Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mandarins

I am very lucky to work in a hospital that was built on a site that is surrounded by extensive parkland; the site of a former country house. This is a much needed green space on the edge of a large urban area. It is widely-used by the local population but sadly much underused by the hospital staff. It provides me with welcome respite from my work and would surely benefit more people if only they would stretch their legs and investigate what the park has to offer. I know from personal experience that wildlife watching is very therapeutic.
I have birdwatched this area for a number of years and over that time I have seen some special birds including Grasshopper Warbler, Cuckoo, Kingfisher and even a flock of Whimbrel. There is an ornamental lake and waterfall that attracts a small selection of wildfowl, but a surprise visitor the other day was a stunning Little Egret. Not so long ago this was a real rarity, even nationally, but the nearby Dee Estuary has a thriving breeding population, but this was a first for me in the park.
Another bird that has increased in the park recently is the Mandarin Duck. This is an introduced species but the gaudy males are stunning birds. They have bred in the park in recent years but on a lunchtime stroll last week I saw more than a dozen males; the most that I have ever seen at one time. And what a spectacular sight they made; parading like little rainbow-coloured sailing boats with their orange spinnakers on full display. Their beauty was somewhat undermined by their pig-like grunting! The females were far-more demure and subtly-plumaged. I only had my compact camera with me at the time, so I vowed to return with my DSLR to try obtain some sharper images.

  



 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Burton Mere Wetlands

My local RSPB reserve is Burton Mere Wetlands, formerly known to long-time visitors as Inner Marsh Farm. It is a great place for wildlife (especially wetland birds) at any time of the year. But my recent visit was for a woodland bird, namely a Long-eared Owl that has taken to roosting in trees near the old Inner Marsh Farm Hide.
As usual with these birds, it was secreted deep in a dense tangle of trees and bushes and was therefore not easy to locate. It was a bit like viewing one of those 3-D images that were popular a while ago; it was necessary to stare into the centre of the maze of twigs and branches and suddenly the image of the owl would come into focus, motionless and superbly camouflaged. Naturally photography was a challenge in these conditions, but I managed a "record" shot.
I left this popular bird to the small crowd of admirers and returned to the visitor centre via the old fishing pools that occasionally hold Kingfisher, but my luck wasn't holding. Although I did see what I thought was an early sign of Spring as a Coot dragged a long piece of vegetation across one of the pools. Ah, I thought, it was starting to nest-build; but I was wrong, the bird stopped in the middle of the lake and proceeded to shake and cut the greenery into small easily-swallowed pieces. It was having an afternoon snack!
I stopped by the bird feeders to photograph a female Great Spotted Woodpecker. It was here that I saw a cheeky Brown Rat making the most of some spilt seed. A surprising end to a short sojourn to my local reserve.






 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Snowdonia

Snowdonia in North Wales is a region I visit on a regular basis, not just for the stunning scenery and exhilarating walks, but also for some fabulous wildlife. An additional bonus at this time of year is the presence of snow on some of the higher peaks which makes the region eminently attractive for landscape photographers. I have to admit to just snapping the scenery as I concentrate my photography mainly on the wildlife, but the images are quite pleasing nevertheless.
Last Sunday dawned with a thick fog shrouding the fields around my home on the Wirral, but the forecast was for sunny spells, so I set off early for the Welsh hills. The sun didn't break through the clouds and mist until I was well into the Snowdonia National Park. My first stop was at a layby in the Nant Ffrancon valley, were that scarce relative of the Blackbird, the migratory Ring Ouzel had been seen over the previous few weeks. I don't know whether these birds were very early returning migrants hoping to set up territories before their rivals, or if they had overwintered in the valley for the same reason. But a number of birds had been seen the previous day. A small group of birdwatchers had gathered at the layby and one even pointed out a nearby rock where he had seen a Ring Ouzel perched the previous day, but during my stay at the site the target birds were not seen. But it was a great spot for admiring the surrounding snow-clad hills, with views up to the Ogwen Valley and the Devil's Kitchen.
But the short winter daylight hours were ticking away and I, along with my friend Jane, fancied a short walk up Mount Snowdon itself. We drove to Capel Curig and stopped to take more scenic photographs, and admire a small flock of ducks diving on the lake. They were mainly Tufted Ducks, but also present were a few Goldeneye and a "redheaded" Goosander; the Barracuda of the bird world.
We drove on to Llanberis, where I took some shots of some confiding Jackdaws before we set off up the Llanberis footpath. We only planned to walk as far as the snowline which last weekend was about two thirds of the way up the mountain. It was a very pleasant walk; the route known as the "tourists path" up Snowdon was not very busy and the views were stunning. It even felt pleasantly warm at times in the February sunshine. We stopped for a picnic, but could not entice the local Ravens very close. These beautiful crows are intelligent but wary of people. We also encountered a few Herring Gulls near the snack bar part way up the mountain. Although this was closed, these large gulls obviously associate people with an easy meal, and perched on the roof of the building where they could scan the area for any scraps. Interestingly, I observed one gull eating the snow, probably as a source of water to wash down some scavenged food item.
We reached the snowline at about 2pm, which gave us some time to admire the views and take more photos before returning to LLanberis for a very welcome hot cup of coffee.


Nant Ffrancon minus the Ring Ouzels


The Snowdon "Horseshoe" from Capel Curig

Jackdaw at Llanberis


Snowdon's Ravens

Herring Gull dining on snow


 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Delamere

Last weekend I had planned to visit Conway RSPB reserve to search for Britain's smallest breeding bird, the Firecrest; this beautiful little bird shares this status with the commoner Goldcrest. There have been up to three Firecrests recorded at Conway this winter, and I managed to photograph one bird during a brief visit last November, and a return visit was very much on my mind.
Unfortunately, near-gale force winds greeted me as I left the house, and the clouds threatened rain and sleet. Probably the worst conditions for viewing such a sprite, nevermind trying to photograph one. So I changed my plans and decided to head for Delamere Forest in Cheshire where I knew I had more than an outside chance of capturing reasonable photos of the birdlife.
I took a bag of sunflower seeds and headed for a car park deep in the forest that is frequented by common woodland birds. I was not disappointed; no sooner had I sprinkled the seed than at least 5 Robins and legions of tits were hopping around my car. And although the light was still poor, I still captured some acceptable images, including a dapper Nuthatch; my first of the year. A female Great Spotted Woodpecker was visible on a distant tree, but never came close enough for a photograph. Likewise a Redpoll put in  a very brief appearance near the car, but was far too quick for my camera.



Our only breeding Accentor, the subtly beautiful Dunnock









Only one Coal Tit was seen.





Firecrest at Conway RSPB, last November.


 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Martin Mere part 2

My last post concentrated on the beautiful Whooper Swans at Martin Mere, but they were not the only birds that I photographed on my last visit.
There was a small flock of Pintail near the hide; the exquisitely-plumaged males were displaying to the females. They swam and jostled in the water like miniature dodgems until they were in the best position in front of a female, then they would flick their heads back, and if they were in a really good position this would be followed by a quick tail flick. I have seen similar behaviour in Eurasian Teals but this was the first time I had seen Pintails indulge in this activity.
There were plenty of Pinkfooted Geese on the reserve as well, and they occasionally took to the air in massive flocks, no doubt in response to the presence of a raptor such as a Peregrine. Last Autumn there were record numbers of Pinkfooted Geese seen at Martin Mere; it is used as a stopover by birds on their way to Norfolk and I believe over 45,000 birds were counted! In mid-January numbers are again starting to increase as birds return from Norfolk and ready themselves for the coming of Spring and the long flight back to their breeding grounds in Iceland.
And in a brief spell of sunshine a small scattering of Shelduck swam past the hide.
The bird-feeders on the reserve also produced a year-tick for me in the form of Reed Bunting. The males will soon be in breeding plumage; actually achieved by feather wear and not by moult.
I also saw my first Great Spotted Woodpecker of the year but it was too elusive for a decent photograph.

Male Pintail

Female Pintail

Shelduck



Reed Bunting

Pinkfooted Geese

Autumn Pinkfoot

 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Martin Mere Whooper Swans

A few years ago my main aim during any January was to get my year list of British birds off to a flying start (pun intended!). I would use every available weekend and lunch hour to go birding and try and see over one hundred species during the first month of the year; although this would be quite a modest total by the standards of today's keen birders.
Having said all that, these days, although I keep a list, my birdwatching is a lot more relaxed. Additionally at this time of the year I am usually building up my running miles for an annual Spring marathon.
So it was last weekend when I embarked on a fifteen mile run that took in a substantial section of the North Wirral coast. Naturally, for a birdwatcher this has its advantages. I saw five species that were new for the year including Ringed Plover, Shelduck, Stonechat and a beautiful Grey Plover that flashed its black axillary feathers as it took off from the beach. But the highlight was a sighting of two Snow Buntings on the strand line at Wallasey; I had had a possible sighting while running the previous week, but a veritable sandstorm had precluded positive identification, as mirage-like they disappeared in a gale. I must return there soon with my camera.
But I really needed to venture out on a proper bird watch, so that same afternoon I headed over to Martin Mere, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve in Lancashire. This superb wetland is the winter home to a fabulous variety of wildfowl including hundreds of beautiful Whooper Swans. On that afternoon there were over one thousand swans gathered on the mere, calling squabbling and displaying while they waited for their regular afternoon feed. Their proximity to the hide and their tameness make it hard to believe that these birds are truly wild. But a few years back I was fortunate enough to see these birds on their breeding grounds in Iceland. It made me realise the enormity of the autumn migration that they undertake, crossing the North East Atlantic Ocean on their angel wings.
The afternoon light was very changeable. I had hoped for some low winter sun for photography, but instead there was mainly a grey January gloom. But Whooper swans are very photogenic and I was pleased with the results.
(As always click on photos for larger images.)




Whooper swans in their first winter plumage lack the yellow bill of the adults.







 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Otter chasing Grey Heron at Leighton Moss

Last month I visited Leighton Moss RSPB on what was probably the coldest day of the winter so far. The frozen lagoons provided an ideal opportunity for viewing a number of usually shy species. I made straight for the public hide on the main causeway and was not disappointed as there was an Otter seen trotting across the ice as soon as I sat down.
And then another appeared, and another... soon there were up to four Otters on the ice, playing, fishing, falling though the ice and occasionally disappearing into the reeds. Magical!
The Mallards roosting on the ice appeared to pay the Otters little attention, unlike when ducks roost on open water and scatter at the first sign off an Otter's sinuous back, sleek tail or even just the hint of a wake in the water. On the ice they could clearly keep a watchful eye on this predator.
Similarly, a Grey Heron roosting on the edge of the reeds paid scant attention to these playful mammals; that was until two Otters got a little too close for comfort. Little did I think that an Otter would have a go at such a large bird, but the Heron wasn't going to take any chances and flew away to what it thought was a safe distance. At this point the Otters disappeared into the reeds, only for one to reappear behind the Heron and proceed to give chase. The Heron took off again, and I think was inches away from being caught when the ice gave way beneath the Otter; a close shave indeed!
The following photos illustrate the series of events. The action took place close to the limit of my camera's lens and at one of the few occasions on the day when the sun went behind the clouds; typical! I wouldn't normally publish photos of such poor quality, but the behaviour was fascinating and justifies their inclusion in my blog.