Thursday, 21 March 2013

Waxwings again

There have been 1-2 Waxwings again in Thetford by the sports centre, I keep getting brief views of them when I pass there.  They are very high up in some ash trees, and you'd never notice them if you just walked by as they're not perched on the very top of the tree, but 6-10ft down from the crown actively working their way through the branches, eating the ash buds which are a rich source of protein.  It must be nice for them to finally get a new food source since almost all the berries are depleted.

Otter and Dipper again...
 and a Muntjac emerges at dusk.

Fieldfares on the move

I headed out to the Lakes again today to see what was happening - mainly the hope of seeing a Wheatear, or maybe hear a Chiffchaff.  I needn't have got my hopes up, it was abitter cold south easterly again, no migrants and lots of wintering species still.  Best of all was a flock of Fieldfare at the edge of Lake D.  They were dropping down to drink and bathe at the lake edge and then fly up to eye level with me to dry and preen.  As always they were wary birds so I was careful to edge slowly forward without flushing them.  How I cursed not having my 'scope - that would make a real difference to drawing them in this situation.  But I'd travelled on my bike, I was in a rush and didn't want to bring the scope with me.  I did a series of pics, the first above was actually done after the two spreads below.

 Also a few otter sketches for good measure, from the next day...

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Winter returns with a vengeance, 10th March

 It's been so bitter this week, I have scarcely been birding - I did go out on Sunday afternoon (late) for a quick thrash round the Lakes.  Hard to believe it was 14 degrees C last week and now we're back to snow and sub-zero temperatures.  I just took my bins and the A6 Ryman notebook I've just started - didn't bother with a scope, watercolours or a larger pad as I knew I wouldn't want to sit and paint anything, I just needed some fresh air and some exercise.  Surprisingly, I did see a few birds - three Curlews, the Goldeneye was still on the Lakes (Lake D), a Little Egret was roosting on Lake E, and then  a Woodcock flew low over me between the Bob Clarke Lake and lake E.  Finally I heard the shriek of a Barn Owl before glimpsing it through some alder trees in the half-light.

On separate note, it is worth keeping an eye out for this comet, hopefully soon to appear in our skies:

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Spring arrives at the Lakes, 5th March

An amazing spring day today, 14degC!  The warmest day of the year so far, I even saw a male Brimstone butterfly.  Clear hazy blue skies.  Down on the Nunnery Lakes I found a drake Goldeneye which I assumed I was the last person to see.  The other signs of springs here was the return of at least four Curlew, an Oystercatcher (heard only) and also many Lapwing - a total of 70+ flew over from the east, some of which dropped down and landed on Shadwells fields.  There were at least six separate males that were already present and were defending territories, displaying and driving off rivals and Carrion Crows that ventured into their space.  I saw one glance sideways at the sky, I looked up and sure enough there were two Common Buzzards circling very high overhead.
Goldeneye on Lake A

Lapwing and Buzzard

Curlew.  Again all in biro.
I passed the otters today but this time they were much closer to the town centre and being watched by about thirty people, and again photographers running around after them.  I didn't really feel like hanging around, so I left after a couple of minutes.  I have heard that some photographers have been feeding the otters with salmon from Tesco.  This is really not a good idea.  These animals are tame enough as it is.  An otter is never close enough for a photographer it seems.  Is there no concern for their welfare?  Feeding them is going to bring them into conflict with humans: someone might end up being bitten by an otter perhaps, and then pest control officers from the council will be brought in the despatch them.  Or they may end up getting run over by road traffic.  Or they may get attacked by dogs that are off the lead.  They have more than enough natural food to feed on in the river itself.  They already have a bad press too, having raided a couple of private fish ponds in gardens and killed many carp.  That said, the owners of one of the carp ponds apparently came out to enjoy seeing the otters along the river.  I'd say that the biggest coup from having these local tame otters is that they are quite visible to the wider public: there were lots of ordinary people (non-birders) who were stopped in their tracks, mesmerised by the sight of the otters.  I overheard a couple of local lads, one saying he'd never seen an otter before, that he'd seen pictures of them in books, on TV, and once in a zoo, but never in the wild.  With the general public so disconnected from nature these days, the presence of these amazing animals is such a good thing.  Everything must be done to protect them and they need to be treated with the respect they deserve.

Canon Fodder

That's Canon not cannon.  From 8 am until almost 11.30 I managed to get almost continuous views of a couple of otters on the local river.  Apparently they are a mother and a well-grown cub although I'm not sure what evidence this is based on.  I was just on my own when I found them along a favoured stretch and being on a weekday had hopes I might have them to myself as hundreds of people have already been to see them, I thought the fuss would have died down by now.  I've seen them before in other years (see previous postings), and they are quite habituated to people even dog walkers too.  They soon moved  further upstream, so I waited for them to re-appear.  While I was waiting, some alarm-calling gulls alerted me to a Red Kite passing north overhead!  Perhaps a migrant rather than an introduced bird, although it's hard to say.

With no further sign of the otters, I also moved too and soon found them again in a spot where I could see them easily from the bank.  Still no-one around so I got my paints out in preparation for some work on them.  But it wasn't going to happen.  Soon several photographers turned up, with no field skills, running back and forth to their cars to fetch gear and then run to the river.  Otters being otters, they were soon on the move.  I gave up sitting and followed them.  So over the next few hours the otters were relentlessly followed and photographed.  They were certainly aware of being looked at and occasionally swam in to the near bank out of inquisitiveness.  They spent time time running along the far bank, play fighting on a large grassy lawn, and then running and jumping into the river creating huge splashes as well as catching and eating many small fish.  I spent the entire time trying to convey all this action onto the page.  Incredibly hard it proved too, although things did gradually start fall into place after endless intense observation.  I worked in biro, putting lines down as fast as possible, trying to convey movement and parts of the otter from brief moments.  I'm never a fan of intense situations where people are wanting to get very close to their subject, and although the animals didn't seem unduly bothered they were aware of being observed.  Whilst I ended up dithering in order to draw, the others kept tabs on the otters, so I was able to catch to again.  Eventually they swam into a stretch of the river that was private and inaccessible.

local birding again

Just a few sketches from recent days...
From top to bottom: adult winter Lesser Black-backed Gull
a lone Waxwing in Thetford
Otters on the river
and finally the Black-bellied Dipper again including the bizarre sight of it being in the same field of view as a Little Egret - who'd have thought that was possible 20 years ago?!

22nd Feb: Eagle chasing in Norfolk

I did a quick trip to north-east Norfolk with Nick Moran for a couple of hours this afternoon.  The weather was cold with grey skies, a biting north-easterly wind and a few snowflakes.  I was not expecting to see anything: I have chased White-tailed Eagles in the past before and have often been disappointed.  One usually has to put in 6 or 7 hours waiting before any kind of success.  Indeed it took me seven attempts before I saw my very first one.  After several stops and false alarms, we decided to go back to a stretch of road that looked suitable with an all round view.  I decided to scan a field looking west, the direction no-one else was looking in.  Whilst scanning with bins I picked up an odd 'eagle-shaped' lump perhaps over a mile away, that was conveniently positioned in a gap in a distant hedge from just the tiny mound that I was standing on.  I kept on looking - it did look good, but I could not be sure without a telescope.  There were a couple of birders nearby neither of whom had scopes, so I put them on it and told them to stay looking at it whilst I ran back to the car to get my 'scope.  By the time I'd got back there were lots of smiling and happy people as someone with a scope had quickly turned up and confirmed what I was seeing.  All very fortunate really.  After about ten minutes the bird suddenly took off and did a few circles, flying towards us on occasions.  It then landed further south, out of view.  I did get the watercolours out and put a few washes on in the bitter cold; my hands were pretty numb by the time I'd finished.  Not long before dusk the bird flew over one last time flying over a distant wood and then towards Houghton Park to roost.  Other birds seen included a pair of Grey Partridge, a brief flyover Woodcock, a female Hen Harrier and a Barn Owl.  Not a bad collection for such a brief trip!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Lackford, February

A couple of pictures from Lackford Lakes.  Nice views of Goosander.  The Gull is actually an adult Great Black-back, I just didn't get round to darkening the mantle.  Note the massive bill.  Didn't finish the bird's bill, it had an orange smudge and a black smudge on the lower mandible.  All a bit rushed and unfinished though, but you get the idea.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Back down south, 9th February

Whilst driving though the night, we heard news of a Leach's Petrel at Brogborough Lake - another potential Februray tick.  We arrived in the small hours and slept in the car again, outside temperature -1oC.  No sign of the petrel despite a good search although there were some unexpected surprises - four Scaup, a Slavonian Grebe, 31 Goldeneye and two Chinese Water Deer. 
 While we were here I discovered there was a drake Ferruginous Duck at Priory Country Park, which turned out to be right on the route home.  It turned out that this is a long-staying bird (been here all winter), but what a stunner, bright rufous and with brilliant white iris, clearly a male.  Whilst watching it a winter plumage Black-necked Grebe sailed into view, completely unexpected, although it later transpired that has been here a while too.

Scotland, 8th February

After a contrastingly pleasant and smooth crossing back to Aberdeen, we made a return visit to Rattray Head.  I was immediately distracted by a stonking drake Eider sitting just offshore.  Other birds included Long-tailed Duck and Red-throated Diver.

Whilst I was drawing, John had pinned down the long-staying Desert Wheatear.  Even though it was a female, still such a stunning bird, and feeding actively.

Several nearby squalls threatened to drench us, but thankfully we were spared.

I penned down some rushed lines of the wheatear, although I felt I had enough to work into some decent sketches later:

Later we headed off bound for the mountains again, in another bid for Ptarmigan for John's February list.  We were passing through Banchory and I had my shades on against the bright sunshine when I noticed three birds sail down to some shrubbery.  I suggested to John that I thought they were Waxwings, could we go back and have a look.  When we turned round and stopped I could see a nice cotoneaster bush covered in berries but no birds.  As soon as I opened the car door I could hear Waxwings trilling high above me in one of the ancient tall lichen-clad trees overlooking the road!  A breathtaking sight and sound - there were seven of them.  By the time John had parked some had already descended to the bush and were scoffing berries.  Then suddenly John noted one with a colour ring which I noticed too.  This revealed that it had been colour-ringed some 3 months earlier at Bridge of Don on the north side of Aberdeen, and this was its first foray away from there. 
Alas we had to tear ourselves away and onward to Braemar, and then to Glen Shee.  We'd already had a good weather forecast for the day so were pleased to be able to make it up to the pass, the Spittal of Glen Shee.  We had not bargained for huge numbers of skiers present enjoying the winter wonderland - 100-200 cars were parked at the ski lift car parks at the pass.  There was a bitter northerly breeze blowing and the wind chill made it feel a lot colder than it really was.  We managed a small flock of Snow Bunting by the car park, and several Ravens.  We made our way through fairly soft snow on the east side of the road, climbing all the time.  Most of the area was burnt heather which helped you get a grip on the snow.  However I was soon stuggling as my boots were not gripping on some areas of slope.  This was in slightly south-facing areas where the sun had caught in the day time, melted and then re-frozen at night.  Pretty soon I was finding the going rather treacherous, and was regretting not having the presence of mind to bring some spiked 'crampons' with me - bought in Aldi for £2.99, essential winter gear for traversing icy pavements in Thetford!  Soon I was forced to stop walking, so I stayed put on a ridgetop with my scope and tripod and scanned the hillside in the hope of picking out a winter-plumaged Ptarmigan.  Alas I did not see any, and nor did John.  Despite plenty of searching and scanning the best we managed were a few more Red Grouse, Ravens and a distant Peregrine.  Best of all for me were the numerous stunning winter-coated Mountain Hares.  I could have spent days watching these creatures - how amazing they loom against the winter snows.  Many others have been and painted these creatures, I need to have a good go some day, it is a winter trip I need to make at some point in my life.  It's been a good few years since I ventured to Scotland proper, and it was nicve to be back.  Last time I was doing some moorland bird survey work based in Braemar I found a singing male Lapland Bunting on a nearby hilltop.  So, sadly the lack of time prevented any good paintings, and I've a handful of photos with the Canon Ixus compact camera...

Note the solitary figure scanning the hillside.  This could be Tibet but it's isn't.  Good impression of the scale of the landscape

When John returned, we made our way back down the mountain, and the safest way down was to sit and slide down on my backside on icy slopes that were too steep to walk down.  Quite fun, next time I'll have to bring a sledge or skis!

Mainland Shetland, 7th Feb 2013

Somehow I managed not to be seasick on the crossing, I don't know how.  Around midnight I got uo and moved to the middle of the boat which made for a much better night's sleep despite the incessant MTV music videos in the background.  I was so tired though, I slept soundly anyway.  Despite a choppy crossing, I'm still glad I travelled by ferry rather than plane; Lee Gregory recounted later how the aircraft he flew on was struck by lightning last Sunday on its approach to Sumburgh airport!  The strike made two golf ball sized holes in the wing - I sure am glad not to have been on that - give me the ferry and a sick bag every time please!
 The ferry arrived two hours late, at 9am due to the headwinds.  My friend Howard had told me that the forecast was excellent for the day; cold but clear with light winds, and indeed it was - big patches of blue sky welcomed us into Lerwick harbour and it wasn't long before we were on our way.  John had got chatting to an old friend, Cliff Davies who came along too; he was on his own so it worked out for us all.  I did all the driving, amazing after the endless headaches of previous weeks.  It was good to have had a really good sleep too, so I was wide awake now - and I would need to be for the rest of the day, for the Grosbeak was going to play hard to get.

  We arrived at the garden of Saltoo (HU358843) at 10.15am, the last to arrive, to the sight of most birders standing around not looking in any particular direction - never a good sign.  It was certainly an attractive place - the house set in a huge garden with an imitation lighthouse, that sloped away down to a bay with a pier below affording spectacular views.  On the eastern edge it was bordered by a plantation of dense Norway Spruce trees, all quite young as none were much higher than 8ft.  There was also a tiny pocket of more mature spruces, some 20ft high at the north end.  I spent a good hour here carefully and painstakingly slowly inching along the edge of the plantation edge scanning the branches and the ground for the slightest sign of movement that might betray the presence of the grosbeak.  Howard had said that the bird can be incredibly hard to see at times: it can sometimes perch mid-storey and remain motionless making it hard to detect.  Or it can be on the ground.  There were plenty of areas of dead ground too that the bird might be hiding in that it was not possible to check from the perimeter.  Certainly Lee's pronouncement that 'it's definitely not in there, I've been all round and checked' seemed premature.  How could you be so sure?  I'd gone over it with a fine toothcomb, and that still wasn't enough.  Later Lee was saying 'it's not hard, it's an easy bird to see, Jim Lawrence got off the plane, bowled up and saw it straight away!  It's not fair!'
The garden at Saltoo

Presently my mobile phone started ringing; it was John, he'd just had a Waxwing at Housetter just north of Saltoo; then suddenly I could hear a Waxwing trilling too, looked up and there it was!  I got my bins on it and followed it into the distance as it wandered southward.  With time marching on I decided that it'd be best to check the other localities the grosbeak had been noted at - so Housetter was my next port of call.  Again no sign either in the line of spruces behind a grey shed, nor in the younger plantation of the last house.  All very frustrating as it meant I couldn't relax and enjoy all the other good birds there were to see like a pair of Whooper Swans, a flock of 25 Hooded Crows in one field, and numerous Ravens.  If I'd had more time I'd have sat, drawn and painted all these things along with the stunning landscapes too.

Later I went and checked the two plantations at Green Brae (HU350832) and the one at Forsa (HU364846), sadly all to no avail.  I saw a flock of 20 Chaffinch and two Brambling descend upon Forsa - they looked so rare!  I so carefully scanned the trees just willing the grosbeak to appear - it just had to at some point, it couldn't be far away.  It was amazing how I was on my own all the time, no sign of any other birders - were any of them looking I wondered.  While I was at Forsa, former Fair Isle warden Deryck Shaw rolled up in a hire car - I hadn't seen him in over ten years it was good to chat although our minds were really more focussed on searching for the grosbeak.  By 13.30 I was back at Housetter again, adding 30 Twite, a flyover Merlin, Tufted Duck amongst others for the day.

By 2pm things were getting worryingly desperate; I met with John and we decided to expand the search area, taking the decision to drive 4 miles or so to Urafirth, the place where the grosbeak was very first reported back in November 2012, and to check any plantations in between.  So this we did, found one plantation of pines rather than spruces (so perhaps not so desirable to the bird), and then swiftly on to Urafirth.  A good search here showed very little suitable habitat - only a line of shrubby bushes along the back gardens of a line of terraced houses, and just one conifer.  We gave up and headed straight back toward Saltoo in case the bird decided to return there for the evening (as had been rumoured the previous day).  As we passed through Green Brae we met a traffic jam of hire cars and chaos - Deryck Shaw had seen the grosbeak in the tiny plantation on the west side of the road, just 20 minutes earlier!  Aaaarrrghhhh!  I had thoroughly checked this plantation out 2 hours ago - it certainly wasn't there then.  It had just flown in there recently.  Where the hell had it been in the interim period?  Birds are never easy, and the best ones you have to work for.  Deryck had some good record shots, but had to drive to Saltoo in order to alert other birders - he didn't have anyone's number.  When he got back to Green Brae the bird had vanished.  Thankfully a handful of birders hung on at Saltoo, one of whom reckoned he'd seen it, a 'red bird', drop in, but it disappeared from view in the conifers.  It was another 20 minutes before anyone saw the grosbeak.

Then suddenly at 15.34 it showed briefly in the tops of the conifers, and at last after five hours of intense searching I finally saw this mythical bird.  Along with some 20 or so other birders I enjoyed superb views as it nimbly ran along the spruce branches and stopped to feed on the budding tips (the nuclei of the branches, hence the scientific name enucleator).  Quite a large bird, Song Thrush-sized.  I franticly set too with the pencil trying to capture some accurate lines, and then moved to the watercolours - always a hard task when faced with a bird I am unfamiliar with and have not had time to really study.  I was also running out of daylight.  I stayed with it until c. 16.45, so had about an hour of viewing.  Such a beautiful colour - a mid tone of slaty ashy grey with a hint of ultramarine, offsetting the warm bright bronzy colour which Howard said you could make by mixing aureolin with light red.  He was spot on!  There just wasn't enough time to put all the colours down to make a complete painting in the time available.  People just don't understand that.  It also amazes me how apparently top birders, well twitchers, can just revert to idle chat and conversation and make phone calls after they've seen a bird, even when it is still on view, with no regard for anyone else who might be watching it.  Why on earth can't they walk away from the bird and leave others to enjoy watching it still?  Such utterly thoughtless behaviour.

By the time darkness was falling at 16.45-16.50, the temperature was dropping and the still wet background wash had ice crystals forming in it.  You can see the nice crystals making a feathery pattern in the second image below.  And my paintbox was becoming unworkable too, with the paint forming a solid slush in the palette - very frustrating.  I've had this a couple of times before, once in Finland when I tried mixing neat vodka with the mixing water.  It made no difference at -10oC.  I'm glad I didn't have a camera this time - that would have only frustrated me - this was a situation when it was far more important to just watch the bird and drink in the details and watch its behaviour too.  It was interesting that its nostrils were not visible - they will be cloaked by the line of blackish feathering at the base of the upper mandible.  I guess this is an evolutionary adaptation to combatting living in extremely cold temperatures; it would help to warm the air slightly by having it pass through a thin layer of feathering first.  Anyway here's the results:

So, we returned happy and relieved to have connected with this great bird.  Met up with Howard for 15 minutes at the ferry terminal just before our 7pm departure for Aberdeen.