Sunday, 19 February 2012

HESC visit

Variety of birds on the HESC bund
As my knee was still complaining I abandonned plans for a longer trip, and we both headed up to the Hanson Environmental Study Centre aka HESC at Great Linford. It was a lovely morning with a sharp wind making itself felt once out of the sheltering trees. 
Teal (& female mallard) browsing
The approach from the car park was edged with trees bearing singing robins and great tits, but the loudest noise was the sounds of the groups of geese on the lake beyond organinsing themselves. At the first hide we could see why - a number of groups of both Canada and Greylag geese were coming and going between the land and water and also via the air. There was no sign of the godwit reported recently, but there was a good variety of birds along the bund across the lake - testimony to the good work volunteers had done clearing excess vegetation.
Along the margin there were a number of teal, some on the lake feeding, others (look closely) still tucked into the marginal reeds, resting, well camoflaged.
Greylag feeding, teal sleeping
We moved on to the woodloand hide along the reed-bed walkway still slippery with ice.
I had some feed in my bag, so I put it out on the tables and feeder and we settled down to watch.  A steady stream of great tits robin and chaffinch began to come and go, with some coal tits and a couple of dunnocks cleaning up the spills on the ground. 
Willow Tit
Mammals weren't left out, as a pair of bank voles darted in and out from cover and a couple of grey squirrel joined in.  After a while the stars turned up - a couple of willow tits began to join in.
   Well I ws told they were willow tits by the chap who joined us in the hide - I'm still not convinced I can differentiate one from a marsh tit - they are very alike.  Need to spend some time on the web working it out for myself!
 The pictures here aren't all the same bird -and the 4th one does seem to have a much smaller bib than the others.  I love the palest pink tinge to their bellies - very dainty and pretty birds.
Tentative approach
The third hide didn't have anything within range of my camera, so we turned for home.  As we headed back to the car I couldn't resist one more look in the first hide, and was rewarded with a close view of an incoming swan.  This one seemed to be showing off with a one footed landing!
Willow tit

willow Tit
Willow Tit
one-footed landing

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Song birds step forward!

Song thrush
This blog isn't doing much travelling this week. A couple of walks to work and a trip round Caldecotte North lake this morning and that's about it.
the one common factor in all of these is the increase in songbird activity - definitely more singing more loudly!  both days I managed to walk to work this week there was a song thrush in the trees along the old Walton Lane - I grabbed shots both days, but "day 2" was the best - the thrush was low down in the big hedge - although he soon skipped to the back behind a mass of twigs when he clocked me watching.
Green woodpecker
A gloomy day today, meant I didn't rush out - the light was dreadful for photography really. By the time I did go out (around 8am) a smur of rain blew through, setting the pattern for the morning.
By the time I'd got to the dam at the top of the lake I could see that the boats had pushed most of the birds into the side inlets. I was eyeing the trees at the foot of the dam for song birds - and hopefully woodpecker, when I heard a voice behing me - Keith again, heading for the area behind the pub where he seen Goosander heading.
As usual this part of the lake was teaming with waterfowl, all of which paddled to the opposite bank when they spotted us. Tufted duck, pochard, widgeon, coots, mallard, Canada geese, cormorant, gulls and great crested grebe were all in evidence, with the start of the show the goosander. It was difficult to tell how many as they were all busy feeding, and I don't think we saw them all on the surface at the same time. At least 4 though, all but one that I saw today were female. It's a good place to see these birds though, as the lake isn't very wide here, so they can never move too far away.
Wot do you mean, "fluff"?
Feather maintenance
We rounded the sluice and Keith set out south to his crow rendez-vous, while I did the "hotel loop".  I had an inkling that the damp would make the grassy banks ideal for green woodpeckers. I've seen them here often, but never got a decent photograph, as apart from their good camoflage, they are very wary and exit "stage left" very quickly.
I followed the bank, driving the water birds back across the lake to the where they had started from. I was watching some gadwall, when I caught the movement of a reasonable size bird into a tree in the shrubbery to my right. Sure enough it was a green woodpecker. It tucked itself round the trunk from me, but I did get quite close before he headed south. I turned north to complete the loop and noticed a "lumpy branch" - I was in luck, a second green woodpecker was working on being inconspicuous. He lifted his head to look around ...Got you! My first acceptable green woodpecker shot.
Round the corner a family of swans were performing their morning maintenance, the young now showing their new white feathers in patches.
As my knee was dishing out warning signs, I decided I'd not got south today, but headed for the bridge and the return up the other side of the north lake.  I couldn't ignore the loud and varied songs in the brush areas along the margins on the south lake and made the short detour to the picnic area.  I was in luck - the bull finches were active and I got some good views of them - and one "decent" picture.  It was great to see them flitting through the bushes, along with a large number of the usual reed bunting.
It's a shame the lighting was so challenging, but nevertheless, an enjoyable walk and a couple of "firsts" with the camera.
one of the many groups of tufted duck

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Fieldfare Week

Male Blackcap
Strange Fruit - fieldfares
"Fieldfare Week" sounds like a promotion in an organic farm shop! But the truth is, back in MK we are surrounded by flocks of the birds as they take refuge from the snow and ice in the trees and bushes around the town.  One flock seems to have adopted the trees beside the house and we are constantly hearing the flock "chuckle" as these vocal birds chatter amongst themselves.  Photographing them is not quite so easy - at least not from the ground - they are very aware of any approach - and even if they miss something, the ever present blackbird's alarm call soon sets them flying. From the house my eye is constantly distracted as the flock dashes back and forth over their temporary home territory. I finally got a good view and a photograph from the upstairs window.
The snow has brought other visitors too.  A pair of backcaps passed through at the beginning of the week and there are some lurking coal tits today - if the magpies will leave them alone, they might actually rest long enough for a picture.
Having been chained to the office all week I have only managed to get out with the camera today - but what a day.  Cold, clear and sunny, the temperatures began at -7.5 deg C this morning, and just about clawed above zero in the early afternoon.
North Caldecotte Lake, early morning
I set out just after 7am and after setting up about 100 fieldfare from the bushes around the house. As I had a 9am appointment I decided to forego the full circuit and I headed for the south Caldecotte Lake to see if there was a clear patch of water left for the birds. The section of the north lake I passed was very quiet with the first real activity in the only local patch of free water - just under the road bidge.  This was busy with mallard, with a few moorhen darting around.
South Lake
Round to the bridge, I'd intended to put some food on the posts, but the activity indicated I'd been beaten to it. Sure enough, Keith was round the corner - and I disturbed his viewing! (Sorry Keith!)  We had a quick chat and he reported Greater spotted woodpecker on his feeders earlier - but they were of course nowhere to be seen when I looked! On for a quick recce of the lake. A family of swans had kept a small patch clear in the first bay, but most of the activity was out in the middle, where a long strip of water had been maintained and was chock-full of water fowl. Amongst them I spotted a grebe standing out on the ice - looking very strange! They aren't build for standing, as their legs are set very far back on their body
Newly arriving Greylag
As I turned to leave for my appointment a flock of grelag wheeled in, landing on the ice and heading towards the swan's small waterhole, picking their feet up very gingerly - I'm not sure if that was the slippery ice or just the cold ensuring they maintained one foot off the ground for as long as possible.
As I dashed home I couldn't resist a quick look at the feeders in case the woodpecker had returned - and my luck was in - he was pecking at a supply of suet balls.  As he saw me he sidled to the back of the feeder, peeking round the side to check on me. I move across to get another angle and he allowed me a reasonable approach to grab a shot of him.  Thanks for that one Keith.
Ooohh this hard water is cold!
After my appointment the day was too nice to waste on all the housework so we set out for a quick walk round Walton Lake to see what turned up. A Bittern had been reported here, as well as water rail visible on the fozen water.  We were in luck - not for the bittern, but we were able to watch the water rail for a few minutes and grab a few shots.  There were a number of reed bunting in evidence and lots of blue and great tits in the trees. 
We detoured along the river Ousel, which appeared quiet apart from a few mallard and moorhen, until an egret flew down the river. It settled on the other side of the river beside the OU - unfortunately behind bushes - but then decided even that was too close to us for comfort and it headed off, following the river towards Simpson.
Great spotted Woodpecker

As we headed back to the car we had a good look at the geese in the fields - mostly greylag, but there was one very pale goose hanging with a group of Canada geese. I'm guessing it is a sport, but please let me know if you have any ideas about it!

Water rail

Little Egret

Different goose (any ideas?)

Saturday, 4 February 2012

To be or Knot to be

Lone curew
Just a quick trip out yesterday - we set out to get lunch in the tearoom at Sandhead and get a short walk on the beach. no Jays appeared as we left the house today - I was starting to think they were timing their visits just to mess with my head!
It was (very) low tide, leaving a massive expanse of sand for dogwalkers and wildlife alike, with a backdrop of the Galloway hills and their snow covered summits.
Knots with attendant gulls
As we left the tearoom it was eerily quiet - even the rookery behind the main street was silent -most unusual. The plaintive sound of a lone curlew rolled up from the beach and we could see the black and white splash of the ever present oystercatchers spread along the beach.
We walked north past feeding gulls and noticed a curlew feeding on the sand soaked by a small stream ahead of us.  It kept its distance, just ahead of us but still constantly probing for food.  The large variety and size of shells scattered across the beech testifying to the bounty to be found.
As I tried to capture a shot of the curlew George mentioned the dark rim along the waterline behind it and I realised there was a flock of waders.  George walked to the top of the beach leaving me to try and approach them quietly.  I was amazed at how placid they were.  Attendant gulls (who had been attempting the odd robbery) disappeared as I got closer but the waders which turned out to be knots were not fazed at all. They surged back and forth feeding in the very edge of the water, allowing me to get incredibly close. 
...and they're off!
I eventually overstepped the mark and off they went - all of 100 metres further along the beech. I left them to their feeding and headed home to check out how successful the pictures were ...
That was my last day in Scotland for a while - back home in MK today, just ahead of the wave of forecast snows across the country.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Wigtown and beyond

Wigtown marshes
Mixed duck population
Another clear day and cold. Just as we were leaving the house a pair of jays turned up in the trees - typical, as the camera was packed ready to go and by the time I got it out, they had moved on. as I thought I saw them the previous day I have now staked the garden out with kitchen scraps and I'm hoping the flurry created by the large flock of finches currently busy on the feeders will attract them back!
Currently I'm feeding what feels like half the chaffinch population of Galloway (well more that 20 of them!), plus 4 lovely greenfinches, goldfinches and multiples of blue, great and coal tits, a pair of dunnock and a robin are all regulars.

Yesterday's trip to the Isle of Whithorn was very quiet.  The RSPB site below Wigtown was frozen solid but for a patch in the middle of the pond where the ducks gathered and the tide was well out, so all waders were following it.
Nevertheless rhere was plenty to see.
Mud hunting teal
The ducks proved to be a good mix of teal, pintail, widgeon and mallard, with a prominient male goldeneye.  Out on the seemingly empty marshes were infact a huge flock of curlew, interspersed with oystercatchers. Around and about there were up to 30 mute swans grazing.

We headed down the coast, but found no more geese - fields were full of crows, rooks and gulls. We caught a distant glimpse of a raven playing in the updrafts on a small hill, but too distant to capture.
Robin flashes dark underwear!
The only bird life at the Isle of Whithorn was also low key, matching the very low tide- distant ringed plover on the shoreline and a very friendly robin patrolling the path, ruffled by the sharp breeze.
 At the point the monument to the crew of the Solway Harvester overlooks the sea where she sank off the Isle of Man with the loss of 6 Whithorn men. The air was clear enough to see the Isle of Man itself, emphasising how close to home they were when they died.

We went home via the coast road and Port William, watching a small crab boat working pots along the edge of Luce Bay, but no more wildlife!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Crystal Clear day

Pink footed Geese
Another day in Galloway and this one was so different to yesterday.  Crystal clear and bright, with a cold breeze to keep you on your toes in more exposed areas.
We headed out on a wild goose-chase, looking for Barnacle geese in particular. We decided to try the Rhins of Galloway and struck lucky almost at once. We were diverted from the Drummore road along the side of the West Freugh MOD site, and discovered a large flock of geese grazing there. 
Brent geese in front of the ferry (across the bay!)
Brent Geese

The road was very straight allowing us to stop on the side and use the car as a mobile hide.   The geese were still nervous, and eventually took off and moved a few hundred yards further on, but not before I got a few shots off to show they were (I believe)  pink footed geese.
The Mull of Galloway itself was majestic as ever, but windy, and there were no birds in view apart from the usual cruising gulls - it is winter after all!
We headed to port Logan for lunch only to find the pub there was under some major reconstruction. The bay was pretty as usual, but only oyster catchers were there in any number.

Our final goal of the day was a fair bet for wildlife, with the added bonus of a garden centre for us to stock up on food for our pond fish (if it ever thaws before we leave!) We headed to Wigg bay aand started to walk to the spit. The tide was rising, and curlew and oystercatchers were heading off the beach to the fields.
Flock of Sanderling with ringed plover and turnstone
The place has changed a bit - at long last the new Stena ferry terminal had opened right opposite the spit and I had wondered if it would affect the birds. Not to worry - there were plenty in view, including grazing mute swans.  At first glance I thought the birds I noticed in the field were more oyster catchers, but closer inspection revealed more geese.  These were Brent geese, which unlike the earlier bean geese were way happier to allow us to look at them as we wallked past- the only concession was turning their backs in case they needed a quick take off.
Bar-tailed Godwit
Once at the spit we were rewarded with a wide range of waders - redshank, bar-tailed Godwit, sanderling, turnstones ringed plover, curlew, and knot. The turnstones were the stars, worrying at every bit of weed like minature bull dozers in their relentless search for food.
Along the beach a small group of shellduck wandered away, just keeping their safety margin from the walkers.

As the sun went down we headed back home, stopping for a treat - takeaway fish and chips from the Star in Stranraer - great day!


Widgeon grazing the tide line

Loch Ryan drive by, 31/1

 More odd jobs round the house and a steady stream of visitors to the feeders - Yesterday's tally joined by the Great Tits and Coal Tits, but no sign at all of the goldcrest :-(. 
The day was grey and dull, and most of all COLD.  The pond had frozen and showed no sign of thawing.

We had to go into Stranraer in the afternoon, so we made a point of leaving along the shore road, so we could see what was about. 

Swirling gulls (mostly blackheaded)
The extremely dull weather meant that photography was a challenge - either a very under exposed black image or slightly blurry aperture shots as the birds never stopped hunting for food.
The tide was pretty full- had just started to fall, leaving a narrow feeding strip for the birds.  The Bishop Burn area, where fresh water flows into the loch was crowded with gulls of several species.  I'm not very good at gull identification, but there were blackheaded gulls, common gulls, and herring gulls.

Never slow to spot an opportunity, they quickly noticed the toddlers feeding the mute swans, and swarmed around looking for their share.
Bishop Burn and shell banks
This human windfall however is not the reason the birds gather here.  The shallow loch is covered in weed and large expanses of it can be seen at low tide, while the sand and silt supports a large number of shell fish, as the banks of shells along the shore and round the Burn testify.

Redshanks in plenty were trotting along the shore, and the distictive behaviour of the turnstone drew attention to it, accompanied by a common companion, the ringed plover.

Turnstone and Ringed plover
Out on the water there were huge rafts of ducks. Most were too far off for the lens, but among others I spotted pintail, eider and the more unusual (to this southerner) scaup.
Finaally, in flocks, groups and singly, the whole shore echoed to the calls of the Oystercatchers.


Male Scaup

Female Scaup