Tuesday, 2 October 2012


"Of or relating to the open sea" - Collins dictionary definition. Does a few miles off Flamborough Head on the Yorkshire Belle qualify? Well, it was good fun anyway. The recent easterly storm might have been expected to leave a few interesting birds in the North Sea, even though a westerly was blowing. However, it wasn't to be. A distant flock of Common Scoter, and about 16 Manx Shearwater were the highlights. Someone reported a Sooty Shearwater, and a Black Tern, but neither were announced over the tannoy, so I didn't see them. Chrys Mellor was throwing plenty of "chum" over the stern, which only attracted a multitude of Herring and Greater Black-backer Gulls. Skuas were remarkable by their complete absence. A few Manxies came within shooting distance, but even with a 500mm lens on a 1D Mk IV, it was pushing it a bit. The only compensation was the light, which remained good throughout the three and a half hour trip. If you want gull photos, this trip is for you (courtesy of the RSPB).

Juvenile Greater Black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus).

Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus).

Monday, 1 October 2012


Just had a few days on the Northumberland Coast, staying near Holy Island. I've good memories of birding there in my youth, so it was nice to have a chance to re-visit some sites and find some new ones. The wind was westerly at first, and Holy Island was quiet, but then all hell broke loose with the intense depression causing heavy rain and strong easterlies for a couple of days. I visited Hauxley where the sea was pretty rough. Three Bonxies and two Arctic Skuas in about five minutes, with plenty of gannets and Auks constituted a brief seawatch. An adult Little Gull was on the main pool, and a nice male Common Redstart was skulking in the undergrowth keeping out of the gale. Cresswell and Druridge were quiet. On Holy Island there had been a moderate fall of migrants, with Redstarts, Spotted and Pied Flycatchers, Robins and Song Thrushes in good numbers. Rarities included Wryneck, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Hawfinch and Yellow-browed Warbler, none of which I saw. Staking out an Arctic Warbler at the Lindisfarne Hotel proved fruitless the first time, but next day (after a cloudy night), it was still there, and good views were had by several birders. I got one or two poor photos of it.

Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis).

The whole coast is good. Bar-tailed Godwits were the commonest wader, and there were plenty of Curlew, Golden and Grey Plover, Knot, Dunlin, and even a few Sanderling. Three Short-eared Owls circling together overhead on Holy Island was a bonus, as was an Osprey perched on one of the posts along the old pilgrims causeway.

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus).

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata).

Pale-bellied Brent Geese (Branta bernicla).

Curlew (Numenius arquata).

I've always found Curlew difficult to photograph, but on a rising tide at Budle Bay, it's possible to park your car by the estuary edge and get quite close without disturbing them, using the car as a hide.

All photos were taken with a Canon EOS 7D and Canon 500mm F4 EF IS lens.

Friday, 17 August 2012


I went to Filey Dams this morning, in the off chance of a few waders being present. The light was reasonable - high cloud and bright, but no sun. Having explored the view from both hides, I was disappointed to find there were no waders at all - not even a Lapwing. It started spotting with rain, so I thought I would call it a day (at 9-30 a.m.)! On returning to the car-park I decided to have a last look in the main hide. A Greenshank had dropped in, but was distant, so I stayed in the hope it would come within range. It did, shortly followed by another one, then a Green Sandpiper, a Common Sandpiper, another Green Sand., and a single Black-tailed Godwit (which stayed behind the bund, out of sight). This group of waders performed well in front of the hide, when they weren't being chased by Moorhens, and I rapidly filled two memory cards and flattened a battery. Some of the images follow. It goes to show one shouldn't be too eager to throw in the towel.

Common Sandpiper (Tringa hypoleucos). Canon EOS 1D MkIV, 500mm F4 + 1.4X converter.

Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus). Equipment as above.

Greenshank (Tringa nebularia). As above with 2X converter. A consummate wader - one of my favourites.

Greenshank preening.  Equipment as above.

Greenshanks: the next four images were taken with the 1.4X converter. The pair stayed together most of the time, but occasionally had a go at each other if they got too close.

Monday, 23 July 2012


With the appalling weather lately, and it being breeding season, the bird photography has taken a back seat. There haven't been many insects to chase either, so I had a dabble in the garden pond, which certainly has plenty of water in it. It's full of tadpoles that don't seem to be developing beyond the two-legged stage, and there are some newts as well. I had a dredge around with a net to see what was lurking, and then tried a bit of dark-field macro photography on the results. This involves placing semi-opaque or translucent subjects on a glass stage over a black background, and lighting from below at 45 degrees from the camera axis. In theory, one gets an image with a pure black background and light shining through the subject. It's not as easy as it sounds. The water has to be spotlessly clean, as all the detritus shows up as bright spots, so you spend an inordinate amount of time cloning-out the unwanted bits, but the end result can be quite nice. One of the problems is that unless you are an expert on freshwater life, you don't know what you are photographing, but it's fun!

Newt sp. elt: this is a very small one - about 5mm long.

Here's one a bit older - the gills are obvious, and in contradistinction to frog tadpoles, the forelimbs develop first. The hindlimb buds are seen as bulges further down the body.

Combining the dark-field illumination with a little fill light from above brings out more detail.

Crustacean sp.  I've no idea what these tiny shrimps are called. The larger one is about 7mm long. I'll have to buy a book!

Water Beetle (possibly Family Dytiscidae). Solid subjects give a rim effect.

But with a little fill light from above, become more life-like, but it shows the dirt more. I like to think of this as the "Starship Coleoptera".

All the images were taken with a Canon EOS 7D, 50mm F2.5 macro lens with 25mm extension tube linked to an old Sunpack ring flash that's been cluttering up my cupboard for years. Even if you get accused of hoarding, never throw anything away!
None of the animals were harmed by this activity, and went straight back in the pond.


I'm not a ringer, but have the greatest admiration for those who are, and try to see what they are up to when time allows. If you've read any of Gilbert White's "Natural History of Selbourne", you'll know that in the late 1700's, it wasn't known whether birds left our shores for winter, or actually hibernated here in cracks and crevices. The matter was only truly resolved when we started ringing, and the contribution to our understanding of bird ecology by ringers has been massive, especially in relation to mapping migration routes and preserving habitat. With climate change, it's just as important today, but as satellite tags get smaller and lighter, it may become less so in future. Two late night sessions recently have produced results.

Petrel ringing involves enduring a cacophony of a tape-recording of the bird's breeding colony, projected through a loudspeaker out to sea, to attract birds feeding offshore into a mist net. It's a technique of hit and miss with low returns - one or two birds in a three hour overnight session is a good catch, but it allows close inspection of these delicate little seabirds. Storm Petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus) is the commonest catch, but an occasional Leach's Petrel (Oceanodroma leucrrhoa) turns up in the net. One always lives in hope of something rarer.

Storm Petrel.

This image was taken with a Canon EOS 7D with 24-105mm F4 zoom, and built-in flash. It's always a bit hit and miss in the dark - the bill isn't sharp.

Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) ringing in Langdale Forest isn't too dissimilar - nets set at dusk and a tape of the birds churring, and a patient wait fending off the dreaded midges. Again, a single bird may represent a successful night, but at least the vigil isn't as long, usually being over by midnight. Inspection of the bird in hand reveals it's superb cryptic plumage, and a small "comb" on it's middle toe, which is used to clean insect debris from the ictal bristles round the base of the bill. 


The bird is a second year male, as it only has two white spots on it's primary wing feathers. The images were taken as for the Stormy above.

Thursday, 21 June 2012


Made my annual pilgrimage to Bempton a couple of days ago, when the sun was actually shining (on and off). I thought breeding might be delayed because of the bad weather, but many of the auk chicks had already baled out of the nest, so there weren't too many adults flying about, which, in combination of my ever deteriorating reflexes, meant no successful flight shots. I usually go in the afternoon so the sun is behind me, which is good for flight, but no good for the cliffs themselves. Hazy sun in the morning is best for birds on the cliffs, but contrast can still be a problem. It's a good place to practise flight photography, though.

Some chicks were still in the nest on the one bit of the cliff that remains sunny in the early afternoon.

Here are a couple of flight shots from last year. It's interesting to note that several Guillemots (Uria aalge) have holes in the webs of their feet - some with signs of fresh blood. I wonder if pecking your neighbour's feet is a means of keeping a respectable distance apart on the ledge.

When I first visited Bempton as a teenager, there were 6 pairs of Gannets. Now look at 'em..............!

Saturday, 16 June 2012


Weather still very variable, so an opportunity to do a bit of file sorting and cataloguing. I came across an image of Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) taken at Gruissan in the south of France (the French call it Gravelot a collier interrompu - typical!). It shows a nice reflection in the clear, clean, still water. Positioning the junction of legs and water somewhere near the middle of the picture balances the reflection and bird nicely creating a more or less symmetrical arrangement. You do need good light and still water for this type of reflection. The other type of reflection involves light from other objects reflecting colours off the water and occurs typically in harbours and marinas where coloured walls and boats are behind the bird. They can have some quite striking effects, and shouldn't be ignored. The water doesn't need to be flat calm for this effect, with ripples causing some interesting effects.

Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus): Gruissan, France. If only the North Sea was this blue!

Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo): Scarborough Harbour. The brown reflection compliments the brown centres of the feathers.

Coot (Fulica atra): Scarborough Harbour. The yellow reflection brightens up the otherwise rather uninteresting bird.

Coot (Fulica atra): Scarborough Harbour. Or you can use the reflection from the blue sky (if there is one!).

All images taken with a Canon EOS 1D Mk111 and 500mm F4 lens.


The weather has been atrocious lately, and as it's breeding season, birds are struggling, so I generally leave them alone to get on with it without being "harassed" by a big lens. It's time to earn some "Brownie Points" on jobs such as re-tiling the front porch, painting the garden furniture and pressure-washing the patio. But there are some things you just can't ignore, like the stunning European Roller (Coracias garrulus) that turned up recently just south of Cowden (only a stones throw away from the famed Blue-cheeked Bee-eater {Merops supercilliosus} site). As I was invited to survey the local bombing range (no public access!), it was too good an opportunity to miss. The bird was distant, feeding on a bare field, but eventually settled on a post about 100 yards away. I got some half decent photos. I guess others a little more persistent would have done better - but I'm not a "twitch photographer". The bird was buzzed by a Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis).

Friday, 18 May 2012


I've just got back from a few days in north-west Germany visiting my daughter. I had the opportunity to do a bit of birding. I find it a bit difficult where she lives in the Ruhr because it's so industrialised, but there are a few sites. Further east, in the catchment area of the river Ruhr, it's flat and featureless, mostly agricultural, with few hedges and large open fields. There are a lot of patches of mature deciduous woodland, mainly very tall oak, which are good for the traditional woodpeckers, warblers, tits and Nuthatch, as well as raptors, which are commoner than in the UK. Although the Germans are conservation minded, reserves seem to be few. A lot of the woodlands seem to be protected and one sees signs "Naturshutzgebeit" which roughly means national park.
I had a look on the web and found a good site just north of Munster, called Riesenfelder, which translates as "paddy-field". Rice was never grown there - it is, in fact, a huge old disused sewage farm covering 640 hectares. It was divided into settlement beds of one hectare, and these were regularly scraped off and the fertiliser spread on the local farmland. It's now been converted to a huge wetland reserve, with various sized ponds, extensive reed-beds, emergent vegetation and a network of paths and hides. The area attracts the usual wetland species but there are a few nice ones, such as Penduline Tit, Bluethroat and Great Reed Warbler (none of which I saw). It's also good for north-south migrants, and there is a specific wader pool. The birds are quite distant, so it's a 'scope job, and not so good for photography. The best place for that is up the tower hide for flight shots.

This is the wader pool. There were 14 Greenshank and a Little Ringed Plover on it.

Common Swift from the tower hide. There were probably over 1,000 over the reserve.

It all depends on the light. Some over-enthusiastic birders might like to call this a Pallid Swift, but that doesn't occur there. It's a Common swift.

A couple of pairs of Ruddy Shelduck are present, but I suspect are a feral population, as you have to be much further east for the real ones!

Another small reserve lies on the River Ahse, a tributary of the River Lippe, east of Hamm, near the village of Oestinghausen. This is an area of water meadow managed for wetland breeding birds such as Curlew, Lapwing and Snipe. It's only about 50 hectares, but can be great. A few pools are scattered about, good for Garganey, and raptors are quite common. On the day I was there I had Common Buzzard, Black and Red Kite, Goshawk and Kestrel, and a possible distant Hobby. There is an excellent tower hide, great for flight photography, and a new 360 degree hide overlooking a wader pool. The build quality is reminiscent of a brick outhouse - the Germans don't do things by half! I have seen breeding Red-backed Shrike on the reserve in the past, but not this time. The best bird was Icterine Warbler, of which I found two singing males (apparently there are over 20 pairs on the reserve. One posed nicely for me from the tower.

Reed bed and pool.

360 degree hide (well, OK, it's 180).

View from.....

View from the tower.

Icterine Warbler. The dark upper mandible and prominent yellow patch between base of bill and eye, and the long primary projection help with identification, but the lead coloured legs clinch it.

 Black Kite.

Common Buzzard. This is a very pale one, but it's not uncommon to see pure white ones.

Male Kestrel.

It was nice to catch up with Crane again after our two at Ruston Carr.

All bird photographs were taken with Canon EOS 1D Mk IV and 100-400 zoom. Scenic shots with a Canon S90 compact.

It'll be good to re-visit these reserves later in spring, and in autumn if possible.