Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Med, Shrike and Otter

The rain was hammering down outside my house one Sunday lunchtime in March, and I was unsure whether I should visit Frodsham Marsh in Cheshire where a Great Grey Shrike had been seen the previous day. Would it still be there and how wet would I get tramping around the muddy lanes?
I decided to give it a go, but first I was going to check a flooded field near my house at Leasowe that had looked promising for gulls when I ran past the previous day.
The rain had eased off a little as I stopped my car near Leasowe lighthouse, but there were only half a dozen gulls on the flash. I wound down the car window and scanned the birds and was delighted to find a Mediterranean Gull in second winter plumage feeding alongside a few Black-headed Gulls. I leant my camera on the car door and proceeded to fire off a few shots. The bird moved closer and I was able to obtain some nice photographs, especially when it stretched and preened. I also took a few flight shots of this scarce British breeding bird. I know gulls aren't everyone's cup of tea but I love them, and I have a special fondness for med gulls.
I left the site feeling well pleased and headed for Frodsham. The rain was getting heavy again as I joined the M56 motorway and an unexpected traffic jam almost saw me turn the car around and head home. Instead I left the motorway and drove the rest of the way on A roads via Helsby.  I drove carefully along a pot-holed track on the marsh to the area where the shrike had been seen and yes, it was still there. I donned my waterproofs and wellies and made my way to the group of rain-soaked birders who soon put me onto the bird perched on a distant hedge. All shrikes are beautiful birds and the Great Grey is no exception, but in my experience they are quite wary so scope views are usually the norm. I managed a few record shots with my camera then hung around in the rain hoping it would come closer; and despite the inclement conditions it was busy feeding but it never really came close to the track. I was about to leave when another birder told me that an Otter was resting close to the road! I headed back down the path and was rewarded with my closest ever encounter with this elusive mammal. The female Otter stretched, rolled and scratched on the opposite side of a ditch within metres of a small group of admirers. Unfortunately, she appeared to have some problem with her eyes and this may explain her boldness. But otherwise she appeared perfectly healthy and it was a real treat to see her at such close quarters. A fabulous end to a great afternoon's birding on a soggy Sunday.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

St. Asaph Waxwings

A day or so after Christmas, despite suffering from a heavy dose of "manflu", I couldn't resist travelling to St. Asaph in North Wales to look for a flock of waxwings that had been frequenting the area for a few days. They had been feeding on rowan berries in an area close to the river, but on my arrival all the trees there had been stripped of their fruit, but the birds were still present, roosting in the tall trees on the river bank. A few of them occasionally swooped down to snatch berries from the ground, or to drink from the rainwater puddles. But the main flock appeared to be feeding on the opposite side of the river. I scanned the area and found the berry-laden trees which were their latest food source. After alerting other birders to their presence, I hurried across a bridge and managed to obtain some nice images of one of my very favourite species of bird.


Friday, January 6, 2017

2017 Farne Islands Calendar

Last month I made a number of calendars as Christmas presents for friends and family based on my visits to the Farne Islands in Northumberland. The islands are a paradise for seabirds and provide the photographer with an inexhaustible source of subjects. It was difficult to chose 12 photos from the many I have taken over the past few years but I eventually settled on the following images.




Arctic Tern

Grey Seal


Flying Puffin


Arctic Tern


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Return to the Farne Deeps.

Whales and dolphins are addictive. Once you have experienced the high of a close encounter with any of the world's cetaceans you are liable to become a marine mammal junkie and the next fix can't come soon enough!
I had a very successful encounter with the North Sea's White-beaked Dolphins last July on a trip with the "sealdiver" himself, Ben Burville, and I was keen to return so my partner Jane could also witness this unique marine spectacle. But ocean going trips are always subject to the vagaries of the weather and I was gutted when I received a text from Billy Shiels Boats saying that due to forcasted high winds the pelagic was to be postponed from the Saturday afternoon to the Sunday morning. Our hotel had already been booked and the chances of finding somewhere to stay in Northumberland at the height of the summer holiday season seemed remote to say the least; and a fruitless hour spent phoning dozens of hotels in the area proved the point.
I reluctantly phoned Billy Shiels boats to inform them of  my decision to cancel, but was given a tip on where to find accommodation for the Saturday night in Seahouses itself, local knowledge is priceless.
Saturday was spent on a seven mile walk around the beautiful Cheviot Hills. The remote rolling hillsides (we hardly saw another person all day!) and changeable weather (wind and rain) provided a challenging but rewarding excursion.

The iPhone takes a good snap, this could be a
 cover photo for a country walking magazine.

Early Sunday morning found us at the harbour as the tide slowly edged closer to our viewpoint in the car-park, threatening to disturb the Eiders loafing on the rocks below. We made our way along the harbour wall and joined the intrepid band of potential dolphin-watchers being briefed by Ben. We donned our life-jackets and were soon speeding away from Seahouses on board the fast RIB, skippered by the experienced Alan Leatham.
We were only  a few miles out from Seahouses when we came across an unexpected sight. A large and well-scattered group of grey seals were to be seen bobbing in the water. Alan slowed the rib as we all took in the amazing view of myriads of seal heads bobbing in the water, most looking directly at us. Ben told us that they were there to hunt herring and, despite his extensive experience of this part of the North Sea, this was only the second time that he had witnessed this amazing phenomenon.

The seals were spread over a large portion of the sea so it was difficult to estimate their numbers, but there could easily have been over one hundred animals in the area. But they were not our target species, so after a few minutes we continued out to sea, being careful not to disturb the seals.
The Farne Deeps is an area 20 miles off the coast and is one of the best places in the country to observe White-beaked Dolphins. But it goes without saying that the sea is vast and our first stopping point proved fruitless, but there were a lot of seabirds in the vicinity which is always a good sign when looking for cetaceans.

Fulmar gliding past the boat.

Feeding Gannets can be a sign that dolphins are nearby.

We headed off again scanning the ocean intently for any signs of dolphin activity. Suddenly, Ben shouted out saying he thought he had seen splashing in the distance, a sure indication of dolphins; and he was right! Through my binoculars I could see splashes below the horizon, and they were moving closer. White-beaked Dolphins produce distinctive splashing as they "porpoise" through the water, so much so that at a distance the animals themselves are barely visible while the splashes they produce can be clearly seen.
We waited with baited breath, but soon there were at least four dolphins zipping around the boat. Ben jumped in the sea to obtain film of these amazing animals while the rest of us attempted to take photographs, not an easy task as they moved through the sea at some speed. It is a real priveledge that the dolphins choose to be with the boat and, without wishing to be anthropomorphic, they clearly seem to enjoy riding the rib's bow-wave; this behaviour allows us to appreciate these wild animals within touching distance! But it's important not to disturb them so our time with any cetaceans is limited and rightly so. It was soon time to leave this group and go in search of more dolphins.
And it wasn't long before we encountered another group of about eight White-beaked Dolphins. They are inquisitive animals with keen underwater hearing, and this group also made a beeline for the rib. Once again Ben entered the water to obtain video footage and did his best to point out the positions of the animals to the excited watchers on the boat. (N.B. Ben Burville has a special license to film the dolphins.)

They went that way!
And again we obtained magnificent views of the dolphins riding the bow wave, and my partner Jane made use of a bathyscope to watch the dolphins under the water from the safety of the boat. This device, although sounding like some apparatus used by Captain Nemo on board the Nautilus, is in fact a wonderfully simple viewing scope that once placed in the sea eliminates glare and, depending on the clarity of the water, provides stunning views of the dolphins as they swim past below the surface of the sea.

The dolphins played around the rib for about ten minutes, after which they swam away from us but were still visible in the distance as Ben explained about their biology and his own research. I continued to watch the dolphins through my binoculars and was amazed so see some of them leaping out of the water. Their acrobatics reminded me of similar behaviour that I have witnessed amongst the Bottlenose dolphins of Cardigan Bay when they are chasing fish. Alan turned the boat so we could obtain better views, but did not approach the dolphins so as not to cause any disturbance. One individual White-beaked Dolphin breached at least six times; an amazing sight to see, but the position of the boat and the distance of the animal precluded anything but record photos.

We were all more than satisfied by the day's sightings as Alan turned the boat to head back to Seahouses. But we kept our eyes peeled on the return journey and were rewarded with more sightings of the Grey Seals along with numerous Manx Shearwaters and an Arctic Skua.
My craving for dolphins had been sated for a short while, but I'm sure I'll be back soon for another mind-blowing fix!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Minsmere in May

My son Adam and I spent a highly enjoyable few days in the lovely county of Suffolk in early May this year. His primary objective was filming along the coastline, while I took the opportunity to visit the RSPB's flagship reserve at Minsmere at every possible opportunity.
I recorded 87 species of bird without much difficulty. The highlight was undoubtedly some of my best ever views of Bittern, along with sightings of two Cetti's Warblers, Barn Owl, Green Woodpeckers, lots of Bearded Tits and a personal favourite summer-plumaged Mediterranean Gulls. Non-avian highlights included intimate views of Adder, a Stoat attempting and succeeding to pull a large Rabbit through a tiny hole in a fence and butterflies including Brimstone and Small Copper.
It's easy to see why BBC's  Springwatch has chosen this site for their broadcasts for the past three years. Time precludes me from writing a more detailed post so just enjoy the photos.
And do visit the area if you can, you will not be disappointed.