from Shropshire. There was a good stiff breeze blowing and it was a bit cold.

Jim picked up the first sighting - of a male Hen Harrier to the east of us, flying north. It passed at a distance of about 400 metres (checked on Google Earth), so only record shots were obtained. 

Hen Harrier (male) - south of Dava
Roger was next to make a discovery. He'd got two Black Grouse in his scope at about 700 metres distance to the west of us. They were facing off at each other, either side of a fence, with white tail feather displays. It was comical to watch. Then we noticed three more in the middle of the field doing the same thing! Unfortunately these were straight into the light as well as being a long way away - I'm amazed that I even managed record shots. 

Black Grouse (male) - south of Dava
The place where we were parked was on a mound and well off the road, giving us good all-round views. However, with three cars, and four people out of the cars, we must have stood out like a sore thumb. It might have been for this reason that when a SEO eventually appeared, at 20:52 - when we'd lost much of the light, it kept its distance, before departing to the distant  hillside to the west of us. Just for the sake of completion, this one was taken at its nearest approach at about 150 metres.

Short-eared Owl - south of Dava
Thursday 30th

At Dinner the previous night, Jim and Roger had been telling me of a Capercaillie that they'd had close views of that morning. In fact, Jim had spent all morning watching and photographing it. I've never seen a Capercaillie, so this was our first target as, apparently, it is regularly seen at this location. We'd planned to spend the morning at Chanonry Point, watching the Dolphins, so we made an early start to compensate. After about an hour and a half there was no sign of the Caper, so we set off for the Black Isle. We had about 40 minutes delay at the Kessock Bridge, where an accident had caused havoc as one side of the bridge was closed anyway, due to works.

If you're visiting Chanonry point, be aware that there are no 'facilities' there, and as you will not be alone here, there's no chance of sneaking into the bushes, so to speak! I recommend a visit to the very basic public loos by the harbour car park in Avoch.

There weren't many places left in the car park at Chanonry Point, and quite a crowd had assembled on the beach in anticipation of what the rising tide would bring in. We'd only been there minutes before the first Bottlenose Dolphin appeared.

Dolphins are not easy to photograph. That's my experience anyway, and Jim Almond expressed the same sentiments. There's no telling when and where they're going to surface, or what they're going to do when they do! If you're trying to use a camera with appreciable shutter lag, forget it! You really need quicker reactions than I've got at my age! Trying to grab a shot as a Dolphin puts its nose out of the water is nigh on impossible. Your best chance is when the Dolphins are 'cruising'. If they're being really lazy, you might be able to take your time over a shot when they're acting like a half-submerged submarine, like this one.

Bottlenose Dolphin - Chanonry Point
The more usual thing is to see them when they break surface in an arcing movement. I've taken hundreds of photos of dorsal fins and backs, as below!

Bottlenose Dolphin - Chanonry Point
Sometimes it pays to keep the camera rolling. There's nothing clever about a tail shot - they're the easiest to get - but they can be effective!

Bottlenose Dolphin - Chanonry Point
Your best chance of getting a photo that includes a nose is when there's more than one Dolphin travelling together. They tend to follow each other's motion, but slightly out of phase, so you get the dorsal and back of the first Dolphin, and the nose of the trailing one. This always gives me pleasure!

Bottlenose Dolphin - Chanonry Point
Occasionally the picture gets muddled with too much going on. There are four Dolphins in this next image.

Bottlenose Dolphin - Chanonry Point
All the above images were taken when the Dolphins were in 'cruising' mode. The excitement really happens when they get animated. Then, if you are lucky, you will see them breaching (coming out of the water). It's my ambition to capture this well at some time. So far I've only managed poor images of this, when the Dolphins were a long way away. Here are some attempts from this session.

Bottlenose Dolphin - Chanonry Point
There can be other distractions whilst on the beach although these were few and far between on this occasion.

Grey Heron - Chanonry Point
Razorbill - Chanonry Point
All the above were taken during a 75 minute session - we had to leave as we had a table booked for lunch at the excellent Eilean Dubh restaurant in Fortrose.

A little worried about the Kessock Bridge situation, we set off back to the other side of the Moray Firth a little earlier than planned. We'd never visited Nairn before, so stopped there for a while. Although pleasant enough, we didn't find anything there to hold our interest for long so decided on a scenic route back to base. Before leaving, however, I took some photos of an obliging House Sparrow. I was rather pleased with the results. Now, be honest, how many of you photographers out there have bothered with the humble House Sparrow? I reckon this beats any I've taken before!

House Sparrow (male) - Nairn
Our scenic route back to base took us past Lochindorb (now there's another surprise!), and I'm glad that it did! We'd not long been on the Lochindorb road when I spotted a Golden Plover sitting in an exposed position. I quickly stopped the car (fortunately nothing else was around, as it's a single-track road with passing places), got my wife to wind down her window, and banged off some shots. Simultaneously as my wife said, "there's chicks here" (I didn't see them as they were below my line of sight), another plover ran down the road in front of the car doing its 'wounded' act to entice predators away - it was time for us to leave them in peace! I nearly didn't get any usable results as I found that I'd been shooting at a totally inappropriate setting, and I've had to do a fair amount of sharpening on these two images.

Golden Plover (female) - Lochindorb
A little further on I managed possibly my best Red Grouse image of the holiday (with more appropriate camera settings!).

Red Grouse (male) - Lochindorb
As we passed along the water's edge we came across a Common Sandpiper that was too busy having a wash to take any notice of us. I had to almost stand up in my seat in order to shoot through my wife's open window, as the bird was low down. These were my first and last Common Sandpiper images of the holiday. On previous visits they'd been everywhere! This is the one that I'm most pleased with.

Common Sandpiper - Lochindorb
Jim Almond was giving a different talk that night, but the SEOs won again. After dinner, I set off for the parking spot, accompanied by another of the hotel guests. About a mile (1.6 km) before the usual spot a SEO flew up from the roadside, only about 10 metres from me, and flew out of sight. We continued north to the usual spot, and immediately spotted a second SEO and then, within a few minutes, this bird was joined by two other SEOs from the north. The two birds departed south, and a short while later, two SEOs again appeared from the north. I've no idea if these were the same two that had found a way round, out of sight, or two more birds. We'd either seen four SEOs, or we'd seen six! All these sightings were at a distance and although I did take some photos, they were very much inferior to previous efforts. We also saw Black Grouse again in the form of a male which roosted in a small tree, and a possible female in the field - in the same field as previously.

I left the lady looking for more owls and headed back, only missing the first 15 minutes of Jim's talk on photographing wildlife - very enlightening!

Friday 31st

This was our last full day in Scotland and I started with an early visit to try and find the Capercaillie. I gave up after two and a half hours, and rejoined my wife who'd been shopping in Grantown. Wet weather was expected, and we set off for the hotel's private hide at Avielochan. In spite of displaying our permit on the dashboard of the car, we were still challenged as we drove down the road to the hide. We'd decided to have our picnic here and there was an obliging Willow Warbler outside the hide.

Willow Warbler - Avielochan
I managed some distant shots of the Slavonian Grebes in the pouring rain before the weather decided us to give up and depart for a pot of Earl Grey and a slice of cake at The Potting Shed. The male was bringing offerings of weed for his lady!

Slavonian Grebe - Avielochan
The potting shed was busy this day, and we had to queue for a seat. Suitably refreshed we headed to Tromie Bridge where both Dipper and Grey Wagtail (not Yellow Voggtail!) were seen again. This photo, unlike the previous ones from this location, was taken on the upstream side of the bridge.

Grey Wagtail - Tromie Bridge
There was not a lot of time left in this wet weather afternoon so it was time to go and say farewell to Lochindorb. Our journey took us past Avielochan and, for some reason, I felt drawn to having a last quick look. It was still raining when we arrived and I got soaked going from car to hide. Whilst I do try to keep my camera dry if possible, I'm not too precious about it and so took it with me. I'm so glad I did, as I first happened upon a male Redstart. Fortunately the pictures came out reasonably, in spite of the dull wet weather.

Redstart (male) - Avielochan
My luck continued as the Slavonian Grebes decided to show well, and relatively close, and I got some better images. On the basis that I'm unlikely to have such luck ever again, please excuse me if I indulge myself with a few images!

Slavonian Grebe - Avielochan
I can't help looking at these and thinking what I might have achieved with better lighting!

We then set off for Lochindorb and found it damp and a bit misty. I only took a few photos, of Red Grouse and Meadow Pipit, but I can't leave this account of our holiday without a last image from Lochindorb from this day.

Red Grouse - Lochindorb
It was far too wet and miserable to contemplate going out after dinner, so Jim, Lynne and Roger, and my wife and I settled in the bar for a chat and a farewell drink as we were all departing the next morning.

Saturday 1st June

We made an earlyish start, and I had a last-ditch attempt at the Capercaillie. Just after 10:00 I reckoned it was time to give up and we set off homeward. The roads were virtually empty, apart from large numbers of Austin Healey 3000 sports cars (nearly all German registered) coming in the opposite direction over maybe a 40 mile (65km) stretch. We stopped for lunch at our favourite Dalmore Inn again, and took the decision that, if we were still feeling fresh as we approached Newcastle we'd continue homeward, forsaking our booked and payed for hotel. We did just that, and were home by around 20:00. I've never seen the A1, A1M, M18, and M1 so quiet!!

My thanks to Lynne and Roger and to Jim for the pleasure of your company, and to all at The Grant Arms for another superb stay. All things being equal, we'll be back soon.