Saturday, 15 November 2014

Hyde Park

As those of you who follow me on twitter will already know, I have recently gained some new equipment in the form of a Canon 7d Mk2 and a Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 OS (new camera and lens basically!). Last weekend was my first opportunity to test the new kit when myself and Gary Loader took a trip down to Kent to see a Desert Wheatear. I was very impressed with the setup, though the fantastic light meant it was difficult to go far wrong!

Desert Wheatear 
Desert Wheatear

Desert Wheatear
I was more interested to see how the lens performed in less ideal conditions and so today, in the gloom I headed off to Hyde Park. In the end the light was marginally better than I was expecting, though I never found myself shooting below ISO 1600! The camera performed fantastically with noise performance - significantly better than my old Sony. 

Grey Squirrel
Ring-Necked Parakeet

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Birds: My Top 10!

"What's your favourite bird?" - it's a question I am frequently asked and truthfully I am not sure I really have an answer; just a few days ago I described the process on twitter as 'like having to choose between your children'...I must say I have found it really rather difficult as I just love all birds! I have however managed it (though I may have changed my mind by tomorrow); you will notice some rather large gaps in terms of taxonomy - there are for example no birds of prey in this list (if one were to feature, it would probably have to be Hen/Montagu's Harrier).
Having done little travelling outside of the UK, it seemed logical to focus on birds that regularly occur in the British Isles and so in no particular order, here we go:

We're off to a colourful start with the enigmatic Kingfisher; beautiful, characterful - what's not to love? It is also one of the commonest birds to feature in the list and thanks to well positioned perches, is becoming increasingly easy to see at nature reserves. My best views have always been in front of my own portable hide however, where I frequently get birds to perch less than 5m from the camera.

Sedge Warbler
I think this is Britain's best "small brown bird": not only do they look great, their song is fantastically varied as a result of their extraordinarily accurate mimicry, and their songflight is superb!

Jack Snipe
Perhaps one of the more unusual choices - I have only seen 4, but each was more brilliant than the last. Their incessant bobbing (which at times seems to entirely negate their otherwise stunningly effective camouflage) is one of the best quirks in British birding. I'm lucky if I see more than 1 each winter, which perhaps adds to the appeal for these delightfully charming birds.

Great White Egret
Probably the rarest bird (in British terms) to feature on the list though becoming increasingly easy to see. On a recent trip to France they were somewhat abundant, so their expansion seems only set to continue. They are always an exciting bird to watch; certainly more so than a sleeping spoonbill and its larger size instantly makes it superior to its 'little' counterpart.

Does this need any explanation? Tame, colourful and during 'invasion' years fairly easy to find (currently the best bird to have occurred in my garden).

I think this is a species that most birders can relate to! Every spring I become genuinely excited at the thought of the first Wheatear of the year. Upright, charismatic and the best arse in Britain, this is probably my favourite summer migrant.

Maybe a surprising choice (or not if you are a regular reader of this blog!) but I absolutely love these birds. Their bill, their colour...they're just great!

Water Rail
Another one of the more unusual choices; there's just something about this secretive bird I really's certainly not its call, which is among the most disturbing sounds in the ornithological world.

Dartford Warbler
Perhaps inevitable this one given my close proximity to some of Britain's best heathland - the Dartford Warbler can be an extremely frustrating bird to see well. Often flitting through the gorse or flying low above the heather; their disproportionally long tail whirring in tow (which is almost certainly my favourite flight of any bird!). I am of course blessed to have this bird closeby; their scratchy song and purple hue make heathlands a far nicer place to be. Thankfully, after a series of cold winters/washout springs, they appear to have had a fantastic year in 2014 with many pairs successfully rearing 3 broods.

And finally, perhaps my favourite bird...maybe. The smallest, speediest, sexiest gem of a bird one could hope to stumble upon. Despite weighing less than the 50p piece in your pocket, this is a bird brimmed to the crown with character, and thanks to our warming climate, it is a species that is becoming much more common. Of course, I am slightly biased: this year I co-ordinated a survey of this species in North-East Hampshire and so spent rather a lot of time in their company watching probably in excess of 50 individuals! Time well spent I think...

And there we have have it, favourite bird species - there are so many species that were very close: Stone Curlew, Nightingale, Black Redstart, Shoveler, Raven, Turtle Dove...the list is endless!
So what would feature in your top 10?

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A Wasp!

The title sounds exciting doesn't it? Hopefully this post will be mildly interesting and informative (I certainly learned a lot whilst writing it!), since it is dedicated to the amazing Ammophila Wasps. I first encountered this fascinating group of wasps last year on some nearby sandy heathland, this group's preferred habitat in the UK (the word Ammophila being a greek translation of 'sand lover'). Of the 200 species in the world, only two occur in the UK, A.sabulosa and A.pubescens and these are more or less restricted to the heaths of southern England.

Today whilst searching for a reported Red-Backed Shrike (which before you ask, no I didn't see it!), I encountered an Ammophila wasp once again. I believe this individual is the scarcer of the two species (A.pubescens) but I am happy to be corrected on this.

I found it excitedly jumping around the sandy path on which we were stood, however before I could grab a photo it disappeared into the heather! A few seconds later, it emerged with a Beautiful Yellow Underwing caterpillar (again please correct me if this identification is incorrect). This is where the lifecycle of these species becomes really quite astonishing!

Before I found this individual, it will have dug a number of small burrows in the sand which acts as a nest for its larvae. Caterpillars are caught, paralysed (but not killed - in order to preserve) and dragged into this burrow. The wasp lays an egg on the initial caterpillar, providing a plentiful food source for the developing wasp larvae. The wasp then continues to monitor the development of this larvae, and provides it with additional food sources when necessary!

As we watched the caterpillar being dragged nearly 10m across the sand and heather, it was clear the wasp new the exact location of its burrow relative to its current position. It seems a number of experiments have been done to analyse exactly how this is achieved; this is copied directly from the BWARS website:

"Baerends used ingenious experiments to show that females use landmarks to learn the location of each nest. Artificial trees were placed near the nesting area and left until the wasps had learned to use them as landmarks. When a tree was experimentally moved, say 5 m to the west, then the wasp searched for its nest 5 m west of its real position. It thus appeared to locate its nest from the nest's position relative to the landmark. These experiments, together with others using artificial nests, partly explained how a female could achieve the incredible feat of caring for two or three nests simultaneously, each at a different stage of development and therefore requiring different amounts of food."

I eventually followed this individual back to its burrow, and filmed the caterpillar's final glimpses of daylight! Apologies for the slightly shaky footage  (and awful video compression) but trying to film a wasp handheld is not the easiest!

Friday, 18 April 2014

Stone Curlews

Whilst up at the BTO's head office in Thetford, Norfolk for an 'A Focus on Nature' workshop day (more about that in my next blogpost) I spent two evenings at Weeting Heath, a nature reserve that is managed primarily for the rare Stone Curlew...

People often complain they are distant at this site, but they showed very well (particularly on the second night) for us...

With so many birds at this site (at least 6), things began to hot up with numerous birds displaying!

Things very quickly began to get violent!

And the result of such violence, feathers everywhere (oh how I was hoping for one of those feathers to drift into the hide!!)

Sunday, 6 April 2014


Well after last year's amazing experience with Crossbills right on my doorstep, I didn't even imagine I would have another opportunity to photograph these delightful birds again!
Whilst in some local woodland, no more than a mile away from my front door, I encountered a group of Crossbill whilst failing to find the desired Firecrest! At first they were feeding high in the trees, so I paid them little attention. However, I noticed two birds begin to descend the tree, before flying very low to a small oak nearby. Having studied them a lot last year, I knew instantly that they were probably coming down to drink (due to their very dry diet of pinecones, Crossbill are very thirsty birds!).
Rather than using one of the nicely lit puddles on the forest path, they decided to fly over to a small flooded area of the nearby gravel extraction plant! Thankfully it was not in operation and I quickly had absolutely fantastic views as the female crossbill flew down and landed about 7-8m away! She had a quick drink for 10 seconds, and then flew back to the nearby conifers.

Being fairly habitual, I knew the birds were likely to return, and sure enough 40 minutes later they returned and came down for a drink once more (this time a couple of males came down also!). Although brief, the experience was absolutely fantastic and I was reminded why Crossbills are one of my absolute favourite birds!
I returned the next day in the hope of getting some more photographs, but unfortunately the birds, although around, were not too keen on coming down for a drink!

I had originally posted 3 of these photos on flickr, but I have just realised that the quality is absolutely appalling (why do flickr keep messing around with this new format?!), so hopefully they will look significantly better below.

As always, thanks for reading!!

Male Crossbill
Female Crossbill
Male Crossbill

Female Crossbill

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Arrival of Spring

After what can only be described as an atrocious winter, it has been nice to finally see and enjoy the sun the past few weeks! Over this time, the first signs of spring have revealed themselves and this weekend I caught up with 2 of the earliest migrants.

Chiffchaffs have been singing their typical (and frankly quite irritating!) song for a couple of weeks now but I hadn't actually seen one until this morning. Although they are a rather common migrant I have never really photographed them before; so this year they are one of my top priorities. There is some way to go before I get the shots I want, but this is a very nice way to start the project. It's amazing to think that this bird weighs no more than 10grams, yet has probably travelled from the Mediterranean or even West Africa!

Yesterday I caught up with one of the most attractive migrants, the Wheatear. A fairly regular passage migrant in my area (though usually later in the year) but it is normally a very difficult bird to approach! I was alerted to this bird's presence on my local patch by a friend and I'm rather glad I made the effort to go and see him! Like the Chiffchaff, this is another long-distance migrant, wintering in the somewhat warmer climes of sub-Saharan Africa!

Finally, I would like to share some success! Over the past month I have been awarded 2 competition titles. The first is the Oasis PhotoContest; an Italian-based international competition, where I was delighted to be awarded 1st place in their Junior section with this image of a Glaucous Gull.

The photo can also be seen here on the Oasis PhotoContest website (please note this will be only available if viewed on a computer).

Last week I was notified that I have won this year's Junior British Mammal Photographer of the Year with my image of a Common Seal. I was really chuffed to win this award (not least because I also won it last year!) but because I have been awarded my very own Bushnell Trailcam, which could become a real asset to my photography! The winning image can be found on the link below:

Hopefully the first Willow Warblers will be appearing in my area over the next couple of weeks, and I will have to revisit the Dartfords at some point!

As always thanks for reading :-)