Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Jewels in the snow. Cairn Gorm, 26th February

After the hard trek and the exhilaration of seeing the ptarmigan up at Coire an t'sneadcha we got some warmth and strength back by sipping a hot chocolate and sharing a bowl of chips in the ski centre bistro! Whilst we'd been in the cafe the sun had come out and the wind had dropped. Bloody typical! We suffer in the misty, arctic and gusty conditions and the late starters get it just peachy! Never works that way for us. Although still cold it was now quite pleasant to sit at one of the picnic tables and wait for the buntings to appear. Which they did, lured in by the hand outs of sunflower seeds offered by the continuous stream of photographers that come to get great images. These birds are a very popular attraction to birders and toggers alike but we had them all to ourselves. I added to the piles of food on offer by strategically scattering sunflower hearts all over the place. I don't like "set up" shots and like to work a bit to get "off the cuff" photos. I'm not against folk placing mossy covered branches or in this case little piles of snow to fabricate an attractive perch but just prefer to capture the birds where they land. 

Snow buntings are extremely confiding often settling within feet but never seem to stay put for long periodically flying off further up the slopes, probably to see what's on offer at the Ptarmigan restaurant higher up the mountain. They always return though usually every 20 minutes or so. The maximum we saw was about 40 birds in flight but only a high count 11 settled down at any one time. When the whole flock is in the air they resemble jewels as they twist and turn.

With the full sun it was enjoyable to sit and wait and then take a volley of shots as the birds fed. The flock had a habit of settling on the benches and tables and appeared to wait for a dominant male bird to fly down to the food before all joined in the bounty. Each feeding bout would last around a couple of minutes before they were off again.

I could have stayed a lot longer and didn't manage any decent flight shots but we were both done in after the mountain walk. May try to return later in the week but the weather forecast is poor so may not be possible. 

Monday, 12 February 2018

Up on the Roof! Black Redstart, Chipping Norton 11th February

After a cold and wet Saturday when we'd ventured out on to Otmoor and suffered for it, Sunday dawned bright and sunny but still very cold. I was hoping for another stab at hawfinches (they've really got me this winter) but Mrs Caley was not in agreement (the thrill of staring at Yew trees and visiting Churchyards has worn thin) so at her request we paid a visit to a local little owl instead, a bird that she had yet to see this year. The little owl (there maybe a pair but I've only seen the one so far) lives in a pollarded willow tree next to a small pond in a paddock at a house where I've been working recently (see Owling about at work! 17-21 January 2018) and true enough as we set up the scope from the top of the track it was sat, as usual, half concealed in the ivy clad branches. The bird was difficult to see however so we edged a bit closer to the tree so that Mrs Caley got her decent views. The little owl gave us it's meanest stare as if to say "don't come any closer or I'll scarper back into my tree hole" so we didn't. Little owls don't do much anyway so once you've got a view it's not worth spending much time staring back at it. The owl would definitely win that contest! 

As we walked back towards the car I thought hard about where to go next since it was still only 10 o'clock. I had half a motion to go to Farmoor and see if the barn owl was out and about. In a moment of inspiration I remembered that a black redstart had been found near to Chipping Norton during the previous week although it hadn't been seen the day before. I thought maybe it had just lain low in the foul Saturday weather and that it would be worth having a look since we were only 15 miles away. So we pulled into the vacant car park of some rural business premises. A quick glance at the various roof's of the buildings revealed nothing so I jumped out of the car for a better look. I studied all of the places where I thought the bird might be without any sign so retraced my steps thinking Farmoor it was then. Halfway back to the car I saw a bird perched at the top of the gable end of the barn closest to the car and realised that it had to be the black redstart. After a quick remonstration with myself for missing it the first time round I beckoned to Mrs Caley to join me and settled in to watch the bird.

First view

Black redstarts are primarily birds of mountainous and rocky areas in continental Europe although some do breed in Southern Britain usually around industrial parks which contain wasteland. I saw my first black redstart many years ago at Sizewell power station in Suffolk where a few pairs breed and have seen lots since. Indeed I have also found a handful myself over the years usually in Cornwall in October. There was also a cracking male bird at Caversfield close to home once. I can also recall taking a boat trip out to one of the islands off Marseille when I worked there and seeing hundreds of them. This black redstart is a female, not so gaudily attired as the rather dashing male, but still a beautiful little bird that I always enjoy seeing. They are not particularly rare birds and a fair number overwinter in the UK but are infrequent visitors to Oxfordshire with just a few being seen in the county each year. I had half hatched a plan to trip down to Portsmouth to see some (along with other stuff of course) so this bird would save me bit of mileage. As we watched the black redstart hawk for insects across the roof my phone rumbled away and informed me that the bird was present and showing well! Yep, it certainly was!!

The sun was shining brightly but in one of those vague circumstances that only the British weather can throw up, it started snowing! Only tiny flecks but still it was snow (although certainly not for one minute what my late friend Dag the Norske would call snow) and in just over a minute it had stopped anyway. 
Spot the snowflake!
We were able to stand about 10 yards away from the bird and I was able to fire off frame after frame of (by my standards) excellent shots. The bird favoured the end of the roof next to an adjoining piece of overgrown land and it would dive off of the roof frequently in pursuit of a tasty morsel. 

Often it would stand on a fence that was even nearer to us and use that as a springboard to hunt on the rough area  but mainly it would use the roof as its vantage point. 

The roof slates were of course of a similar colour to the rocks in its mountain home and being warmed in the sunshine were attracting insects so it was easy to see why the black redstart had chosen the place. 

Often the black redstart would flutter down to the grassy area just in front of where we stood where it would deftly find another insect to devour. It also at times used one of the fir trees to use as a lookout.

After a while I began trying to photograph the bird in flight and failed miserably! Time after time I would end up with just the end of the tail or a nice image of the birds shadow. One shot produced a cracking image of half the bird! If I managed to get the bird in motion then the picture would always be blurred. Those old photography frustrations resurfaced again! 

Eventually though I managed a couple of decent "flight" shots and even captured the moment just before the black redstart snatched up a fly for its lunch!

The black redstart shared its roof space with a few other birds although the local robin didn't take too kindly to it and chased it away a few times but it always returned. 

The trees surrounding the site held an amazing variety of birds and we saw goldcrest, siskin, nuthatch, treecreeper, mistle thrush, great spotted woodpecker, green woodpecker, yellowhammer and long-tailed tits as well as a lot of more common finch and tit species. A kestrel was hunting nearby too. How I wish that Caley Towers could relocate to a country setting. One day we will!

We left just after midday and had only seen one other birder come to view the bird. If it sticks around I may well go back next weekend for another look and to try and get the ultimate "motion" photo.