Wednesday 30 January 2019

If we had brains we'd be dangerous

The Safari is pleased/relieved to report that our Purple Sandpiper pics we posted in our challenge the other day did pass the adjudicator's deliberations in that 'hand of man' wasn't discernible in the pic and had we not owned up Monika wouldn't have known. So far there gave been two calamities for other challengers, one lass couldn't submit her Snowy Owl up in the Skagit Valley as it was sat on a fence and 'didn't budge all the time she was there' and Monika herself missed out on a Northern Shrike, another seen on a fence only bird. In fact the challenge is becoming quite challenging trying to make sure there's no 'hand of man' in the photos.
We also forgot to post our Black Tailed Godwit in the fog pic for number 57 but it's OK as at the end of last week we were able to get better pics in half decent light at 'The place we do not mention by name' on the Southside when we had a safari out there with CR and met up with JG for a day's birding and chat.
The previous day had seen us back on the North Blackpool Pond Trail doing a bit of volunteering - bit being the operative word!.
The project was to clear some fallen Willow which was beginning to encroach on the edge of the path. So armed with a pair of loppers and a bowsaw we set to on one of the smaller branches. Once we'd cleared a way in through the outer twiggery with the loppers we spotted a few blobs of what looked like little bots of Orange peel on a couple of the stouter branches. Closer inspection showed it to be - we think - Yellow Brain fungus.
The white bits aren't icing sugar but the remnants of the early morning frost which the sun hadn't reached deep in the gloom of the overhanging branches
Now us volunteers were able to make big in-roads in to the branches of the Willow trees but our saws weren't big enough to tackle the larger trunks so out came the chainsaw. And that was our cue to go for a little wander as Monty doesn't like being in close proximity to the noise of power tools, and who can blame him.
The main lake was still mostly frozen, in the shelter of the overhanging trees around one of the island there were 10 Teal and three Shovelers sheltering but sat right out on the ice was this Heron.
Once we heard the chainsaw stop we returned to the work-party and get stuck in trimming up some of the branches we'd cut earlier ready for them to be dragged off to make a dead hedge and habitat piles deep in the woods. After a while the chainsaw needed to come out again so off we went for another lap of the lake. This time the Heron was found at the very edge of the pond at the viewing area and was sat just behind the fence as it often does - it's almost tame.
Further round we came across a Greenfinch singing high in a treetop. Just out of range for the smaller lens we take when we're volunteering but it's still identifiable so goes on our challenge tally at number 58, we'll try to get a closer, sharper one in due course.
By now everything had been cut up and all the brash needed dragging to the piles in the wood. Not sure if Monty was helping or hindering though but he's always eager to carry a stick.
Lunchtime came around and with it our cores back at Base Camp beckoned so we had to call it a day and leave the remained of the cut brash to the rest of the gang to manhandle.
As we mentioned earlier Friday saw us on safari to - well you know where. JG had found some odd sea-shells on her local stretch of beach and wasn't sure what they might have been so had collected a sample for us to pass on to our marine biologist friends for an ID and some info about them. A good excuse to meet up for a Southside safari.
As ever the new hide - which has been there a few years now - was busy with birds just outside the window and we soon got our replacement photos for the foggy Black Tailed Godwit. If our Warton Bank pic was taken from about 40 yards, here the godwits are less than 40 feet away!
And with a few of them about there was soon some displaying happening

which then developed into a full blown fight, neither bird giving any quarter as they fenced like a couple of swashbuckling musketeers
Perhaps we should have video'd the fight as we promised we were going to do some YouTubing - that idea seems to have fallen by the wayside already. The video would have had the advantage of sound as there was a lot of 'wickering' going on while they were bickering. We chose one of the action shots and this time did remember to add it to our challenge, the previously forgotten number 57.
There was plenty of other birds to point the lens at too. 
In the previous years' challenges we've posted drake Pochards so to get a good view of a beautifully subtly marked female of this ever decreasing species was a bonus. 59.
We've had Ruff from here in past years too, real close ups as they do so this year tried for an in flight pic
Hmmm not brilliant
Hmm, a nicely marked individual but similar to previous years pics and not as close
Hmm not pin-sharp but tht's a good action pose so number 60 it is
After filling our waterfowl boots we moved on to the feeding station at the Kingfisher Hide where there was some nice light. Unfortunately we kept missing the Greenfinches when they perched ever so briefly on the shrubs the feeders hung from so we were unable to get a better challenge pic, this nicely illuminated one isn't allowed.
The Tree Sparrows were much more accommodating, once they'd decided to show up, 61.
Behind the hide, above the path, there are a couple of Tawny Owls - if you can find them! After about five minutes hard searching we did spot one lurking high in an Ivy covered Silver Birch tree but no matter where we stood we couldn't see its face. Still counts though, number 62. Believe it or not it was the talons gripping the branch that we spotted first  to give it away!
From the Ron Barker Hide there were few birds and they were mostly quite a long way off. We had a quick cold look at the Teal to see if the sometimes seen Green Winged Teal, was about - as far as we could tell it wasn't and we soon closed the window to keep the icy wind out. News was that the formerly regular Kingfisher was now the very occasional Kingfisher in the dyke in front of us so we made do with a pic of the reserve's bull stood right on the far side of its field  but there were no Barn Owls flying around between us and him, apparently there had been earlier in the morning.
We didn't stay long in the hide and replaced our steps back to the Tawny Owl, good job we did as this time we did find, just about, a gap through the leaves almost big enough to show most of its face. 
Time to spend sometime on the other side of the reserve. The old Swan Link Hide has better light than its new counterpart, the Lapwings in particular were looking rather dapper. 63.
There's not so many Whooper Swans around this year, still plenty like over 1000 but news on the street is there are still plenty unmigrated (is that a word?) in Iceland.
Close-up portraits are available too, not often you can get this close to this normally shy and wary species. 64.
Another shy and wary species as also coming so close that it would only just about fit in the frame, a Jackdaw, 65, was working its way back and forth along the water's edge. We don't know what it was as in all the time we were watching it it didn't pick anything up, it was definitely looking for something in particular.
The second feeding station was lively mostly with Goldfinches and Chaffinches but no sign of the hoped for Brambling that everyone was on the look out for.
Goldfinch, 66
A male Chaffinch perched up nicely giving us a much better pic to replace the rather grotty one of a female at Base Camp we'd already posted at number 55 but once downloaded it is instantly apparent that it's ringed so a no-no for our challenge....dohhhh the ' no hand of man' rule strikes again
So we had to make do with a nice little group of male Chaffinches instead, maybe one for replacing later but we quite like it so maybe not.
A busy little party of  Long Tailed Tits came in too, very lively and hard to get a clear shot of as they worked their way through the foliage to the feeders. We only managed to get one decentish pic to post at number 67.
We would have preferred this one - if only our shutter speed had been set a bit faster and the bird stayed within the depth of field instead of coming slightly towards us - jeez some folk are never happy!
Butties were munched while we were enjoying the activity around the feeders, a lively feeding station is always a joy to sit quietly and watch just taking in the action. Once lunch was over we moved on again having a look at another Tawny Owl location just inside the ornamental grounds without success and stopping only briefly at the Harrier Hide where the light was poor and there was little on view save for a few Gadwall and Teal anyway. Next up was the United Utilities Hide where reports suggested the Kingfisher was most likely to be seen these days. We had to use the upstairs viewing area as the hedge has grown so much it now obscures much of  the view from the lower deck and will do so more come spring and new leaves - which we saw only a few feet away on a Hawthorn bush along the path to the tide - already! A bit of hedge laying is required between now and then we think.
from the top deck there's a good view of the grazing marshes and main mere but everything was a bit distant, the only thing to come almost close was a fly-by Cormorant, 68.
One of the further fields held a flock of Grey Lag Geese which we began to peruse to see if there were any tardy Pink Footed Geese with them, almost all of those leave the reserve during the day only retuerning  to roost for the night but there's often a few that have been injured by the wildfowlers and less able or even unable to fly kicking about. It was while checking through the Grey Lags that we saw some movement on our side of the ditch in front  of the flock, a couple of Brown Hares, very nice to see as we always seem to rue thhe fact we never see any large mammals appart from the herd of (conservation grazing) Longhorn Cattle here, not that Brown Hares are large but a Roe Deer or even a Red Deer or the occassional Wild Boar wouldn't go amiss on the odd visit. Nearest we've got is a buck Fallow Deer approaching the reserve from the farmland behind the Ron Barker Hide a few years ago.
Gremlin ears lol
After a while the Brown Hares tucked themselves up beside a tussock and went to sleep so we went back to the task of checking the geese until JG pointed out a couple in the corner of the flock to us. 69
By now it was getting near time for the afternoon swan feed spectacle so we made our way back to the Discovery Hide to wait for the Ranger to appear wit ha barrow-load of grain for the eagerly awaiting waterfowl, many of which had already got themselves into prime positions. That is until someone else wants your prime position. We think that's what happen with these Pintails. The male and a duck were sitting together quietly on the bank having a bit of snooze before the food arrived when a second female left the water, walked up the bank and promptly laid into the drake.
his female wander off Stage Right while he was having none of the interruption and fought back
At one stage it looked as if aggression might have turned into hanky-panky
But the duck shifted her position and drove the drake into the water. After the action had settled down we noticed that original duck was still stood a few feet away apparently unconcerned with all the argy-bargy but loking closely at her we saw she was ringed.
There's more there than H0010
So as she moved around a bit we tried to get some more pics to fill in the blanks but could only manage to get a decent pic of the opposite side of the ring and that wasn't conclusive.
After a brief Twitter conversation with WWT's KB it would appear that the first digit must be F and the last could be/probably is 9 making FH00109, a female Pintail ringed at Martin Mere  on 31/10/2018
The Ranger appeared the food went down and the melee began. Shelducks began to fly in from all corners giving us the opportunity to get exactly the same pic fro our challenge as last year possibly from exactly the same seat too! 70 - must try to get something a little different soon!
Down in the scrum we spotted one of the Shelducks was Darvik ringed and doing our best to keep a bead on it in the scrum eventually a gap opened up and we got a clear pic.
No news on this one yet we'll keep you posted...
With daylight drawing to a close we decided to leave a little earlier than normal and try our luck with the local Little Owl not far from the reserve - it wasn't sat on its favourite barn roof today, better luck next time as we headed back to Base Camp.

In other news we've been enjoying a bit of snow, good views of the planets Venus, Jupiter, and very big star Antares and the almost twice the size of our sun Sirius when the skies have been clear and have spotted another Fox (could well have been the same one as the other day in a different place only a short Foxy saunter from where we saw it last time).

Where to next? Sorely tempted by the Blyth's Reed Warbler an hour or so down the road, off that way tomorrow but will be indoors all day. Let's hope the bird survives the up-coming cold weather and we can get down there on a sunny day when it's feeding actively.

In the meantime let us know who's got all the brains, yellow or otherwise, in your outback.

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Our bird photography challenge trundles along nicely

The Safari has been out n about on the look out for more species for our Photo Year List Challenge and we've not done too badly. So far we've had little luck along Chat Alley and out to sea where we walk Monty most mornings, there's always a couple of Pied Wagtails and a few Meadow Pipits kicking about but in the dull conditions and mostly seeing the Pied Wagtails on the pats or sat on the fence we've not been bothered to try to photograph them, not had the camera with us most days due to the dreary grey conditions. A day of sunshine midweek changed that and we did take the camera with us. Bizarrely it wasn't the Pied Wagtails or Meadow Pipits that hit the SD card but a Sparrowhawk that the gulls alerted us to with their raucous alarm calls. It came almost directly overhead flying out to sea. We very seldom see Sparrowhawks along here, in fact we can't remember the last time we did see one - where was it going...and why? Not as good as previous years' PYLC pics but it's on the list at number 51.
Later that morning we met up with GB and went to join the weekly North Blackpool Pond Trail volunteer group - something we should try to do more often. When we arrived we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and after several minutes neck craning saw it fly off round the corner and out of sight.
Our project for the day was to remove a couple of fallen trees and make some habitat piles with the cut brash, unfortunately the chain saw was misbehaving and refused to start to we could only remove some of the thinner upper (now lower) branches. All the while the Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard drumming and seen a few times which broke our concentration on the task in hand. Eventually all in the group were able to watch a pair of woodpeckers chasing each other round the tree-tops above our work place. 52 now on our list.
Some of the gardens backing on to the work site had feeders up and there was as constant procession of Blue and Great Tits around us as well as a few Blackbirds and Collared Doves. The new challenge rules about no birds on feeders, wires, TV aerials etc meant Collared Doves might prove a bit tricky but before too long we found one snoozing in a tree.
A little obscured but at least it's not on a feeder/wire/fence, so number 53 it is.
Our next safari was over to Marton Mere on a very dull day. There was nothing much doing and it was so cold we were inclined to keep our hands in our pockets most of the time anyway. We had a quick look for any Otters from Dragonfly Den hide - none and then a quick look for anything of note from the Fylde Bird Club hide - not a lot so we kept moving. Just beyond the bridge we spotted a Buzzard getting some grief from another bird which we assumed to be a Carrion Crow or  Rook but looking properly we saw it was a falcon and then using the bins discovered it was a Peregrine and there wasn't just one Buzzard as it landed in the bushes at the end of the dyke next to a second. We failed to get a pic of the Peregrine doing its mobbing and it soon lost interest once the Buzzard had landed and we can't add the Buzzard pic to our challenge list as the species are supposed to be identifiable not just a few blurry pixels.
By now the gloomy day was drawing to an even gloomier close but the reserve still had a little more to give. The Barn Owl had come to the doorway of its box. Uncountable for the challenge, due to it being in a box, but great to see all the same. We hoped it would come out and give us a fly around but by the time it was far to dark for pics and time to get back to Base Camp it hadn't.
The following day we were back at Marton Mere a little earlier this time and the weather wasn't quite so gloomy. Despite the gloom it has been rather mild for mid-January but we were still a little surprised to find these Blackthorn flowers out so early in the year.
Walking south along the embankment we heard the bugling sound of Whooper Swans to our left, over the fields quite a long way back were two Whooper Swans also heading south. By the time we got round to the Fylde Bird Club hide two swans were in the fields we'd just past but zooming in on them showed them to be two Mute Swans not the Whooper Swans doubling back and landing.
The hide was busy with birders waiting for the Water Rail to show, it apparently had been pretty good at playing 'dodge the cameras' and when it did show all to briefly we understood why - look no pics! 
Then someone called out that the Barn Owl was sitting out at the door of its box, before we could pan the lens that way it took flight. It did a couple of quick circuits of the island before going off over the rough fields and golf course where it was mostly out of view only giving the briefest of views when it appeared between distant trees.
All was not lost however, as within a few minutes it came our way and began to hunt over the rough ground below the embankment.
Did a few more circuits of the island but always going away when it was nearest.
Eventually it did get a bit nearer
and was flying towards us
Great to see and pleased it's on the challenge list, at number 54.
We left the hide and wandered round that way in the hope of getting closer pics, the car was parked over there too, but before we got there the owl had done a bunk over the golf course and was nowhere to be seen by the time we reached the embankment again. A bit disappointing as it was still reasonably light, light enough for us to get a 'different' shot of the Collared Doves at the cottage, could have done with the blue skies of the previous Collared Dove pic but hey-ho at least it's not 'just a sitting still pic' this time.
We had no luck spotting the local Little Owl - we never do - but almost back at the car we spotted this shy Sparrowhawk lurking in the back of the hedge.
The garden at Base Camp has been very poor for birds this year, there's been so much destruction ie tidying up in neighbouring gardens that there is no longer any connecting habitat corridors between us and any other decent habitat. Add to that the people across the road have had all their dense Privet hedges reduced by more than a half so now the cheerful chirruping of the House Sparrows is no more and the sound of silence in the street is deafening. It doesn't take much to locally lose a species and if the other houses with dense hedges decide to do the same this whole small colony of House Sparrows will be gone forever. It desn't take much to cause the local extinction of a species that's already in critical decline!
It was with some surprise that we saw two female Chaffinches lurking around in our Crab Apple tree weighing up the best way to get on to the feeders. They are only the eighth species to visit the garden so far this year and in a normal week we usually get little flocks of Goldfinches regularly coming to the feeders, this year we've seen just one individual once! We seriously fear a big fat zero on this weekend's Big Garden Bird Count.
Chaffinch becomes number 55 on our challenge list - can't believe Barn Owl beat it on to the list!
We've been keeping our eye on the tides and the weather. Yesterday both came together, a dropping tide in the mid-afternoon and sunshine so it was off to the prom to see if we could get a pic of the wintering Purple Sandpiper. We arrived just as the tide was dropping off the bottom of the wall so had to wait a few minutes before being able to get on to the beach. We did spy the Purple Sandpiper already feeding on the low apron of the old boating pool wall as the tide left it.
This part of the wall was still in shade and we hoped the sandpiper would move round to the sunny side before too long so off we went to get there first and wait. But to get their meant a long wait for the tide to drop much further as there is a deep gully that needed to be crossed. but patience paid off , as did the long walk down the beach across the gully at its shallowest point - still half way up our wellies - and back up the beach. The Purple Sandpiper had indeed moved round to feed in the sunshine.
Now we have a dilemma! The seawall is man-made and man made things aren't allowed in the challenge, see above no wires, feeders, TV aerials etc etc so we can't count it. This bird only ever seems to be found on this part of the seawall and getting a flight shot of it flying over the beach would be nigh on impossible as it just hops off its roosting place on top of the wall as soon as the tide uncovers its feeding areas at the base of the wall so do we put it in our challenge album and ask for an adjucication - can you tell the substrate/background is man-made and if not does that make it 'allowable'??? We've been cheeky and bunged it in at number 56 but might have to do some deleting - we'll have to wait and see what the verdict from others in the challenge is.
This morning early doors we enjoyed good views of Venus and Jupiter, unlike the 'Blood Moon' eclipse which we only caught the tail end of through thick freezing fog and then a Fox crossed our path, oh ny was Monty over-excited or what!!!  We made him sit and watch while it went about its business on its way home from a night's foraging, he could barely contain himself. Once it was safely out of sight in the thicket of the Golden Triangle we let him go and have a sniff where it had been, so eager was he that we were very nearly face-planted in the frosted grass.
With the tide being full at lunchtine and a decent day in prospect we'd arranged to pick up CR, GB and JH and have an hour or so down on the marshes at Warton looking for the Hen Harriers that have been seen regularly and look for anything else that might be flushed off the marsh on the rising tide., particularly any Water Pipits, Jack  Snipe or Water Rails. It was a big tide, 10 metres, but without a wind it was only going to fill all the creeks and not cover much of the inner marsh. As it happened it didn't matter as the marsh was annoyingly cloaked in thick freezing fog, only minutes earlier we'd felt the warmth of bright sunshine on our face through the car windscreen. but as we neared the estuary the fog came in. Visibility when we parked up was no more than 50 - 75 yards and didn't get any better for the hour or more that we were there, in fact it got worse from time to time.
That said we could hear birds calling in the murk, Curlew, Redshank, Teal, Mallard, Pink Footed Geese, and occasionally a Skylark but we didn't see any of them until we reached the far end of the track where there was a small pool with a few Teal on it.
Did it matter that we dipped the Hen Harrier and supporting cast, no not really as had we not gone we wouldn't have seen this once in a lifetime display of fog n frost crystals across the marsh... it was simply serene and beautiful, who can complain at that?
Shame we did n't have thee right lens with us to do the ice crystals justice but to be fair we were expecting bigger and more distant things to point our lens at.
One of those bigger and supposedly more distant things were three Black Tailed Godwits that flew out of the cloud and landed at the edge of the pool with the Teal on it less than 40 metres away.  The visibility was so poor we could barely see them with the naked eye but they hot the challenge list at a very 'different' 57.
Straight out of the camera - 125 feet (40m) away, bit of a crop and minimal sharpen but nowt else
Slightly more tarted up
After an hour or so and conditions not improving we decided to call it a day.

Where to next? More North Blackpool Pond Trail woodcutting and woodpecker watching and a trip to the quacks about some high blood pressure - what kind of life do we have that leads to high blood pressure??????? Better safe than dead though.

In the meantime let us know who's lurking in the murk in your outback - and spare a thoughht for other GB down in Aus who's been eduring temperatures up to 45°C this week - not nice for him or his rescued animals.