Monday, 29 August 2011

Rails and Reptiles

Had a pleasant wander around Rainham this afternoon – nothing mega rare to report, but a few nice bits and bobs. A Peregrine was perched up on the usual pylon pulling its lunch apart, while 5 Greenshank and two juvenile Black-tailed Godwits were on the small amount of mud surrounding Aveley Pool. All along the northern boardwalk, Common Lizards were sunning themselves… these were taken with the 100-400mm lens, wish I’d had the macro with me! Note that the bigger individual of the two has lost his tail somewhere…


Further round towards the Targets, the highlight was a wonderfully confiding family party of Water Rails. I can only recall seeing small young Water Rails once or twice before (given that they’re usually buried away deep in reedbeds), but these obviously hadn’t read the script and were content to run around pretty much in the open!


Sunday, 28 August 2011

Briefly back to Butterflies

Had a cracking day in Norfolk with the usual suspects (details on all their various blogs), featuring great views of the Western Bonelli’s Warbler, an occasionally obliging Red-backed Shrike, Red-necked Phalarope amongst a Cley wader spectacular, and finishing up with about 20 Lesser Whitethroats and a Pied Flycatcher at Warham Greens. Anyway, the internet already has enough words on that subject, so let’s move on to today.

I’ve probably mentioned here before that I’ve almost seen all the native British butterflies now: at the start of play today, there were four remaining. Only one of these occurs within 100 miles of London, though: Brown Hairstreak, a scarce insect that spends most of its time high up in ash trees. Given the forecast was for decent sunny intervals, Suzanne and I headed down for a look at Steyning Downlands in West Sussex.


The best time to see BH is around the middle of the day, when females descend from the treetops to lay eggs on Blackthorn and Bullace. Although it’s getting a bit late this year (with most butterflies having emerged early after the exceptionally warm spring), we managed to find one rather battered specimen, which showed briefly for a few photos:


We also encountered a contrastingly pristine Comma on the way back to the car: stunning!


A superb late Sunday roast was devoured at White’s Bar & Kitchen, just down the road, before we headed up to take in some classic South Downs scenery at Devil’s Dyke, high above Hove.


Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Pelagic participants and petrel pursuers

In case you’re still not bored after all my photos from the pelagics over the weekend, here’s a quick post to highlight the blogs and websites of the other guys that we shared a boat with – all great company and a good laugh. Some of these sites have already been updated with images from the weekend, and those that haven’t probably will be soon!

I’ve probably missed a couple of people due to not knowing names etc – please leave me a comment if so, and I’ll get you added!

From the Scillies:

From the south:

From the north:

From somewhere in between:


And, since it would be a bit dull to conclude a post about photographers without any photos… have another Great Shearwater!


Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Scilly Pelagics 2011: part 2

Sunday 14 August

Another day, another pelagic trip! This time, we headed out past St Agnes and Annet, and continued about 10 miles south. Once again, the sea state had improved, and in increasingly sunny conditions, it was really pleasant out on the Sapphire. We spotted another trawler in the distance, and opted to take a look through the masses of gulls around it before starting to put out chum of our own.


Single Great and Sooty Shearwaters were quickly picked out, and to everyone’s delight this time the Great Shear hung around for photos… no apologies for several images of this brilliant bird!


The Sooty also showed very well though inevitably took something of a back seat, given its companion!


After a while, we reluctantly headed away from the trawler, and put out a bag of the infamous ‘rubby-dubby’ (basically mashed fish, bread and cod-liver oil) to slowly disintegrate and build up an oily chum slick behind the boat. However, we only pulled in a surprisingly low number of Storm Petrels. Despite this, the chum produced another highlight of the trip – a couple of Blue Sharks were attracted in and got hooked, landed and tagged.


The first was relatively small, but the second (pictured above) was a bit of a beast – at least five feet long, and probably weighing in at about 140lb! It took 25 minutes and several failed attempts to land it, and even then was quite a handful to keep under control on the deck.


After a struggle, the shark vented its frustrations by sinking its teeth into a wooden bench (!), giving Joe and Paul the opportunity to tag it, before releasing it back into the ocean. Check out the teeth!


In the absence of many petrels, we headed back to the trawler for seconds on the Great Shear, and then the return trip to St Mary’s was enlivened with a pod of around 50 Common Dolphins feeding on a shoal of fish, and bow-riding beneath the Sapphire.


Monday 15 August

With the whole day to spare before the late afternoon sailing on the Scillonian, we set out for a walking tour of St Marys, initially heading around Old Town Bay and then along the coast path below the airfield towards Porth Hellick. Just past Giant’s Castle, and mid-conversation, a familiar sound caused me to break off… a faint “prrruuuk, prrruuuk” could only be a Bee-eater! About 30 seconds of frantic sky-scanning, and then we found it, hawking lazily above the pine plantation, then heading around over the airstrip towards Old Town and out of view. We put the news out, and soon heard that many of the other birders had picked up the same bird from Old Town Cafe as they wolfed down fried breakfasts diligently scanned the skies for migrants.

The rest of the day was relatively uneventful, with no other birds of real note on Scilly. The Scillonian crossing yielded 2 Balearic and 1 Sooty Shearwater, half a dozen Storm Petrels, a Basking Shark (or at least, its nose), a couple of Sunfish… and, possibly, a distant Orca! Several of us spotted a very tall black fin to the north as we approached Porthgwarra – it was far too brief a view to be certain, but no-one could think what else it could’ve been, given that the fin appeared basically vertical, rather than curved as in e.g. Risso’s Dolphin. Definitely in the “one that got away” camp…


Scilly Pelagics 2011: part 1

After last year’s excellent trip to Scilly for the pelagic trips on the Sapphire (details >here<), Dad and I decided to do it all over again… and certainly weren’t disappointed! We scored with both big shearwaters, Wilson’s Petrel and Sabine’s Gull, plus excellent views of Storm Petrel, Sooty, Balearic and Manx Shearwater, plus a host of marine wildlife including a monster Blue Shark! Throw in a couple of tasty Mediterranean landbirds, and great island scenery, and you’ve got a great trip. Here’s a quick run-down…

Thursday 11 August

Left London early doors, and had an uneventful drive down to Penzance. Brief look for the lingering Black Kite in rather poor weather, before heading down to Porthgwarra in a moderate SW wind (via a typically superb pasty from McFaddens in St Just!). Birders already present at PG had seen both Great and Cory’s Shearwaters early on, though things had gone a bit slack. Fortunately, one more Cory’s languidly sailed past on bowed wings at about 1.40pm – the first lifer for Dad, though a bit distant beyond the Runnelstone buoy.

During the rest of the afternoon, we logged about 10 Sooties, 5 Balearics and c500 Manx Shearwaters, 3 Puffin and a single Storm Petrel. Also had a good chat with Tom McK on Seawatch SW duty. I’m increasingly convinced that the viewpoint these guys use from Gwennap is actually better than the traditional spot on Hella Point.

We doubled back slightly to reach our overnight accommodation at Perranporth – the hostel here commands a fantastic view, though the weather wasn’t exactly favourable!


Friday 12 August

Another early start, this time heading down to catch the Scillonian crossing from Penzance. Birdwise, this was pretty quiet, with only a couple of Stormies and about 50 Manx Shears to show for two and a half hours looking. Regardless, it was great to get back onto the Scillies, and after dropping our bags off at The Lookout B&B in Porthcressa, we headed up island. On arrival at Helvear, it wasn’t surprising to find a bunch of other birders present looking at the juvenile Woodchat, as it hunted off hawthorn bushes behind the farm. Too far for decent photos, though.

By 5pm, we’d joined most of the birders on the quay, ready to head out onto the Atlantic for the first time. The weather was drizzly and overcast, with a fresh SW breeze and moderate swell – ideal! Once we’d steamed out a few miles past the tip of Peninnis, the engine was cut, and some chum thrown out… and after just a few Stormies had come in to feed, the shout of “WILSON’S!” went up and our target bird glided past the back of the boat at only about 30 metres range!


The photo above illustrates most of the key features:

  • distinct silvery covert bands
  • very long legs, with feet protruding beyond the tail in flight, and often dangled onto the surface while feeding
  • very short ‘arm’ (inner wing), and long smoothly swept-back ‘hand’

In direct comparison with European Storm Petrels, Wilson’s is clearly a little larger, and the mode of flight is pretty distinctive – the latter tends to glide for long periods, while European flits around with flicky wingbeats, rather bat-like. Finally, the underwing is completely dark, lacking the white lining shown by European.


This individual showed on and off for quite a while, treating us to some stunning passes no more than 5 metres from the back of the boat as it went moved in and out of the slick – you could see all the features without lifting your bins! The weather wasn’t great, though, and as time passed drizzle was replaced by steady rain… lovely! As we headed back in towards the harbour, a trail of around 30-40 Stormies followed in our wake, and photos subsequently proved that there had been two different Wilson’s around the boat during the evening. Pretty fortunate, considering that these were the first records for several weeks!

Saturday 13 August

This time, we headed out towards Seven Stones reef, site of the Torrey Canyon disaster in 1967, for another session of' ‘drift and chum’. The sea state had calmed down a bit, making things more comfortable (for most people, at least!), but birds were initially at something of a premium. We managed a few nice singletons, though… first, a rather distant adult Pom Skua, and a Sooty Shearwater were seen, and then a Balearic Shearwater followed the boat for a while, occasionally plunge-diving into our wake for food:


Fortunately not quite everyone was watching it, though, since a Great Shearwater chose this moment to effortlessly sail past – things were looking up! A mile or two further out, Joe spotted a French trawler, and it was decided that we should move in to take a look. Unfortunately the Great Shear wasn’t to be found in the melee around the trawler, but a stunning adult Sabine’s Gull was considerable compensation:


Throughout the day, we saw about 40 Storm Petrels, and a few Bonxies came to investigate the boat, causing havoc amongst the gulls, Fulmars and Gannets. All of these resulted in plenty of activity for the photographers, though grey skies weren’t ideal!


Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Not so grim up North

OK, so first things first: about those two rings... here are the complete images (two of the best from the weekend, so it might be downhill from here, I’m afraid)


So, that placed me at Bempton Cliffs on Saturday evening, having a lot of fun taking photos. Much earlier in the day, we’d started out looking and listening for the now long-staying Western Bonelli’s Warbler in Derbyshire. Scenery: fantastic. Bird: a complete bugger. In about three hours, we heard it sing precisely once, and I never set eyes on it. Thankfully, I’d seen it a few weeks back when it first got reported, but for the other two guys this was not a good start!

Next stop was Blacktoft Sands, where our mood was brightened by the continued presence of a Marsh Sandpiper. A really elegant bird, recalling Wilson’s Phalarope in some ways, it gave excellent scope views, but always a bit distant for my lens…


After a brief delay caused by an unhappy car (which will hopefully be fixed tomorrow), we continued up to Bridlington, sourced a bargain £25 B&B, and then on to Bempton. I took A LOT of photos, most of which have just gone in the bin – but here’s a few more that I like.

First, another Tree Sparrow – this time a juvenile, still showing the yellow gape, and looking somewhat more House Sparrow-like at this age with some grey on the forecrown and less clearly marked pattern on the face.


And now on to the main event: the seabird colony. Let’s start with a decidedly average photo of one of the reserve’s specialities:


We saw loads of Puffins, though none particularly close. It appeared that most of the other auks (Guillemots and Razorbills) had left the cliffs, since virtually all the birds whizzing in and out below us were Puffins. That left us taking photos of Gannets of various ages…


… and Kittiwakes:


The interactions between territorial birds on the cliffs were great to see – in particular the three individuals above (a pair and their neighbour) appeared to be constantly having a row about something!

The juveniles are really smart birds, too, strikingly patterned black and white as illustrated below. (Though somehow a surprisingly large number always seem to turn into Sabine’s Gulls when they move south…)


The next day, after a sunny but uneventful visit to Flamborough (does anyone know where the ‘regular’ seawatching site is here, by the way? We couldn’t find it…) we trundled south to the Welbeck raptor watchpoint in Notts. Very shortly after arriving, first one, then two Honey Buzzards lifted up above the treeline, and proceeded to give us excellent views on and off for over an hour alongside up to six Common Buzzards – certainly more obliging than the Norfolk bird/s have been this year.The male we saw appeared especially pale, and coupled with the species’ distinctive shape and flat-winged mode of flight, this was really easy to pick up.

Final stop was a slight detour out east to Frampton Marsh, where various waders gave us the runaround amongst vegetation on the scrape. Can you see a Pec Sand in this photo? For a long time, we couldn’t either – this was a GOOD view!


Excellent weekend all round, though – thanks to Nick and Jono for providing great company.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Give me a ring…

(Or at least a comment) If you can guess what the following two birds are, and where I took their photos this weekend – both on the same RSPB reserve.

Answer later in the week when I’ve finished working my way through several hundred more images, perhaps finding a few more rings in the process…