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Saturday 30 September 2017

A Yorkshire Break - 12th to 14th September, 2017

A couple of years ago, Lindsay and I dropped in at the Yorkshire town of Helmsley to take a short break for lunch on our way back home from a stay in Scarborough. We instantly decided that we liked the town, and this feeling was reinforced when we found a local ice cream manufacturer that made the most wonderful ice creams and sold them in a cafe on-site, and then, just a few steps after leaving, found a bakery which sold the most amazing produce including cheese straws 'to die for'. So when Lindsay suggested to me a few weeks ago that it would be good to get away for a couple of nights, Helmsley came to mind - a break almost entirely based on the lure of ice cream and cheese straws!

Helmsley is less than three hours away from home so, on the Tuesday, we timed it so that we would be there around lunch time. We were lucky to find a convenient unrestricted parking space just off the main square and set off to the Ryeburn of Helmsley ice cream shop for an ice cream to set us up before lunch. 

To my concern, I'd noticed that the bakery seemed to have disappeared. We needed, therefore, to find lunch elsewhere, so we set off to look for sustenance. It didn't take long before we ran into a problem! We'd called in at the Oxfam charity shop and, as we were leaving, Lindsay lost her footing on the uneven floor and badly twisted her knee. We carried on for a while, stopping for a sandwich in a coffee shop, but soon Lindsay declared she was in real trouble. I supported her as we returned to the ice cream shop (any excuse!) and, having had our second indulgence of the day, I set off to try and find her a walking stick, which she thought would help her out. It took a while but I found one in the end.

During that time, I'd stopped someone who looked as if they might be 'local' to ask about the bakery. She told me that it was called Cinnamon Twist and was still there, but only open from Wednesday to Friday, and added that their cheese straws were fabulous - I knew we were talking about the same place!

By now, we were able to check in at the Royal Oak and so we headed up to our room and spent most of the rest of the day relaxing and resting Lindsay's knee. We did, however, pop over the road for dinner at the Helmsley Spice Indian restaurant. Lindsay very much enjoyed her meal, but I was a little hamstrung as I have an intolerance of capsicums (bell peppers) and they told me, to my surprise, that all their curries used a pre-prepared sauce that contained peppers! I was advised that my choice was limited to one of the dry tandoori meals, and so settled for a tandoori mixed-grill - it was, as you might expect, a bit dry! We both were also a bit disappointed by the garlic fried rice. We've had this in many places at many times and always the garlic has been well-toasted and contributed a tasty, but relatively subtle, flavour to the rice. This version had masses of slices of barely cooked garlic and was overpowering to the extent that we both spent time picking the garlic out of the rice. Having said that, the service was good, most of the food was fine, and the venue itself was comfortable. It was also obviously well thought of, as it seems that the rest of their customers were 'regulars'.

Our room and bed at the Royal Oak were very comfortable, and we managed a reasonable night's sleep, considering Lindsay's knee problem.

We were awake well before breakfast and I took some shots of the view from the window.

view from Room 3, Royal Oak, Helmsley
The breakfast buffet at the Royal Oak was excellent, and Lindsay's knee was much improved, so we were able to continue to explore the town after breakfast - after popping in for an ice cream of course! 

A visit to the now-open Cinnamon Twist bakery shop resulted in sandwiches (superb), cheese straws (even better than last time), and cakes being purchased for a picnic, after which we set off to explore the roads that travel up to the moors.

There had been very heavy rain in the night, and we'd only been going for less than ten minutes when we came to a ford. The water depth marker was all but up to the 2 foot (0.6 metre) mark, and the flow was an absolute torrent. Even a local in a huge 4x4 didn't risk it. Sadly, I didn't have the presence of mind to take a photo. We turned round and, fortunately, the diversion was not a serious one. 

Our prime targets were the two long dead-end roads which run up the east and west side of Farndale. I chose the east side first. The run was quite scenic but we soon ran into trouble again - there were Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge everywhere - hundreds of them - and all in the road! The Pheasant weren't too bad, and tended to dive into the side of the road, but the partridges took little notice of our approach and just wandered up the road a few metres ahead of us. The problem was so great that Lindsay had to get out of the car and walk ahead shooing the birds out of the way - not great with a bad knee, but the knee also prevented her from driving.  Eventually there was a horrible smell of burning clutch (we were creeping along in an uphill direction) and so we gave up and turned round.

Here's a few shots of a less obstinate bird!

Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) - Farndale (east side)
Having decided that we'd look to see if the west side of Farndale was any less congested with game birds, we headed back to Church Houses. Noting a sign to the Daffy Caffy on a dead-end road, we thought a stop for refreshment and to give the car's clutch time to cool down might be a good idea. The proprietor of the cafe told us that there was a gentleman down in the York area who was breeding game birds and who then drove up to Farndale to release thousands of them by just off-loading them into the road. I suspect that we may have arrived just after he'd done this!

Farndale west side was somewhat more scenic and birds were seen but not photographed, and it didn't take long for us to reach the end of the road, and turn round again.

A quick perusal of the map had us heading for Gillamore, where we then turned north again for a very pleasant run on a minor road to Cockayne. Here we turned south on a very minor road towards Helmsley. We very soon found an unofficial-looking sign at a fork in the road which indicated that the right fork (which was the one we wanted to take) was not fit for motor vehicles. There was a moment of dilemma before I reckoned that we'd take that road anyway and turn round if it became impassable.

We soon found out why the sign was there, as any relatively low-slung car would have been in trouble. The road was very badly deformed, and we had to crawl along in places, avoiding large ridges and bits that were missing. We have absolutely no regrets, however, that we took this road as after a couple of miles (3km) it improved somewhat and we were out on open moors. 

Unfortunately it started tipping it down with rain soon after this!

Lindsay was the first to spot a Red Grouse. You can see the weather in this next image!

Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) - East Moors
Not wanting to miss out on this wonderful environment we stopped the car and waited for the rain to ease off somewhat before continuing. We were then seeing plenty more Red Grouse. There was still some colour in the heather which added to the scene.

Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) - East Moors
We hadn't realised that this road also forded a river but, fortunately, the ford was passable. 

We arrived back in Helmsley just in time for an ice cream before the shop closed!

That night we dined in at the Royal Oak. The food was good, and the service was very helpful, although we ate lightly as we'd overdone it with the picnic lunch!

The following day, after a good breakfast and checking out at the Royal Oak, and having fortified ourselves once more with an ice-cream, we headed north up through Bilsdale, as we'd been recommended it as being particularly scenic. In all honesty, we were both disappointed, and wished we'd returned to East Moors instead to see it in fine weather.  Having reached Stokesley, we headed homeward.

It had been a most enjoyable, if short, break and I believe that we are likely to return here sometime - maybe even next year.

Thank you for dropping by.

Sunday 24 September 2017

In The Company of Royalty - on 3rd September, 2017

Without a doubt, Kingfisher is one of my favourite birds. Lindsay and I used to see quite a few when we had our small cruiser based on the canals and I got some photos that were quite pleasing at the time, although they fall well short of what I would be happy with these days.

It's a few years now since we sold the boat, and my subsequent sightings of Kingfisher have been infrequent, to say the least, and resulted in very distant 'record' shots, blue blurs or, more usually, nothing at all! I was, therefore, over the moon to find myself looking at Kingfishers in a local location.

The first bird to appear was a male. He performed beautifully, giving the opportunity for a wide variety of shots including intimate close-up portraits. Fortunately, for this location, the sun was not shining, but it was relatively bright.

I make no apologies for the number of images in this post. This session was, and I'm confident will remain, my avian highlight of the year - even outstripping the juvenile Long-eared Owl encounter in Scotland and the Hoopoe in Loughborough!

All the images below are in strictly chronological order, which I hope will help to convey some of the action. 

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) (male) - Leicestershire
The flight photos are a bit shabby as I was set up for stills. After this, the male flew off down to the brook, but I only had to wait six minutes before the female arrived. She also performed quite well but spent most of her time fishing from a stick which was close to the hide. The hide was busy with people and I was not in the best position to maximise the opportunities whilst she was here. Nevertheless I'm delighted with what I did get! The preening session was somewhat of a bonus!

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) (female) - Leicestershire
All the above took place in a period of two hours and twenty minutes duration. It was one of my most memorable birdwatching sessions ever, and all because of a single species!

I have made three return visits since then and, although the birds did not show for long, the results were a little different and so may appear in a future post.

Thank you for dropping by. I suspect my next post may feature Red Grouse.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

A Dilemma Resolved - on 27th August, 2017

I'd had a hankering to have another session with the new macro lens, and try it on a few dragons and damselflies. The local weather forecast for the Sunday didn't look too bad and as it was probably the last open Sunday at Alvecote Wood at which I'd have a chance at these creatures (the open days are on the last Sunday of each month until December) I'd made up my mind to go there for the day, taking sandwiches with me. My main interest was to photograph some Emerald Damselflies as I'd not photographed many so far this year.

For some reason, that morning, I checked Birdguides for the latest news on sightings. I confess that this is something I probably only do once every week or two on average at this time of year. I was, therefore, highly disturbed to see that a Hoopoe had been being reported since the Friday only about 11 miles (18km) from my home. I've only ever seen one in UK once before, and then only got very distant views. 

Do I carry on with my plans to go to Alvecote, or do I head for Loughborough? Could I fit in both? If I fit in both, where do I go first? Ah, but I need the macro for Alvecote and the 50-500 for Loughborough - do I really want to be changing lenses in the field?

You'll probably have guessed wrong! What I decided to do was to go to Alvecote first, taking both lenses with me then, at around mid-day, look to see if the Hoopoe had been reported that morning and, if it had, scoot over to Loughborough.

I arrived at Alvecote Wood to be told that Sarah, the co-owner, was down by the ponds looking for dragons and damsels already, so without more ado, I set off for the ponds. 

At the ponds, I saw Sarah in the distance, but immediately saw some Emerald Damselflies. I soon found a limitation with the 150 macro. A mating pair were in front of me, but too far away to make anything of with the 150 - I'd have just about managed it with the 50-500.

Sarah told me that she'd seen plenty of Emerald Damselflies and a few Migrant Hawker dragonflies. However the latter hadn't been settling, and kept flying up into the trees.

I set about practising with the new macro lens, with the Emeralds as my prime target as they can be quite photogenic. I'm quite pleased with the results although, as always, there's room for improvement.

Emerald Damselfly (Lestes sponsa) (male) - Alvecote Wood
If you only ever saw bronzed specimens as shown in those last four images, you could be forgiven for wondering where the 'emerald' epithet came from. I do love those blue eyes!

There were a few Ruddy Darter around, but I didn't spend much time on these.

Ruddy Darter (Sympetrum sanguineum) (male) - Alvecote Wood
The Common Darters were being a little more obliging than their ruddy counterparts.

Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (male) - Alvecote Wood
That last set of images really convinced me that I'd bought the right lens! 

At one point I was watching a Migrant Hawker, and it settled on the far side of the pond that I was standing beside. I took a safety shot from a distance and I'm surprised that the shot (quite heavily cropped in the image below) turned out so well.

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) (male) - Alvecote Wood
To my delight, it soon flew and settled a bit closer to me - then, almost immediately, it did so again!

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) (male) - Alvecote Wood
I just couldn't believe my luck when it again rose from its perch and came even closer still. I am pleasantly surprised by the depth of field achieved, and these are almost certainly my best images of A. mixta yet!

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) (male) - Alvecote Wood
I learnt something that day which I wish I'd been aware of for the past few years, and that is that if I am using my camera in autofocus mode (which I always do), I can override any mis-focus by turning the manual focus ring. I have subsequently found that this works on the Sigma 50-500 also! Another thing that I soon found with the new macro lens is that the minimum focal distance is not as good as that on the 50-500!!

It was approaching lunchtime, and time for a decision. Fortunately, I was able to get an internet connection and check on the state of play in Loughborough - the Hoopoe had shown only a few minutes previously. I returned to my car, gobbled my sandwich, switched lenses so that the Sigma 50-500 was now on my camera, and set off for Loughborough which was only half an hour away.

I arrived to be told that the Hoopoe had shown for a while, but had then disappeared into the distance, looking as if it might not return. There were around half a dozen people standing at the roadside waiting for the bird. Whilst there, pal Col Green showed up and we had a chat just down the road from the main group who seemed to be talking far too loudly for our liking - we didn't think there was much chance of the bird returning under those circumstances. After around an hour it was starting to look as if we would be unlucky - and then we found ourselves being beckoned round the corner into Cherry Close, where an extremely kind lady invited us all into her house so we could stand in her lounge and dining room to watch, through the windows, the bird that was in her back garden. 

The bird was directly in front of me at one point, but it stayed virtually motionless and almost head-on for a while. Suddenly it became animated and moved off to the right. I still had great views, but the photos of it then deteriorated somewhat as I was shooting at an angle though double glazing. It was, nevertheless, a totally magical experience. I can see from the camera data that I was only there for 5 minutes, before deciding that it was time to let someone else have a chance, and so departed, leaving a donation with the wonderful lady who had let us all into her home without even asking us to take our boots off! I'm allowing myself to be totally self-indulgent with the images below as I just know I'll never get another opportunity like this with this species!

Hoopoe (Upupa epops) - Loughborough
It seems that some people stayed considerably longer than I did that afternoon, and some were lucky enough to get some excellent images of it with its crest up. I'm more than happy to get what I did, however! The next day the bird had gone.

I take this opportunity to thank, again, the wonderful lady in Cherry Close. You're an absolute star!

 Thank you for dropping by.