Sunday, April 20, 2014

Virgin London Marathon 2014

To be honest I didn't think I would be running a marathon this year. After being laid up with a debilitating virus from November through to January, my overall fitness had taken a massive hit. Getting back to training was a struggle, and there was no chance of me improving on my time of  3 hours 3 minutes achieved at last year's Manchester marathon.
My main aim was to just to be fit enough to finish the marathon, my finishing time was of secondary importance. Just under 3 months of training for 26.2 miles is far from ideal, and the lack of fitness made it doubly difficult. But I concentrated on completing my long slow runs, no matter how much I struggled as these are the key sessions for completing the distance. I managed three 20 milers and two 22 milers before the big day; but only one of these was completed non-stop. I ran/walked the other four; and there was a lot of walking! A 3 week taper is also recommended but my lack of training forced me to try a much shorter taper; I ran my last long run only two weeks before the race.
Race-day dawned cool and bright, but I was more apprehensive about this, my 17th marathon, than any I have run before. I was later than usual arriving at Blackheath but at least I didn't have to hang around too long before the start. My plan was to take it easy and enjoy the event, which is really a 26 mile carnival, and to use the fabulous crowd support to my advantage. Starting from the "Fast Good for Age" start I took the first few miles quite easily, and let the guy dressed as the Gherkin zip off into the distance. Not unexpectedly, my legs were aching a bit by mile 6, but I kept on at a reasonable pace. A cheer from my supporters at mile 9 gave me a welcome boost and for once I let myself enjoy the crowds on Tower Bridge; its amazing the response you can get from a smile and a wave!
As my aim was just to finish, my only plan was not to stop and walk as I had done so often in training. A high-five from my girlfriend Jane at mile 17 was another boost. As I entered Canary Wharf I slowed considerably but I was determined not to walk. My mantra was the line from the Rudimental song "Not giving in", and despite slowing to no more than a jog at times, I managed to keep going; even though my brain was playing tricks on me - at the 30 Km marker I somehow managed to calculate that I only had 10K to go!
My next rendezvous with my supporters was at Big Ben, where I picked up a compact camera and filmed the final mile. It's very shaky footage, but what the hell, I'd just run 25 tough miles. At this point my finishing time was immaterial, so I wasn't bothered about the other runners streaming past me, I just wanted to finish. I crossed the finish line in a time of 3 hours and 17 minutes exactly.
After lunch and a few beers with my friends my legs had totally seized up, but I was overjoyed to have finished. And of course I will be back next year, hopefully fitter and faster; I have unfinished business with the marathon!

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Manchester Marathon,

Hell up North,

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Buff-bellied Pipit

The American Buff-bellied Pipit showed well again at Burton Marsh today, what a great year tick!
This superb rare bird was first found on the 20th December last year, and showed well on a number of occasions up to the New Year, when much to the disappointment of many year-listing birders (and also some who had failed to connect with this rarity) it could not be located. One birder I spoke to had traveled twice from Cumbria and failed to see it. I took a few record shots last year, which I shall post soon, but today I obtained more photos, although the harsh sunlight burnt out some of the paler plumage features (photographers are such perfectionists!). Here are a few shots to be going on with.
As always click on the photos to view a larger image.

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Caspian Tern
Desert Wheatear

Friday, January 10, 2014

Woodland birds

Took my lunch and my camera to a local woodland in the vague hope of photographing some birds on a dull winter's day. A quick sprinkling of bird seed on a fallen log enticed a few birds close to my car. Unfortunately the light was awful so a high ISO was required to achieve a reasonable shutter speed to try and freeze any movement. The images also suffered slightly from the colour of the log which was almost black and looks like rock in some of the photos. For a while I even attempted a few "arty" shots with a deliberately slow shutterspeed to blur any motion. This is not to everyone's taste, but trying to judge when a small bird is about to take off and capture that moment is a skill in itself. I think only one of these impressionistic images worked, but that's the joy of digital photography; anything is worth a go. Below is a selection of images from today, I shall return on a sunny day, with more time and with a decent perch for the birds. Although the usual Great Tits and Blue Tits were the most obvious birds a few Nuthatches put on a good show, while an overflying Raven was a great addition to the year list.

Monet, Manet or just a mess?

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Marsh Tits

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Cory's Shearwater

One of the bonuses of whale watching trips in the Azores is the sightings of other marine life such as seabirds that are often difficult to see from land. One such species is the Cory's Shearwater, named after the American millionaire, ornithologist, sportsman and bird-collector Charles Barney Cory. These large seabirds are part of the procllariidae family or tubenoses that includes petrels and albatrosses.
On my trip to Sao Miguel island in the Azores last May, these magnificent birds were a regular sighting on any pelagic trip. In calm conditions they were often seen sitting on the surface of the sea until the proximity of our boat forced them to struggle into the air on laboured wings accompanied by the pattering of webbed feet across the water's surface. But once in the air and especially on breezy days they showed themselves to be the masters of the air currents, soaring and banking over the waves with their wings tips barely touching the sea, like speed skaters who stretch out their hands and skim the ice with their fingertips as they glide around a bend.
The vast majority of the world population of Cory's Shearwaters breed in the Azores, so it's a great place to see them, but the boat's skipper is more interested in cetaceans, so any photographs have to be snatched at speed as we pursue our main quarry.
One species that was completely new to me and was a pure delight was a Portuguese Man o' War. The skipper even stopped the boat for this! It floated like a semi-inflated child's balloon, opaque with a hint of purple. Although it looks like a jellyfish it is actually a colonial organism composed of specialised individuals known as zooids. It is named after an 18th century armed sailing ship, supposedly resembling the Portuguese version at full sail and it is know to have a powerful sting.

On the first few trips we also saw a good number of Fin Whales. These amazing cetaceans were migrating north, and showed very well on occasions, although even though they are the second largest animal on the planet you don't get to see a lot of the animal on the surface. I have included a number of photos of the backs and fins as they are used by scientists to identify individuals, so hopefully the images will be of use to people studying the animals' migrations. I will post another article soon with more images of Fin Whales from the same trip last May.

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Azores Bullfinch

Sperm Whale

Friday, December 27, 2013

Winter Birds

Seasons Greetings.

Just a few images from a colder winter taken a couple of years ago in North Wales. Male Bullfinch, Fieldfare and of course a Waxwing.

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Marsh Tits

Monday, November 11, 2013

Grey Phalarope

The Grey Phalarope is a scarce migrant wader that passes through our region in autumn and is often associated with autumnal gales. They breed in the high Arctic region and as such have little contact with people, hence these birds can be quite tame and approachable. Although one individual I saw at Crosby Marina a few years back was fearless towards people but flew off at the sight of dogs. I can only assume that this is a result of sharing its breeding area with Arctic Foxes.
A juvenile Grey Phalarope was present at Gronant, North Wales for a few days at the end of October. It spent most of its time at the north end (read inaccessible end!) of a large lake situated in the sand dunes. It employed the usual phalarope feeding technique of spinning on the water to disturb food items in the mud of the lake. But I have never see a Grey Phalarope spin so much; it was a veritable grey spinning top! And patience was certainly a virtue, as after a long wait it flew down the lake to a small bay where it gave stunning views.

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Desert Wheatear

Sunday, November 3, 2013


When I was a young boy I received a book on birds which, as far as I can remember, was called Spotting Birds as part of a package of natural history books. What I was really after was a book in the collection on prehistoric animals as that was my real passion as a child, and no right-minded birder would touch a book called Spotting Birds! Anyhow, this book whose cover was adorned with a beautiful Bluethroat and whose pages contained exotic species such as Bee-eaters and, you've guessed it, Hoopoes, sowed an ornithological seed that lay dormant for some years. At the time I did go out and look for these mythical birds in a local quarry and I was not that disappointed when my searching proved fruitless; birding without binoculars isn't easy and anyhow I could easily go and see skeletons of the mighty predator Allosaurus and its prey Camptosaurus at the local museum!
Fast forward a good few decades and it is incredible to think I have seen all three of these colourful birds in Britain; indeed, I have seen at least three different Hoopoes on the Wirral Peninsular.
I have only ever photographed Hoopoes abroad so I was delighted when one recently turned up near Rhyl. Although it took two visits for me to even see the bird, and it proved quite elusive at times, it was well worth the effort. It has been described as the avian equivalent of a butterfly, and who can deny its quirky beauty with its zebra striped plumage, curved bill and outlandish crest that all signify something exotic.
In addition to being difficult to pin down at times, the weather wasn't exactly conducive to photography but with a bit of patience I managed some acceptable shots.



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Azores Bullfinch


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Hell Up North

Today I ventured out to a very autumnal Delamere Forest for my annual dose of killer hills, shoulder deep freezing water and bogs oozing with energy sapping stinking brown mud; yes, it's Hellrunner time again! There were plenty of hardy souls (crazed runners if you like) milling around the start area when I arrived. A whole gaggle of Elvis lookalikes were mingling with superheroes, devils, demons and even a few serious runners. At 10 am the first wave of Hellrunners charged across the start line and sped up the first of many hills. There then followed many miles of muddy forest trails and short sharp hills interspersed with ankle deep streams and gullies, as well as logs and fallen trees that had to be negotiated with care; or, if you were flying along, it was just a case of launching yourself at them and hoping for the best!
At around the halfway point the first of the seriously deep bogs had to be tackled. This waist deep mud had hidden logs, branches and areas of deeper mud to catch the unwary. A few more miles of beautiful forest trails and a short run along a shallow stream lulled the runners into a sense of false security. Because the next set of obstacles were steep hills and climbs that had everyone scrambling on hands and knees in a vain attempt to get some form of grip on the slippery slopes; and running down the hills was even more hazardous! There was to be no respite; after a mile of gentle climbing what was probably the most feared obstacle loomed into partial view through a dense stand of willows; the freezing lake. To say it was cold is a gross understatement; to say it was treacherous would be no exaggeration. The calm level surface hid undulations, dips and downright potholes that caught out many runners. But, hey, this is Hell after all, but I think it had frozen over! Many couldn't feel their legs after exiting the water but maybe that was a good thing. The cold must have gone to my head because next thing I knew I was running past a bevy of cheerleaders dressed as fairies!
A quick circuit of Black Lake and I was by the infamous Bog of Doom where I was welcomed with loud cheers from the fantastic crowd of supporters. This stream contains many hidden dangers in the form of sunken logs, dense soggy vegetation and thick glutinous mud that acts like quicksand. At one point I was being sucked back into the bog as I struggled to haul myself out of the gloopy mud. Once out of the bog it was a short mud-encrusted jog around the final field before crossing the finish line in a fabulous seventh place. A welcome hose down was kindly provided by the local fire brigade; the water felt warm in comparison to the lakes and bogs! After changing into dry clothes I purchased a coffee, most of which I spilled due to the shaking of my cold hands! I watched the fabulous drum band for a few minutes before retracing the race route to cheer on the other Hellrunners and take some photos and video. One Hell of a race!

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Glossy Ibis

I saw my first ever Glossy Ibis back in 1989 at the RSPB's reserve at Fairburn Ings in Yorkshire. It was a beautiful sunny day in late May and the bird in its glossy breeding plumage fed in a shallow reed-fringed pool, unconcerned by the large group of admirers close by. My son wasn't yet one year old and a sudden breeze sent the plastic windmill attached to his pushchair spinning wildly; so much so that I thought it would scare the ibis! Luckily it wasn't bothered by the whirring of the brightly-coloured plastic blades.
This scene is in total contrast to the four Glossy Ibises that I photographed last Sunday on boggy windswept moorland north of Bolton. It was a cold, grey rainy day and initially we struggled to find the birds until one decided to fly out of the dense rush, thereby revealing the location of the other three birds. Despite the weather, and the fact that the birds where in winter/juvenile plumage, it was fabulous to see a flock of these Mediterranean wanderers in the northwest. I hope they stay then hopefully I can return and photograph them in more favourable weather conditions.

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Desert Wheatear