Sunday, 31 May 2015

Framed by a Goose! Ringed Plover

When I heard that there was a confiding Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) at Wilstone reservoir yesterday, I thought the week-long photography drought was over. When I heard it was on the jetty at Wilstone reservoir, I was less optimistic. Chances were that the fishermen would beat me to it and the jetty would be royally rid of all bird life.

Still, if you don’t try, you never know. So, within 15 minutes, I’d dressed, gobbled toast, drunk scolding tea and was on my way to Tring. As I drove, I told myself that a Ringed Plover wasn’t worth a speeding ticket or dying for, so, when I got stuck behind one slow car after another, I took it easy.

Once at the reservoir, my heart sank. I could see the fishermen had already set up on the jetty. Pressing on regardless, I got there and all I could find was a family of Greylag Geese and a Pied Wagtail…most assuredly not what I was after. Common Terns and Hirundines were swooping over the water. Nice but, y'know, I'd seen them last week. And the week before that. And the week before that. A Yellow Wagtail flew in and I watched that for a while, gathering food for its young. I hung around the jetty as if it were some magical lure able to conjure up good birds from thin air. I guess I also hoped that somehow I’d missed the little wader and there would be some movement to catch my eye and rescue my day. But, nope, nothing, nada. I was just starting to switch to an alternative plan for the morning when one of the fisherman got up and came over to me. He asked if I’d like to see the Ringed Plover that was snuggled up on the concrete next to where they were fishing! Um, yes please! And, there it was, brilliantly camouflaged, not 4 metres from the fishermen, nestled up against a rift in the stonework. The last place I’d have looked!

The next hour was spent watching and photographing this most fearless of little birds. It didn’t move far and enjoyed the occasional wormy snack provided by the fisherman. At one point, it walked right up to me, to within about 1 metre. Looking into my eyes, it called, “pew”, and walked back a few metres to its cosy concrete nook. Absolutely fantastic!

Although the Greylag Geese had the whole of the reservoir in which to roam, they decided that the 4-5 metres between me and the Plover was the best place to stand. I had some fun playing with the framing.

And, listening for my camera shutter, I think…

By about 11am, the position of the sun was such that every photograph lacked the catch-light in the eye. I decided a bird this confiding was too good an opportunity to walk away from and that I’d return at about 3-4pm when the sun had moved round sufficiently. If the bird had gone by then, so be it, but I would have given it a shot. When I left, the Plover was settled against its concrete nook.

In the intervening hours, apart from a leisurely lunch, I caught up with a couple of Spotted Flycatchers at Startops reservoir. 3pm, I returned to the jetty to find both fishermen and Ringed Plover had gone. C'est la vie...

The contextual shot…

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Digiscoping Little Ringed Plovers …again!

Yesterday, I returned to the nesting Little Ringed Plovers and discovered they’d disappeared?!? No idea what happened, unfortunately. But, not to be deterred, I went in search of other bundles of feathers and found another nesting pair, at another site, which were well on the way to success. In fact, they had 4 fluffy little fledglings, although it took more than 2.5 hours observation, over 2 days, before all 4 revealed themselves.

This new family were an ideal subject on which to practice digiscoping, located on private ground and remaining flipping miles away. I’d estimate the group were mostly 60+ metres from me, although both adult birds halved that distance at various points for brief periods. The fledglings were scampering all over the place, often only 1 of the 4 was visible whilst the others were hidden in low growing vegetation.

I used the same set up as before (Swaro ATS80HD, DCB-A adapter, Panasonic DMC-G3, 20mm f1.7) but was also trying out a remote shutter release, to reduce vibration/movement as much as possible. I’d tried digiscoping on Friday afternoon but the heat haze was awful. This morning was overcast, fresh and calm so I thought I’d give it another go. I could have done with more light: it was difficult to get a workable shutter speed at a reasonable ISO. But, I came away with records of the family that I would not have been able to get with anything else I own. In the end, once I got the hang of taking photos with the set-up, I digiscoped some video footage and pulled a couple of stills from that. The white balance is off (which I don’t seem to be able to put right in post-processing) and the quality is poor in terms of sharpness but I was asking an awful lot of the system. Ultimately, I think the distances involved were probably pushing my luck, especially with such a small species. Anyway, all good practice and they were wonderful to watch!

How many chicks can you get under a brooding parent….?

Distance approx 60m. Digiscoped: Swaro ATS80HD, DCB-A, Panasonic DMC-G3, 20mm f1.7, remote shutter release

    ...the answer is FOUR! (still from video)
    Stretching the growing wings (still from video)

EDIT: Update 03 June 2015

I visited the LRP family today and the juveniles are now able to fly and almost the same size as the adults. Now that they are less vulnerable, here’s a contextual shot taken from where I was standing and showing the location of the birds during the digiscoping session. I could barely see them with the naked eye…

Friday, 22 May 2015

Settled Orange-tips…at last!

Bovingdon Brickworks (BMT): One of my favourite butterflies, which eluded my lens last year, is the Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines). Of all the butterflies, it is the one which has, time and time again, made me look like a complete wally. It’s had me running this way and that, round in circles, back and forth, trying to anticipate where it'll land. More often than not, it wouldn’t land, only flutter off through impenetrable scrub. On the rare occasions it did land, it was in the middle of a large Bramble patch, out of range, for less than a second. This week, I got lucky! The weather/temperature was just right on Wednesday. Warm but not sunny and, as a result, the Orange-tips were settling for longer. I would dearly have loved to capture both male and female but had to conceded defeat when it came to the female...this time.

Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines), male, underwing, Bovingdon Brickworks, 20/05/2015

Two males were perched together briefly on a grass. I didn’t notice the little bugs crawling down the grass head until I got home and looked at the photo. They are, I think, an immature Mirid bug species, perhaps Leptopterna dolabrata, which feeds on grasses. Anyway, they add a little something to the image, I think.

Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines), males & Mirid bugs, Bovingdon Brickworks, 20/05/2015

At the Brickworks yesterday, it was great to see 7+ Brown Argus (Aricia agestis) butterflies. They are having to make do with Forget-me-not and Cowslips at the moment because their preferred nectar plants (Marjoram, Ragwort and White Clover) aren’t flowering yet.

Brown Argus on Forget-me-not, Bovingdon Brickworks, 21/05/2015

Brown Argus on Forget-me-not, Bovingdon Brickworks, 21/05/2015

A particularly brown Brown Argus on Cowslip, Bovingdon Brickworks, 20/05/2015

Monday, 18 May 2015

Breathtaking Black-throated Diver at Farmoor

Loons or Divers, whatever you call them, they are a pretty special group of birds. Just 5 in the genus, Gavia, with 4 of them occurring in Britain and Europe, according to Collins. When I think of a Diver in Britain, I think of remote lochs in far-flung Scotland, where the haunting, sonorous song of the bird skates across still waters.

I think of them in idyllic, isolated expanses of blue, gliding along the surface before effortlessly slipping beneath, swimming down in search of fish. They rise to the air so far from where they submerged you lose track of them.  I don’t think of concrete causeways, windsurfing, fishing boats and accessible public toilets. But that’s what we, and the seemingly marooned Black-throated Diver (Gavia arctica) had, at Farmoor reservoir on Saturday.

I’d never seen a Diver in Summer plumage. This bird was beautiful beyond description and the photographs don’t do it justice. The views through the scope were breathtaking. We were on site from about 11am until about 4pm. It really was a bird you could watch for hours and hours, marvelling at the intricate feather patterns contrasting with the dove grey head and the rainbow of colours in the iridescent, black throat.

In the morning, the bird spent a lot of time preening or at least trying to address an area on its belly. It was difficult to make out what exactly was going on but it looked like the bird had some sort of injury. During the afternoon, the bird was very placid, barely moving more than about 50 metres back and forth along the west bank. Its eyes were constantly closing and, in the whole time we were there, it never dived/fed. I don’t suppose there’s likely to be a happy ending, unfortunately.

On a brighter note, the summer plumage Dunlin and Sanderling were full of beans and also brilliant to watch.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina), Farmoor reservoir, 16 May 2015

Sanderling (Calidris alba), Famoor reservoir, 16 May 2015

From left to right: Sanderling, Dunlin, Dunlin


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Red Fox: Dalliance in the Daylight

Bovingdon Brickworks (BMT): I must have walked past this field hundreds of times in the last 18 months, taking the footpath into the Brickworks. Redwing, Fieldfare, Green Woodpeckers, Magpies, Crows and Woodpigeons have all appeared here at one time or another. This was the first time a beautiful Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) had sauntered through the long grasses. I couldn’t see if it was male or female but it was as cool as a cucumber, lazily meandering through the meadow. It looked over at me a couple of times but I was well hidden behind a hedge. It eventually decided to stop, sit and just take in the morning, content out in the open. Every other Fox sighting on Trust land has been one of mutual surprise: both me and the Fox have been startled, locked eye contact and then the Fox has scampered away into the undergrowth. It was beautiful to watch such a relaxed and blatant foray from an otherwise careful creature.

Photos taken on Monday morning, 11/05/2015

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

High-end Fashion, Ancient Civilisations ...Dingy Skippers

Bovingdon Brickworks (BMT): I feel a bit sorry for the Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages). Its name doesn’t exactly inspire interest, unless, like me, you initially wondered whether it was pronounced dinghy, as in the skipper of a small sailing vessel....ahem. Anyway, as something of a county rarity, with just 17 butterflies recorded in Herts and Middlesex last year (excluding the Brickworks colony), it becomes a little more appealing. Up close, it’s really quite attractive, in a Burberry palette kind of a way: taupes and camels and caramels and, well, let’s face it, browns. Its patterning is subtle but it is beautiful, with a quiet Aztec echo, and I was more than happy when I had the opportunity on Sunday to photograph not just one, but three fresh specimens at the Brickworks.

Initially, I spotted a solitary settled butterfly. Later, I found a pair that were just coming together to mate, so I followed and photographed their progress too.

Finding a pair of rare butterflies that are just about to mate is wonderful. It’s exciting to find more than one at all, but to then watch them manoeuvre themselves into position, knowing that this very act will give rise to new life, is doubly exciting. Initially, they were tussling in flight and I thought they were sparring males. However, they landed together, hitched up and that was that. For the next 40 minutes, they were locked in union. Together they settled and together they moved.

In this second pair of images (below), I was pleased to capture the subtle greens and blues on the tips of the forewings, which were only evident when the sun was out. I guess there are a few microscopic scales here which, at certain angles, reflect the green/blue spectrum.

When the sun got a little too hot, both butterflies retracted their wings. Below, I caught the moment where underwing and upperwing were on show. From this angle, the burnt umber browns have taken on a lovely bronze shimmer.

Finally, I hope I've saved the best of the photos till last. Nature's Aztec artistry...

P.S. I spotted the first Small Copper & first Brown Argus of the season at the Brickworks on Sunday. Crossing my fingers more appear soon...

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Digiscoping Dinky Little Ringed Plovers

What about the birds, I hear you cry?! I seem to have spent the last week completely distracted and captivated by butterflies. Shame on me for allowing shiny new things to temporarily turn my fickle head. Yesterday, though, it was all about the birds. Little Ringed Plovers (Charadrius dubius) to be precise. They are a schedule 1 species which means it is an offence to cause disturbance at, on or near an active nest. Ordinarily, you need a license to photograph a schedule 1 species nest site but I was viewing from a public hide, at a warden run reserve, where no disturbance or intrusion was caused. I doubt anyone even slightly dodgy reads this blog but, just in case someone sinister should accidentally stumble across the threshold, I’ll be ultra careful and withhold the location.

As their name suggests, these migrant wading birds are Little, approximately 15cm long. Not much bigger than a Robin really. They winter in Africa and arrive in England and Wales in March, all set for breeding. At the end of June, early July they’re off again and head back to Africa. Until yesterday, I’d only ever managed distant record shots and certainly never glimpsed the eggs, like I did then, as they were devotedly brooded by both male and female in half hourly shifts.

This was my first outing with my “new to me” Swarovski ATS 80HD scope. Ever since I learnt about birding telescopes, some 6 years ago, I’ve wanted to get into serious digiscoping. Peering through rose-tinted spectacles, it’s a technique which seems to be the ideal way of watching and photographing birds. Disturbance is minimal, if not completely absent: the magnifications involved mean you rarely get anywhere near the threshold of tolerance in terms of proximity to the bird. And, it's even better if you’re hidden behind a conveniently placed bush or in a hide! I know it has its limitations and drawbacks but the idea of viewing & photographing fine detail, at a comfortable distance for both me and the bird, has always been very appealing. It is perhaps a string to add to one's bow rather than a catch-all photographic solution.

Anyway, to my first attempts at serious digiscoping. I don’t for one minute expect to get this right straight out of the box. In fact, I’m looking forward to the trial and error of it all and experimenting with different camera settings and adapters. But, to kick things off, I’m using the DCB-A adapter and 30x wide-angle eyepiece. The camera is a Panasonic DMC-G3 with the 20mm f1.7 lens. It was overcast, gloomy and even drizzled. From the hide, the birds were approximately 40 metres away. All images and video were digiscoped.

As I mentioned, the parent birds were brooding at least 2 or 3 eggs (I couldn’t quite see) and would change over every half hour or so. Lapwings occasionally bothered the sitting adult but for the most part nesting success looks possible.

Mrs LRP having a wriggle. You can just make out an egg at the base of her chest feathers.

Below: The head pattern of the male (left) and female (right). Essentially, the female has more brown mixed in with the black of the bands across the forehead (forecrown) and around the eye (from the bill, across the lores onto the ear coverts). The distinctive yellow eye-ring is slightly thinner too, making it seem less bright. With this pair, the male also has a pale pink base to his bill. The black forehead/forecrown band is lost completely in non-breeding plumage on both sexes.

The digiscoped video shows both the male and female brooding the eggs. First shift is the male. He clearly thought the nest was in need of a little housekeeping and also couldn’t quite decide which direction he wanted to face whilst brooding. After the switch over, the female also changed her mind about positioning before settling in for her stint.  I hope you’ll forgive the odd wobble or two. It’s impossible to keep the kit steady in a hide when people are coming/going/moving.

Overall, I was thrilled with the new scope and more than happy with these images/film clips as first attempts on a cloudy, grey day.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Chasing Dukes between Showers

Ivinghoe Beacon: Sunshine, showers and sock-drenching rain but third time lucky with the Dukes this week. There were at least 5 fluttering about the Hawthorn and Brambles this morning, along with plenty of Dingy Skippers and a few Green Hairstreaks. Nice to see my first Burnet Companion moth of the year too.

Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina), Ivinghoe Beacon, 7 May 2015

Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina), Ivinghoe Beacon, 7 May 2015

Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina), Ivinghoe Beacon, 7 May 2015

Then, on to Dockey Wood. Bluebell heaven. The contrast between the zesty lime of the Beech leaves and the heady, deep purple-blue of the Bluebells was incredibly beautiful. One snap definitely doesn't do it justice!

All out of energy (butterflies can be exhausting little blighters!), so that's it for today...