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Monday, December 24, 2012

'Do I Wait' for Christmas

Really disappointed with the UK weather at the moment. I read somewhere that the gulf stream has shifted? Well it needs to shift back! Either way ..... it seems to be either bucketing down or blowing a gale, neither of which is conducive to getting out there with my binocs and camera - bad news and it gets worse for you guys who read this thing because that means I get my guitar out and sing!

oh yes and its CHRISTMAS so do have a good one everybody!
I intend to drink and eat far too much than is good for my body and then purge myself with a Boxing Day tramp somewhere where I can't see any tinsel, turkey, baubles or brandy ..... love some snow though!

Ok here's the music. Its a song by the great Ryan Adams called 'Do I Wait' and I'm planning on including this song when I venture into the open mike scene in York in the New Year so by all means tell me what you think.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

You 'slag' lol, only joking .... its Fairburn Ings!

I drove down the AI(M) recently to get my car seen to by my nephew and on passing the turn off for Ferrybridge within 20 minutes of setting off I realised that Fairburn Ings, a notable RSPB reserve, was closer to me than I'd previously thought so a couple of days ago I decided to pay said reserve a visit. 

Now it was a dullish day but rain was forecast for the next 3 or 4 so I thought I'd better make the most of things and since I'd done the vast majority of my Christmas shopping the day before I reckoned I deserved a treat.

Fairburn won't win any awards for being picturesque, situated just a few miles outside of Castleford and in the shadow of Ferrybridge power station, its the remains of an old Yorkshire coalfield. Big old slag heaps, although now now largely covered with vegetation, loom large wherever you look and the various water bodies (the result of subsidence of former coal-mine workings) have a distinctly gritty, industrial feel. The RSPB though have done a smashing job here though and with a breeding Avocets and regular rarities seen here, its one of the top reserves in the North of  England.

How's this for an industrial looking bird hide!
My lens, with a fixed aperture of 5.6, is not a great performer in poor light so just as well that Fairburn is one of those photography friendly reserves with plenty of hides and those screens with holes just big enough to poke a long lens through!

No Avocets this time of year of course but plenty of Goosanders around (I reckoned on about 30) and here's a pleasing shot of 3 males.

Lots of Grey Herons about too, always good to capture ...... they stalk around in the reeds


hang around in trees .....


...... and have been known to catch the odd fish!

 Cormorants on the other hand are maybe not the most photogenic of creatures and I know the anglers around here and elsewhere hate them because they take fish by the bucket load. Fair do's I say and just as Peregrine Falcons have I'm sure learnt that the Weekends are great for hunting racing pigeons, maybe Cormorants seek out gangs of rubber clad men with rods & poles! There were about 10 perched high up on overhead power lines surveying the scene when I was there but this one taking a lunch break made for a better picture!
Around midday the cloud cover intensified rendering anything but close up shots a bit of a lottery. Shame really because after being a tad frustrated by skittish winter thrushes I was coming into to reasonably tame Redwings and Fielfares. I pulled off a few reasonable shots and given the light these haven't turned out too bad but I think a return visit on a bright day is definitely in the offing! The Redwing came out best I think because although I managed to capture the Fieldfare feeding on berries  there was an unseen twig in my near vision that's definitely taken some detail away from the bird's shoulder area .... (argh, why do we look too closely!)

Around the visitor centre at Fairburn there are as many bird feeders as I've seen anywhere. It costs me a tenner a week to keep my garden stocked with various bird seeds and fruit so it must cost the RSPB a small fortune! Money well spent? Yes definitely ... as well as ensuring small birds survive harsh weather snaps, bird feeding stations provide an instant hit for people young and old, capturing their attention and of course their donations!

Great for the odd photo opportunity too, although from a photogenic point of view, any bird captured actually on a feeding station does tend to look a bit 'naff', so I tend to look for 'landing' shots .... where a bird lands immediately before or after feeding. Here's a few examples from 30 minutes or so at one of the feeding stations at Fairburn with not a fat ball or a peanut sack in sight, why if I hadn't already told you these could have taken in some remote arboreal forest!
Long Tailed Tit

Tree Sparrow

Reed Bunting

Looking at that last picture reminded me of the many Reed Buntings I saw over wintering France (many more than you get here ..... flocks into the hundreds!). No different race than you get here as far as I'm aware but here's a couple of Frenchies .... better light!! 

Lastly here's a pretty smart looking Black Headed Gull, not anywhere near the feeders but I have them occasionally in my garden picking up the scraps that all the other birds tend to leave ... pizza crusts usually! I have to say that I tend to have a bit of blind spot about gulls generally but having seen many fine pictures of gulls of all descriptions on various blogs recently (most of them better than this one!), I'm determined to give them more of a look. I'm not convinced they make pleasing subjects for the camera but my word there seem to be more rare / unusual gulls being seen these days ..... Caspian Gull? Never heard of them before this year!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Northern swan hunting in the floods of the Derwent Valley


A fine day yesterday and a perfect opportunity to procrastinate yet again over my Xmas shopping and pop out for a couple of hours to the Derwent Valley in search of Northern swans. I'd heard there were a few Berwick's Swans in the area, these days the scarcer of the 2 species that arrive in our country from the near Arctic circle.

I decided to head out from the Bubwith bridge end along the narrow strip of river bank still above the flood water simply because it looked so inviting .... almost surreal walking out there with the light  being so good.
With so much flood water about though the wildfowl in the valley are spread far and wide so I knew it would be a stroke of luck to get what I was after, a nice close 'fly past' of Berwick's Swans ..... and as far as that particular species was concerned I was not in luck. In fact this was more of a pleasant walk than a serious birding trip. Wigeon and Teal were the most numerous ducks with maybe 200 or so of each visible and there were 20 or so Pochard about but everything very distant. I did have 6 Redshank nr the bridge plus a flock of about 50 Golden Plover in the sky. A passing Buzzard looked good in the sunlight and the Barn Owl was once again daytime hunting near the Geoffrey Smith hide.
There were several small groups of distant swans about but too far off to identify without my scope but I did have one Whooper Swan that slid off the bank about 100 yds away. It moved away fairly sharpish and a bit far away for a decent shot but my first of the Winter and the highlight of my little trip across the floods.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Otters and Ice at Tophill Low

Have to say that I've been struggling to get out of bed and get out there with the old binocs and camera of late and I'm not sure why to be honest . The weather has been good, the light 'brilliant' and for sure there's been things I've missed! ..... maybe its because I've been indulging a bit too much in late night cricket from India or maybe it's because wherever I choose to go lately I get turned back due to flooded roads .... maybe it's a seasonal thing, I don't know, suffice to say I haven't been at my 'up and at em best of late!

Ok, moan over!

Gull roost at TopHill Low
I took a trip out to TopHill Low nature reserve earlier in the week. Its a place I used to frequent fairly regularly when I was working out of East Yorkshire and having many a fond birding memory of the place I decided to pay a long overdue visit.

It's a bit of an odd reserve in that it's owned and I think managed by Yorkshire Water and with 2 huge reservoirs plus associated drinking water extraction plant on site it makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the surrounding wetlands alongside the River Hull. The reservoirs themselves hold many wildfowl and roosting gulls in the Winter, thousands of hirundines and regular tern species in Spring / Summer and when they drain the reservoirs every 5 years or so some spectacular numbers of waders in the Autumn. The surrounding reeds and woodland are complimented by several hides that overlook the half dozen or so well managed lagoons and both the river and surrounding fields are good for birds. Otters have been seen here very recently and even made the local news - Otters flooded out of home (a family party had been seen the day I was there) All in all it's a cracking spot and well worth a visit .... oh yes and one of my twin daughters, Sophie has worked there on and off for the past year or so as a volunteer and therefore contributed to it's marvellous upkeep!

Winter view of one of the Lagoons at Tophill Low (pic courtesy of Ian Traynor)

Drake Pochard

I only had a couple of hours there but managed a few good shots, especially of this drake Pochard as I peered over the reservoir wall. There were upwards of 800 Wigeon plus Tufted Ducks, Gadwall, Mallard and good numbers of Teal (c 400). A flock of about 60 Curlew was a good record and I also had a couple of Redshank. Plenty of Fieldfares and Redwings about busily feasting on the still abundant berries but still not got that 'gripper' of a shot of either - this is the best I could do before my fingers started to freeze up! (Fieldfare 1st pic, Redwing 2nd)

Of course it's much easier to take pictures of the berries that these thrushes were feeding on than of said birds themselves!!

If I'd been at the reserve a bit earlier I might have been lucky and got some pics of the Otters ..... here's some pics from the reserve's blog that I suspect were taken the same day I was there. It must have been some sight to see both adults and cubs slitherin across the ice!


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hurrah! Stonechats are back on Strensall Common

Always good to get a good bird on my local patch and the reappearance of Stonechats on Strensall Common after a barren couple of years was a noteworthy highlight of an otherwise uneventful tramp around in the cold and snow threatening weather this afternoon. Totally ubiquitous on the continent, Stonechats are rather less common as a breeding bird in the UK. There were 3 or 4 breeding pairs on the Common until that very cold winter of 2010 / 11 killed them off entirely so very promising to see them back again and fingers crossed for less severe weather this Winter and a successful season in the Spring.
32 high flying Pink Footed Goose heading South over the the reserve in classic V formation was another the only noteworthy record on a bitterly cold and bleak day out on the Common, not even a single dog walker .... must have been inclement!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

After the Lord Mayor's show at Wheldrake Ings

After my exploits last week over in Lancashire a few hours on one of my local patches at Wheldrake Ings had more than a hint of 'after the lord mayor's show'. On its day Wheldrake can throw up some cracking birds - Hen Harrier, Goshawk, Short Eared Owl and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker have all been seen here at this time of the year in the recent past but last Friday morning nothing much stirred from Bank Island (with water levels so high still this is just about the only place one can view anything of the reserve) but this passing Grey Heron looked quite good through the lens.
Plenty of Winter thrushes about though and have to say I've been trying (and failing) to get some good shots of Fieldfares so this one in flight was a welcome capture - shame the wings are a bit fuzzy but I love the detail on the head and the way his feet are tucked right in!

Maybe I need to be a bit more patient but I'm finding both Fieldfares and Redwings very skittish and its tricky getting something through the lens that fills the frame - being in a hide always helps of course but with all the hides being partially submerged on the reserve this next one, nice in its own way of course, is very typical of my efforts so far!

Redwings are proving even more difficult ... they're not as numerous this year as their bigger cousins plus I'm sure they hide behind twigs in the trees whenever they get within my camera's range!

My challenge for the week ahead is clear!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Leighton Moss and Arnside flying road trip

You can't expect to just drop into one of the premier RSPB reserves in Northern England for a few hours and get lucky .... or can you? Well, although I'd dearly love to be able to build a bit of literary tension and say something like  'no of course not .... unless you're a couple of 'gun ho' birders hell bent on following the sun and the birds', but the reality is of course slightly less colourful, only slightly mind!

By lucky I guess some reportage of a 'twitchable rarity' or a gripper of a view of some local speciality would fit the bill but the truth of it is we (that's myself and Mark P) had a damn fine time without either of those eventualities and still had some magic birding moments .... and that I think bears testimony to the unique charm of birding.

In our window of opportunity we set a course for the Northwest because we knew that it was going to be drab again in Yorkshire but the sun was going to shine in Lancashire .... only one place to head for - Leighton Moss!

A 'murmuration' of Starlings (courtesy of Google Images)
We arrived late afternoon on the 28th Nov and headed straight for the reserve, the sun was already dipping but a walk down towards the public hide provided us with a totally unexpected Cettis Warbler, calling from the reeds, several Water Rails calling and one seen on the path and then a procession of Little Egrets flying overhead as they came into roost (up to 117 have been recorded here at the roost site). Later, as the light faded and we realised that the predictions of -4C were correct,  we bore witness to the regular gathering of thousands of Starlings as they swirled about in the sky before they all settled down into the reeds to roost .... totally awesome sight as they filled the sky above and totally impossible to estimate numbers but these 'murmurations' can top 100,000!

Not a bad start and certainly something to talk about over fish and chips and a pint at  'Ye Olde Fighting Cocks' our hostelry for the night.


Suitably refreshed and much heartened by a good old full English breakfast we headed for Arnside Knott, a local landmark affording excellent views of the Lancashire / Cumbrian coast on one side and some of the high peaks of the Lake District on the other ..... look closely on the first pic and you should be able to make out snow on top of Skiddaw and Helvellyn


As you can probably gather it was a beautiful day, freezing cold but the light was amazing. Good job I had my standby point & shoot camera with me because even though I thought I'd charged it up, somehow, inexplicably the battery pack on my SLR was flat! Real shame because within minutes of finding that out we had one of those magic birding moments. I'd climbed the hill before Mark, found out the battery pack was flat and then double cursed my luck as I came on to 5 Waxwings flying in from across the bay. Having not yet had a Waxwing in the wild moment (as a pose to the more usual suburban sightings) he was understandably a bit disappointed at missing that but moments later 2 Waxwings floated in from somewhere and landed in the top of a tree right in front of us ... to be joined within seconds by a whole group of them (we reckoned about 45). It was an awesome sight. I've seen plenty of these birds over the past few weeks but get such views in such a location and in perfect light made this my best Waxwing experience to date ...... just think how these pics might have turned out with the SLR and big lens!

Sod's law strikes again on the camera front but nothing can take away the memory of these beauties. We watched them for 30 minutes or so taking yew berries from a nearby bush and flying back up into this tree and then we moved reluctantly on.

In the same location we also had Nuthatch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Fieldfare and Redwing

On then to Leighton Moss again but ah the daylight hours are scant at this time of the year and by the time I'd recharged my camera at the visitor centre it was already 2.00pm and the shadows were lengthening! Again we had the briefest glimpses of Bearded Tit and Water Rail, and at least 2 Marsh Harriers but nothing to really focus on except some reasonably close ducks from one of the hides ..... nice to get a good shot of a male Shoveler (pic left) and both male and female Goldeneye ( below)

A little earlier and taking every opportunity to use my freshly energised camera I captured one of the many tamish Robins along the footpath that some locals feed meal worms to .... this one was particularly confiding. He looks hopeful doesn't he? Well we had no meal worms in our pockets but my word he looks well fed to me!

Before long we were into another spectacular evening display of Starlings coming into roost, better than the night before because they were 'whooshing' right over our heads and at dusk probably one of many Sparrowhawks in the vicinity swooped menacingly over the reeds looking for a stray one ... my guess is that the 'Spars' don't go hungry around here!

Species list for the trip (total 79)
  • Common Pheasant
  • Red Legged Partridge
  • Red Grouse (en route)
  • Greylag Goose
  • Pink Footed Goose
  • Canada Goose
  • Mallard
  • Northern Shoveller
  • Common Teal
  • Goldeneye
  • Gadwall
  • Eurasian Wigeon
  • Tufted Duck
  • Red Breasted Merganser
  • Shelduck
  • Little Grebe
  • Grey Heron
  • Little Egret
  • Cormorant
  • Common Kestrel
  • Red Kite (en route)
  • Eurasian Sparrowhawk
  • Eurasian Buzzard
  • Marsh Harier
  • Water Rail
  • Common Moorhen
  • Common Coot
  • Eurasian Oystercatcher
  • Northern Lapwing
  • Common Redshank
  • Dunlin
  • Turnstone
  • Eurasian Curlew
  • Common Snipe
  • Common Gull
  • Herring Gull
  • Black Headed Gull
  • Great Black Backed Gull
  • Lesser Black Backed Gull
  • Feral Pigeon
  • Wood Pigeon
  • Eurasian Collared Dove
  • Common Kingfisher
  • Great Spotted Woodpecker
  • Eurasian Jay
  • Carrion Crow
  • Rook
  • Eurasian Jackdaw
  • Common Magpie
  • Bohemian Waxwing
  • Great Tit
  • Blue Tit
  • Willow Tit
  • Long Tailed Tit
  • Bearded Tit
  • Eurasian Skylark
  • Cetti's Warbler
  • Eurasian Starling
  • Eurasian Blackbird
  • Fieldfare
  • Redwing
  • Song Thrush
  • Mistle Thrush
  • Eurasian Robin
  • Meadow Pipit
  • Pied Wagtail
  • Goldcrest
  • Winter Wren
  • Eurasian Treecreeper
  • Eurasian Nuthatch
  • Great Spotted Woodpecker
  • Dunnock
  • House Sparrow
  • Greenfinch
  • Chaffinch
  • Golfinch
  • Linnet
  • Common Redpoll
  • Eurasian Bullfinch

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Spring is only 124 days away!

Oh how I wish I was somewhere where the rain don't bucket down and the wind blows cold air in my face!

Instead of local patch pics like this at Moorlands (a YWT reserve just outside York)

.................... I'd rather be gazing at something like this - a newly arrived Barn Swallow (Poiteau Charente, France)

........ and later, when we get home

Ah but one must grit and bear the cold and the wet, the wind and the grey to fully appreciate the glory of Spring, and by my calculations the beginning of Spring in the UK is only 124 days away .... doesn't feel like a long time to me and although I'm enthusiastic of course about the photographic opportunities of a winter in Yorkshire, I'd far sooner be warm, walking without wellies and gloves, and snapping up summer migrants!

Remember butterflies? 124 days to go before we can see them again so here's a couple from last year to be going on with ...... a Brimstone and a glorious Swallowtail.

I know that wasn't a very topical post but with grey skies and only 6 hours of good daylight at the moment we all need a gentle reminder of what's around the corner (especially S.A.D sufferers .... so this post is for you guys!)
Off to Leighton Moss tomorrow with my birding mate, staying over there for a couple of days so hopefully we'll have some decent birds and I'll get lucky with the camera ..... might even get a Bittern to make up for the one I dipped out on last week!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

'I hung my head' cover

I seem to have been thwarted by the weather over the past few days ....its either foggy, raining or both and when the sun eventually decided to shine this afternoon I find my route blocked in several directions by flood water! I can't remember a time when so much rain has fallen over the UK over such a sustained period of time.
With that most convenient 'should have' thought processes - hindsight, maybe I should have struck out on foot but I didn't get up till midday after being absorbed with the test match cricket from India from 4.00 this morning (yes I know, I'm bonkers!), so it had to be the car .... total wash out!
Not to worry, I plan to have 2 solid days birding next week with my pal Mark and with some strongish onshore winds brewing it could be good on the coast.
Meanwhile, I reminded myself that this is not just a birding blog and with no records to write up this afternoon I picked up my guitar and did a one take video of one of my favourite Johnny Cash songs 'I Hung My Head' ..... all a bit raw but with all the rigmarole involved with setting up sound, microphone etc in my front room I couldn't be bothered to record it again so here it is, hope you enjoy .... I don't think I've murdered it!
U tube Link here if the vid doesn't work - I hung my head vid

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Nice Barn Owl makes up for Bittern no show!

My best mate rang me this morning at 07.15, thought he might have had a gripper but no he'd just got a random text I'd sent him the previous evening! I wasn't grumpy .... it got me up and so I should have been because my plan the previous evening was to get out to North Duffield, part of the Derwent Valley reserve and see if I could get the Bittern that has been seen there regularly for the past week or so.
Spent about 2 hours in the Geoffrey Smith hide along with several other early rising birders but alas no sign of said bird. As far as I can gather it was last seen on the 19th and we've had some 'weather' since then so maybe its wandered off to 'reed' pastures new. One of my blogging friends Andy Walker was a bit quicker off the mark ans has some good pics on his site of the bird here - A.W. Birder
Good selection of wildfowl there this morning with plenty of Shoveler, Mallard, Wigeon, Gadwall, Pintail, Teal and 'Tufties'. A distant female Marsh Harrier over reeds at Aughton was pleasing on the eye and we also had a couple of Sparrowhawks and there were about 180 Golden Plover amongst 400 or so Lapwings. Shame about the Bittern, I've only ever seen 2 in Yorkshire and none around my local patch.
The only other highlight was a daytime hunting Barn Owl along the river bank which at one point came close enough to photograph and probably gave me my best images to date of this bird in flight.