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.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

New Quay part 2

I cannot think of a better way of spending a summer's day than sitting on the seawall at New Quay in Wales and watching the Bottlenosed Dolphins.
Land-based cetacean-watching often means long hours spent on remote headlands staring though a telescope at a featureless ocean in the hope of sighting distant fins or maybe a blow from a whale. But at New Quay even the casual observer without binoculars can get good views of dolphins.
The following photos were all taken from the seawall at New Quay. I'm posting a few extra photos because I know that many dolphins are known individually by their fins and that researchers, such as those at the Sea Watch Foundation, can find such data useful.
Dolphins are indescribably beautiful, so I won't try. No captions required.

I was thrilled that one of my dolphin photos appeared on Autumnwatch Unsprung last year!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

New Quay part 1

Late last August I spent a day in the lovely seaside town of New Quay in West Wales with the aim of photographing some of Cardigan Bay's resident Bottlenosed Dolphins.
The sun was cracking the flags when we pulled into the carpark early in the morning; conditions were perfect for a spot of land-based dolphin watching. But, initially, other wildlife was to distract me from photographing my target species.
While obtaining my parking ticket I noticed a small flock of House Martins flocking around the window of a house adjacent to the car park. Not one to resist a photo opportunity, I grabbed my DSLR off the car's back seat and positioned myself below the window. Surprisingly, there was no sign of any House Martin nests on the building, so I thought the birds must have been exploiting a feeding opportunity. But there was no evidence of any potential prey such as insects around the window. The birds would swoop up to the window, hover, then swoop back towards the sea. I have no idea what they were doing and the sight of distant dolphin fins breaking the water of the bay precluded me from staying for more than a few minutes. But I did manage a few record shots of the martins in flight.

 But there were insects near the car park; butterflies in fact. A number of species were making the most of the sunshine, including Small Tortoiseshell and a Painted Lady. The latter was the only butterfly of that species that I saw last year. It was quite a tatty individual, but they are long-distance migrants and are always a joy to observe, so I had no qualms about photographing this battered insect.

We made our way through the throngs of summer holiday makers down to the harbour, where we found a suitable spot on the harbour wall and settled down for a day's land-based dolphin watching in the sun.
While the resident Bottlenosed Dolphins were our main quarry, the presence of numerous species of seabirds were an added distraction. The Herring Gulls were easily tempted close by our picnic. A juvenile Herring Gull provided me with one of my favourite flight shots of the year.

 But gulls were not the only seabirds to be seen. Gannets could be seen diving in the distance; clearly the fish that support the dolphins in this area are also dinner for a variety of birds. The mini-albatross that is the Fulmar swept past on stiff wings and moulting Sandwich Terns were also seen.

A pair of juvenile Shags drifted past on the current and were eminently photographable.

And the seawall also provided rich pickings for a Rock Pipit, but the midday sun was a bit harsh for decent photography.

A great wildlife day was unfolding and then the dolphins appeared close inshore. But those photos will appear in New Quay part 2!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Year List 2015

All naturalists keep lists. And birders are among the most prolific list keepers; county lists, life lists, British lists, local patch lists, the list goes on!
When I was more of a twitcher my year list was second only to my British list. A year list is a record of all the birds seen in Britain in one year and keen birders can, with a bit of effort, see over 300 species in one year. As a birder who only occasionally strayed out of Northwest England and North Wales my list was of more modest proportions; anything over 200 species was a good year. These days I keep a year list more as a record of what I have seen, and as an incentive to seek out those birds that I missed in previous years.
Last year was a particularly quiet birding year for me as I moved house and my spare time was quite limited. And I  therefore missed species that occur quite regularly such as Mediterranean Gull and Barn Owl.
But the beauty of  the New Year is that the list starts anew and all birds no matter how common are all welcome additions to the overall tally. But don't get me wrong here, birds are far more to me than just ticks and numbers! It is just a fascinating way of recording variations between years. For instance I have already seen a Little Egret this year, a bird that I twitched in Wales in 1987!
New Year's day is a great time to get out and observe the local birdlife and I used to plan my day like a military campaign to maximise my sightings. But these days I am more leisurely, after all there are another 364 days to catch up on gaps in the list. Also, I am currently training for my next marathon, so there is even less time for birding. Having said that I did see my first pair of Goldcrests for the year while out on my New Year's day run. I was crossing a bridge over the River Dee in Chester when I heard their high pitched calls emanating from a small tree. I stopped briefly to observe these tiny birds, before continuing on my way, but not before I had also seen my first Cormorants of the year fishing on the river's weir.
New Year's day itself was a bit of a washout due to the incessant rain, but the highlight was definitely the pair of ring-tail Hen Harriers seen over the marsh at Parkgate. Although I ended the day on a meagre 30 species.
I was in work on Friday, but did add Blue and Great Tit to the list.
Saturday dawned grey and very wet, but my morning run did produce two Jays and my first Long-tailed Tits of the year. My back garden remained in the winter shade all day, resulting in dull photos of the flocks of Starlings and House Sparrows. A brief spell of sunshine in the late afternoon allowed better photos of a Woodpigeon perched on a street light behind my house.

I decided on Sunday that my list required the addition of some quality birds so I went in search of three Black-necked Grebes that had been seen on Shotwick boating lake just over the border in Wales. Although in winter plumage these scarce birds were a real treat, and despite being viewed through a fence I was able to take some "record" photographs. The adjacent field also held four species of swan; Mute, Whooper, Bewick's and Black! Naturally, the latter being an escapee didn't make it onto the list.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Look back at 2014

2014 was a busy year for me, unfortunately not due to wildlife watching! I moved house in June and this had a massive impact on my free time; my new house still isn't quite straight yet. I did get out and about when I could but time long trips was limited so I am glad I got to Cyprus before I moved, although I still haven't had time to edit those photos yet either! (Cyprus blog post coming soon, hopefully).
Like a lot of birders I don't twitch as much  as I used to, but maybe that is not a bad thing. But a mega rarity in the form of a Buff-bellied Pipit just down the road at Burton Point proved irresistible and this LBJ showed well at times.

This was a quality year-tick for 2014 as I had seen the bird at the end of 2013 when it was first found.

Cetaceans were also a dominant theme of my wildlife trips last year. A trip to New Quay in Wales in August produced some stunning land-based sightings of Bottlenosed Dolphins, including a mother with her calf. (another blog post in the pipeline!)

While much further north in Northumberland, I went on a boat trip in search of White-beaked Dolphins. Sadly this species wasn't seen on my trip but two Minke Whales and a cetacean life-tick in the form of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins close to the boat more than made up for missing the target animals.

The beginning of summer also coincided with Autumnwatch's 100 days of nature; a challenge to encourage people to attempt to photograph wildlife every day in the run up to last year's Autumnwatch. And this certainly prompted me to get outside with my camera; the results of which are still on my twitter feed @keithscovell3
One of my many highlights of this challenge was a visit to Arnside Knott in Cumbria where I photographed the scarce High Brown Fritillary. My dolphin with calf photo also made it onto Autumnwatch Unsprung!

Closer to home a record number of Pinkfooted Geese, (45,000!) were recorded at Martin Mere in Lancashire, where I was able to witness a remarkable avian spectacle on a par with any starling murmuration.

There was only one very brief cold snap in December and I was lucky enough to be at Leighton Moss RSPB when up to four Otters could be seen running and playing on the ice; truly magical!