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.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Full Sum Plum - Male RB Fly at Holme

I noticed on the Birdguides Norfolk page yesterday that there had been a Red Breasted Flycatcher at Holme and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was still present today. After a morning spent in the home office catching up on important and all to frequently prevaricated bits of personal admin, I set off early afternoon for the short drive along the coast to Holme Dunes.

A typical view of a bright bird on a grey day, Red Breasted Flycatcher, Holme
As I drove down the bumpy access track I stopped to talk to my friend Trevor who was just leaving and had seen the bird who assured me it was pretty straightforward as it was showing in the car park to a small crowd. He also told me that there were some Wheatear's, a male Redstart and a Whinchat in one of the paddocks.
Red Breasted Flycatcher, Holme
Having parked a car I walked the twenty or so yards to the assembled birding gallery and very quickly had the bird in my binoculars and managed some very poor record shots. At this point it flew off high into some pines and I decided to head to the paddock where I quickly had scope views of a couple of Wheatears, a Whinchat and lovely Male Redstart. 

Back to the NWT car park where the male Red Breasted Flycatcher had returned and with patience I managed some slightly better if still record only quality shots [all the images in this blog are heavily cropped] as it busily moved through the trees occasionally sitting still for a few seconds, often with it s back turned before continuing its restless feeding. 

Red Breasted Flycatcher, Holme
It really was in great plumage red throated and silver faced. As the afternoon progressed a steady turnover of folk and one or two friends unexpectedly put in appearances which turned this mini twitch into a pleasant social occasion too.
Full frontal, Red Breasted Flycatcher, Holme

Monday, 1 May 2017

Choseley Red Footed Falcon

Its not often that time off work, a gap in family duties, nice weather and a good bird all come together, but that's what happened this morning. I'd mentioned last night to the wife that the forecast looked good for migrants this morning and that I might try and grab a couple of hours spotting and then take the kids swimming in the afternoon.

Female Red Footed Falcon, Choseley
A much later start than anticipated meant that I was aware of a report or a Red Footed Falcon at Choseley and whilst part of me wondered if this was a mis-identified Hobby, I decided to give it a go before dropping down to Titchwell.

Female Red Footed Falcon, Choseley
I arrived at the drying Barns only to be pointed down the hill to the bend in the road where half a dozen cars were squeezed into a small parking space. It was clear that better views could be had from the south side of this giant field and I jumped back in the car for the short drive and a tight verge side parking place.

Red Footed Falcon Gallery
From here the bird gave great scope views as it hovered over the field and then sat on clods of earth in the ploughed field. It really was immaculate with its grey back, apricot brown undersides and highway man mask. I couldn't see what it was catching but there seemed to be plenty of prey to keep it occupied. It would do a regular circuit although never coming to close to the small knot of birders. Having grabbed some crop-able shots I walked back down the lane to a hole in the hedge and was able to get some closer shots.

I'm not that happy with the way the Canon 100 - 400 lens and 5D MK2 performed as many shots are not as sharp as I'd like, may be a combination of the age of the lens and the distance I was working at. I suspect that I could have got some crippling shot with my compact Panasonic TZ30 digi-scoped through the Kowa but that camera needs a trip to the menders.

Female Red Footed Falcon, Choseley
After a while the Red Foot was joined by a male Kestrel which caused a momentary panic as the cry went up "are there two of them?". A very pale Common Buzzard perched in a distant Oak and a Red Kite drifted by. A couple of Wheatears added to the early May Bank holiday migration feel.

Female Red Footed Falcon, Choseley
After about 90 minutes with the Falcon it disappeared when I had my eye off it and I don't think it was seen again.
Female Red Footed Falcon, Choseley

Female Red Footed Falcon, Choseley
I dropped down to Titchwell Marsh for a quick 20 minute look at the Fresh Marsh and was rewarded with  a sleeping male Garganey, three male Red Crested  Pochard's and a couple of cranes in the distance as they flew over Thornham, all in all a great morning.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Blickling Hall Bluebell Walk

Over the past few weeks it became clear from my social media accounts that across the south of the UK the display in Bluebell woods was peaking and with a early May Bank Holiday weekend free we decided to take the family to the National Trusts Blickling Estate to see the carpets of Bluebells in the woods there.

Bluebells at Blickling Hall, Norfolk
On arrival we managed to squeeze into the last parking space in the woodland car park and join a steady stream of families heading up the hill into the woods. Birdsong was a little muted but in the distance I could hear a Nuthatch and there were some very vocal Blackcap's and Chiff Chaffs around the trail.

I'd taken a couple of cameras with me and within minutes our two young boys had taken these off me so that they could join in with the other visitors to the woods in a orgy of  Bluebell Photography and selfie taking. Our fellow Bluebell Pilgrims displayed the full range of camera kit from mobile phones through tablets to full blown DSLR's.

Bluebell photography at Blickling Hall, Norfolk
There are some natural phenomena which seem to drag the great British public out in their droves, in Norfolk early Spring Snowdrop walks are a big thing at places like Walsingham Abbey and are a great way of having a gentle stroll in the countryside perhaps bookmarked by Coffee and cake. A couple of months later come the Bluebell's more nice walks with family and friends and of course more refreshments.

Bluebell walk at Blickling Hall, Norfolk
The Bluebells at Blickling were at their peak all were open and none that I could see had yet started to turn over, amongst them were the odd spots of pink from Red Campion flowers and a thin splash of white where a clump of Wild Garlic grew along the side of a ditch.

Bluebells at Blickling Hall, Norfolk
Bluebells are a feature of our woods as I understand a combination of our mild  Atlantic climate and a removal of some natural processes such as Wild Boar rooting for bulbs has allowed the carpets that we see today to flourish. I wonder if anyone has noticed a change to the display of Bluebells where Wild Boar have made a welcome return to our woods in places such as the Forest of Dean? Other threats are introduced Spanish Bluebells hybridising with out native Bluebells and climate change impacting on the conditions that they need to thrive.

Bluebells at Blickling Hall, Norfolk
We ended our walk by driving the short distance round to the main Blickling Hall car park and walked down to the edge of the lake for a picnic tea. All in all a pleasant afternoon.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Spring Waxwings

Late April and the Bird Guides Norfolk page continues to carry news of a flock of Waxwings on the outskirts of Norwich, I realise that they are hanging a round a retail park and industrial estate just off the A47 on my way home and that I haven't seen a Waxwing this year.
Waxwing, Norwich

The next morning I pull off the A47 and have a drive around the industrial estate but no joy, its a big place and I could do with directions, fortunately a colleague spent Sunday morning watching the birds and is able to sketch a map for me on a piece of scrap paper.
Waxwing, Norwich

Properly equipped I revisit the industrial estate and soon find the birds or rather they find me as they fly over my car. As soon as I get out I can hear their wonderful trilling call and by arching my neck I can see half a dozen Waxwings in the tree above me. Soon they take flight across the road and back to some berry bushes to feed and I am able to get close enough wit a old 100 - 300mm zoom lens to take a few snaps, the lights isn't great but it is still lovely to be so close to these birds.
Waxwing, Norwich

Fittingly the weather is wintry with grey cloud a cold wind and occasional showers, I wonder if they will still be here in a weeks time when the first returning Swifts could be flying overhead?

Monday, 24 April 2017

Black Tern at Titchwell

Saturday's are always a busy family day with kids swimming lessons, and shopping for groceries to do and usually involve me casting regular glances at my phone to check the Bird Guides Norfolk news page. Last weekend was no exception to this pattern and I even squeezed in a kick about with the boys in the park after lunch.

Black Tern, Titchwell

The bird news was dominated by the east of the county where a singing Savi's Warbler and wandering Sea Eagle were the highlights. Closer to home though a Black Tern stood out as a good bird to go for, these are annual here but never common and it is perfectly possible to go a year or two without seeing one [I can prove that because it must be a couple of years since I last saw one on the coast].

Black Tern, Titchwell

So after putting some sausages in the oven for the boys tea I left them at home with their Mum and headed east along the A149 for the six or so mile drive to Titchwell. Walking down the West Bank path past a trio of male Red Created Pochard's I soon could see the Tern distantly swooping over the most distant side of the Fresh Marsh. I decided to position myself just outside the Parrinder Hide in the hope that it would at least once fly close enough for some decent pictures.

Once in position the Tern gave great scope views, its dark charcoal black plumage glistening in the spring sunshine. Unfortunately it never did come close and so the pictures I have to share with you here are heavily cropped record shots rather than works of art. But it was a great bird to see and it gave me an excuse to spend a very peasant hour looking out across the Fresh Marsh listening to he calls of the Avocets and the distant boom of a Bittern.

Couple of Shelduck that flew over whilst watching the Tern

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Kestrel Hunting

I rather like Kestrels, they are the Falcon of my London childhood when all other birds of prey were rarities, their populations slowly recovering from the effects of chemical poisoning and human persecution. Kestrels were the bird of prey that I would see over my local parks and woods and which  I would use as my birding yardstick when as I grew more experienced I would encounter and attempt to identify other small raptors.

Male Kestrel about to clobber a rodent, Brancaster

But more than that, like all Falcons they are great to look at, elegant even. And what a skill it is to be able to hover in the wind like they do, but perhaps a skill it is easy to cease to wonder at because it is so common place.

In recent years Kestrel populations have suffered a decline and whilst they are still widespread and relatively common this population fall is enough to make you realise that like all of our wildlife we should not take them for granted.

Male Kestrel hunting

Yesterday I was walking in the sand dunes between Brancaster Beach and the golf links when I saw a hovering Kestrel hunting the long yellow and brown grass of the dunes. This male bird was holding steady in blustery North Westerly breeze, normally I would expect a Kestrel to make several half dives, falling from the sky and then aborting the dive halfway to the ground, but on this occasion its first dive was a success and it disappeared from view into the long grass. Eventually after a few minutes it rose back into the air and flew off.

Male Kestrel about to disappear into the long grass, Brancaster

I had a old DSLR with me with an even old 10 -300mm zoom lens and fired off a few shots. These have not come out as sharp as I would like but I quite like the way that they capture the essence of this small bird of prey and the coastal habitat that it has made its home.

Kestrel departing