Sunday, 22 May 2016

Thinking Small

The weekend began with a walk around the long river loop. On the high field (where the muck heaps were) a corn bunting was jangling it's song from a wooden fence. This is the first one I've seen since the beginning of January and the only one I've seen alone... in Winter they congregate in groups of ten or twelve birds over the stubble fields.

The plants must have needed the rain that fell during the week. The growth since last weekend is quite astounding and I was caught out wearing just my walking boots; by the time I completed the walk I was soaking wet to well above the knee. There were lots of birds singing and calling, but nothing new and all from cover. Opportunistic bird photography gets hard at this time of year as the leaves hide the birds while they go about their business... a change of approach is required.

Catherine suggested taking the kids to RSPB Saltholme at lunchtime and I was happy to oblige; my Twitter feed was full of reports of Whiskered Tern; a lifer for me. The kids had a great time romping around the reed-beds, splashing in the puddles and playing in the park, despite the rain. I was struggling to find the terns, which the guides reported were on the main lake. I searched for ages before checking my phone... they'd moved! A march round to the correct lake yielded instant reward, a bird quartering the lake immediately in front of the hide.

Back at home, I headed out again and once again was unable to get any photos. It's time to put my hides out and attract the birds to me, but that can take a few weeks before I get reliable results, so in the meantime I vowed to forget about the birds, think small and take my macro lens with me instead.

Before this weekend, I'd recorded 8 butterfly species this year: peacock, small tortoiseshell, orange-tip, green-veined white, brimstone, speckled wood, large white and red admiral. June is the best month for butterflies (more species can be seen in June in the UK than any other month), so I'm going to have a change of focus.

There are still lots of orange-tip about, though most females have probably laid their eggs by now. This handsome male is showing the mottled green and white patterned underwings that camouflage them while they roost; a perfect match for the cow parsley or hawthorn flowers in which they hide.

I always check the flowers of lady's smock for orange tip eggs; they're particularly obvious protruding from the green sepals underneath the flower heads. So efficient and meticulous are the butterflies that you're more likely to find an egg than not, and rarely two on the same plant. More unusual is to find a caterpillar feeding:

Relearning how to use my macro lens (they're a fiddle to use with good results), I explored the small flowers in the grounds of the church. Henbit with its long flower heads, reminded me how hard it is to control depth of field at high magnifications:

And this dark fly on bright forget-me-not tested the dynamic range of the camera:

Also in the churchyard was small white, though it was far too flighty to photograph! Finally I headed to the large oxbow to see if any warblers had moved in to breed; they hadn't. I did manage to see the first wall butterfly of the year though and this flag iris, which I'd never have believed (before getting to know my patch this year) could be found growing so close to home.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Hidden Warblers

A quick walk around the patch yesterday started promisingly with maybe* four garden warblers singing in the aptly named Warbler Corner area of the patch. These birds must have dropped in during the week, a bit later than I expected and probably held up by the persistent adverse winds.

*I say 'maybe' as while I do try and be systematic, there is always the possibility that the birds get ahead of me and are counted twice!

The sun was bright, so I tried my luck again with the sand martins. In order to get the fast shutter speed required to capture them in flight, I have to either increase ISO (and degrade image quality) or open the aperture (decreasing depth of field) and the gloomier it is, the more of each I must do. I think I'm beginning to get the hang of it, but I've still not managed 'the shot' I have in mind.

In the North of the patch, a walk through the wood turned up marsh tit, common sandpiper, grey wagtail, jay and sparrowhawk; all lovely birds, but nothing new and so it remained for the day.

Today I set about photographing the garden warblers and dragged my hide and provisions to Warbler Corner. Hours passed and while they were very vocal and active, they remained high in the willows and out of frame. When they did come to eye level they were typically behind me! I will return with bait next time to see if I can encourage them to follow a regular route upon which they can be photographed. I gave up for the morning and decided to try the oxbow lake for new arrivals.

I'd barely walked 100 yards from where I'd been sat all morning when I heard a strange call coming from dense shrubs alongside the flooded wood. I couldn't put my finger on what it was... it was showing the range of blackcap or garden warbler, but was singing much more slowly and with a more baritone voice. The warbler refused to show itself so vexed, I asked Nick to come and help me identify it.

No sooner had I dropped Nick a message, the bird began to sing in full; speeding up and singing loudly. It was a reed warbler! Such a familiar sound when walking through wetlands, but completely alien when out of context here... there are no reeds for a mile in any direction! That was my hundredth species this year and a new one for Thrintoft so I was delighted. Nick turned up and we listened to it for a while, but frustratingly it would not break cover to have its picture taken.

I returned earlier this evening and it was still present, but again remained shy and out of sight.

Friday, 13 May 2016


I've joined the Patchwork Challenge for the first time this year. I'm not sure whether it's been a good or a bad thing... I've certainly got out more, but probably at the expense of other things I enjoy. Before, I would describe myself more as a general wildlife enthusiast and not a birder... I would focus on small photo projects and spend a lot of time in one place. Now, the desire to keep the list ticking along is forcing me to cover more ground and focus predominantly on birds.

I'm currently on 99 species for the year, including two lifers: merlin and firecrest. I set myself a target of 100 birds for the entire year and so have exceeded my own expectations. I think I'm going to get to 100 and then take it easy for the summer, maybe starting in earnest again in the Autumn. That got me thinking, what will the hundredth bird be?

Below is a list of birds I have previously seen locally that I've not seen yet this year. I've ordered them into three groups: birds I expect to see; birds I might see; birds I don't expect to see again on the patch:

Birds I expect to see:
  • Siskin
  • Great Black-Backed Gull
  • Spotted Flycatcher
  • Hobby
  • Peregrine
Birds I might see:
  • Cuckoo
  • Greenshank
  • Sedge Warbler
Birds I don't expect to see again:
  • Rough-Legged Buzzard
  • Turtle Dove
In addition to these, there are a few birds that I've never seen locally that I remain optimistic about. After all, I'd never seen redstart, woodcock, grasshopper warbler, merlin, stonechat and firecrest before this year.
  • Pied Flycatcher
  • Jack Snipe
  • Dipper
  • Reed Warbler
  • Whinchat
  • Willow Tit
  • Pink Footed Goose
  • Waxwing
So what will my hundredth bird be? Well... it not being winter rules out a lot of the above, so I'm going to plump for hobby. They are a favorite bird of mine having seen one for the first time just a couple of years ago chasing swallows on the long river loop. That encounter made me seek them out in the raised bogs of Shropshire and I was lucky enough to witness a couple of birds hunting dragonflies. Stunning.

UPDATE 15/05/16 - my hundredth bird turned out to be a reed warbler

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Home to Roost

A belated write-up of the weekend on the patch... I  find myself busy just as Spring takes hold; the good weather brings out the beer-garden game, quoits, among other activities that vie for my time in the clement weather.

The weekend started very positively; my first swift this year was not seen whizzing high in the sky or heard screeching between the houses, instead it was knocking at the eaves of the cottage, testing for somewhere to get in. I like to believe it was one of the two birds that bred here last year, or maybe one of the three fledglings they produced. Regardless, it roosted in our roof on both Friday and Saturday night and has not been seen since.

The chill never really lifted on Saturday, it hung in the air like a sea fret, held there by the cold North wind. Everything was quiet and I resorted to checking in with the regular cast. The sand martin colony was very busy as usual, with most nest holes appearing suitably excavated for their residents. I counted the nest holes and was pleased that there were a precise 100.

I counted the warblers on a circular walk via the oxbow lake; there were more than 30 whitethroat and 20 blackcap; a staggering number, really. I was unable to differentiate clearly between common and lesser whitethroat as while I stood in the big field, I was audio-jammed by two sparring skylarks. Another yellow wagtail was found; the furthest from the river I've encountered one. At the lake, the tufted duck population has grown to seven birds, predominantly drakes. Grasshopper warbler was heard again briefly and distantly; probably the same bird I found during the week.

Roe deer, wet from the dew-soaked wheat shoots:

The dunnock, a plumage underdog and a bird deserving of greater attention:

On the lake itself, I've begun hearing plops as I walk around the reed bed. To date, I've been unable to identify what's making the noise. Romantically, I'm hoping there are water voles or water shrews, but I expect they'll turn out to be frogs or rats.

Sunday morning began as Saturday ended; cold and damp. A walk around the Eastern boundary of the village searching for sedge warblers turned up a garden warbler in the grounds of the gasworks; the first I've seen for two weeks and hopefully the first of many more.

When the fret cleared and the sun came out, I headed for the woods. The browns and greys of winter are now a distant memory and the paths have been narrowed by the verdant growth.

Bluebells have pushed through where the canopy has thinned and are out in number. The odd red campion breaks through the purple understory and stands proudly in contrast.

I was buzzed by the first brimstone of the year and (I think) my first record in Thrintoft while I checked my nest-boxes for activity. Disappointingly, I've not seen any birds entering or leaving the boxes, though there is evidence some are being used (twigs, droppings, etc in the nest-holes). That said, whenever I approach box seven a pair of marsh tits angrily announce their feelings toward my presence, so I suspect they've taken residence.

Further through the wood I stopped to watch two fly-fisherman. I was not the only spectator either; a pair of racing pigeons had stopped in the wood and were taking great interest in the men. Though strictly not a wild-bird, I was very impressed with this handsome chap.

Finally on the way back home, a blue falcon-like bird shot across the path in front of me. I was sure it was a male cuckoo so hung around for a while, hoping for a better view. The mystery bird made no second appearance, but while I sat this brown hare came very close, completely at ease in my company.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Grasshopper Warbler

My patch neighbour (and rival) found two sedge warbler yesterday evening; I must confess, it made me a little envious as it's on my wanted list and I've spent many hours already this year scouring likely locations to see one myself. The last time I saw sedge warbler locally was a few years ago when a pair bred in a dyke near the equestrian centre.

So this morning, fuelled with optimism that his sighting was a sign that more were passing through, I got up early and headed for the oxbow lake. I walked around the water to the reed-beds but none were seen or heard. Not having long before work, I didn't hang around and headed despondently back to the car. Then in the scrub I'd just passed, I heard it, the characteristic reeling of a grasshopper warbler! Not a common bird locally by any means (in fact I think the only 3 modern records have all been found by me) and this is the first on my patch.

I had a hide in the car so rushed to fetch it and set it up in the hope the bird would break cover. Thirty minutes passed and all I could see was a little brown shape skulking out of view. Then just as I was about to give up, it jumped onto an exposed branch; bird 98 on my patch list and one I could only hope for (and worth being late for work to photograph).

Monday, 2 May 2016

Sit and Wait

Despite the sou'westerly winds and milder temperatures, a morning walk around the long river loop and back through Thrintoft Ings turned up no new arrivals. However, it was nice to consolidate a few birds I'd only managed distant or brief views of this year; wheatear, common sandpiper and shelduck all gave themselves up, but the gloom meant any photos were put straight into the Recycle Bin.

The afternoon promised better weather, so I packed the kids up and headed for Cod Beck at Osmotherley for a nice, family walk. Siskin were obvious all over the site, and tree pipit, hobby and cuckoo were also noted. That's four birds I've not connected with on my home patch! Fingers crossed.

On returning home, the sun was shining so I headed up to the very North of the patch to explore the riverine woods and church. It was disappointingly quiet and I resigned to not finding anything of note. Instead, I unpacked my hide and sat by the river with the sun behind me, hoping for a chance encounter with kingfisher.

Sitting and waiting can be rewarding but more often than not, it turns up nothing. Today was a good day; a pair of goosander approached from downstream...

...the quiet was broken by a very agitated, piping sandpiper and his mate...

...before finally, a juvenile grey heron landed so close, that all I could fit in the frame of my camera was his untidy head!