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.


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!