Monday, 15 January 2018

Den Brooker - walking amongst the birds

I found out recently that my old friend Dennis Brooker died just before Christmas, a couple of months short of his 96th birthday. I first met Den 34 years ago back in 1984, when I was an impressionable 19 year old volunteer on Operation Osprey and Den was in his early 60's.

At that time the Osprey camp was still run on the model set up by George Waterson and Frank Hamilton, volunteers slept in tents and used chemical toilets. The rota was based on teams of three taking turns to guard the nest, talk to the public and do the chores around the Osprey camp and perhaps more importantly to a reasonably obsessive young birdwatcher every three days you got 24 hours off to do with as you wished. If you were lucky and had a car owner in your team this could mean birding excursions all over the Highlands.

Den Brooker outside the Osprey Hide 1984
During that first hot summer on the Ospreys I must have found myself on Den's team and I recall his easy going company, thoughtful speech and a twinkle in his eye when it came to the ladies. He was to my young mind charismatic and a bit of a unconventional role model. A social sort of a chap he was often to be found in the kitchen sipping a glass of red wine whilst helping the invariably young female cook.

Plants were Den's passion and I must have agreed to go looking for Bog Orchid's with him one day, I think I negotiated a promise out of him that we would go birding on the coast afterwards. Something which he graciously agreed to. Many years after he sent me a printed booklet of short essays his "fragments of a personal flora" I got it down the other day and re-read the account of our excursion. I had to laugh as I read his short pen portrait of me. "So one Sunday morning S and I set forth to Inverness. S was large, ginger haired, loquacious even in his sleep (we shared a bell tent), later served as Information Warden, and at that time was profoundly uninterested in plants."  Funny I have some vivid memories of that particular day out looking for what I uncharitably described as "Bogey's on a stick" After our successful botanising we headed to the coast at Burgh Head a austere Moray Coast fishing village. I vividly remember sitting on the slope of a hill overlooking the sea whilst a male Kestrel hovered for ages at eye level, then a pod of sleek battleship grey Bottle Nose Dolphins swam past close inshore, my first dolphins and I later put an elderly passer by right when he tried to tell me that they were porpoises.

Den will have been known to a large number of RSPB seasonal staff and volunteers who worked at the Osprey camp in the 80's. I wear as a badge of pride the fact that he used to refer to me along with Richard Thaxton who went onto be the RSPB Site Manager at Abernethy and Zul Bhatia who was RSPB Site Manager at Insh Marshes and then Lochwinnoch as his "young men". The passage of time means that Richard and Zul have both now retired from the RSPB, I the baby of the trio have a fair few years ahead of me yet before I stop work.

In recent years I saw little of Den but would look forward to his homemade Christmas cards usually an abstract photo of a plant accompanied by his almost indecipherable scrawl. Sometimes we'd talk on the phone and he'd tell me about his latest visit to Kew Gardens, his curiosity and lust for life still strong in his early 90's. the last call was difficult as his hearing had gone. My spell working at Titchwell coincided with Den's girlfriend being a retired lady doctor based in Cambridge and would look forward to occasionally bumping into him on the West Bank path. I still use in public talks that I give about the Norfolk Coast something he said to me on one occasion at Titchwell. "The great thing about Titchwell is that you can walk amongst the birds" A great summation of a fine place and perhaps also of Den's life walking amongst the birds.

Goldeneye, Loch Mallachie, Abernethy Forest

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

A Look back on 2017

Every year is different and 2017 felt like a year that started well and then bird wise petered out into a bit of a damp squib in the autumn. Below are a few highlights of my bird and wildlife watching year based on the Norfolk Coast with the occasional foray further afield.

Boat dashboard in a Norfolk harbour
January and I can still see the scene a brute of a Glaucous Gull on the Fresh Marsh at Titchwell eating the corpse of a Herring Gull. It really did stand out from the large numbers of Herring Gulls present even from a distance. The fact that it had a food source also meant that it hung around and was easy to find.

Glaucous Gull and dinner at Titchwell
Each year I get a "volunteering day" at work and this year I decided to carry out two Beached Bird Survey sections on Sunday 26 February. This meant walking the tideline from Old Hunstanton to Holme and from Titchwell to Thornham Point. I found just three dead birds on this long stretch of coast the most interesting being a Common Scoter. I unfortunately also found a large number of shoes: single kids welly's, deck shoes etc and a large number of sealed dog poo bags abandoned by their owners and washed up on the beach. 

Dead Common Scoter during Beached Bird Survey
The birding was good with the best birds being a small flock of Snow Buntings just east of Old Hunstanton and single Merlin and Peregrine resting on the shingle bank that is forming off Holme

Spring and my Great Aunt died and I decided to do a day trip to west Yorkshire to attend the funeral. Before the service I had a brief walk on the moors and saw some Red Grouse. In the late afternoon I went down to the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey to clear my head and had a wonderful walk the air full of hirundines and on the river Mandarin Ducks and Dippers to set me up for the long sugar fuelled drive home to Norfolk.

The first of a trio of Rares that I saw in the spring was a very unexpected Red Flanked Bluetail at Titchwell on the evening of Sunday 26 March. Given given how poor the autumn was a doubly good bird to get. Then on the 6th of May I joined the crowd at Choseley to watch a Red Footed Falcon hunting over the fields for a couple of hours before it suddenly disappeared. Saturday 6th May and I spent an enjoyable hour in the car park at Holme watching a stunning summer plumage Red Breasted Flycatcher. 

Red Flanked Bluetail, Titchwell

Red Footed Falcon, Choseley

Red Breasted Flycatcher, Holme
But much of my time in the field these days is spent in the company of my family and at Whitsun half term we had a weeks family holiday on the Northumberland Coast. On the first of June we booked on the whole day excursion to the Farne islands landing on Staple Island and Inner Farne and had a simply amazing time watching Puffins landing with beak full's of sand eels running the gauntlet of Herring Gulls and the crazy antics of nesting Arctic Terns on Inner Farne perched on our heads and crapping down our backs. 

Arctic Tern making memories for the boys on Inner Farne
In early June a work trip took me north to Speyside and a chance to briefly revisit some of my old haunts, places that I have visited and loved on and off for the last 35 years. What struck me most as I looked out of the Osprey Hide at Loch Garten was the amount of regrowth of the forest with the view changed considerably since my first visits back in the eighties. Bird wise it was a little quiet [and very wet] but the prize for least expected bird of the year probably goes to a male Woodchat Shrike in the Findhorn Valley a pretty good but not quite adequate consolation prize for not seeing a Eagle here.

Forest Regeneration, Glen Feshie

My oldest son was eight this year and old enough to accompany me on a evening visit to Dersingham Bog in search of Nightjars, we invited his friend and his dad to join us. Labelling this as a Nightjar walk was in hindsight a mistake as we had one of the worst evenings for them that I can recall [we did get very brief views and heard them churring] But the kids loved their night hike and especially the large numbers of Glow worms around the boardwalk. 

Another wildlife highlight shared with the kids was at Holkham Pines in early August when we realised that we were in for a great butterfly day with the boys enjoying stalking them and trying to catch them by hand. A Dark Green Fritillary was the best of the day for me. 

Dark Green Fritillary, Holkham
As a family we spend a lot of time on the beach and in mid August I enjoyed slithering on my belly in the wet sand along the edge of the sea getting close eye level views and photographs of Sanderling freshly arrived back from the Arctic and sharing the beach with holiday makers.

Sanderling, Gore Point, Holme

Back at Holkham in September we "found" an Osprey [well we didn't know it was there] and watched it diving into the Lake several times before being seen off by a Red Kite. Not a sentence I would have imagined writing when I first moved to Norfolk over twenty years ago.

With the wind in the west for pretty much the entire autumn I saw very little in the way of unusual migrants this year. But In Early November I enjoyed a great day out with some former work colleagues on a boat on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex, looking at areas of managed realignment from the sea and marvelling at what an amazing wild place it was. We also saw the incongruous sight of a Clouded Yellow butterfly and Glossy Ibis on the same day that we watched hundreds of Brent geese.

Our Boat on the Blackwater
On the last day of the year my oldest boys friend who joined us Nightjar watching in the summer accompanied my two sons, wife and me to Welney to watch the swan feed and as well as the pleasure to be gained from bird feeders dripping Tree Sparrows and flocks of Whooper Swans it was great to see all three kids enjoy the spectacle and comparing the photos that they were taking of the bird's.

Welney, New Years Eve dusk
So not a bad year with some great memories and I even managed a respectable 202 species on my year list. Here's to more memories in 2018.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

September and October 2017 a few highlights

Autumn was really quiet in NW Norfolk this year and as I write this just before Christmas I can't recall last time time the wind switched to the east for more than a couple of hours. So that's my excuse for not blogging for a few months.

However having just had a quick look through my photo files on the PC I clearly have been out a fair bit and seen some interesting stuff, so here are a few highlights from September and October.

Amethyst Deceiver, Ken Hill Woods
I really know very little about Fungi but this small purple one caught my eye in Ken Hill Woods and it turns out that the Amethyst Deceiver is a distinctive and well known species.

"Falling leaf", Ken Hill Woods 
Another lunchtime walk with my old Pansonic Lumix TZ30 and I thought it would be fun to try and capture images of falling leaves. This little compact camera isn't up to the job of focusing on leaves tumbling through the air but it can take pictures of leaves caught mid fall on the thinnest of gossamer threads and left dangling in mid air over the path. Even with a suspended target this was still a remarkably difficult picture to take. 

Bearded Tot, Digiscoped at Titchwell
Water Rail, Digiscoped at Titchwell
The pictures of a male Bearded Tit and a Water Rail were both taken on the same morning from the Island Hide at Titchwell by hand holding by Lumix TZ30 to the eyepiece of my Kowa scope with the camera set to macro mode and then zoomed out. Nice if soft pictures that don't blow up to well.

Grey Squirrel, Rosary Cemetery Norwich
Sanderling, Gore Point
Turnstone, Hunstanton
During the autumn I found myself returning to some of my photographic obsessions. I have been visiting the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich at lunchtime for over a decade. These days I visit less often mainly because I now use my lunch breaks to go swimming and fight the flab. But I do still get out sometimes with my TZ30 and managed the shot above of one of the resident squirrels, I like to give a feel for the location of the pictures I take here and having a squirrel on a gravestone with a striking inscription is one way of doing this.

It would be odd if living on the coast I wasn't interested in shorebirds and this summer I developed a interest in taking photographs of Sanderling feeding on the same beaches my children were playing on.  Using and old Canon 100 - 300 lens and EOS 400 body I was able to inch forwards in my swimming trunks at eye level with the birds and you can see here how they push the sand in front of their bills and see why their old English name is Sand Plough. 

Turnstone's are great waders,often approachable, adaptable and striking to look at, I know that if all else fails me I can go to the beach in Hunstanton and photograph Sanderling most months of the year. This picture was taken in a short session one evening and I like the way it captures a little of the birds movement and character.

Red Backed Shrike, Heacham

Black Necked Grebe, Snettisham

Osprey, Holkham Park

I haven't seen any rares this autumn but I did manage to luck onto a few scarce migrants. The Red Backed Shrike was a post work Twitch to the northern end of the coastal park. The Black Necked Grebe similarly another after work twitch this time to the pits at Snettisham. We "found" the Osprey fishing on Holkham Park Lake during a family visit and enjoyed watching it plunging into the lake several times before being chased off by an Osprey.

Hobby, Holkham Pines
A family walk at Holkham Pines was enlivened by this Hobby hunting Dragonflies over our heads as we walked along the edge of the pines. 

Friday, 25 August 2017

Summer Holiday Wildlife Highlights [so far ...]

The summer holidays are almost over, The Bird Fair has been and gone for another year and tomorrow the late August Bank Holiday weekend signals the last hurrah of the holidays before a week of haircuts, shoe shop visits and general getting ready for going back to school. The wildlife of the coast is changing too, the beach at Brancaster feels eerily quiet now that the Sandwich Terns have vacated their colony at Scolt Head and flocks of waders are appearing back on the foreshore fresh in from their Arctic breeding grounds.

Sandwich Terns, Scolt Head
We've had a busy staycation with a good number of days on the beach and swims in the sea, but also some time looking at wildlife, often on those same beach visits.

Sanderling, Gore Point

I love it when the wading birds come back and on one recent beach visit I was able to leave the family for half an hour and slowly inch on my belly towards a roosting flock of Sanderling, I wanted a shot with the birds in focus and in the background and out of focus people enjoying, unwittingly, sharing the beach with the birds, I used a ten year old EOS 400D and and an even older 100 - 300 zoom. Later that weekend I grabbed a shot of a Turnstone on the beach in Hunstanton at dusk using my Panasonic Lumix TZ30.

Turnstone, Hunstanton

The sand dunes in north Norfolk are a great wildlife habitat and a few weeks ago whilst walking through the dunes at Holkham I was lucky enough to find and photograph a rather worn Dark Green Fritillary. At Gore Point as the kids played in the sand I managed a short walk in the dunes and got a picture of a rather lovely clump of Sea Rocket and enjoyed watching and photographing a Dune Tiger Beetle as it hurried across the sand in search of prey.

Dune Tiger Beetle, Gore Point

Sea Rocket, Gore Point

Dark Green Fritillary, Holkham
I'm lucky that some days I work from an office in Snettisham and am able to make quick visits to the RSPB reserve there on the edge of the Wash, on one of these I digi-scoped this picture of a flock of Black Tailed Godwits taking flight.

Black Tailed Godwits, Snettisham

Today with the kids tired after a week of playing with their visiting cousins, we had a quiet morning in the playground in Hunstanton, but still there was wildlife with a Hummingbird Hawkmoth in the Sensory Garden and this rather Funky / Punky [delete according to your own cultural reference points] Syacmore Moth Caterpillar. One week of holidays to go what will we find next?

Sycamore Moth Caterpillar, Hunstanton

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Whitsun Family Holiday in Northumberland with a bit of Birdng thrown in

We spent half term week in Northumberland, staying at these holiday cottages at Fenhan Le Moor just off the A1 and close to Lindisfarne. This was a family holiday and the location was great for touring. The week passed by with a mix of Castle visits, beach time and light birding.
Swallow taken through the bathroom window at our holiday cottage
Favourite places

Low Newton Beach
Cheap car park (£4 all day), a pub by the beach, rock pools and a great curving sweep of sand leading the eye to the ruin of Dunstanburgh Castle. Even on a warm and sunny late May Bank holiday Monday there were less than 100 on the beach, the wife said it reminded her of the North Norfolk of her childhood before it was  "discovered"

Low Newton Beach, rather nice

"Live Interpretation" by a rather good and witty couple of Court Jesters at Alnwick Castle
Alnwick Castle
We ended up here on a drizzly day not knowing what to expect and only paid to go into the castle. Expensive but you can use your ticket as often as you wish for a year. The interior of the castle was full of overseas tour groups, do not touch and no photography signs and rammed with posh tat. Outside there was great live entertainment and interpretation this we all loved.

Dunstanburgh Castle
great ruins and saw half a dozen Bottlenose Dolphins off shore from here. Small visitor centre here with a coffee machine and loo's. Also worth knowing that although operated by English Heritage it's owned by the National Trust and you can get in free with your NT membership card.

Heavily cropped shot of a couple of members of a pod of half a dozen Bottlenose Dolphins that swan past Dunstanburgh Castle as we had our picnic lunch

Dunstanburgh Castle

The Farne Islands
We went with Billy Shiels on their full day excursion which means you get two hours on both Staple Island in the morning and Inner Farne in the afternoon. This cost £110 in boat fees, we didn't have to pay National Trust landing fees as we are members. Staple Island has no facilities and is quite rocky, there really isn't anywhere out of the way for a pee so watch your early morning coffee intake. Great seabird island though. Inner Farne does have a loo and a basic visitor centre it also has thousands of Arctic Terns and more Puffins. Managed to find a couple of Roseate Terns in the roost here.

These Islands really are an amazing wildlife experience, amongst the finest in the UK, you are able to walk around a seabird colony and get within inches of nesting wild birds. At the right time of year you will get great views of Puffins and a wide range of other seabirds as well as Grey Seals hauled out of the rocks and if you are lucky Dolphins.

The walk through the Arctic Tern colony is a wonderfully visceral experience as the Terns fly over your heads pecking you on the scalp [wear a hat] and crapping over your hat and back leaving you with a souvenir of white wash on your clothes, wonderful.

If you are a birder and can't get out to Coquet Island to look for Roseate Terns and are unhappy with distant scope views from the beach there, you stand a reasonable chance of finding a Roseate or two amongst the several hundred resting Arctic Terns on the beach near the jetty.

Puffin and tour boat

Arctic Tern, up close and personal
Roseate Tern [top left] Inner Farne

We also visited Bamburgh Castle which is a offers great views out to the Farnes and looks lovely in its position on the coast. Did though find the visitor experience a little disjointed and didn't appreciate a steward shouting at the kids to get off the grass.

View north from Bamburgh Castle

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Lovers in the Fens

I always enjoy my all to infrequent visits to Frampton Marsh and Freiston Shore. I had a small [very small] hand in the creation of both of these RSPB nature reserves and it is great to be able to look back at the amazing progress that the team there has made to the landscape, which they have through their work filled with birds.

As I crossed the county line from Norfolk into Lincolnshire and up the chicken run which is the A16, with fast cars zooming down the invisible third middle lane on this single carriageway road, I mused on what goodies might await me, BirdGuides had suggested that the site was having a relatively quiet couple of days. On arrival I bumped into one of the wardens who told me that a pair of Black Winged Stilts had arrived that morning, perhaps birds that had been seen earlier in the week on the Humber at Blacktoft Sands or maybe the pair that had been in residence for a while at Welney.

Black Winged Stilts feeding amongst the dead stems of last years Sunflowers
First things first and a useful business meeting back at the reserve office, before heading out for a brief site visit via the pair of Stilts. The site as ever was full of birds and the Stilts had chosen a lagoon which had been left fallow last year and sown with Sunflowers, the skeletal stalks of last years flowers sticking up from the shallow water.

Black Winged Stilts bum in air, but not mating just yet, heavily cropped
I didn't have my scope with me but grabbed handful of record shots one of which is above in a heavily cropped format. The Stilts were busily feeding whilst we watched them and were later prior to their departure from Frampton seen mating.

Whilst watching the Stilts a stunning bright yellow, Yellow Wagtail put in an appearance. Back by the Visitor Centre a Goldfinch perched on a post inches from the path.

A quick look at Freiston Shore was special for memories it brought back of the work we did to recreate saltmarsh here and of course the resident Tree Sparrows.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Photographing Quicksilver, a little time with Swifts

Sunday and with a decidedly chilly weather forecast we decide on a family walk along the landward side of the pines between Holkham and Burnham Overy Staithe. Part mobile football match, part birdwatch and part picnic we make our way along a surprisingly quiet path heading west from Lady Anne's Drive.
Female Wheatear, Burnham Overy Dunes
I didn't have any great birdy expectations apart from getting to add Spoonbill to my year list and sure enough we saw a number of these around the Cormorant colony as expected. The only other year tick was a Greenshank that I picked up as it called as it flew over whilst we had our picnic in the dunes.

Male Wheatear, Burnham Overy Dunes
The dunes didn't hold any Ring Ousels that I could find and in the cold northerly wind migrants were thin on the ground so two or three Wheatear's were nice to see and included a very tame female that allowed me to shuffle within a couple of metres of her.

Swift, Burham Overy Staithe
As we walked on the landward side of the seawall back towards Burnham Overy Staithe, large numbers of Swifts buzzed around our heads and I got sucked into one of my favourite summer pastimes trying to photograph Quicksilver aka as Swift photography. I really didn't have the right kit with me a ten year old EOS 400D body and an even older Canon  100 - 300 mm 1; 4.5-5.6 lens the auto focus on which wheezed slowly in and out far more slowly than the Swifts moved through the sky which made the already tricky task of photographing them much harder.

Swift, Burham Overy Staithe
Nonetheless I had a great time, Swifts are such charismatic birds and so unpredictable in flight, just when you think that you that you and your camera have finally focused on one, it does a sudden shimmy and is gone. One eagerly anticipated moment when photographing Swifts, never guaranteed and never predictable, is when one fly's so close to your face that you can hear the rush of air through its wings and for a second you wonder if its wing brushes against you, will slice your ear off.

Swift, Burham Overy Staithe
I took lots of shots, most were out of focus, but one or two were OK as record shots and I have shared a few here.

Swift, Burham Overy Staithe
Whilst waiting for the Swifts this male Kestrel worked its way down the sea bank and for a moment or two was almost directly overhead an din good light. A very pleasant twenty minutes.