Friday 31 July 2020

Quick, Quick, Quick! Swifts and Quails. Late June 2020

This Week, I Have Mostly Been........

As my regular reader will know I took charge of a new camera and lens for my birthday recently. In the week or so since then, Mrs Caley and I had been twitching mostly Warblers (thank you Jessie) and although I 'd taken many photos, I still wanted to try the camera out on a bird that presents one of the biggest challenges to photograph successfully. On Sunday, the 21st, the morning weather promised to be overcast, sultry and, later on, breezy, which are perfect conditions for watching and photographing Swifts at Farmoor. On heavy air days hatching flies and other flying insects are forced to stay low over the water giving the observer an opportunity to see the denizens of the air at close quarters.

Arriving just before the late hour of ten o'clock, how I can't wait for opening hours to revert back to normal, we were the first to venture out along the causeway. Rather disappointingly there were only a few, maybe fifty or so, Swifts flying ahead of us and frustratingly to begin with they were well out in the middle of F1. We sauntered along the causeway to get closer to the main area of activity. A few Sand Martins were passing but in the brisk breeze were extremely difficult to track because of their erratic and bouncy flight. I messed about with autofocus (AF) points but still failed to get any first class images, maybe I still had to get my eye in and warm up to the task at hand.

Sand Martin
A large Gull was stood on the embankment wall eyeing up a dead trout that had been washed up (sounds like a HMHB lyric). I'm  far from proficient at identifying Gulls confidently but I worked out that this was a Yellow-legged Gull since it had yellow legs but also a light grey back (Lesser Black-backed Gulls which also sport yellow legs have dark grey backs). I also aged it as a 3rd calendar year bird owing to retained brownish feathering in the wings. Interestingly though, and a good example of why Gulls are so difficult to identify, Yellow-legged Gulls don't actually have yellow legs until they reach their third year, before that their legs are pink.

Yellow-legged Gull, 3cy
As we approached, a couple of joggers came surging past and the Yellow-legged Gull bolted out into the open water. This bird would be an adult by next spring and exhibited a single pure white tail feather amongst the younger black ended ones showing that it was on its way to becoming that adult bird. The wings though, still contained plenty of brown edged feathers so much moulting and feather replacement would be taking place through the autumn and winter. As soon as the joggers had passed, the Yellow-legged Gull returned to sizing up its prospective meal.

We were now in amongst the Swifts, the wind must have changed in direction slightly and they were now bombing around over the causeway. I marvel at Swifts every time I see them, I can watch them for hours and I often allow my mind to be transported into their aerial world, even though I'm not very good with heights, and wonder what it must be like to live almost exclusively whilst in flight. Not sure I'd like to subsist on flying bugs though. We should be grateful for all insect eating birds that help keep the insect populations down, and it's a real shame, a tragedy in fact, that farming practices have evolved to rid the earth of the "pests" that many birds depend on for food and thus endangering the future of so many of those species, both birds and insects.

Common Swift
I took a few minutes to get my own eyes trained on the Swifts, then began selecting individual birds, that I thought would fly straight towards me, to photograph. Of course it is very hit and miss since often the tracked Swift would suddenly race upwards or shear away in a different direction in its own pursuit of an insect. I managed to lock focus onto a couple and the back of the camera shots looked encouraging but of course the proof of the pudding would prove itself when editing later. Those results were good but not as good as I was hoping for.

I spotted a Swift zooming towards us at speed and not too high above the water. It's fairly easy to keep a camera tracked on a Swift that's flying high above you but far harder if they are low to the water, flying directly at you or racing past at a pace. I locked onto the oncoming bird, focussed and was pleased that the 90D and the lens appeared to cope admirably. I looked at the back of camera shots again and this time I said quietly to myself, "Wow!". I couldn't wait to see them later on my laptop. I had some frames that were easily the best photos of a Swift that I've ever taken. Interest was added to the shots because the Swift had a swollen bolus, the ball of insects gathered in their throats, ready to transport back to their nests and to feed their chicks. I posted them around social media and exhibited a couple on Birdguides, and was delighted to receive a Notable Photo for one of them (the image at the top of this blog). I even received an inquiry from the organiser of the "UK Swift Awareness Week 2020" asking if the photos could be used in their newsletter and forthcoming lectures. I was of course happy to allow them to be shown off! Did I feel smug? Just a bit! OK, that's enough self-centred trumpet blowing for one blog I think!

The clouds had parted and warm sunshine appeared, and of course as soon as it did, the Swifts all disappeared! Just as I had really got warmed up and was tracking them without any difficulties at all, they all just went. There wasn't a single Swift left over the reservoir. Now, I think I know what happens and that is that as soon as the sun appears the air is suddenly warmer and therefore lighter and hence the flying insects rise high in the sky and the Swifts follow them. That's probably not entirely accurate but what I do know is that Swifts only ever fly over the water at Farmoor on leaden sky days when the air is heavy. Mrs Caley's suppressed a sigh of relief when I gave up on the now absent Swifts and began walking again towards the river end of the causeway. There was little to enthuse over now, no wading birds were present on this morning, barring an Oystercatcher that flew noisily over to the opposite side of F2. I stopped briefly to admire the oversized clown feet of a Coot that stood in the shallows.

When we reached the end of the causeway I scanned the two reservoirs but couldn't find anything worth detouring for. I suggested that for a change we may as well walk around F1 and see if there were any waders sheltering in the settling pools. First though we made a quick check of the river path where we'd found the Grasshopper Warblers a few weeks ago. No Groppers this time but the fine male Reed Bunting was still singing away from his small patch of reeds.

Reed Bunting
We returned to the reservoir via the steep grassy bank and watched a Kestrel hovering in the strengthening wind. It remained above us for some time allowing me to further test my skills with my new kit. Kestrels really are masters of their own patch of airspace. The way that they keep their heads absolutely stock still while they manoeuvre themselves into the wind with constant adjustments to wings and tail is amazing to experience. Anybody who has watched a documentary about Kestrels will know that they possess the ability to see in ultraviolet and are thus able to spot and track their small mammal prey by following their urine trails. After a few minutes of hovering above the embankment the Kestrel suddenly turned and flew off a fair way to study another patch of long grass.

The Kestrel followed us as we strolled around the reservoir and as we reached the settling pools, also devoid of any wading birds, it was once again overhead and I couldn't resist taking a few more shots of it.

The raft of Coots that often shelter in the north-western corner of F1 along with other non and post breeders such as Tufted Ducks and Great Crested Grebes were startled by the gang of unruly Paddle Boarders and flew hastily back towards the causeway. Just why the Paddlers have to disturb the wildfowl and other birds by venturing so close to the edge of the reservoir is beyond me. Another example of how other recreationists manage to disrupt our own hobby and don't seem to give a damn about doing so.

I spotted some Swifts, maybe they had been hiding out at the northern edge of the reservoir all the time, so increased my pace to get up alongside them. Without me noticing the sun had been hidden behind the clouds again and the wind had picked up considerably, It was now difficult to even hold the camera steady but, when there are Swifts to photograph, then you've got to give it a try. Despite the Swifts flying low and close, the conditions had become just too tricky and the birds flight was even more erratic than usual so I wasn't quite able to emulate my feats of earlier. Cue a much quieter and flatter fanfare.

The final bird that I lingered to photograph was a Pied Wagtail that scuttled around the embankment gathering a bill full of insects and worms for its offspring back in its nest somewhere in the waterworks buildings. It darted in and out amongst the froth and foam that lapped vigorously at the waters edge adding titbit after titbit to its collection.

Pied Wagtail

.....Chasing Swifts!

The following Saturday afternoon, the 27th, we returned to Farmoor again so that I could grab some more Swift action. The weather looked promising as we left home, overcast, breezy, even a little bit of drizzle, all good for Swifts to fly low over the reservoir. Imagine my surprise and slight disappointment then, when on arrival we were greeted by bright sunshine. The windsock was well stretched out though and on reaching the waterside the strength of the wind was such that it took a fair bit of effort to walk against. There were Swifts about, although fewer in number than the previous Sunday. We had plans to go on somewhere else, up the Downs in fact, (hah, oxymoron there, a well used one yes, but hey) even though the forecast weather wouldn't be conducive to find the birds that we would be after up there, so this would just be a visit to see and photograph the Swifts. I often tell anyone, who would care to listen, and myself, that I am a Birder first and foremost and a Photographer (aka Togger) second. But I admit that there are times when it's the photography that supersedes the other and that is frequently when Swifts are around. Capturing Swifts in flight via a camera allows the Swift watcher to appreciate aspects of the birds that just can't be ascertained from merely watching them. Such as when a Swift is at the cusp of hoovering up a tiny insect. Such action just cannot be appreciated with the naked eye or indeed through binoculars.

Toggers frequently use adverse conditions, or even good conditions, as an excuse, to use when they don't capture their subject as well as they wanted. I try my hardest not to do that but there are occasions when it's tricky, or nigh on impossible, to obtain good results. Very breezy conditions can make any kind of photography difficult and particularly so for the bird photographer and this was a windy day. So, having got my excuses in early, I didn't enjoy the same success as I did the week before, but it wasn't for want of trying!

We only ventured halfway down the causeway before turning back. The sunshine had returned to the afternoon and, as they always seem to do when the sun comes out to play, the Swifts had mostly disappeared anyway. The few that remained were really scything the air and racing past us and it was futile trying to keep up with them. I concentrated on getting some head on shots but didn't have much success although certain images showed just how slim the wings of a Swift are and how they are attached right at the top of the body.

The only other bird that I took photos of was a Great Crested Grebe that flew into the wind and used its wings as a brake before flopping into the choppy water. As we left the Windsurfers on F2 were giving the Swifts a run for their money since they were absolutely racing past.

Great Crested Grebe

Up The Downs!

One of my favourite expressions is walking up the Downs because of my love for oxymorons. Not sure why I've become so enamoured with oxymorons, maybe because I am an Oxon Moron or maybe because the word oxymoron derives from the Greek definition, pointedly foolish, which could also be applied to myself. I just love the use of two opposites to make an expression, so much that I even try to invent them. Anyway we'd heard of a place on the Oxfordshire and Berkshire border in racehorse country near Lambourn where Quail could be heard singing. A friend of mine, Simon, had visited the cereal fields at Crog Hill a few days before and had the great fortune to actually see a Quail when he flushed one from the footpath which then flew across the gallops before landing in full view in some short grass, where it even uttered its strident "wet-my-lips" song at him for a few seconds before flying off and disappearing into longer grass.

Common Quail (courtesy of Simon Bradfield)
I have heard Quail singing lots of times, Otmoor can be good for them in some years, but only seen one once, when a male ran across a road between cereal fields in the Fens. Some people get lucky with Quail, it's possible to find them early in the summer before the cereal plants, such as barley and wheat, that they choose to live in grow too high but generally they are secretive and hide away in those fields and only belie their presence by singing that sharp song, "wet-my-lips", "wet-my-lips", repeated over and over, which is far reaching and very loud if you're close to one. The Quail are most active and sing more at dawn and dusk so at mid-afternoon is far from the best time to choose to go hoping to hear them. Windy and dank weather doesn't help much either and it was very breezy and threatening rain as we left the car and started on the path towards where I knew the Quail were.

We had already weathered a short rain shower just before we reached the gallops, luckily a small stand of bushes afforded us some shelter. I knew that the odds of hearing a Quail in such conditions were slim but there would always be an outside chance of flushing one from the overgrown path so we continued on anyway. Besides at the very least we could make this a reconnaissance mission and find the likeliest looking spots to watch from when we revisited, we'd already decided that we'd come back the following morning when the weather forecast was much better. 

Strewn along the path were isolated bushes, all of which appeared to house a pair of Corn Buntings, and some were still singing their jangling "key rattling" songs. A few were very confiding too, posing right at the top of a bush. We've had a good year for Corn Buntings, they are very localised in our area, and have seen a lot, both in Oxfordshire and afar. We even found some on one of our early lockdown walks just a mile from our home which was surprising since we never had any idea that Corn Buntings existed in that area before. I took a few photos of one of the showy birds.

Corn Bunting
The sky was darkening again so we turned tail and fled for the car. Luckily this time we managed to reach our four wheeled haven just as the heavens opened once again.

Once Quailed Twice Shy

By our standards, reaching the parking area by Crog Hill at seven o'clock on Sunday morning, was a fine effort on our part. The days of us getting up extremely early in order to get out in the field before sunrise are well gone and I definitely need my statutory three cups of strong tea and the associated caffeine kick in order to be able to function properly. We now had a decent chance to hear Quail since the weather had improved considerably on the evening before although there were still showers around.

We reached the five furlong post on the gallops and heard our first Quail singing from a barley field further ahead. I'm happy to count a heard only Quail on my year list, in fact I believe that official listers are allowed to count the species as such, which notched up to 183. We walked on and a small brown bird exploded from the long grass right next to the cinder covered racetrack, but an initial surge of excitement soon dissipated when it became apparent that it was just one of the many Skylarks that reside on the Downs. Some people, Simon you lucky bugger, get a Quail, we get a Skylark! Still, Skylarks are lovely birds.

By the time we had reached the eight furlong marker post we had heard at least four Quails calling from two different adjacent fields. The first fields crop was, I think barley, which was growing densely with no tractor tracks running through it, seeing any small brown birds in there would be impossible. The next field had a shorter greener crop plant, wheat I think, and that was growing more sparsely and there were several tracks made by tractors. I felt we had a chance, however slim, of seeing a Quail in there, and there was one calling although it was far off down the slope of the hill. We stood for a while listening to the Quail but it didn't come any closer so after a while we began to sidle back towards the car. A Corn Bunting, interestingly more elusive in the better conditions, sat atop a fence post and watched us go. A small group of Starlings swept past and Swallows swooped overhead while Skylark song filled the air.

Corn Bunting
We heard a Quail call much closer, it sounded as if it was by the dividing hedge between the two fields, so we retraced our steps back up the gallops. As we approached we could hear it getting louder and louder, it was in the wheat field, where owing to those gaps between the crop we may just get our chance. We stood, barely daring to breathe, at the corner of the field. The Quail was still shouting its three pronged song and was still getting closer. I fancied that I could now hear it breathe, it must have been just metres away and yet it stayed concealed. In addition to the song I could hear it make a curious, "mwa, mwa", noise, something I'd never heard before. I frantically scanned the gaps between the wheat stems, peering as well as I could and as far as I could into them but frustratingly could not see the bird. At one point it sounded as if it was right next to the grassy edge of the field but I reckoned that the Quail had learned the art of ventriloquism and was actually walking along the tractor track some ten metres away. The Quail moved away leaving me totally baffled and thwarted. Then our moment, the Quail suddenly flew over the top of the crop, away from us so we only had a rear view but the proportionally long wings, dumpy body, no tail to speak of and the rapid flight shared by all Game-birds left me in no doubt that it was a Quail I saw. Naturally it was over too quick for me to even reach for my camera.

We stuck it out for another hour or so but the Quail, singing again but much further away didn't make another circuit of the field. We didn't like the look of the sky away over the hills that was coming straight at us, so we called it a day. Unfortunately we couldn't outrun the shower that was headed towards us and, still four furlongs out from the car, we were caught and the big ugly dark cloud unceremoniously dumped gallons of the wet stuff on our heads, and every other part of our beings. We were drenched. Even more unluckily another heavy black cloud was following closely behind the first one and we had to make a dash into the trees just a hundred metres short of the car for some slight respite from that one. The second cloud dumped even more rain and it didn't take long for it to drip through the trees, but it was still dryer in them than out.

The rain abated and warm sunshine replaced it, not that it helped much, we'd have needed an hour in a  tumble dryer on full to dry out after our soaking, so we left our sanctuary. As we left the small wood, I noticed a Red Kite perched in one of the trees. I don't often get the opportunity to photograph Red Kites actually at rest, normally they are flying overhead, so I aimed the camera. The Kite obviously knew and immediately left the branch and then flew directly at me as if to taunt me, "Not this time sucker!"

Red Kite
With the Lockdown seemingly over, for a while at least, I was now entering a very busy time work wise so my birding will be limited to weekends only through July which is usually a quiet month anyway, how wrong that would prove to be, with little of interest to see both locally and further afield.

Monday 27 July 2020

Scarce Warbler Fest #3, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Far Ings, 20th June 2020

Easy, Easy, Easy! Far Too Easy!

For the third time in less than a week we headed northwards to twitch a Warbler species. This time the quarry would be a Blyth's Reed Warbler, which generally breed in Northern Europe from Finland through to Russia, but which had pitched up in a Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust reserve on the banks of the River Humber and had proceeded to wow hundreds of visiting birders for over a fortnight. 

Our previous experience of Blyth's Reed Warblers amounted to just two birds, the first briefly seen at Slapton Ley in Devon nearly twenty years ago and the other, in June last year in Aberdeenshire, a bird that we watched at length and one that formed part of a terrific days birding. That Blyth's Reed Warbler also gained me my one and only Birdguides Photo of the Week award! Because of that close encounter last year we initially showed no interest in travelling the 150 miles to see the Far Ings bird but with the summer doldrums well and truly established in Oxfordshire and an option to see another scarce summer visitor on the way home, we succumbed and hit the road once more.

My Birdguides POTW winning image!
One big bonus associated with the Lockdown is that roads have been much less busy than normal so we made good speed on the journey. It was a very pleasant and sunny start to the day so the Blyth's Reed Warbler should, if still present, be singing and showing extremely well, as it had done so for its entire stay so far. After some initial confusion we found the small carpark on the reserve, geared up leaving the scope behind which wouldn't be required for this bird, and walked the few hundred yards to join a dozen or so other enthusiasts stood next to a row of reeds and trees that guarded the edge of a small lake. The Blyth's Reed Warbler could be heard singing loudly as we walked up and without needing any optical equipment at all we saw the bird instantly perched in a small shrub.

Blyth's Reed warbler
For the next fifteen minutes or so I fired off frame after frame of the Blyth's Reed warbler but also paid attention to its song, subtly different from that of the Marsh Warbler heard the week before, with more flutey type whistles and less mimicry. After a while though I began to think, "Why was the bird so small in my camera viewfinder when I was stood just a few metres away?", and "Did I have a setting wrong on the camera?".  Then it dawned on me, I hadn't pulled the lens out to full zoom so had been taking the photos at 100mm instead of 400mm! I had been using a 400mm prime lens for so long that I had forgotten that I now had a telephoto lens! When I edited the photos I immediately binned all of the first hundred odd images because the bird was so small in the frame! Hopefully I'll remember that mistake and I won't repeat it in the future. I wondered how many of my fellow birders/toggers had noticed the error and how many had thought, "Look at that idiot, he has a zoom lens and isn't using it correctly!", "What a prat!". An epic fail indeed!

Once I'd extended the lens to full zoom, the subject bird was now filling the viewfinder and I was able to capture the images I wanted. For the next forty-five minutes the Blyth's Reed Warbler spent a lot more time singing and perched openly than it didn't. Apparently they are usually, like most Warbler species, skulking birds, certainly during migration they are, but clearly, when they get the urge to advertise their presence to possible suitors, they forget all of their inhibitions. Mind you, the chances of this bird finding a mate would be very remote indeed in Lincolnshire in June.

I set myself to trying to capture some images of the bird in the nettles and undergrowth beneath its song perch in the tree above. That was more of a challenge, little of the sunlight filtered down through the tree but ultimately I felt it was more rewarding since the images attained more credibility than the rather easy to obtain images of it singing from the "rooftops", or is that just snobbish photography sentiment from myself? Probably, but anyway I prefer them.

We only stayed another half hour or so during which time the Blyth's Reed Warbler strutted its stuff almost continuously and performed for the constant trickle of new admirers. It was just so easy to see, watch and take photos of it that I actually became surprisingly bored very quickly and didn't get any of the buzz that I felt when pursuing the bird in Aberdeenshire last year. That bird presented a real challenge to see and record, this one just gave itself up too willingly. I still managed to take another couple of hundred photos, in addition to the ones binned because of the lens fiasco, before we left around 11:00. 

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The Bees Knees!

Normally we would have found a nice cafe to rest in for a while but of course that pleasure was still denied to us so instead we drove straight to the Welbeck Viewpoint on the edge of Clumber Park near Worksop. The viewpoint is a well known spot for watching Birds of Prey that nest in the woodland within the park. Early in the spring Goshawks are the main attraction but later in the season it is Honey Buzzards that command the interest from birders. We visited for the first time last July, a little late in the year as it happens, but still had distant views of two Honey Buzzards although we had to rely on a local expert to confirm that they were in fact Honey Buzzards and not just run of the mill Common Buzzards. My experience at watching Raptors is limited and even though I can identify most with good views, watching from large distances away and therefore having to work with just silhouetted and poorly detailed features is a skill that I don't really possess. Luckily there are usually some local experts present who are much more able to identify the distant specks in the sky. The only Honey Buzzard that I've seen which I had a really good view of was one that flew over our heads as we walked through a forest clearing in the Cairngorms. Unfortunately to begin with I had passed that bird off as a Common Buzzard as it flew in and by the time I had registered the Pigeon type long neck and small head, and the long tail, the bird was past us and I had neglected to take any photos. These days I always tend to shoot first and ask questions after.

We had arrived at the watchpoint during a period of inactivity and apart from a cascade of Common Swifts hunting insects over the lake there was nothing much to look at. Over the next hour or so the only birds of further note were a Hobby, a couple of Kestrels and a Sparrowhawk, none of which we specifically came to see. Common Buzzards intermittently rode the thermals but after nearly ninety minutes there was no sign of any Honey Buzzards. I spoke to one of the resident experts, well known to many considering the amount of folk who stopped to talk with him, and he reckoned that there was only a single Honey Buzzard present this year but that it usually put in an appearance at some point in the afternoons. A few minutes later a chap stood close by, but more than two metres away, called out, "Two birds circling high above us". I strained my eyes but couldn't locate the birds, asked for more information, and was very helpfully guided onto the birds. Both were clearly Buzzards, looked different to each other but I was still unsure of their exact identity. I find that no amount of poring over the Raptor Identification Guidebooks prepare you for actually seeing the birds flying at what seems to be a mile above the ground. I managed to find the birds in my scope and motioned for Mrs Caley to take it and watch the birds since I wanted some record shots.

Honey Buzzard, top, & Common Buzzard, bottom
By this time the chap who knew his Onions, and Buzzards, was confidently calling one of the birds as a Honey Buzzard. Careful comparison showed the bird in question to have a relatively small headed appearance and longer tail than its Common Buzzard companion. The wings were also "pinched in" towards the body giving the bird a "propellor" type look to it, as opposed to the broader and straighter wings of the Common.

Common Buzzard, left, & Honey Buzzard, right
Despite the poorly defined images that I took, it was clear that we had our Honey Buzzard fix for the year and our 182nd species was added to the Old Caley year list. One day I hope to get a proper and instantly identifiable photo of a Honey Buzzard, perhaps we'll get lucky when we hit Muswell Hill, the highest point in our part of Oxfordshire, later in the year looking for migrant Flycatchers.