Monday, 20 February 2012

Getting From 'C' to 'D'

Exploring all a city has to offer is one thing but few think outside the box; few think outside of the night clubs or the fast food restaurants. City life has become something that people no longer want to escape. Ease of access for shopping and places for social gatherings have meant people are comfortable within their familiar surroundings and have no need to leave. City living does have its charms; but for me, when it comes down to it, escape is a must.

Travelling south from Carlisle, upstream along the River Caldew, the feeling of escape can be achieved. The destination for today was a quaint little village around 5 miles upstream and the method of travel was a brisk hike. Unlike some river walks, the route from Carlisle to Dalston had the option of walking on either side of the river. After stopping off by a heronry in the tree tops I opted for the eastern side of the river. After the rainfall on the previous day this was boggy and the balancing act of my camera and I became a measured affair. Fortunately this side of the river is walked less often than the western bank, because my delicate waltz between trees in my hiking gear is a spectacle that should be seen by no one. Other than a buzzard and a few common garden birds this side of the river was very quiet (typical of a sunny day as I have found out the hard way many a time).

On approaching Dalston I was listening out for kingfishers as per usual at which point a dipper chirped up. The dipper did not stick around for long, choosing somewhere a little less crowded downstream. Immediately after crossing the river at Dalston it was clear that the western bank’s concrete cycle path was a more popular choice of route along the river. Packed with dog walkers and others who like to like to inadvertently make my life as difficult as possible this concrete cycle way did offer lots of friendly people prepared to leave their moments of solitude for the occasional greeting. Some of these pleasant people even had the time to discuss the wildlife and the weather. One such lady felt like a discussion about dippers and where they may “show well”. Of course her knowledge was accurate and I was able to enjoy watching dippers for a while whilst on the phone to family. Occasionally having to place to phone down just in case a dipper decided to brave coming closer (sorry Mother, I listened to most of what you were saying, honest).

Disappointed by the lack of kingfisher sightings or even calls I trudged back into Carlisle. Spotting a Kestrel as dusk set in. First impressions of this river are fairly positive: great habitats for otters, dippers and potentially owls too. 

After using this time to explore a little I now have a decent idea of where to stop and wait to capture better photographs. Hiking is not the best way to get photographs but the freedom and greenery (limited as it was) was certainly needed. The fortune of such a beautiful day to explore made this an altogether enjoyable exploratory mission.

Thanks for reading

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Norfolk Weekend: Day 2 "Snow way!? Beautiful Day"

False alarm! Yes, day 2 started with a rude awakening from the fire alarm at 3am.

Day 2 then restarted at 7.30am in a much more peaceful manner after a much needed good night’s rest. Thus far the 80 species we had compiled on our list of birds consisted of predominantly river and inland species, therefore this morning we decided to scour the coast.

After a brief look at the coastal marshland outside the hostel we had added a couple more common species to our list including Dunlin and Redshank before moving on towards Holkham Bay. However, en route to Holkham bay Ashley reminded us to keep an eye out for Barn Owls and literally as he said it Cain and I spotted a couple soaring across a snowy field to our right. We stopped the car to watch but they were too distant to get a good photograph. A small buzz of excitement tickled us as a Rough-Legged Buzzard joined the soaring Owls. We have the pleasure of observing them soaring over some grassland which contained some fairly friendly Lapwings and a few Grey Partridge. It was a surreal sight for all five minutes that it lasted before everything was disturbed and dispersed across other fields.

On arrival at Holkham Bay we were greeted by field of Pink Footed Geese and a broken ticket machine. You win some, you lose some... we lost 50 pence. This was not my first visit to Holkham Bay, however my intentions were very different from last time. The stunningly vast beach had been blanketed with a carpet of snow meaning that running around with a bucket and spade in just a t-shirt and swimming trunks was no longer an option. This trip was for the birds and it really paid off as we were treated to a feast of surprises. Enticing arrays of tantalising birds were found within a few hundred meters. It began with the simple species again with yet more Dunlin, Redshanks and a Red Breasted Merganser that was drifting in the waves. Cain spotted our main target of Holkham Bay; a pair of Shore Larks fluttering around the sparse shoots of vegetation in the vast sea of snow. They stuck around almost completely unhindered by our presence. Unfortunately we were not wearing the correct camouflage for the snowy conditions and our attempts to commando crawl towards them were unsuccessful. Thwarted because did not want to risk flushing them.

After watching these for a while we continued and came across a mixed flock that contained a large number of snow bunting. The action picked up for a while as a Hen Harrier flew overhead causing the flock to panic but this settled down as quickly as it began. 

As we went to leave there were a few more surprises waiting in the car park: A Dunnock frolicking by a fence and a Kestrel that swooped into a nearby tree. One Pink Footed Goose, surrounded by what seemed like a few Moorhens for bodyguards, seemed relaxed enough to allow us to photograph it too.

The final port of call for the weekend was RSPB Titchwell Marsh. Upon arrival we were greeted by some extremely friendly Robins and a Woodcock flying over the Car park. An Arctic Redpoll had been spotted around the reception area so Ashley made it his mission to find it and it didn’t disappoint him, eventually appearing amongst the alder trees. Whilst this was happening Cain and I decided to make the most of the photogenic Robin posing for some traditional Christmas card style pictures.

After this we made our way towards the hides. Half way there we spotted a Chinese Water Deer roaming the marshes. For a deer it was fairly tame and surprisingly did not bolt at first sight of us. Luckily I was prepared and managed to sneak a picture before it settled in the sheltered comfort of a shrub.

Steve and I then visited a hide and managed to identify a Ruff amongst the masses of sea birds trying to find the holes in the sheets of ice that had covered areas of the fresh water pool. Ashley and Cain managed to spot a juvenile Med Gull on this pool too. Finally we added the last few birds to our list including a Velvet Scoter and a Water Rail.

The total number of species after this chilly yet successful weekend was a reasonable 116. There were a few surprising species missing from the list including Bittern and Kingfisher however, this was a magical weekend of non-stop birding and stunning landscapes and wildlife.

Thanks for reading

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Norfolk Weekend: Day 1 "That'll Be A Record Shot"

Delve deeper into the wildlife photography world and you will find two extremes of people. There are the people that do it to get the sharpest possible shots that aim to leave any viewer breathless; and then there are the people who use their photographs as “record shots” to help them catalogue the wildlife they have seen before. For their catalogue the collectors do not need the greatest quality pictures, just a picture to show they saw that particular species.

I stand amongst the group that sit on the fence: I strive to take the best possible shots but often circumstances such as low light, poor focus or distance from the subject deny me the perfect picture. Day 1 of the trip to north Norfolk was the day I learnt of the term "record shot" and turned out to be the day I had to utilise the phrase.

Embarking on the long journey from Cumbria at 1am Saturday morning (simply because we are penny pinching students that couldn’t afford the luxury of two nights in Norfolk) with Ashley, Cain and Steve rendered us fairly fatigued before we had even started. This however did not hinder what turned out to be an extremely successful weekend of bird and mammalian photography.

En route to Norfolk we decided to list all the species of bird spotted over the weekend. Occasional updates throughout the weekend were posted on twitter by Cain and me but for those who did not follow the weekend...

As misty morning light flooded through the pine needles in the forests of North Norfolk Day 1 began. Peacefully we waited on the verge of a road hoping to catch a sighting of a Golden Pheasant. Around half an hour and a couple of laps of a small circular route later, we finally found a Golden Pheasant feasting on salt on the freshly gritted road. This beautiful bird is on the brink of extirpation in the UK with around just 100 breeding pairs known to exist. This particular subject became the first to earn my newly discovered excuse of “it’s a record shot”.

After the fantastic start to this long day we started clocking up the bird species to add to the list; catching a lot of the common species on the drive to Buckenham Marshes. On arrival the list stood at 27 however this increased significantly as we spotted a pair of Peregrine Falcons, a large flock of Wigeon, Egyptian geese and a Cetti’s Warbler.

"Three's a crowd"

Whilst there Ashley made use of his scope to make a tricky long distance identification of a Lesser White Fronted Goose amongst a field of White Fronted Geese and other species. This came to the delight of the crowd of other birders with scopes who had gathered around Ashley whilst he surveyed the distant flock. This “record shot” shows the Lesser White Fronted Goose in the center of the picture. Its beak is shorter and white forehead steeper than that of the White Fronted Goose (bottom left of the picture).

By this stage it was getting colder and as temperatures plummeted we set back towards the car, spotting a female Bearded Tit along the way.

The next destination was Wroxham for sustenance. Just outside Wroxham we enquired to a couple that seemed to struggle to agree on anything about a possible place with a good view of Wroxham Broad. Luckily we chose the right advice and came across a large boating lake teeming with waterfowl. It was here Ashley spotted a Ring-Necked duck across the other side of the lake, unfortunately this time it was too far away to spot. Upon leaving Wroxham Broad we had made it to 63 species.

The last port of call for day 1 was Stubb’s Mill: Home to roosting Cranes. Kestrel, Marsh Harrier and Merlin were all added to the list at this stage as we awaited the elegant entrance of the Cranes. A couple landed in the distance and their distinctive calls echoed across the grassy golden fields. Light was fading as two cranes flew close overhead. All of a sudden I forgot the cold and just felt a respect for the cranes as they effortlessly glided in to roost.

Just as dusk was falling and a mixture of exhaustion and the freezing cold weather was getting the better of us we did catch a glimpse of a fox running across the viewing station. It was a nice way to cap off a brilliant first day that saw us find 80 different species of bird.

Day 1 turned out to be a great day for “record shots”. Day 2 was much better for photography... but that is for the next blog post. Coming very soon.

Thanks for Reading