Tuesday, August 18, 2015

White-beaked Dolphins

Planning  a cetacean-watching trip can be a fraught experience. Will the weather be ok? You really need a calm sea to spot cetaceans, poor visibility due to mist or rain would really hamper things as well. And even if you feel bold enough to venture out to sea in rough weather the skipper of the boat might deem a trip too dangerous in such conditions.. Then there are the animals themselves; the sea is vast. I know that sounds obvious, but when you are looking for distant fins breaking the surface of the water or trying to distinguish the splash caused by a diving Gannet from that of a dolphin you begin to realise that the sighting of any cetacean is not going to be easy when you are bobbing around in a small boat some considerable miles from the shore.
But with the dolphin-finding skills of expert Ben Burville and the boat handling skills of Alan Leatham the odds of finding something exciting increase dramatically. This was my second trip to the Farne Deeps on board the RIB (rigid inflatable boat) Ocean Explorer in search of White-beaked Dolphins. Last September I had ventured north to the beautiful Northumberland coast to join a group of like-minded cetacean watchers in the hope of finding this enigmatic species. Ben is licensed to swim with these dolphins as part of ongoing research with Newcastle University. My trip last year (click here) failed to find any White-beaked Dolphins, apart from the decaying corpse of one unfortunate individual that was providing rich pickings for a few Fulmars. But we did see two Minke Whales and, amazingly, a pod of White-sided Dolphins which are reputedly rarer than the White-beaked Dolphins in this area.
I took my place at the front of the RIB as I believe this is the best spot from which to view any wildlife as it has unhindered views in the direction of travel. But there is a downside to sitting at the front, in all but the calmest conditions, the boat travelling at some considerable speed smacks into the troughs between the waves and your backside and spine truly understand why the boat is called "rigid"! Despite the considerable skill of the skipper who managed to slow down enough to lessen the shock of some of the bigger impacts I did return to harbour with a few bruises, but this is a small price to pay for the chance of viewing some of the world's most beautiful dolphins.
We cruised out of picturesque Beadnell Bay and then put the hammer down to reach the best areas for the dolphin search. After about half an hour Alan put the boat into idle and we eagerly scanned the sea for any signs of activity. Gannets were plunge diving in significant numbers a twelve o'clock from the front of the boat. The feeding activity of these  magnificent Daz-white seabirds are always a good indication of the presence of shoals of fish, which in turn also attract cetaceans.

And, right on cue, a fellow passenger spotted splashing in the distance; dolphins! And they were heading our way. I have seen plenty of dolphins before but never any species that create quite as much splashing as these. Ben confirmed that they were indeed White-beaked Dolphins; success! And wow did they come close! An estimated fifteen or so individuals swam straight towards us and began an amazing display all around the boat; bow-riding, diving, surfacing, blowing and zipping straight under the bow like black and white torpedoes. The markings of this species are stunning with a jet black fin contrasting markedly with blue-grey flanks, black back, a dark slate-grey saddle and a white patch behind the dorsal fin. This along with grey/white flank stripes and white beak make this a very distinctive and beautiful dolphin. Although, interestingly, not all members of the species have white beaks.


Some species of dolphin such as Bottlenose can be individually recognised by having distinctive dorsal fin shapes, the various notches and nicks acting like the wavy lines of a fingerprint. Researchers photograph the fins and assign names to recognisable animals; this proves invaluable when it comes to conducting research. But White-beaked Dolphins create such a splash when they surface that photographing their dorsal fins is not an easy practice. Instead, Ben enters the sea with the dolphins and takes photos of them underwater.

The splash of a White-beaked Dolphin may obscure the pattern of the dorsal fin
and may not be conducive to research, but it does create a very photogenic image.
 Some of the dolphins were clearly eyeballing us as they swept past underwater on their sides trying to get a better view as we hung over the sides of RIB snapping away with our cameras. But after about fifteen minutes they grew tired of us and headed away from the boat. This is apparently normal for White-beaked Dolphins. But there were big grins form all the occupants of the boat as we finally had time to take stock and appreciate our amazing encounter.
We spent the rest of the afternoon searching for more cetaceans but to no avail despite seeing numerous flocks of diving Gannets. But we were not too disappointed; our early encounter with these beautiful dolphins could surely not have been bettered. Thanks goes to Ben, Alan and the rest of the dolphin enthusiasts; what a great wildlife experience we all had!


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Red-footed Falcon

Last month I ventured over the Cheshire county border and into Staffordshire in search of an enigmatic and rare bird of prey, namely a male Red-footed Falcon. This dashing little raptor breeds  in Eastern Europe but a few vagrants appear in this country in most years.
I saw my first Red-footed Falcon at Hickling Broad in Norfolk in August 2003. It was a first-summer male, but it was so far away that even through a scope its was tricky to identify. Amazingly a few days later there was another (or possibly the same bird?) at Deeping Fen near Spalding in Lincolnshire. This bird spent most of its time perched on a distant fence, occasionally dropping to the ground to seize some invisible prey item. But I did manage to take a few shaky digiscoped photos of it as it shimmered in the heat haze,
I was determined to see an adult male, and so when one was reported from Tophill Low nature reserve in Yorkshire in 2008 I interrupted my journey to the East coast, in search of Autumn migrants, to try and get some photos of this bird instead. Unfortunately this bird did not show itself until mid-afternoon, and then only distantly, but I did manage to take some "record" photos. Imagine my surprise a few months later when this bird was re-identified as an Amur Falcon, a closely related species that breeds in Mongolia and Siberia! My record shots were then of interest to the wider birding community and featured in articles on the bird in the journals British Birds (December 2011, Vol. 104, pp 694 - 701) and Birding World (Vol. 21, No. 10 pp 432 - 435). It was the first British record of Amur Falcon; for details of the plumage differences I would recommend those two journals.
I still wanted some good photos of male Red-footed Falcon hence my trip to Staffordshire. I knew I was at the right location by the number of cars parked along the narrow road leading to a colliery. A lot of birders were leaving, which is never a good sign, but some were still looking through their scopes at some distant wires. Apparently the bird had been showing well in a nearby horse paddock but had flown off towards another field where it was giving occasional but distant views. I managed to spot the bird perched on the wires where it was being mobbed by a couple of magpies. Luckily these feisty corvids eventually chased the falcon back to the horse paddock where I finally managed to take some decent photos. This bird was identified as a first-summer bird so I still need to photograph an adult male! But I am not complaining, it was a stunning bird, and performed well for its many admirers, and it was not far from home either!

Amur Falcon, Yorkshire, September 2008

Monday, July 20, 2015

Lady's Slippers, Dukes and a Ghost Deer.

In the north of England, on the borderland between Lancashire and Cumbria lies a hidden kingdom rich in strange wild creatures, exotic-looking butterflies and mythical plants. Known only to a few, but passed by many as they journey to the honeypot that is the Lake District. But if the weary traveller heading north to the land of mountains and lakes on the M6 were to accidentally leave the motorway a junction earlier they might discover this hidden land of reeds, mosses and limestone pavements and its abundant wildlife.
Most well-known in this fabulous land is the RSPB reserve of Leighton Moss with its secretive Bitterns, squealing Water Rails and gliding Marsh Harriers. But venture further down the narrow winding roads flanked by dry-stone walls and you will find other natural wonders.
My trip last May was to the Natural England reserve at Gait Barrows; an area of Carboniferous limestone pavement; rock formed before the great age of the dinosaurs. This beautiful area is home to scarce butterflies and some even scarcer plants. Not long ago the beautiful Lady's Slipper Orchid was on the verge of extinction in this country, so close that the only known site where it was found was a closely guarded secret; the site itself being closely guarded as well! But this beautiful plant has been part of a Species Recovery Programme and seedlings from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew have been planted at various suitable locations, Gait Barrows being one of them.

Gait Barrows' limestone pavement (iPhone photo)
The footpath from the small car park was signposted with images of the orchid so finding them was a piece of cake. Although the first plants that I photographed were a cluster of Herb Paris, an unusual-looking plant that was used by medieval herbalists to ward off witches.

Herb Paris
I hardly saw a soul at this gem of a reserve never mind any witches, but that might have been due to the dull overcast conditions, or maybe everyone had gone to the Lake District that Saturday.
The Lady's Slipper Orchids were an amazing sight, their gaudy yellow "slippers" contrasting markedly with the claret-coloured petals and the dark green leaves. I took many (careful!) photographs and, I although |I know it is impossible to capture the true beauty of such a rare and exotic looking plant with a mere camera sensor, the images failed to do justice to these exquisite yet gaudy rarities. The clouds failed to clear and as I prefer natural light to flash I decided to visit nearby Foulshaw Moss and hope that the weather improved by the afternoon.
Retracing my steps along the footpath I heard the breathless song of a sylvia warbler, and was pleased to confirm what my ears were telling me when I glimpsed a Garden Warbler secreted in the centre of some bushes; its song being very similar to that of a Blackcap.

Garden Warbler
Fowlshaw Moss is an area of lowland raised peat bog and Cumbria Wildlife Trust are doing a sterling jobof restoring this habitat back to its former glory. They have introduced the rare White-faced Darter and Ospreys also nest on the reserve. From the raised boardwalk, with the aid of my 'scope I could see the two Osprey parents in trees near their nest. But what was that ghostly white shape moving through the reeds below the trees? Eventually the apparition moved into the open and revealed itself as a Red Deer, only it was white! I took a few distant record shots of this unusual animal. The warden later told me that this albino deer had been present in the area for a number of years and it had even shocked an unsuspecting motorist by dashing across the main A-road to Barrow; the driver thought he had seen a giant sheep!

Red Deer at Foulshaw

Willow Warbler

"Ghost" Deer
The day was brightening up so after photographing a confiding Willow Warbler, I returned to Gait Barrows to try and photograph the orchids again.
It was well worth the return visit as the sun was now shining and I managed some nice back-lit shots of the Lady's Slipper Orchids. Not only that, it was now warm enough for a few butterflies to emerge from their hiding places and tempt me to break out the macro lens.

Gait Barrows is home to some rare butterflies including the beautiful Duke of Burgundy, which was once thought to be a fritillary but most authorities now place it with a group of mainly neotropical butterflies called the metalmarks. All this is beside the point because the Duke is a stunning little butterfly, and even better a few were feeding on flowers right by the footpath. The areas of the reserve which contained their caterpillars' foodplants were roped off to avoid trampling, and rightly so. But the adults were no respecters of safety and flew jauntily over the tape and gaily flaunted their checkered upperwings at all passers-by.

The Duke
I also found another sadly-declining species hunkered down in the leaf litter, a gorgeous Pearl-bordered Fritillary. It is named after the seven "pearls" that edge the border of its underwing.

Pearl-bordered Fritillary
Pearl-bordered Fritillary's underwing
And after a fabulous day enjoying the stunning wildlife of the area I finished off by photographing a singing Chiffchaff against the now blue sky. A fairy-tale ending after all.



Thursday, July 9, 2015

Snowdon and Conway

In one week's time I will be taking part in the International Snowdon Mountain Race, a fell race that runs to the top Wales' highest mountain via the Llanberis path. Although I have competed in this race twice before I am not a pure fell runner and definitely need to train on the route, so last week I drove to beautiful Snowdonia and ran slowly to the summit.

View from the summit looking towards Llanberis (iPhone photo)
Despite it being a warm July morning there were not a lot of people on the mountain, which at times can be as busy as the proverbial Piccadilly Circus. The summit was shrouded in cloud so I had to pause for a few minutes to take a photograph, that's my excuse anyway! The run down was a breeze, and I was soon enjoying my picnic lunch overlooking the calm waters of Llyn Padarn.
I had a number of options planned for the afternoon, if I had been very warm I had planned a wild swim in the plunge pools on the Watkin Path, but the skies had become overcast and the temperature had plummeted from the mid-week record breaking highs. Likewise, looking for Silver-studded Blues on the Great Orme or Keeled Skimmers near Betws-y-coed were both dismissed due to the lack of sunshine. So I headed for Conway RSPB reserve which is often a good place for seeing Stoats.
By the time that I was pulling into the reserve carpark the wind had strengthened and rain was beginning to fall; not ideal conditions for watching wildlife. Undeterred, I strolled down the estuary path carefully watching for any signs of Stoat activity. The tide was in and there were plenty of waders roosting on the main reserve. From the hides I could see flocks of Oystercatchers and Redshanks waiting patiently for the tide to turn. A few Little Egrets were feeding on the pools; I remember when this bird was a real rarity. I travelled to Fford Bay near Caernarfon, not that far from Conway, in 1987 to see my first ever Little Egret, how times have changed.
I was not successful in my search for Stoats but an afternoon watching the birds was more than enough consolation.
Oystercatchers heading to the estuary

Shelduck (note the rain splashes on the lake)

Oystercatcher acquiring its white winter throat collar

And just to prove there are Stoats at this site, here are two photos that I took two years ago.