Monday, 10 September 2018

G is for Goshawk

Most mornings before work, you can probably find me walking down the BTO's Nunnery Lakes Reserve, and although usually I don't see or photograph anything of note, just occasionally it is worth lugging the 200-500mm lens around every day. This morning, as I walked down a track, a gamekeeper drove his Landrover across the far edge of a neighboring field, scattering the pigeons and partridges in my direction, and with it this/chasing them, was this stunning juvenile Goshawk. The hawk dashed across right in front of me, banked and as soon as it was there it circled back and was gone across the fields, thankfully I was quick enough on the draw to grab some shots!

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Snow day

Last week a Snowy Owl was seen by a member of the public near North Wooton, on the edge of the Wash, and then on Friday was relocated on the north coast on Scolt Head.  Due to commitments at a conference, yesterday when the owl had been showing all day at Titchwell, albeit very distantly, I wasn't able to go and with negative news this morning, I had given up hope of seeing this bird and as the rain began to fell, I started doing domestic chores.  At lunchtime, the owl was amazingly relocated not far from its original location, at the south end of Snettisham RSPB reserve and once I had seen a couple of chores and had seen some pictures on Twitter of it showing much closer than on previous days, it was a bit too much to resist.  Leaving a bit later than ideal at 3pm, we got there just after 4pm and began the long walk from the car park to the far end of the reserve.  Thankfully the owl was still present when we arrived and had conveniently left the tussock it had been sat on and was sat in full view on a fence post only 80m away giving quite stunning views completely unconcerned by the throngs of birders.  We stayed until dusk when it flew a short distance, with a couple of Barn Owls hunting nearby, often in the same 'scope view as the Snowy.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Back for more

After last Friday's amazing afternoon watching Short-eared Owls on the Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire, I was itching to go back for another go and with the sun shining today, I was able to take the afternoon off for a return visit.  Despite it being midweek, when I arrived shortly after 2.30pm, the car park was already full and the bridge crammed with birders and photographers, but already at least 2 Short-eared Owls were out hunting, and a Red Kite passed overhead, though I wasn't quite prepared to get any decent shots before it drifted off.

Over the next 90 minutes, at least 5 Short-eared Owls quartered over the grassland, coming much closer than they did on Friday, and being out earlier the light was so much better.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

An afternoon with owls

Any day you see an owl is a good one! They have to be my favourite bird family, and having seen on RSPB in the Fens Twitter feed about some Short-eared Owls showing regularly by the Eldernell car park on the Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire, I couldn't resist a visit.   Thankfully being more diurnal than most owls, Short-eareds can be seen at all times of the day, though late afternoon is usually the best time to watch them as they ghost across rough grassland and pounce on unsuspecting rodents in the grass.

Arriving at the car park at just after 2pm, there were already several photographers waiting on the bridge for the owls to show.  Distant Whooper and Bewick's Swans, a couple of Marsh Harriers and a group of Roe Deer kept us occupied but the wait continued.  It was nearly 3.30pm when the first owl appeared, distantly at first but then came closer and was joined by at least two others, occasionally coming fairly close but most times keeping their distance.  Photographing them in flight was a challenge with the light fading all the time while still trying to get used to the autofocus options on my new camera produced a mix of results.


Just as we were about to leave, a Barn Owl began hunting by the car park, but the light really had gone for photography by that point.

Monday, 8 January 2018

More local Otters

Having just treated myself to a new camera, it was only right to get out and try it out on some more local Otters.  Although the Thetford ones from a few years ago are now only seen occasionally, there have recently been a up to 4 along the river at Santon Downham which are becoming well known and very popular with photographers.  Toni and I spent a couple of hours with one of the Otters, though as always seems to be the case whenever I photograph Otters, they show best when the light isn't that great, and even on sunny days, will invariably show best in the shadiest stretches of the river.  They also seem to have a fondness for hunting around fallen trees and so getting shots without branches covering the face can be tricky but can usually be got with a bit of patience.  I'll no doubt be back to see these animals a lot more times this year, especially as this stretch of river is one I survey for the Waterways Breeding Bird Survey, but for a first visit, this particular Otter performed well for the small appreciative crowd.

There were also many Little Grebes along the river here, and unusually for this species, were remarkably photogenic.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Białowieża Bison

Arriving in Rotterdam on the Hull ferry on Monday morning, we drove across the Netherlands and most of Germany, stopping for a night just outside Berlin and then across Poland to just north of Warsaw for another night before arriving early afternoon on Wednesday in Białowieża, a mere 850 miles. Unfortunately the glorious weather that we had driven through hadn't made it this far and we arrived to find it constantly raining, which not only made our enthusiasm for getting out and walking far not very high, but also made the non-tarmacked roads quite muddy and slippery. A bigger problem was with the recent logging operations and subsequent Greenpeace protests which have made the news, the road between Białowieża and Narweka on the north side was impassable by car due to the heavy sand surface put down for the lorries and many of the trails we had hoped to walk along were now closed. We had a walk around the Palace Gardens, not seeing much except 2 squabbling male Great Spotted Woodpeckers and a handful of Nuthatches and Treecreepers, and got pulled over by the border guards (even though we were nowhere near the border or on a road that crossed it!) who probably had never seen a car with English plates on before, but satisfied, they let us go on our way.

Thursday morning dawned with a damp, grey, drizzly air as we we out as it was getting light, scouring the meadows in the hope of seeing a Bison. No sooner had we driven through the village of Teremiski, we saw a car with hazard lights and a group of people watching a male Bison in a field by the road. Quickly grabbing cameras, we crept down the side of the meadow, tucked in among the bushes so as not to disturb it, only to see one of the group march straight out camera in hand, across the meadow towards the Bison, which, unsurprisingly wandered off across the meadow into some trees in search of peace and quiet, but not before we managed to get some quick shots through the murk.

A quick look at Gora Batorego did yield a few Crested Tits and a photogenic Middle Spotted Woodpecker.

The rest of the day was spent around Siemianowka Reservoir where Red-necked Grebe, a juvenile White-tailed Eagle, 3 Marsh Harriers and a couple of Whooper Swans were visible from the watch tower, along with, more surprisingly, a Fox and along the trail by the reservoir, a Grass Snake, taking advantage of a brief period of sunshine.  A dusk stakeout at Babia Góra before the rain returned failed to produce any more Bison, just a small group of Roe Deer, a Great Grey Shrike, a male Stonechat and a Merlin.

Friday we were again up early and revisited Teremiski Meadows, and thankfully the Bison was again there, though today on the edge of a small copse.  As we were about to edge closer, possibly the same group as yesterday appeared and again marched toward the Bison.  We gave up and drove off and returned twenty minutes later as the group were leaving, and thankfully the Bison was still there and with only 2 of us there, he was a lot more accommodating to an approach than previously as we got within 15m of him as he fed unperturbed, occasionally snorting if you ventured a step too close.

This morning, we had a final walk around Zebra Zubra and Budy Bridge areas, but failed to find any woodpeckers other than Great Spots and a calling Black, though autumn is not necessarily the best time of year to be looking for such things, and we headed north to Augustow Forest and Biebrza Marshes for a further few days.  

All in all, Białowieża Forest was a bit of a let down, though the time of year and weather didn't help, but with such limited access to the main tracks through the forest, many of the sites in the excellent guide by Wild Poland were no longer accessible and may not be come next spring when many birders will visit the area.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

BTO (and others) Arctic Norway trip

Following a very successful BTO birders trip to Estonia in 2015, this year myself, Sarah Harris, Nick Moran, John Marchant (now ex-BTO having retired last year), artist Alan Harris and Norfolk Birding owner Chris Mills decided to embark on a trip to the Varanger Peninsula in Arctic Norway to look for seaducks, Siberian Jays, Siberian Tits, Gyr, owls and woodpeckers.

The intrepid team, from left to right: John Marchant, Sarah Harris, Chris Mills, Nick Moran, me and Alan Harris 
(photo by Nick Moran)

16th March

After a night in a Premier Inn near Heathrow, we caught the flight to Oslo where we spent 4 hours between our connecting flight staring out at the runway trying to start a Norway list but only managed a few Jackdaws, Hooded Crows, Magpie and Buzzard.  From here we boarded our next flight to Kirkenes, where we arrived but unfortunately due to faulty hydraulics, they weren't able to get our luggage off the plane - not a great start.  After an hour of organising to get our bags delivered next day we picked up our hire cars and drove a couple of hours south to Øvre Pasvik Camping, arriving at around midnight.

17th March

Despite the late night and due to it getting light at about 4.30am, we were out very early in the surrounding woods.  Almost immediately on looking out of the cabin window and some of the group who were out first, a group of Pine Grosbeaks were soon on the list along with some Arctic and Mealy Redpolls, Bullfinches and Greenfinches.  A walk along the road towards a large frozen lake and husky centre soon revealed our first Siberian Tit, though very mobile but once we arrived at the husky centre, found a feeding site where a dozen Pine Grosbeaks, 2+ Siberian Tits and several Arctic Redpoll were all coming to feed only a few yards away from us allowing excellent photographic opportunities.

Pine Grosbeak

 Siberian Tit

Arctic Redpoll

male Bullfinch

After a thoroughly enjoyable hour photographing we headed north towards Svanvik, seeing a very brief Willow Grouse flying across, a couple more Pine Grosbeaks by the road, but very little else.  As we drove around a loop road, a quick stop by a house produced 2 Siberian Jays feeding on a bird feeder in the garden.

Siberian Jay

Thankfully, and rather miraculously, when we got back to the cabins, our lost luggage had been found and delivered, and we were able to dig out some proper cold weather clothing.

18th March

Another early start and another excellent hour or so spent at the husky centre feeding site, which again held at least 16 Pine Grosbeaks, 3 Siberian Tits, several Willow Tits and Arctic Redpolls as the snow began to fall more heavily.

male Pine Grosbeaks 

 Siberian Tit

Willow Tit

Other good birds seen by the group during the morning included a Hawk Owl that Nick was lucky enough to see briefly before it was chased off by two Siberian Jays, a probable Three-toed Woodpecker John heard then saw in flight only, Black Grouse for Nick and John, and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker seen by Alan, but I wasn't quite so lucky.

The rest of the day was spent driving in horrendous blizzard conditions up to Ekkerøy, on the Varanger Peninsula, unsurprisingly with very few, if any, birds seen except the odd Raven and Hooded Crow.  A few Reindeer were seen by the road, but the conditions didn't allow for much in the way of photos, this one I photographed while we stopped by the road to remove ice from the windscreen wipers.

Reindeer in a blizzard

 A quick stop at Nesseby Harbour produced little but a large flock of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls following a trawler and a flock of c20 Snow Buntings.

19th March

In complete contrast in weather to yesterday, we awoke to gorgeous sunshine and soon found our first drake Steller's Eider, right behind the accommodation in Ekkerøy.  Our first stop was the nearby harbour where John found the first King Eiders of the trip, but I got distracted by a group of Purple Sandpipers performing brilliantly in the morning sunshine, as did several Kittiwakes from the massive colony.

Purple Sandpiper


From here we headed east towards Vardø, stopping to scan the bays where another drake Steller's Eider was seen.  A chance stop near Krampenes where a couple foxes drew our attention soon got much better when a male Gyr appeared overhead and then the female was seen perched on a rock before also flying off over the bay.

male Gyr Falcon

Arriving in Vardø Harbour, an Iceland Gull flew over the car and a small group of Steller's Eider were present very close in giving amazing photographic views and further round a small group of Long-tailed Ducks and Black Guillemots too virtually posed for the camera, but the King Eiders present were all too distant for photos.  At least 5 Glaucous Gulls were also in the harbour, one flying quite low overhead.

 Steller's Eiders

drake Long-tailed Duck

 Black Guillemot

Glaucous Gull

On the other side of Vardø, a viewpoint looks across at the island of Hornøya, which we had hoped to get a boat across to but we didn't have time.  Hundreds of auks were visible from the Biotope hide at the viewpoint, mostly Puffins but also many Guillemots, and also many King Eider, a distant White-tailed Eagle, a Gannet and a distant acrobatic pod of White-beaked Dolphins.

Scanning across to Hornøya Island from the Biotope Hide
(photo by Sarah Harris).

On the way back to Ekkerøy, a scan of various rocky outcrops eventually produced 2 more Gyrs and a couple of White-tailed Eagles, but both were very distant and spent the majority of their time perched.

In the evening, the Northern Lights were visible, by eye looking very uninspiring, being a dull green cast to the sky, but the camera on a long exposure pulled out many more colours than our eyes could see.

The Northern Lights

20 March

A more thorough scan of the bay behind the accommodation in Ekkerøy produced 250+ Steller's Eider close in along with a few Velvet and Common Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser and the rest of the group who had 'scopes had a Red-necked Grebe here too, but despite a good search, no White-billed Divers that had been reported in the area recently.

Steller's Eiders

Just west of Ekkerøy lies Vadsø Harbour, but although there were a few groups of Common, Steller's and King Eider, Long-tailed Duck and a flyover White-tailed Eagle present from the Biotope hide, nothing was that close in to be worth photographing.

A little further west we went for a walk along a trail at Vestre Jacobselv, which was generally extremely quiet, though several White-tailed Eagles were seen, including one low overhead.

adult White-tailed Eagle

Another quick stop for late lunch in Nesseby Harbour produced a single Iceland Gull among the gull masses following a trawler in, but the highlight was an adult White-tailed Eagle that drifted over and then swooped in, almost striking at a Grey Seal that had its head poking out of the water before flying across in front of the breakwater being furiously mobbed by gulls.

White-tailed Eagle with Herring Gull escort

21 March

Our final morning was spent driving to the airport. As we drove south of Bugøyfjord, 2 Willow Grouse (or possibly Ptarmigan, given how similar they are in winter) flew across the road, one landing, by the treeline and almost vanishing in its white plumage among the snow, with only its black beak and eye visible.  A few more Reindeer were seen, but none in places to photograph them.

Willow Grouse, or possibly Ptarmigan
(photo by Chris Mills)

Although the final species list was just over 50 birds and 5 mammals, it is a quite stunning part of the world and a place I will have to revisit, both in summer and again in winter.  Thanks go to Sarah for her organising and researching for this trip.