Monday, 5 December 2016

A day in Somerset

It's 3.30 in the morning. It's late November and I have several pieces of uni work due in at the end of the week. Temperatures outside are below zero (as is the temperature inside the caravan), and there's not a cloud in the sky. Max Thompson and I hop into his swift BMW and we head off to pick up fellow birders and photographers Jack Burton, Calum Urquhart and Toby Phelps.

So what are we up to at this time in the morning? Well, with an utterly superb forecast and Max's knowledge of the levels, we're heading to Somerset with the prospects of one of the coolest winter bird spectacles to be found in the UK: a mass Starling emergence of over half a million birds! Setting off in the early hours of the morning gives us enough time to arrive at the superb Ham Wall reserve for sunrise, where we hope to cache in on the amazing event. It's not all about the Starlings though - the Somerset levels are teeming with all manner of marshland bird in the winter, with spectacular numbers of wildfowl and waders flocking to the area to spend the harsh months on its extensive marsh and reedbed habitats. 

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Ham Wall RSPB reserve
the superb sunrise we were treated to at Ham Wall


With Friday's deadlines now passed and a period of slight respite ensuing with regards to uni work, I thought I would write a quick blog post on our day, as it was absolutely fantastic! You should definitely take a look at Max's blog from the trip too

So onto the trip: we arrived at Ham Wall at a little past 7am, and as we walked towards the reed beds, a background noise started to become evident, like the background sound of surf at the coast. This was the sound of 500, 000 Starlings waking up. 

As we approached the general area in which they were roosting, we made a decision as to where would be best to view the emergence. Cupping hands to ears to amplify the sound, we settled on a hide overlooking a small lagoon, and sat down to wait. The conditions were fantastic, with a heavy frost and a glowing orange-yellow light on the horizon as dawn awakened.

And then the emergence began...


Beginning with low-level movements of a few hundred birds through the reed beds, suddenly a huge flock would lift up in a great woosh, and a few thousand Starlings wheeled into the sky in a black cloud. The following twenty minutes was pretty spectacular, and hard to describe - Starling emergences aren't like roosts, where flocks gradually arrive, mill around and then pile into the reeds. When they head off for the morning, they simply all lift up in the space of ten minutes and fly around before dispersing in great masses...







It was an awesome sight, and I am currently processing the video footage from our day to give a more impactful impression of the event!

Once the Starlings had dispersed, we ambled back to the car and headed off to our next stop: Westhay Moor reserve. The sun was just rising as we walked back to the car, making for some ethereal scenes with the heavy frost...

Mallards

Jack Burton and the pathway at Ham Wall reserve


Black-headed Gull in the sunrise


A rather nice sunrise

A selection of macro shots...



Somerset Wildlife Trust, Westhay Moor

We were hoping to get some close views of the regular visiting Bearded Tits at Westhay Moor, although unfortunately they didn't materialise in the end. Nevertheless, our day's bird list steadily crept past the 50 and 60 mark as a host of species made themselves apparent: Redwings, Fieldfares and Mistle Thrushes overhead, Marsh Harriers drifting over the reed beds, Cetti's Warblers and Water Rails exploding into song and squealing calls, and a host of wildfowl dabbling around in the lagoons. 


With no sign of the bearded tits in their usual haunt, we headed off for a wander and decided to take a look at the Mire. This area of boggy land looked pretty magical in the early morning light, and it was brilliant when we came across eight Jack Snipe and half a dozen Common Snipe whilst traipsing around. The distant calls of Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers rang out in the clear morning air, with small flocks of Linnets flying overhead. 


a frosty scene on the mire at Westhay Moor


RSPB Greylake


Our next stop was the superb marshes at Greylake, where a thousands and thousands of wildfowl and waders can be found a little later in the winter. We weren't at all disappointed with the diversity and number of birds present, even if it was a little quiet by Somerset standards! An hour in the hide scanning the marshes rewarded us with views of a few thousand Teals, which would periodically rise up in a great cluttered flock as a Marsh Harrier sidled past; hundreds of Wigeons, scores of Snipes, and flocks of Lapwings and Dunlins were amongst the other birds present. We also managed to pick out a couple of Water Pipits, and a distant Peregrine with bulging crop evidence of its recent hunting success!  

female Teal stretching its wing

a small part of one Teal flock


A cream-crown Marsh Harrier sent the Teal into a bit of a frenzy on this occasion!

Teal flock in slow-shutter


Exploring around

After Greylake, we made a few other stops around the levels, with Max showing us a few of his local haunts and great birding spots. It was fantastic to see the hawthorn-lined hedgerows overflowing with winter thrushes in places, the likes of Redwings and Fieldfares feasting on the bright red berries. Out on the levels, Toby picked up on a distant Crane, which was superb to watch through the scope when reminded of the amount of effort behind this species' reintroduction.

The marshes were teeming with Lapwings and more widfowl aggregation including thousands of Wigeon and Teal, with some smart Pintail hiding amongst them. A superb sight was when a Peregrine blasted in and sent a small flock of Teals into the air; it was then joined by THREE Marsh Harriers as they wheeled around in avoidance of the predator's talons. Great White Egrets were another great species to see - a bird that has truly settled in as a permanent resident in the reserves around Somerset.

Some more wintry scenes from the day... 




The roost: back to Ham Wall


As the light began to fade, we headed back to Ham Wall to witness the opposite of our morning's spectacle: Starlings heading to roost. This time we were stood amongst a hundred or so other people who had also come to see this amazing sight.

We headed back to the same viewing area, and waited. Slowly a couple of loose flocks started arriving, before black clouds developed in the distance and then flocks several thousand strong would pass overhead and contort into various shapes as they plunged into the reeds. Flock after flock arrived from every direction: sometimes thousands, sometimes hundreds of birds. Some more distant gatherings performed some murmurations, which I focussed on filming (to be revealed soon).   



We stayed well after sunset, watching as the clouds of starlings settled down for the night and moved around the reeds. The sound was awesome, and the shear volume hard to describe! A single Bittern rose up from one area of reeds and flew past, whilst Grey Herons stalked in the growing shadows...




Heading Home

Our last stop for the day, after a meal at Max's house and a search for night-time insects, was this rather magnificent Oak. I have been looking for a suitable tree to shoot against the night sky for sometime, and Max had promised me that he had the perfect Oak in mind - he didn't disappoint! The superb Oak tree stood atop a gentle hill, beneath a fantastic starry sky and the milky way...perfect for some night-time photography!


So there we are - another fantastic trip to Somerset and a total of 70 species recorded during the trip! Not bad for a winter's day. I hope to try and keep the blog a little more up to date over christmas, although the wok load as restricted time allowances for writing to a minimum over this semester! You can keep in touch with my photography at the following links too...

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Panasonic G80 photography masterclass

A couple of weeks ago I was delighted to be invited on a photography masterclass by Panasonic UK to the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey. I was joined in the event by three other photographers: Jason Alexander (aka, the 'Wildlife Gadget Man', championing the role that technology can play in connecting younger generations with the natural world), travel blogger Heather Cowper and family photographer Hannah Harding.

We were given the smart new Lumix G80 mirrorless camera to experiment with during our morning at the centre, and use subsequent to the day to profile some brilliant advancements from Panasonic's gadgetry. After receiving a background talk and introduction by professional wildlife photographer Phil Gould, we headed off to explore the centre's diverse array of native mammal and bird species in the various enclosures, getting to grips with our new cameras and capturing some #UnmissableMoments in the process.




The new G80 (also referred to as the G85) exhibits some smart features which allow the photographer to get pretty creative with imaging. Some particularly exciting developments for this new model that I was keen to get to grips with are the 4K photo and post-focussing 4K picture functions. I was also looking forward to experimenting with the 4K video capabilities- a feature which has made the previous G8 series cameras a popular model for use in film and moving-image production. I'll go into a bit more detail about the overall technicalities and performance of the camera in a second blog post, having used it for a couple of weeks now.

However, it was brilliant to spend the first photo shoot with this smart camera by capturing images of some charismatic wildlife species such as these cheeky little chaps...



During the morning's session I was able to shoot with a variety of different lenses, although the kit lens (24-60mm) that comes with the camera is a great and versatile lens for capturing a range of subjects at close ranges - I particularly enjoyed getting up close to the red squirrels as they nibbled on their rewards, trying to showcase their inquisitive and rather endearing nature!

We were truly lucky with the weather conditions for the day's masterclass, with barely a breath of wind and beautifully clear skies - ideal for photography! The squirrel enclosure was great fun, although the hyperactive little mammals can be tricky to capture at times, even with the technologies of 4K photo and pos-focussing at your disposal! Here Phil Gould (left), Heather and Jason are pictured alongside an obliging squirrel

Gorse Flowers - even using the standard kit lens, I was impressed at the macro abilities and close-up images that were possible with the G80


A small mushroom that caught my eye - using the post-focus selection feature worked really well for this tiny fungus. After shooting a burst of 4K images, the nifty feature allows you to retrospectively scroll through and select the exact frames which are best focussed for your needs. I am looking forward to having more of a play around with this!


It was lovely to have the opportunity to photograph this particular Red Fox called 'Biscuit', who is impressively at the ripe old age of 15! She is certainly doing well for her age, and I'm sure has brought pleasure to countless thousands of visitors to the centre!
Using a shallow depth of field and utilising the really handy flip-screen on the Lumix allowed me to get nice and low to the ground to try some more impactful portraits of this smart animal

With the leaves draining of the green colour and beginning to drop from deciduous trees, some of the enclosures were gleaming in autumnal colours, and this made for particularly pleasing shots of the fox in a thoroughly seasonal setting! These two images were taken with a 200mm lens on the G80 - I have to say that the new combined image stabilisation system works wonders with handheld photography. Even at longer focal lengths, the image remains very stable and I can see this being superb for filming

Admiring the gorgeous fox 'Biscuit' 

It was brilliant to be introduced to some of the centre's pure Scottish Wildcats - a species which inbreeding with feral cats has reduced to just a handful of individuals in the uplands of Scotland. They are stunning creatures, and with real characters! 
You wouldn't want to get too close to these chaps...except by using a reasonable zoom and remaining at a comfortable distance! Using the 4K photo mode whenever these hissing bouts ensued allowed me to chose the exact shot I was after. It is really straight forward to use the 4K picture mode, and the touch screen makes it super easy to scroll through a burst of shots afterwards and then simply select and save the ones you want to keep

I really liked the cracks in this tree stump, using them to lead your eye into the image - and one of the wildcats obliged at the perfect moment to capture a #UnmissableMoment 

One of the hardest subjects to capture images of, despite being one of my favourites to watch, was the Otter. Their slinky-like style of movement and inquisitive nature is a rather endearing trait, but makes it hard to get perfect images at times! Jason opted for the low-level technique in this situation, which really is made so much easier with the flip-out and rotational screen on the G80. One of the great things about the G8 series, though, is the retention of a viewfinder - I struggle to use live view for photography in a lot of circumstances, having used digital SLRs most of my life!

A great end to the morning was getting up and close to this superb species: the Tawny Owl. Resting against the gnarled trunk of a mature oak, it made for some great images taken with the 200mm lens. It isn't often you get to see such fine details of a bird that is usually a ghostly figure in the night

Besides the wildlife of the centre, I enjoyed experimenting with the camera on a range of other subjects...
backlit oak leaves in the morning sunshine

the silhouetted fruiting bodies of a rosehip


So overall I had a thoroughly enjoyable time at the wildlife institute, and the masterclass was brilliant - it's not too often you get to use a fantastic new Lumix camera on charismatic British mammals in stunning autumn weather! A great combination, especially shared with the company of accompanying photographers and Phil Gould, who was thoroughly helpful in explaining some of the technicalities related to using the G80. 

I have since had a very busy few weeks filled mostly with uni work for exams, assignments and practical write-ups, and so haven't had anywhere near as much time as I would have liked to get to grips with the camera. I am really looking forward to putting the G80 through its paces when I return to Bardsey at christmas - I am hoping to focus on filming the Grey Seals whilst I'm there and making use of the #4Kvideo

Many thanks to Panasonic UK for the opportunity and superb masterclass, and to the staff of the British wildlife institute for allowing us to spend the day at the centre.

- take a closer look at the specs for the new G80 here
- British Wildlife Centre
- Panasonic Lumix UK

Thursday, 10 November 2016

October thrush migration in Falmouth

Although more or less at an end now, the last three weeks has been utterly fantastic for witnessing thrush migration here in Falmouth. After delighting as the first few 'seep' calls heralded the arrival of the autumn's first Redwings back at the beginning of October, the ensuing weeks saw a superb migration take place. The weather conditions have of course played their part, with high pressure sat over the British isles for much of the month, pulling in an air stream from the north-east and giving these Scandinavian wanderers an easier journey.

Visible migration of thrushes and finches reached its climax just over a week ago, with daily counts of Redwings into the thousands, occurring in an intense period of time lasting from just before sunrise to about an hour and a half afterwards. The best places to see the migration for myself was, rather conveniently, right outside my humble abode near Argal Reservoir in Penryn. Stepping out of the caravan at sunrise to the sound of Redwing flocks bombing overhead and the cackling 'yack-yack-yacks' of Fieldfares was fantastic. Witnessing the 'vis-mig' has been great on campus too, where I've joined a few other keen birders like Liam Langley, Calum Urquhart, James Beaumont, Max Thompson and many others to enjoy the spectacle.


I thought I would note down some of the best days of migration that I've seen, and include a few facts and figures from the passage from my recordings. 

As I said before, I saw my first Redwings on 7th October, with the first big day of passage three days later. Here are some of the top days for passage...

- 10th October: 1, 111 Redwings and 24 Song Thrushes noted flying north-east in flocks up to 112 between 0755-0855

- 12th October: 956 Redwings, 29 Song Thrushes and 16 Blackbirds noted heading north-east over campus between 0750-0900

- 19th October: 666 Redwings flew north-east between 0800-0900

- 21st October: 574 Redwings, 19 Song thrushes and 13 Fieldfares heading north over my caravan from 0720-0830 in cold conditions with a light south-westerly breeze

- THE BIG DAY 22nd October: over 10,000 Redwings, 544 Fieldfares, 62 Song Thrushes, 67 Chaffinches, 23 Skylarks, 62 Meadow Pipits and one Mistle Thrush. All flying north-east between 0720-0910, with biggest Redwing flocks over 1000 birds in size, and stretching for over 1km! Conditions: light E breeze (headwind), 80% cloud cover and cold

- 31st October: another big day! 6330 Redwings, 269 Fieldfares, 38 Chaffinches, 47 Skylarks and 8 Song Thrushes heading north-east over the caravan between 0700-0830 

After the final day of October, passage seemed to peter off quite quickly, with just slight movements over the last week. It was pretty incredible at peak intensity though, and hearing their calls during the night was great too! One of the best visible migration spectacles I have seen in the UK, and all just out of my front door!

Redwing

Song Thrush


In praise of visible migration...
Fieldfare flock

Redwing flock

Fieldfares

 Redwings

 Mistle Thrushes