News

Norfolk Autumn 2016.
13th October 2016
Just spent a couple of weeks on the north Norfolk coast, staying in our usual haunt of Thornham. North Norfolk, over the last 5-6 years, in particular Thornham, has changed dramatically. Where the marshes used to be the province of birdwatchers, they are now overwhelmed by people from their second homes. At one time walking along the marsh tracks and beaches you would only encounter birdwatchers, now all you see is people in designer clothes walking designer dogs! Massive house building is taking place in villages like Thornham where typically homes are starting at £600,000. No place for the locals anymore - Thornham is now the domain of the merchant banker and hedge fund manager. With easy access to beautiful beaches and quaint little villages you can see the attraction. However, during the winter villages such as Holme Next The Sea are half empty, which can't be a good thing. These people generally have no interest in nature - it's just a fashionable place to be, hence the new name for Burnham Market - Chelsea on Sea.
With regard to the birding, the first week we were there winds blew from the south west and balmy conditions prevailed. Whilst this was not particularly good for birds it allowed us to have nice long walks on sunny days. The second week, winds blew from the east and birds flooded in: Dusky, Radde's, Greenish, Arctic, Barred, Yellow Browed and Pallas's Warblers were all reported. A Black Browed Albatross meandered up and down the coast from Northumberland to Suffolk and various other birds such as Hoopoe, Lapland Bunting, Richards's Pipit, Red Backed and Great Grey Shrikes were all reported. It seemed a bit like the old days when falls of birds were regular. It was a very nice couple of weeks away and despite the changes Norfolk will always be a special place for us.
A few casually taken images from the trip can be seen in Lastest Images, Norfolk Autumn 2016.
Iolo Williams's new book, 'Wild Places'.
12th October 2016
I was contacted this week by the publishers of this forthcoming book and a number of my images are to be featured in the publication. It's good to again have images featured in a published book, it suggests I'm doing something right!!
Choughs in West Wales.
08th September 2016
In an effort to lift the spirits we decided to have an ad hoc ’Get-Away’ to the west Wales coast yesterday. A bit of sea air and a change of scenery, away from the grey skies of late. We left home at 06.00 and arrived at Martin’s Haven in Pembrokeshire at 08.15, a good journey with light traffic all the way. It was quite misty on the way there but very quickly the sun came up and it turned into a glorious morning. I decided to take a lens just on the off chance of there being some birds around and as we walked along the cliff tops we briefly saw two Rock Pipits but they soon disappeared, about twenty ‘fly-over’ Grey Wagtails, a few Wheatears and around twenty Turnstones flying below us on the sea. There were also a couple of Fulmars and Gannets out on the sea.
There are huge amounts of Jackdaws in this area and also a good number of Ravens but we wanted to see some Choughs. We haven’t seen any Choughs for many years and it was pleasing to hear their characteristic calling as they flew around the cliffs. These quaint birds like areas of short grass where they probe the soft earth with their beaks searching for food. They are reasonably confiding and if you are quiet and patient it is possible to approach them. We saw about five birds flying around early on but they became more wary as the flow of people and dogs increased. However, in a quiet spot we could see two birds feeding in the typically short grass. If you want to see these birds well just wait near some short grass and be patient and it is also essential to be there early to avoid disturbance.
We made our way slowly towards them, they could see us but they were not particularly bothered because we were being quiet. I took a few shots then moved a little closer until I felt we were at the limit of their tolerance. We enjoyed watching them feeding and calling to each other, they really are very nice birds.



Then the inevitable dog walker appeared and they took flight, this is the usual pattern of events, thankfully we had watched them for some time. We enjoyed the rest of the day just strolling around looking at the Seals and their pups and having a nice picnic until we finally called it a day and made the journey back.
A very nice day out.
For more shots; Please see Latest Images Choughs.
Photographing Kingfishers.
09th August 2016
Importantly and without equivocation;
If you see Kingfishers carrying fish in the spring and summer and going back and fore an area of river or pond banking for example, then don’t approach that area because it is an criminal offence to disturb them near their nest site.
More importantly and from a personal point of view think about the sad fact that most Kingfishers do not survive their first year of life. They have an inordinately high mortality rate during this period and this is primarily because of the adult bird’s lack of care and tuition but it is also compounded by their hazardous lifestyle and the environment they exist in.
Having taking both these facts into consideration, to successfully photograph these iconic water birds it is essential to do your homework. You must study their habits and watch what they do and more importantly where they do it. Kingfishers are like most birds, creatures of habit. They are highly territorial so they will always be in ‘their area’, having said that their territories frequently are up to a mile in length on a river! However, they still have their favourite fishing spots and it is essential to identify these areas in order to have any success photographing them.
The first thing to do is to watch them for a few days and when you are sure you are not disturbing them, (if in doubt don’t go there). If possible erect some favourable perches for yourself and more importantly for the birds. The very least you can do is provide them with an extra means of fishing that perhaps nature hasn’t. After erecting these perches retreat to a safe distance and just watch and after a while they will inevitably fly past and if the new perch is inviting they will use it straight away. I read from one person advertising ‘Kingfisher Workshops’ that he had to wait six months for the birds to get used to his perches. What an unadulterated load of codswallop! It should take as little as an hour if you have erected them in a favourable position. He was obviously trying to justify the extortionate prices he was charging.
If your perches are successful then come back in the next couple of days and get undercover early, a hide is essential, and just be patient. If there are people frequenting the area and your perches are indicating that there are Kingfishers there then remove them before you leave. There are some nasty unscrupulous people around and I read recently of two so-called ‘wildlife photographers’ erecting perches right outside a Kingfisher’s nest site causing the adults to abandon the young. This is intolerable and given the two facts mentioned previously it beggars belief how selfish these people are. Go to a Kingfisher workshop if you want ‘that image’, it’s a plastic situation but at least the birds are not disturbed.
One method I use to combat disturbance is to add extensions to existing branches, that way no one knows you have been there. I also have a medium sized garden plant pot that I filled with concrete. In the middle I have made a hole about an inch in diameter. I place this pot strategically in the river and fit various perches into it and before I leave I remove it and hide it away. I put it back at my next session and the birds are perching on it very quickly. I only do this during periods of fish abundance and obviously I leave the extensions there to help the birds all year round.
It is a great feeling when you have birds confidently landing on ‘your perches’ and as long as you are totally ethical in the way you go about it both you and the birds can benefit.





Kingfishers on a rainy day.
02nd August 2016
A look at the weather forecast on Sunday for the coming week made my mind up very quickly. If I wanted to photograph my local Kingfishers it would have to be at first light on Monday morning. Heavy and prolonged rain was predicted from mid-morning and throughout the rest of the day and the rest of the week was also unsettled with further wind and rain.
I made my usual preparations the night before, charged my camera batteries, made some sandwiches and a drink, packed my hide, machete and wellingtons in the boot of my car. I also got my head torch ready, checked its batteries got my birding clothes ready, put them in a spare bedroom set the alarm on my phone, (it seems pedantic but you haven’t got time to mess about at 04.30 in the morning). I was awake prior to the alarm going off, I got up quietly and made some tea and a slice of toast, (even that takes some eating at that time). It was still dark when I left at 05.00 and the early morning was quite still and dry although a little fresher than of late, a sign of things to come no doubt!
I love being up at first light when most people are in bed, it’s so ‘new’ and quite special for me. I left quietly in the car and made my way down empty roads to where I park for access to the River Usk. I had packed a thicker fleece for today just in case I got caught in the predicted rain, it is a bit warm but the weather forecast warranted it. I got into my wellingtons locked the car and hauled my kit, (portable hide, large camera bag, tripod, food and drink), down to the river, phew!!
Walking through the woods in semi darkness and approaching the river I could hear a Blackbird alarm calling, it could obviously hear and see me coming, although I thought I was being very careful. My head torch is really invaluable in these situations it leaves your hands free to move branches to one side etc. As I neared the Kingfisher site I hoped my perches were still intact, that’s why I always carry a machete to cut new ones if necessary. I needn’t have worried because everything was how I’d left it. The perches I have made are above the river and are just extensions of the existing overhanging trees and are therefore not affected by flooding. I knew the river would be very benign anyway because we have had no rain since my last visit. These perches will hopefully be unaffected by the inevitable rise in river levels after the forecasted heavy rain.
It was breaking light and I quickly set my hide up in a previously decided spot, this is another thing I always do beforehand, (more planning). It’s no good trying to find your best position on the day of your shoot, I covered my camera bag with two bin liners to try to keep it dry because it’s too big to fit inside my portable hide. I got into my hide with my tripod and camera and zipped everything closed, I relaxed and just waited. It was now about 05.45 and the light was beginning to build, although I could see there would be cloud all day. However, I wasn’t complaining after my last experience with the sun and heat, (previous blog).

It was now 06.15 and suddenly there was a Kingfisher on one of the perches.



It’s quite remarkable with these birds, sometimes there is no warning, no ‘peeping’ they just appear, that’s why you have to concentrate 100% of the time or you will miss a shot. The light was now steadily increasing with the background a pleasing light early-morning grey.



If I have enough light I like to deliberately under-expose in these situations because it darkens the background even further and highlights the subject.



I managed to take a number of shots as the birds came back and fore to the perches.






It’s really pleasing to see them doing this when you have created the situation, I despair at these so-called photographers that go to these manufactured sites for birds. I saw on the internet this week a site in Norfolk charging between £150 and £250 a day for Kingfisher ‘Tuition’! One site charging £420 for a one to one session to photograph these birds, these people must have too much money. In addition I don’t think they are birders, they have served little or no birding apprenticeship and they are either too lazy or useless to go out and find their own birds. You can always tell them they don’t even carry binoculars. I’m afraid, however, that this is the way it’s going, known as chequebook birding etc. I for one will always do it the old way!!





Rant over; By 08.00 there were a few spots of rain in the air and this steadily increased until it began to rain really heavily. This was a test for my portable hide and apart from a few drips it held up quite well. The birds had also disappeared because the effect of the rain hitting the river was breaking up the surface and preventing clear views of the small fish. I suppose there’s not much point sitting out on a perch getting soaking wet if you can’t see anything. In between one of the now really heavy showers I quickly packed up and left. I will have to wait for river levels to subside before my next session with these lovely birds.
A hot summer's morning on the River Usk.
22nd July 2016
Last week I was walking on the River Usk close to where I live and I was fortunate to see a pair of Kingfishers near a historical nest site for these birds. I immediately backed off from the area not wanting to disturb them during the breeding season. Kingfishers are a Schedule 1 bird and it is an offence to knowingly cause disturbance to them, particularly near a nest site. However, this is not the reason I backed off, it is because I have a genuine regard for these birds and I want to see them proliferate because there is no better sight on a river than the electric blue plumage of a Kingfisher.



I positioned myself about two hundred yards further away and just watched as they hovered and dived into the river, hunting fish for what is usually by now their second brood of the season. I started to wonder what had happened to their first brood because they are driven away after about a week to make room for the next brood. If they hadn’t died, which is a distinct possibility because they have a high mortality rate among young birds, they might be around the area away from the nest site.
I returned the following morning at first light and got under cover and after about an hour I could hear the tell-tale ‘Peep Peep’ of a Kingfisher. I could see two birds landing in some overhanging Willow trees about ten yards away and through my binoculars I could see they were juvenile birds by the white tip to their beaks and their smokey coloured feet.

Male.


Female.




These were obviously two birds from the earlier brood mentioned above, they were fishing and chasing each other around in typical fashion. I always like to photograph Kingfishers so I decided to come back in a few days after the forecasted rain. The river would rise and become coloured after the rain and would take a few days for the level to drop back down again.
Before I left I waded into the river and erected a sharpened tree branch near to the Willows and made it secure with some river stones. I always carry a machete with me to cut and shape fallen branches.
The rain duly arrived with a very dull showery couple of days and I didn’t bother to look at the river because I knew from experience what the level would be like. However, for the following Tuesday the weather forecast was lovely, warm and sunny and river levels would be back down, therefore I decided that would be the day. I was up at 04.00 on a stunningly beautiful morning, to quote H.E.Bates’s Uncle Silas, ‘Not a breath of wind stirring an ear of corn’ and as I made my way to the river the temperature gauge in my car read 18C. An early morning mist lay over the river but that suited me because it meant the birds wouldn’t be fishing and I could set up my hide without them seeing me and I knew it would soon burn off.
I was quickly under cover and very soon the mist did indeed burn off but I was unprepared for what was about to happen later. The birds were about soon after and I watched them hovering in front of the Willows but returning back to land without achieving anything. They then typically chased each other down river and I immediately went to see what they had been doing and I could see a large shoal of Minnows in front of the Willows but just too far into the river for them to fish from a perch. Fishing from a perch is always easier than hovering that is obvious so I decided to give them a hand. I found a fallen willow branch and cut it to shape and attached it to an existing branch, thereby creating an extension that overhung the Minnows, that is why I always carry some tools with me.
I quickly returned to my hide and the birds came back up river about half an hour later landing on my extension without hesitation and beginning to dive with immediate results.



It was very pleasing to see this, the more fish they catch the better their chance of survival.

It had now become a glorious morning and the woods were loud with birdsong. The sun's golden moted rays shone through the resplendent canopy and danced upon the clear rippling Usk. Chiffchaffs and Marsh Tits chased each other and a Green Woodpecker ‘Yaffled’ from the trees. Six juvenile Goosanders flew downstream and Grey and Pied Wagtails probed the gaps between pebbles in search of their breakfast. A loud continuous peeping echoed up river and to my surprise three Common Sandpipers landed right outside my hide and began feeding in the shallows. They were too close to photograph, which was frustrating, but two flew off quite quickly, they looked like a pair, and one stayed and just walked into my focusing range which was ideal.
It fed, preened and then fell asleep on one leg for ten minutes before it too flew away.








I continued to photograph the Kingfishers as they caught Bullheads, Gudgeon and Minnows.



Unfortunately for me the sun had now began to really intensify and I was dressed in a light fleece, long trousers tucked into walking socks, wellingtons and in a small portable hide. Although it is important to cover up near a river if you are going to sit in one place for long periods because you can get some nasty insect bites, it can be uncomfortable. As a result of my circumstances and the now incredibly hot sun I was really suffering and after I got some more kingfisher shots I had to pack in, my drinking water had run out and I was baking. The walk back to the car carrying all my kit was horrendous, it was now 11.00am and blisteringly hot.
When I returned home I couldn’t wait to off-load my kit and get under a very cool shower. I spent the rest of the afternoon watching the Tour De France, with a cooling fan pointing at me. (Cycling being my other passion having been a keen road cyclist for many years I can only gasp at these athlete’s fitness). It was a tough day in that heat and I am going to wait until this warm spell ends before I have another try. The sun was too strong for any decent images but it was great to see these iconic birds on my local river.
A spooky encounter on Allt yr Esgair.
13th July 2016
Near where I live there is a hill named Allt yr Esgair and hidden away deep in the woods surrounding it is an old derelict hunting lodge which has stood there for almost two hundred years, gradually falling to ruins. It is a spooky place on a bright day but on an overcast and gloomy day I find it particularly eerie. I have often felt uneasy when I have been there - as if I’m not totally alone - but I’ve always told myself not to be so silly and just carried on.
However, yesterday morning I intended walking to the hilltop but near to the final ascent I felt myself being inexplicably drawn down into the woods, down the path leading to this old hunting lodge. The day seemed to darken and to become more foreboding as I made my way through the dense summer foliage, the light dimming with every passing step. I kept telling myself that there wouldn’t be any point in taking photographs because of the gloom, and that I should turn back.
Ridiculous as it may seem, I could not resist the force that appeared to inexorably draw me closer and closer to the overgrown copse where the old lodge stood. I arrived at the last junction where I could possibly take another path, a path leading to the open hill and daylight. I hesitated, but no, the attraction remained too strong and demanding, I had to see the old lodge once again.
To my relief when I finally arrived everything seemed normal, why wouldn’t it? I erected my tripod and camera and shot a few images and then slowly but surely, that old intangible feeling of being watched crept over me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I must admit to feeling singularly disinclined to remain there - but this was ridiculous, or was it? were there indeed a pair of eyes from the distant past observing me?
Finally I could stand it no longer and I quickly packed up my kit. As I was leaving I looked back over my shoulder and predictably there was nothing to see. I hurried back through the woods and out once more into the welcome daylight.
However, the final chilling part of this encounter was yet to be revealed because when I processed the images I had taken I was shocked to my very core. In one of the doorways of the old lodge there appeared to be a very unpleasant figure, in fact a dreadful apparition of a woman, just standing there, watching - watching me?





It will be a long time before I venture anywhere near that place again………….
Cuckoo in the rain.
14th June 2016
Spring 2016 has been very good for Cuckoos in the Beacons, I have seen about twenty birds over the last month or so. I always seek out Cuckoos because they are a particular favourite of mine. Many people just don’t see them, they hear them calling but don’t know where to look and sometimes they have seen a Cuckoo but don’t realise it!
Yesterday when I was hidden underneath a Hawthorn tree I could see a Cuckoo sat up in another Hawthorn tree, perched quite prominently and as I watched a few people walked past and just didn’t even react when the bird started calling less than thirty yards from them. I can’t understand what these people come into the countryside for when you don’t even look when one of the most iconic sounds of spring is echoing around you,



I despair at them, you don’t have to be a birdwatcher but come on!!

After a convoy of outdoor pursuits vehicles had roared through and these other people had gone things became quiet again. These so called 'outdoor pursuits’ people really are quite a nuisance, they have no regard for anyone else trying to enjoy the countryside. They just roll up and pile out of their vehicles making noise and disturbance, they have no knowledge of the natural world it’s all about using the countryside for a play-ground. I’m all for getting children into the countryside but I think a primary objective should be to teach them about what lives there and how to identify and appreciate it.
However, I could now see two male Cuckoos and this usually means they will start flying after each other. This they duly did and I could see one bird periodically landing on some bare branches. There was a Hawthorn bush not too far from these bare branches and I thought if I could tuck-in under it I might get a shot. I’m always looking for options to hide, you have to with Cuckoos they are so crafty.
I put my Gore-Tex waterproof lens cover over my kit because it looked showery and I got underneath this Hawthorn. I sat on my ‘Walk-stool’, an invaluable piece of kit, and waited. It began to rain, a light drizzle, these two male birds were interacting again, I could hear their squawking and I then realised that one bird was sitting in the top of the bush I was under about eight feet above me. I kept still and quiet and then he fluttered, as I had hoped, right onto the bare branches he had been on previously.



I shot him in the drizzle and then the other bird came in again and they flew off. Another nice Cuckoo encounter, if only these people realised what they are missing!
Redstart, our smartest spring migrant?
12th June 2016
The Common Redstart is a beautiful bird; that is not open to conjecture. Although the female also has lovely subtle colours and in her own right is very attractive, it is the male that is the show stopper. His plumage is veritably stunning, that orange red tail, his slate blue back and head that black face finished off with a blazing white forehead elevate him right up to the forefront of our smartest spring migrants.
These birds can be shy and are reluctant to show themselves fully, sometimes all we see is a tantalising flash of that red tail as they disappear over a hedge or wall and then frustratingly they vanish. However, when they do show, particularly the male, he is a difficult bird to expose accurately. The main problem for a photographer lies with the Redstart’s face and forehead, if you expose for the black face then the bright white forehead is 'blown' and appears bleached right out and you can see this with most Redstart images. We all suffer with this exposure problem; conversely if you expose for the white forehead then you lose the bird’s eye in his black face. The secret is to strike a happy medium, not easy and you may be constricted by the ambient light anyway, which can limit your choices.
You can try different options, (if you have time), because these birds don’t usually hang around for too long. However, the best method I find is by shooting in RAW format, (which I do anyway). If I deliberately under-expose thereby ‘damping’ down his white forehead although I get a dark image and his eye is lost in his black face, the image when processed and ’lightened-up’ brings his eye back out of his face and there is also not too much ‘blowing’ of his white forehead.
I have been watching a nesting pair, (from a sensible distance), who have young birds and this has given me a chance to see these lovely birds in great detail.
What a smart little bird!!

Cuckoo Nirvana.
10th June 2016
I have previously mentioned in my blog posts that Cuckoos are one of my top five birds and I have always been fascinated by their enigmatic existence. Once April comes around I am always listening for that tell-tale sound, for days there is nothing and then one morning you think you can hear that faint ‘Cuckoo-Cuckoo’ borne on the wind, you listen again and then ‘yes’ there it is your first Cuckoo. For me personally these birds are true heralds of spring and it always uplifts me to hear them. However, for anybody aspiring to photograph these wonderful birds this is when the hard work begins!
Cuckoos are very shy and wary birds, they are also very ‘street wise’ and as a result they are very difficult to approach and subsequently photograph. This does not deter me because I like a challenge and they are such attractive birds, seen up close their plumage is stunningly beautiful. In addition to them being so difficult to approach they are always being harassed by small birds like Meadow Pipits etc.



This constant harassment doesn’t help the spectator or the photographer of which I am both! No other birds like a Cuckoo given its parasitic behaviour and that’s fair enough, would you? They don’t even like each other they are constantly squabbling over mates and territories.
All these factors make the ‘how to photograph Cuckoos equation’ particularly difficult to solve. These birds are at their most frustrating when they are at the top of a tree calling, as if to say ‘you’ve got no chance matey’. However, there is one thing in the photographer’s favour and that is at some time they have to come down, firstly to find food and secondly to pursue their mating and egg laying activities. They are like all birds creatures of habit and have their favourite perches - be it a gate post, a particular bush or a prominent bare branch.



In the Beacons Cuckoos like elevated open areas interspersed with low trees and bushes. This is where planning comes into operation. I always observe a Cuckoo’s habits in detail before attempting to photograph them because anybody just trying to photograph these birds by chance is usually (without a huge slice of luck) going to be disappointed.
There is a secluded area up on the Beacons where historically Cuckoos have spent the spring and summer. I have watched this area for many years, it is a typically open location sparsely populated with Rowan and Hawthorn bushes. However, here there is one advantage – there is one particular place where you can look at eye level to the top of some of these bushes. This is like the holy grail for me, to look across instead of up at a bird like a Cuckoo is everything!
Yesterday morning I made the trek up to this area, I knew there was a Cuckoo there because I had heard it previously. I approached very carefully and I could hear him calling distantly so I got under cover and settled in looking across at the tops of three bushes about fifteen yards away. If ever I needed a Meadow Pipit to start harassing a Cuckoo it was now. The calls started to come nearer getting my hopes up but then they would fade away again, very frustrating. I had been waiting about two hours when I could hear a commotion and a male Cuckoo landed on the top of the furthest Hawthorn bush. I was able to photograph him in very pleasing light amongst the Hawthorn blossom - a great feeling of satisfaction.



The light continued to improve and I was praying for him to perch on the nearer two Hawthorns. More activity ensued and then incredibly he perched right on top of the nearest bush!



I couldn’t believe it, what a bird in wondrous light!! He stayed there for about a minute and I gratefully shot him in various poses then he was off again. I thought that was it, and that was fine, I knew I had many nice images – BUT!! He came back, another three times on different perches in the same bush – creature of habit? I shot him in many different poses until he finally flew off and didn’t return. What an experience with a magical bird!
Please see Latest Images, Cuckoos in the Beacons, Spring 2016
Duelling Cuckoos.
10th June 2016
Situated near to where I live there is an upland area that is a reliable site for one or two Cuckoos every spring. This year again there has been a female bird there but she was quiet for a week until we saw a male bird there yesterday. While we were watching this male bird another male appeared and then all hell broke loose. Cuckoos are quite territorial and there ensued a monumental ‘dog - fight’ between them. When Cuckoos are agitated they can perform some incredible aerial acrobatics and they really can shift. The two of them were ripping through the trees at incredible speed with only a couple of feet between them. Every so often they would perch in a tree to catch their breath.



This didn’t last long because as soon as they recovered one bird would swoop in and knock the other of its perch and battle would recommence. This encounter lasted for about ten minutes before one of the birds had had enough and left, we were left stunned by it all but it was great to see nature at its best for a short while.
They flew at such speed that it was almost impossible to get a shot of them because they would suddenly appear through the trees and before you could react they were gone again. You can’t do anything about it when this happens because it is all over in a second. However, the best way I find to lock onto birds flying fast and low is to, (if you can see them coming), first focus on them manually using the lens focus ring and then you will be in the right area. Hopefully the lens autofocus system will then take over and track them. Use the shutter speed priority mode on your camera and select a speed of at least 1000/sec, higher speeds may be necessary. These two Cuckoos were shot at 1250/sec at f4.



The female bird that was present was the reason for all the males’ aerobatics. However, she just looked on and left them to it and after a while she departed at a more leisurely pace which made it easier for me to photograph her.



This wasn’t much of a photo session but the spectacle was really enthralling!
Crested Tit, punk rocker of the pine forest!
10th May 2016
De Hoge Veluwe nature reserve near Arnhem in the Netherlands is a hugely diverse area.
Walking through this multi habitat reserve is quite an experience with large numbers of Wood Warblers singing and Hawfinches calling from the broad leaf canopy. The forests also contain huge amounts of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs; herds of Wild Boar and Red Deer also roam here. On the grasslands Woodlarks sing from on high, Cuckoos call fom all over and Hobbies relentlessly hunt insects.
A bird which is not uncommon in Europe, relatively speaking, is the Black Woodpecker, never recorded in the UK it would provoke a mega twitch should it ever appear over here!!
After talking to a very friendly park ranger he told us that if we walked a certain forest track near his home we might get a sighting of one of these birds. We readily took up his offer and sure enough we had two great, albeit brief flight views of two birds as they flew back and fore their nest. However, walking in this forest is prohibited because of the wild animals so we had to be content with these views, but I'm not complaining, what a spectacular bird they are.
There is also a large area of drift sand in the reserve and it is quite unusual to see this in the middle of the grasslands.
The pine woods in this fantastic nature reserve are home to large numbers of Crested Tit, a bird only usually found in the north of the UK and principally Scotland. This was our target but they are extremely difficult to pin down. To hear them singing and calling is easy but to photograph them ia another thing. They are so small and are constantly on the move probing everywhere for grubs and insects.
At last after locating a farily static pair of birds I managed to get a reasonable shot of a bird with a grub in its beak.
With that crest you can see why its like a Punk rocker!

Bluethroats in Oostvaardersplassen, Netherlands.
08th May 2016
If there is one bird that I’ve been keen to get some images of for some time it’s the Bluethroat. I have seen many on my travels, some in the UK, Poland and a huge fall of 400 birds in China, with eight sitting in one small bush. Frustratingly, however, I have never been in a position to photograph them.
Bluethroats are such a charismatic little bird, so colourful with their light ochre undertail sides, a large rusty breastband with another smaller breastband above, delicately fringed with black and white and that intense ‘blue throat’. They also have a broad and conspicuous creamy white supercilium’.
There are three races of Bluethroat; white spotted birds which are found in southern and central Europe; red spotted birds found in northern Europe and birds with no spot typically found in eastern Turkey.
In the UK the red and white spotted races are sometimes seen, although very infrequently, with perhaps one or two birds a year and with many years none at all. The Netherlandss has become a hotspot for the white spotted race with a large increase in population over the last twenty years. With this in mind last week we flew from Cardiff to Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, a flight of only 55mins. Picked up a hire car and drove the 60km or so to a little thatched cottage we had booked near Harderwijke.
We chose this area because it is fairly close to the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve, a famous Bluethroat location, in south Flevoland. After picking up some supplies from a local store we unpacked and went for a walk in the local countryside. After showering and having supper, feeling tired we got an early night and were up at first light the next morning full of anticipation. We drove to the reserve in about 40mins and went straight in to the reedbeds where the Bluethroats breed.
In theory you could leave Cardiff, and in under four hours be at Oostvaardersplassen amongst Bluethroats.
Getting there is straightforward, (if you have the confidence to drive in Dutch traffic), more about that in the full trip report!!
Photographing these enigmatic birds, however, at this site is far from straightforward. They exist almost exclusively in the reedbeds where you can hear their song which characteristically starts with a repeated squeak which has been likened to a wheel on a child’s bicycle. This is followed by a series of rapid twittering notes interspersed with sharp whistles and creaky calls, it sounds difficult but once heard it is quite easy to identify.
Walking along we met a Dutch birder and said good morning, we asked him if there were any (Blauwborsten), Bluethroats. He said he had seen one bird only that morning, we thanked him and carried on to the reed beds. After about twenty minutes a bird started singing and flew into the top of a small tree, it was badly silhouetted against the bright sky but nevertheless there were birds there.



We walked the track between the reed beds and although we could hear several birds no further sightings were had. We left disappointed but decided to try again the following day.
The next day we were up early again and at the reed beds, where we saw another, much older Dutch birder who said it was too windy and like other reed bed birds they keep down in these conditions. He also told us the birds like the sun to come up just above the horizon on a calm morning and then they would usually show. His one caveat was that the birds wouldn’t show for long, about an hour, then they usually went quiet. These observations were based on his thirty years birding there. He said the forecast was good for the next morning and wished us luck, we left and went for a walk around. This reserve is pretty amazing with huge amounts of birds and animals, one area was basically a field of Comfrey and Dock which held hundreds of Whitethroats, many Grasshopper Warblers and Blue Headed Wagtails.



A truly lovely spectacle.
The next morning just after first light we were there again and the same bird was singing, silhouetted at the top of its favourite tree. However, as the sun rose higher, up the track we could see birds starting to fly around and we could now finally see the ‘Blauwborsten’. The grizzled old Dutch birder was right, you can’t beat local knowledge!! There was an estimated ten birds flying around the reeds along a hundred yard stretch of track. We just stood still and waited until a bird started to sing from a perch and then slowly walked along and took some photographs. It was an absolutely glorious morning there was no one else around and some of the birds were really confiding, it really was special. Some birds even flew onto the grassy track to feed and were walking towards us completaly unconcerned.



One male bird perched really close to us on an old dead stick amongst the reeds and allowed me to take some lovely images it was a dream finally come true.



It was an hour we will never forget and yes after about an hour they started to go quiet!
Please see Latest Images, Bluethroats, for more photos.
Ring Ouzels back in the Beacons.
05th April 2016
I was up early this morning walking up on the Beacons looking for Ring Ouzels. It is just about prime time now for migrating birds to arrive at their breeding grounds. The morning was quite cold and overcast with a brisk keen wind blowing. I tucked in under a large Hawthorn tree looking for shelter and also to hide myself away from any potential birds. I had been there for about an hour when I could hear that characteristic 'chuck chuck' contact call of a Ring Ouzel. I made myself ready, I had my kit assembled just in case I saw a bird because you don't have much shooting time with Ouzels in this location. Then a beautiful male bird appeared on top of a nearby Hawthorn tree, I reacted immediately and fired off a few shots just as he began to sing, it was special to hear him singing as he looked out over the valley. Ring Ouzels really are iconic mountain birds and it's really good to see them back home!



Spring in the Brecon Beacons.
01st April 2016
What a day it was yesterday! A true spring day in the Beacons.
I was up early and walking at Craig Cerrig Gleisiad looking for Ring Ouzels but although there have been a few isolated reports from around the country there were none there yesterday. However, they will come soon and the lack of birds was compensated by the weather. Later on in the early afternoon I was walking on Mynydd Illtud, an upland area in the middle of the Beacons. The Skylarks are now establishing territories and they are singing their song from on high and then characteristically parachuting back down to earth. I always love to see them doing this and they are an iconic bird of this type of terrain.
The views of the Beacons from Mynydd Illtyd are spectacular and I decided to take a few shots from the highest point looking across at Corn Ddu and Penyfan. A circular polarizing filter helps to mellow the light on these bright spring days and I would recommend anybody taking photographs outdoors, where ever they are, to buy one of these filters. They are quite expensive but are definitely worth the money and can transform your images!

Polarizing filter results


Penyfan and Corn Ddu fron Mynydd Illtud


A three photo stitch at the same location.


I'll keep on trying for the Ring Ouzels, I hope they arrive soon!
A million hits!
18th March 2016
A milestone for this website today as it clocks up a million hits. I’m quite pleased that this obscure little website, with only one person providing the info has achieved this total. Another pleasing fact is that almost half of those hits are by readers of my blog. I try to make the blog interesting, however, it’s not easy because most of the time there really is nothing much to write about. There is an obvious phenomena associated with internet blogs and it is as follows; the banality of what is written in a blog is inversely proportional to the internet hits it receives. I hope this isn’t the case with me, therefore, I am determined never to intentionally put this into practice. I am a firm believer in quality over quantity and this is exemplified I hope when people write to me and tell me they really enjoy my blog.
Also very popular are my equipment review and trip report pages, which I’m pleased to say have been a useful source of information to many, both these pages have been read over five thousand times each.
When I first started I didn’t have a clue on how to construct, and more importantly, maintain a website of this kind. Some may say that I still don’t, but the traffic statistics suggest otherwise! Finally; a huge amount of credit must go to my wife Susan whose flair, insight and encouragement are major contributing factors to this website's popularity.
Long may it continue.
Hawfinch, Spring 2016, Forest of Dean.
16th March 2016
My wife Susan and I dropped into the Forest of Dean today on the off chance of seeing a Hawfinch that had been showing at Crown Lane, Parkend. To be honest it's not a favourite location of ours, it's extremely busy there with traffic and dog walkers. However, it's probably the easiest place in the forest to see these enigmatic birds. It's very difficult to photograph these shy birds unless you have inside information and I don't blame the locals for keeping good sites to themselves, I would do the same!
I have managed to photograph self-found birds there in the past but it's a long journey and a very early start because it takes an hour to get there from the Brecon Beacons. There is also the added problem of possible disturbance when you get there, it’s OK if you live there, you can come back the following morning but an hour’s drive each way and a 05.00 start is tough.
Although we were there just after 06.30, we expected to see cars parked there trying to see the bird. If this had been the case we would have driven straight past and gone for our intended walk in the forest. However, the site was deserted, so we parked up and sat waiting in the car. After about half an hour a male Hawfinch dropped down out of a Yew tree and began feeding in the leaf litter allowing me to take some photographs. We never try and see Hawfinches until mid-March because that’s when they come into full breeding plumage and the male is then a stunning bird. His beak turns from a straw colour in the winter to a leaden grey and he is then, for me, the smartest bird in the forest.
He showed for about thirty seconds and then flew up into the canopy as the noise began to increase from work traffic and people walking dogs. We decided to pack-up and leave and drove into the forest and had a very nice walk in a couple of locations.
Mission accomplished after a necessary very early start, if anyone wants to see these birds at this location, unless you are very lucky it’s got to be an early morning job!

Always wary!


He's heard the shutter even though it's on silent.


That's a really powerful beak!
My final evening with the Barn Owl.
27th February 2016
There was only one thing missing from my encounter with this beautiful Owl and that was just one decent flight image. I have refused all opportunities to photograph her in flight because I didn’t want to spook her by moving the lens and spoil the chance of a perched image. I have literally hundreds of Barn Owl flight photographs, in the main from Norfolk, but decent perched Barn Owl photographs don’t come around too often, especially here in the Beacons. I am now satisfied with the half decent perched shots I have managed and it’s not about getting ‘The Best’ shot, it’s about being close to a very special bird. If you want ‘That’ shot go to a bird of prey centre where they will perch in front of you.

The only trouble with getting images from places such as this and other places where situations have been created for people, eg Kingfisher, Sparrowhawk etc etc is that it’s not really your photograph.
The image is really the person's who created the situation that you pay to use!
That’s why I will never go to any of them - these places are not for me.
Anyway I’ve put the soap box back in the shed for another year.

For the final time, the night before last my wife Susan and I went down to the Owl location, I collected some fallen Ash branches and pushed them into the soft ground, I strung some camo netting across them and we both sat down behind it and waited. About an hour past when we could see the Owl flying around, we both pulled our scarves up over our faces and tucked in. It’s important to cover your face and hands because these birds will detect a white ‘object’ from some distance and they will become suspicious and avoid coming near.
She flew low over the meadow and came closer and closer, Susan kept her binoculars up to her eyes to hide what little white skin was showing above the camo net and I hid behind the camera. For these situations and indeed for all the perched shots, I have used a corded shutter release. This way you don’t have to move your hands much, just hold the bottom of the camera with one hand and control the focussing remotely. For me it’s all about cutting down your movement!
The Owl came right up to where we were hidden and we had some glorious views of her as she hunted in the evening light. Finally she swept over us and just gave a cursory glare as she realised we were there.


She disappeared into the fields and we packed up and left very contented indeed.
It's been a special experience for me and now Susan, to see this stunning bird up close, but now it’s time to leave her to hopefully find a mate and start a new generation, I really hope so.

Day three with the Barn Owl.
24th February 2016
I decided to have one more session trying to photograph the Barn Owl, the weather was set fair and the winds were light. It looked like perfect conditions for her to hunt so I set up in my usual location, tucked away in the hedge. Getting there is a little easier now because the ground isn’t so waterlogged, however, it is still far from ideal with glutinous mud still in a lot of areas.
I had been waiting for around two hours when suddenly like a spectre she appeared on the post beside me. I thought the previous experience was a one off but no here she was again! It’s quite remarkable how she just appears from nowhere, in total silence. We all know that they are silent flyers but to experience it first hand is still amazing. It is very difficult for me to keep totally silent in this situation with a wild bird perched six feet away. I watched her surveying the area before deciding in which direction to fly, then she just took off again in total silence flying spectre-like over the meadows, quartering to and fro in search of prey. It’s such a glorious and inspiring sight to watch these birds flying in the late afternoon sunshine.
She disappeared for some time, no doubt hunting her favourite areas and in the meantime I just waited, feeling quite warm in the winter sunshine. After about an hour a familiar pattern started to unfold, here she was flying towards me. I tucked into the hedge full of anticipation as she approached, I moved my lens to where I hoped she might perch. I know when she is about to perch because she stops looking down and looks ahead and just starts to glide. It illustrates just how light these owls are when they perch on the flimsiest of twigs. Her judgement must be superb because once perched she never has to move to a more comfortable position, she always gets it right first time!
She perched beautifully and I shot here in several poses, she doesn’t stay long if you have thirty seconds you’re lucky. It’s basically a three hour wait for thirty seconds, if you haven’t got that sort of patience then you are not going to get the shot unless you have a huge stroke of luck.
I have always stuck to my mantra over the years, it’s not rocket science;
Do your homework, Get there early, Dress suitably, Be quiet, (Patience)!!

A Classic Encounter with a Barn Owl.
14th February 2016
The Barn Owl is without doubt an iconic British farmland bird. There are not many more rewarding sights for a bird watcher on an evening walk than a Barn Owl sitting out with its beautiful plumage and heart shaped face standing out against the fading light.



These birds inspire me, they epitomise our countryside and having seen one in the above circumstances gives me a sense of satisfaction. Then after this lovely experience to stroll to a country pub and sit outside with a pint of real ale is my perfect end to a day!
This winter there has been a Barn Owl roosting near Llangors Lake in the Brecon Beacons. I have been watching its habits for a week trying to see if I could form some sort of pattern to its behaviour in order to find a way to photograph this beautiful bird. The recent inclement weather has not been kind to this Owl and it has been battered by wind and rain, as I mentioned in my previous blog post. I have seen the Owl struggle with the elements as it tries to find food to survive the winter. The time of day it appears from its ‘Day Roost’ varies greatly and that in itself is a big challenge because one day you could have a four hour wait and another day you are too late and the bird is out and gone. Add to this the bird’s super eyesight and hearing and unpredictable perching regime and you have some idea of the problems involved in obtaining a photograph.
However, after extensive observation and planning I felt I was ready to try and get close up. Because of the horrendous mud in the area I could not carry my normal portable hide to where I wanted to be, so I rigged up a temporary hide made from some old wood from packaging - I never throw wood away. I fixed a foot of Bamboo bean stick to the bottom of each piece of wood so that the hide frame could be pushed into the soft ground. I then covered the wood with Camo netting, this was very lightweight and portable allowing me to get through the mud.
My first attempt at photographing this bird went much better than I expected, I had set my little 3’ cubed frame up in a gap in a hedge near to where I had seen the Owl perching during my previous observations. I had been waiting for three hours and I was getting quite cold when suddenly I spotted the Owl flying in the distance across the meadows, I hadn’t realised that it was already out from roost! This was a bit worrying because it may have seen me setting up my hide and therefore avoid coming near. I nevertheless decided to sit tight and I could now see it making its way across the meadow towards me. The low sun was shining very brightly from the west directly on where I was hoping the Owl would perch. These moments are really adrenalin fuelled and I could feel my heart beating faster. Even after all these years the thought of 'capturing' a beautiful bird such as this is still very exciting.
I had to use an aperture of around f10 to reduce the exposure because of the bright sunlight. It’s ironic that after all the gloom we have been experiencing over the previous months here I was on the one day I didn’t need bright sun!! I always shoot in RAW format, some people won’t do this because of the processing involved and the media space large RAW files take up. However, RAW allows me to deliberately and consistently under-expose by up to one stop. This, in addition to a small aperture is my main tool to combat excessive light. The images look dark on first inspection but all the data is still there, unlike Jpeg images! and they fully recover in Photoshop. Always better to under rather than over expose!! Another invaluable feature I use is the silent shooting mode on the Canon 7Dii camera. This really dampens down the noise from the shutter but it reduces the frames per second down to about four. Hopefully when a bird is perched frames per second won’t matter but shutter noise will. These Owls are hyper aware of any little unfamiliar noise.
Suddenly across the meadow the Owl flew inexorably towards me, quartering to and fro as it came until it was just a matter of yards away. I thought it was going to fly past when suddenly it veered left and perched right where I had hoped.



I very carefully moved the lens to focus on it, praying it wouldn’t fly off - these are very tense moments indeed. The shutter fired and the Owl didn’t react at all - the silent shooting mode was working. I was able to take shot after shot in various poses as the Owl seemed oblivious to me. I now believe the Owl didn’t know I was there. This is the perfect scenario for taking a photograph without disturbing the bird. Then it casually flew off and I didn’t see it again that day. I packed up and left feeling very contented indeed!!
When I got home and viewed the images they were beyond all my expectations - the bright sunlight had actually done me a favour highlighting this wonderful bird to a new level. To say I was pleased is an understatement.
The following two days were blighted with wind and rain again, however, after this bad weather had blown through I decided to try once more because the light was different - more diffused. I trudged through the mud to set up in the same place and I had been waiting for three and a half hours when I could hear what I thought was a Water Rail squeaking - but it was quite loud. What happened next totally threw me. As I slowly looked to my left the Owl was sitting about six feet away on a post - just looking at me. I really thought the game was up, but it just stayed there looking around and I began to believe it hadn’t seen me. This was incredible, to be looking at a wild Barn Owl six feet away was unreal! Then again it just casually flew away to the fields behind me. I waited another hour, at the time still not sure whether or not it had seen me. I turned around to look behind me to see what was going on. To my total surprise the Owl was heading towards me. I thought it would fly over me and hopefully perch nearby - but what happened next was just unbelievable - it landed on the same post again!! I was frozen to the spot, afraid to make a sound. I could see the Owl reflected in my camera screen. It appeared totally unaware of me. The Owl looked around the area and then just flew off to hunt the field in front of me.
I was in shock after this encounter but I had to quickly compose myself because I could now see the Owl flying towards me again. What an experience this was turning out to be! Closer and closer it flew, a feeling of déjà vu swept over me - would the Owl land on the perch? This question was quickly answered as yet again it perched perfectly,



and once again I photographed it in many poses.
These moments should be treasured because they may not happen again in a lifetime. Then after a minute the Owl flew off the perch into the roost and that was the end of another wonderful day. I hardly noticed the mud on my way back, I must have been floating!!
After processing I had another set of lovely images and an experience I will never forget - what a bird!!
For more images please see Latest Images Barn Owl.