Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Kentish Plover

The birding and more importantly the birding photography have been a bit slow of late. A combination of dull overcast days and the unseasonal cold weather has resulted in a slow start to the spring migration and also to fingers often too cold to press the camera shutter. The lack of anything interesting must have been getting to me as I woke up in the middle of the night and I could feel a "twitch" coming on.

The result, I got up early the next morning and left home at 05.45 to head down to Rye in the hope that the Kentish Plover would still be there. Unfortunately that was not quite early enough. I arrived at Rye only to be told by a couple of birders "you should have been here a few minutes ago, it was on the mud right in front of us". Not the best of news first thing on a cold morning.

We did manage to relocate the bird but it was distant and despite waiting three hours for the high tide to push it closer I could only manage distant record shots. If you have good eyesight you can just see it in the picture below sitting under the Shelduck's backside.

Shelduck and Kentish Plover with Avocets in the background
This was taken with a 500mm lens and 1.4x extender and gives about the same view as you get through a pair of 10 x 50 binoculars. Fortunately Photoshop gives the possibility  of digital magnification and whilst you do not get the best quality image it does enable you to see that it is definitely the Kentish Plover.

Shelduck and Kentish Plover
There were plenty of other birds around the harbour. Sandwich Terns were starting to arrive and there was a Meadow Pipit clearly unwilling to abandon its territory just because we wanted to stand there.

Around seventy Sandwich Terns roosting with the Oytercatchers

Meadow Pipit

So what to do in the afternoon. Wait around for a better picture of the Plover or try somewhere else. There was always the Glaucous Gull that I had missed last time I was down at Dungeness and there would always be the chance of something unusual turning up on the pits.

It could have been a wasted trip. The RSPB site was very quiet, just a few Tufted Ducks and Coot along with lots of Gulls. Even the Tree Sparrows were hard to find. The feeder area seemed to have been taken over by Reed Buntings.

Reed Bunting
Eventually a couple turned up but they seemed less showy than when I had seen them before.

Tree Sparrow

I wasn't sure that I would recognise the Glaucous Gull when I saw it and after walking the beach for an hour looking at multiple variations of juvenile gulls I was starting to give up hope. The wind had been cold all day but across Dungeness beach it was really bitter. Just as I was on the point of leaving a shadow passed over my head. I had been looking for translucent wings with no black on them, front heavy, and aggresive looking, or as a local birder had put it big and dirty looking. When you see it there can be no doubt, there was nothing else like it on the beach.

Aggressive looking perhaps

Translucent wings
More graceful in flight

I believe it is a third winter bird so it has colour on the wings but has not yet developed the yellow beak. Still, it's a great bird to see and it has a bit more character than most of the gulls I come across.

I called in at Rye again on the way back but although the Plover was still around it wasn't coming any closer.

Monday, 18 March 2013

First Signs of Spring

A day exploring the cliffs between Brighton and Seaford Head with our chief target a Black Redstart reported at Telscombe Water Works.

We had a bit of a slow start when the Black Redstart was a no show. However, we did see a pair of Peregrines flying and also a male Wheatear, my first of the year, as he made his way off the beach and up the cliffs. Pity he didn't hang around a little longer.


There were also a number of Rock Pipits around. I had only ever seen them as single birds before but there must have been between six and ten moving around on the beach and at the bottom of the cliffs.

Rock Pipit

Very active feeding

and not camera shy

 As usual the Rock Pipits were easy to photograph. They seemed indifferent to my presence and as long as I made no fast movements they would come quite close.

We then moved on to Seaford and searched the churchyard. Again no Black Redstart but there was a Chiffchaff, probably newly arrived judging from its rate of feeding.


There were Kittiwakes at Seaford Head but picture opportunities were limited and Newhaven harbour was also very quiet with only one Fulmar on the cliffs. However, we did meet another birder who gave us better directions for finding the Black Redstart back at Telscombe.

A second visit proved successful although my pictures were a bit of a disaster with the black bird in shadow and silhouetted against sunlit chalk cliffs. I couldn't even use them as record shots.

A quick shot of an Oystercatcher roost and we headed off home after a successful day and with the warm sun and the sightings of Wheatear and Chiffchaff suggesting that spring could be on the way.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Smew, Bittern, and Marsh Harrier

This looked like a good start to the day. Two drake Smew, five redheads, and a Bittern sitting in the reeds behind them.

Taken from the ARC hide Dungeness

It being a crisp, bright, and sunlit winters day we had driven down to Dungeness in the hope of just such pictures. If only I could have gotten a bit closer, but there was a lot of water between them and me and they had no intention of coming over to give me better views.

Drake Smew - a long way off

Showing off to the ladies

And "too distant for a good picture" turned out to be the theme for the day.

Bittern flying - too distant
Marsh Harrier flying - too distant
Another Marsh Harrier - too distant
Avocet - too distant (at Rye Harbour)

We had a good day and saw a lot of birds including the scarce Smew. In fact this was my first sight of a Drake Smew in the wild. Overall though, it was disappointing to have returned home without a couple of really good pictures. Sometimes it just doesn't happen for you.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Water Rails

Wednesday and with the sun shining and the snow melting we decided to head down to Farlington Marsh so that Dave could add the Red-breasted Goose and Spoonbill to his year list. We managed to spot the Spoonbill in the distance and we had great fun standing in the freezing cold and scanning a couple of thousand Brent geese but we saw no sign of the Red-breasted.

We decided to move on to Baffins Pond in Portsmouth to find some reported obliging Water Rails, with the intention of returning to the marsh later. Baffins Pond seemed a most unlikely place to find the Water Rails. Smallish pond with a couple of reed beds, a children's play area, traffic on three sides, and lots of people and dog walkers wandering about. Yet the Water Rails were there and very visible. At least three that we saw and possibly more.

Water Rail emerging from the reeds
and out in the open

Although using the reed beds for cover they made frequent appearances in the open and did not seem to be disturbed by people standing close by watching them. At one point a photographer lost his bean bag over the fence and climbed over into the reed bed to recover it, carrying out a bit of gardening to clear reeds obstructing his view on the way. Can't say that I was happy, that sort of thing gives photographers a bad name, and I thought we had seen the last of the birds, but two minutes later they were back out in the open.

Great pictures of a shy and skulking bird and far more satisfying than photographing the tame one at Pulborough Brooks.

Then on to Southsea Castle to see if we could improve on our Purple Sandpiper pictures. It is always difficult on the south coast, You need sunlight for the pictures but that invariably means that for sea birds and waders you are photographing into the sun. So a couple of reasonable pictures but nothing outstanding.

Purple Sandpiper

Braving the surf

Then back to Farlington Marsh and another circuit looking for the Red-breasted Goose. A Stonechat was a good find as it is the first I have seen this year.


This time we spotted the Red-breasted in the distance and were fortunate when the flock relocated and it ended up close to the footpath.

Red-breasted Goose
You would think that a red goose in a field of black geese would be easy to see. However, when it has its head down feeding, which is most of the time, it can be difficult to spot.

Often better to look for the two white wing bars when the heads are down.

In a small group of twenty birds it is not too difficult but when you have a couple of thousand spread out across the marsh it becomes a harder task. I have the greatest admiration for the birders we met there who were searching the flocks for a Black Brant and a Pale-bellied variety bird that had been reported as being there. It sounded like a long cold job.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Red-breasted Goose and Spoonbill

Rain and mist on Thursday but I still needed to see the Red-breasted Goose that I had missed on Tuesday so I headed over to Farlington Marshes early afternoon. I have been spending a lot of time in Hampshire lately, perhaps I should change the name of the blog.

It looked quite dull for taking pictures but fog and mist often give a soft even lighting and can give good picture opportunities as long as the subjects are not too far away.

I found the Red-breasted Goose after a short walk along the sea wall. I had good views through  the binoculars but then had trouble relocating it through the camera. It blends in really well with the Brents when it has its head down feeding. So a frustrating ten minutes until it stuck its head up again and I managed to get a couple of pictures.

Red-breasted Goose

A couple of Spoonbill had been reported on the marsh on the previous day and a helpful birder located them for me, asleep on the far side of the marsh. A distant view through a scope was useful but I was keen to get a picture so I hurried off in pursuit fearing that they would fly off before I got there. Sure enough before I had taken a few steps one took to the air and disappeared off high and in an easterly direction. I felt sure the other would follow but although it was active and moving around it stayed on the ground.


The mist probably helped here as these shots would have been difficult to get in sunlight. Fabulous bird, pictures could have been a bit sharper though.

Back at the car park I spotted a raptor sitting in the tree with its back towards me. Useful in that it enables you to get closer but a bit frustrating when you see the pictures you have taken.

Buzzard - rear view

Buzzard flying - rear view


Still if it had been facing towards me I doubt that I would have got anywhere near it.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Great Grey Shrike

Monday and with no sign of a Great Grey Shrike in Sussex we decided to drive over the border to Thursley Common in Surrey. There have been regular reports of a bird there and with an area named Shrike Hill it sounded like a good starting point.

When we arrived it seemed very similar to the Sussex commons, mostly devoid of birdlife. There was very little flying with only Chaffinches seen and a Woodlark heard. We picked what seemed like a good observation point with decent cover and after about twenty minutes we got our first distant views. We then relocated seeking cover again and trying to stay below the skyline.

Distant view of Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrikes are usually very visible, preferring to sit out on prominent perches where their white colour can be seen from a distance. It does, however, cover a large territory so seeing is easy but getting close enough for good pictures is difficult.

We managed a few shots but even though the ponds were frozen over there was a surprisingly high level of heat haze coming off the common which made focussing through the camera at a distance difficult. This year we seem to have missed out on those crisp cold February and March mornings, which give such good observation conditions.

Great Grey Shrike

Good record shots but should have been better

I usually complain about dog walkers spooking the birds but this time it was other birders wandering about and disturbing it. Better to sit and wait for it to come to you.

I suppose all bird photographers have the same approach. See the bird, get a record shot, get a better picture. We achieved the first two but the better picture will have to wait for another day.

Tuesday and the Red-breasted Goose was back on Farlington Marsh. Unfortunately I was over on Thorney Island looking for it in the wrong place. I did a complete circuit of the island and checked every goose I saw particularly the Brents. There were thousands of them on the island and on the surrounding mud flats and I was completely knackered by the time I got back to the car. I had already visited Warblington church and had an unsuccessful search for the Glossy Ibis so quiet a few miles covered carrying all the camera gear. Why did it have to choose today to change locations?

Kestrel over the Warblington Church turn off

Hidden benefits though, I missed the Red-breasted Goose but I did get year ticks in Whimbrel and Greenshank with nice pictures of the latter.


Greenshank - Just inside the western security gate


And - a nice picture of a Sanderling on Ferring beach on the way home.


The exercise did me good but I need to see the RBG. The geese will all be leaving soon and it may not come back at the end of the year.