News

Scops Owl, Lesvos
18th May 2015
One of the most common owls on Lesvos is the Scops Owl, this diminutive owl is widespread throughout towns and villages and can be heard uttering its recognizable call every night. These owls tend to roost in Eucalyptus groves and with some effort can be located, usually asleep on a branch, tight up against a tree trunk.
Early one morning at a well-known site, we were looking without much success and were thinking of moving on and trying later, especially as a mechanical digger had just started up nearby. What happened next was most amusing because as the man operating the digger put the machine into reverse gear the warning ‘ Beeper’ started to sound. It is well documented that Scops Owls are renowned for having a call like the ‘Speaking Clock’ on the telephone and they often respond to similar sounds.
Almost immediately an owl started calling in reply to this ‘Beeper’ and what I initially thought would be a hindrance now became a help. Much to my surprise the Scops Owl was in the tree right above us and after a few seconds we could now see it staring at us.



As we drove away I silently thanked the man driving the digger.
What s special little bird they are.
Lesvos, Spring 2015
18th May 2015
I recently spent 2 weeks on the Greek island of Lesvos with my wife Sue. The island lies 5 miles west of the Turkish mainland and as a consequence, in spring attacts migrating birds, sometimes in large numbers. Birders from the UK, Holland and Germany in particular also migrate to Lesvos in the spring to see these birds.
A full trip report will soon be available but in the meantime I have added a few of my own particular highlights of the trip.
Please see subsequent blogs and also an image portfolio will appear in Latest Images shortly.
Lens review.
02nd April 2015
A comparison between the MkI and Mk2 Canon ef600 f4 is usm lenses has been added to the equipment reviews section.
Northern Grey Shrike.
26th March 2015
A northern Grey Shrike suddenly appeared on a local upland common this week, it is an area that is not particularly well watched in winter so it may have been there some time. However, it may have just arrived from another area, one thing is for sure is that it wont be there too much longer. These Shrikes will soon be returning to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia.
I got up early yesterday and was at the location at first light, always best to be there first thing, it gives you a chance to get a shot before any disturbance or perhaps even the bird moving on.
Shrikes are notoriously difficult to approach and even if you can get close they are almost always in an elevated position, silhouetted against the sky. I parked up and just waited for the light to improve and after a few minutes I could see the bird perched, typically high up in a distant tree.
I waited some time for it to start hunting, flying from perch to perch and scanning the ground below, by doing this you can form a pattern of which trees and bushes they prefer. I could see a particular area it was returning to time after time, these observations took at least an hour of just waiting in my car doing nothing. Some people are so impatient, they just head off straight away usually achieving nothing except spooking the bird. Shrikes are masters at disappearing and for a light coloured bird whose time is spent mostly perched up in an open position, they are totally adept at just vanishing. If they are disturbed they have a habit of not flying directly from bush to bush in full view. They always drop down from their perch and fly low along the ground so that they can't be seen and sometimes they don't reappear at all.
After seeing this hunting pattern I got tucked in behind a dense hawthorn tree near to where the bird was coming to perch. I waited for at least an hour, it seemed longer, but at last it started to make its way towards where I was (hopefully!) hidden.
You can gain these birds confidence if you are very quiet and dont make much movement, they will tolerate you up to a point. When it landed about fifty feet away I took a few shots, then moved a few feet closer, took a few more etc. I always work this way because if the bird flies off then at least you have some shots.
The Shrike dropped to the groud and came back up with what looked like a Bumble Bee, which it then pulled apart and ate. It then flew further away and just perched up again, typical behaviour, in all this however, it didn't look bothered by me at all.
I always try to get some sort of solid object behind these perched Shrikes, a tree or even a distant mountain or hill can cut down the silhouetting effect dramatically. After about ten minutes it then perched on a small holly bush which was not against the sky-line, this was perfect and I took some decent shots before it flew off again to hunt.
Some dog walkers then pulled up and I realised that was as close as I was going to get to the bird so I packed up and left.
Please see Latest Images, Northern Grey Shrike.
Hawfinches.
17th March 2015
At last spring is on its way and the first trickle of migrants are arriving in the UK.
Northern Wheatears are very early this year with birds already on upland sites. Some Chiffchaffs have arrived, although its hard to tell if they have overwintered or not and a few Willow Warblers are here, again very early this year. Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are singing, march is their most vocal month, but very hard to pin down, they must be grossly under reported. Later this month hopefrully Ring Ouzels will arrive at their breeding sites in the beacons.
There is one of my favourite birds that spends all year round in the UK and that is the Hawfinch, in winter their numbers are also swelled by migrants coming from the north. There have been a few seen in the Forest of Dean this passing winter and they have been feeding under some yew trees for a few weeks now, nevertheless still very hard to see. I know most of the sites there and I am familiar with their present location, so I went over yesterday to try and locate them. I was on site at first light but the morning was very grey and unsettled with frequent drizzly showers, not the best conditions for photography. However, I set up and stayed in my car with a lens on a beanbag just waiting to see if they would come down to feed in the ground litter. I could hear their distinctive calls and after some time one or two dropped down briefly to feed, as usual they were very wary and shot back up into the yews at the slightest sound.
Their behaviour and the horrible weather was very challenging, but I was able to get a few record shots of these beautiful birds just coming into their breeding plumage. This was also my first shoot with my new kit, so a baptism of fire in some respects.
Please see Latest Images, Hawfinches.
Out with the old, in with the new.
13th March 2015
After much deliberation I have sold my beloved Canon ef600 F4 is lens. It was a superb lens giving top class image quality and performing faultlessly over the four years I used it. The only downside to this lens was its weight, even in a purpose made carrying bag, after a mile or so I really began to struggle. In the end I started to leave it behind because of this. In addition to this it was too heavy to fit into my carry-on luggage on an aeroplane, it had to go into the hold, something I really don’t like doing. Finally I made the decision to sell it on ebay, this is the only realistic option for a lens like this. It was still a hard decision to finally ’ list it ’, and the realization that there was no turning back was a bit unsettling. However, what happened next was even more unsettling - I listed it on ebay at 15.30 and at 19.00 I was being paid cash on my kitchen table. Suddenly for the first time in years I was without a large prime lens…..PANIC!!
I knew what I wanted to replace it with, the Canon ef600 Mkii and even though I had been through this process four years ago I couldn’t prevent myself from entering the 500/600 conundrum once again. Finally I stuck to my guns and bought the 600, I made the right choice then and so I repeated my decision.
In addition to this I bought the new Canon 1.4 Mkiii tele-converter and I then went the ‘whole hog’ and bought a Canon 7D Mkii DSLR.
I must say the new rig looks and feels very impressive and I can’t wait to try them out next week.
I will be writing another comparison between the two 600’s in my equipment review section in the coming weeks.
Brecon Beacons Ring Ouzels.
08th March 2015
I was contacted recently by an author who is writing a book on Ring Ouzels and he has asked if he may use several of my Ring Ouzel images in his publication. It's great to have more images published but more importantly to see these lovely birds, that are in serious decline in their range, getting some exposure.
This year several birds appear to have over-wintered in the UK which is very unusual indeed. Thankfully they have probably made it because of the very mild winter we have experienced. I think back to those stupid tabloid newspapers who were predicting the coldest winter in a hundred years before last Xmas. They really are prepared to print any sensationalistic garbage as long as they sell their odius rags.
However, spring is on its way and the Ouzels will soon be arriving in the Brecon Beacons fresh from their wintering grounds in the Atlas mountains of Morocco. I sincerely hope they can recover their numbers, they are such lovely birds.
Little Bunting.
08th February 2015
News broke on thursday this week of a Little Bunting found at Forest Farm nature reserve on the outskirts of Cardiff. These birds breed in northern Europe and Asia but are an annual visitor to the Uk in the autumn. They have been nicknamed 'The Secret Winterer' because they can go undetected, although quite a bit smaller, they could easily be dismissed as a reed bunting. I have seen many of these birds in China where they were literally hopping around my feet as I stood on the edge of a paddy field. I have also seen a couple in the Uk but not for some years.
I decided to go down to this reserve in Cardiff on saturday morning to meet up with a friend of mine, so we could attempt to photograph this bird. We met at first light before anyone was around and were immediately rewarded with the bird feeding right in front of us. The light was a bit poor first thing but it gradually improved and we were able to take a number of shots before anyone arrived. Gradually the amount of birders built up until the hide was full, but the bird still performed very well for the people who had travelled to see it.
Please see Rare Birds, Little Bunting.
Snowy Brecon Beacons.
05th February 2015
We haven't had much snow locally but the tops of the Beacons have had a dusting. This makes for a good photograph, it's best to have the lower fields green and the tops white, it's a better contrast. There are a few locations to take advantage of this snowy panorama and this is one below.

Wintering Ring Ouzels.
03rd February 2015
Over the past few weeks a number of sightings of Ring Ouzel have been reported. Four in north Wales, one in Gloucester and now one in the Brecon Beacons. I have never seen a Ring Ouzel in the winter in the UK. They are now usually in the Atlas mountains in Morocco, their normal wintering grounds. There is speculation that some spend the winter in the UK but considering the altitude at which they breed, it would be very inhospitable indeed to winter there; Craig Cerrig Gleisiad in the Brecon Beacons for example. I think that the birds that breed there surely all go south before the weather gets really bad. These recently reported birds must have been staying up north and sticking it out until the present bitter north winds have started to blow.
We have a Ring Ouzel which looks to be wintering near Talybont Reservoir and is associating with a group of wintering thrushes. At a distance the bird appeared to be an adult male but after taking some photographs today, albeit poor quality, I now think it is possibly a female. Males are generally sooty black with little or no brown fringing on their crescent, although some may exhibit this feature. Females are more chocolate brown and although appear black at a distance on closer examination are found to be females. They always have brown fringing on their crescents and the chocolate brown always bleeds through on their head and neck.
These images are being looked at currently by experienced ringers who have handled Ring Ouzels in Morocco in winter, it will be interesting to know the ID criteria for future reference.
Well it was quite surprising to me but this bird appears to be a 3rd Cal Male Ring Ouzel.
This is based on photographs I received from the Ring Ouzel study group via our county recorder. I never realised that the males plumage went so brown, especially the crescent. However, you live and learn and it's a good reference for the future.
Please see Latest Images, Wintering Ring Ouzels.
Confiding Crossbills.
28th January 2015
It's been exceptionally quiet locally on the bird front this autumn and early winter. However, the weather is very benign for the time of year and that is a bonus for our wildlife. It was a reasonable day yesterday so we headed over to the Forest of Dean for a few hours just for a change of scenery. There were about fifteen Hawfinches flying around the tree tops for most of the time we were there but they remained, as usual, very shy.
If I lived over there I would find a quiet location away from people walking, where I could lay some seed down for a period of time and get the Hawfinches coming in to feed. Then once the area is established as a feeding zone, just get under cover before dawn one morning and reap your rewards. However, this is not really practical when you have to drive fifty miles each way to do this. I have achieved it once, but I fear it would be more hit than miss, I mean if you are living locally and you get disturbed it's not too bad, but after travelling all that way disturbance is a real pain. I'm afraid that's the way it will have to be, my only hope is if I find somewhere which they frequent on a regular basis for wild food, then I would take a chance for a couple of mornings.

Moving on; outside Parkend church, in the forest, there were a flock of Crossbills collecting grit up on the church roof presumably to aid their digestion, then they were subsequently coming down to drink in some roadside puddles. They were very confiding and allowed observation at quite close quarters, unfortunately the situation was not very photogenic. Nevertheless, it was very nice to see them up so close and I was able to sit on a small stool in between two cars and take a few shots. There was quite a lot of disturbance from cars and people so there was not much opportunity for any decent images.
Please see UK Birds, Crossbills.
Great Northern Diver verses American Signal Crayfish.
04th December 2014
About three years ago someone introduced some American Signal Crayfish into a local reservoir. This reservoir, Llwyn-onn, is one of a chain of three along the Merthyr Tydfil to Brecon A470 road. If this action was deliberate then it was a really malicious thing to do, if this was done through ignorance then it was an unbelievably stupid act. Considering that the demise of the native White Clawed Crayfish by this American species is so well documented, both scenarios are quite unbelievable.
This American species is much larger than our native crayfish and out-competes it for food. The most worrying fact, however, is that it carries the ‘Crayfish Plague’ which is infecting our native crayfish causing death very quickly. They also are a problem for fish because they feed on their eggs as part of their diet. They can also exist in rivers and other waterways thereby spreading the problem.
It has now been established that they are widespread throughout both England and Wales and as a direct consequence of this alien proliferation there are ongoing re-introduction programmes to try and give the native species a foothold.
On the Llwyn-onn reservoir over the last few winters there has been one, and sometimes two great northern divers staying for a few weeks. These birds diet consist typically of pike, perch and other similarly sized fish. However, I was watching one of these birds this week diving quite deeply and then resurfacing with these large crayfish. In the time I was observing it caught at least ten and proceeded to swallow them whole. It was pleasing to see this lovely bird doing its bit to, albeit coincidently, prevent the spread of these crayfish.
Please see UK Birds, Great Northern Diver.
Late autumn scenery and memories in the Beacons.
24th November 2014
It's pretty quiet on the bird front at the moment, so we were out walking today in the mild autumn weather. We still managed, however, to locate a Northern Grey Shrike that looks to be wintering around the Lower Neaudd reservoir area and we also had some good views of a Green Woodpecker that was flying around. There was also a large flock of Chaffinch that contained a single Brambling and a few Redwings were in the same area. A reasonable mixture of birds for this time of year.
Later as we approached Pentwyn reservoir I could see the potential for a half decent landscape shot because the reservoir was like a mill pond and the subsequent reflection was quite clear. These relections don't happen that often because it is quite an exposed area and the wind creates 'rippling' on the water. I stopped the car, jumped out and got my lanscape kit from the boot, I then ran to the best vantage point and took a few shots, you have to be quick because the image can be gone literally in a gust of wind.
I remember many years ago I sold a similar shot to this to a hotel in Merthyr Tydfil, it was blown up to 36" x 24" and hung above their main fire place. Sometime after I learned that someone had stolen it when the owners back was turned, they must have been quick considering the size of it. I suppose it was a compliment of sorts that someone thought it was worth stealing.
This was an area I used to fish as a boy with my mates and standing there on the bridge I was remembering back around forty five years ago, I was just a kid on a push bike trying to catch the odd trout, with one eye kept open for the water bailif who used to patrol these reservoirs in those days. Many times he chased us from there for fishing without a license, great times when I look back. We used to see, what we considered an old man, riding on a small motorbike, he lived with his brother in an old rundown house on the mountainside. He used to go to the local shop in Pantyscallog for provisions on this little bike and he used to wave to us as he passed. They were both really big, about twenty stones, both batchelors who carried on living there after their parents died. This house was above the original Dolygaer outdoor pursuits centre, the first of its kind in the area, now they are everywhere. It was such a remote place to live, with no neighbours for miles, no running water or electricity. Unthinkable in these times, but it was all they knew I suppose.
Their time living there ended in a bad way because someone broke in there and tied them up and robbed them of what little they had, probably in the mistaken belief that they had some valuables. These people don't realise, or care probably, what they are doing. It wasn't just a robbery, those poor old blokes, so inoffensive, no longer felt safe in the house they had lived in all their lives. I often wonder what became of them after that episode, so sad. The house is just a pile of stones now, hardly anybody remembers the people who lived there.

Image below of Pentwyn / Dolygaer reservoir with the Beacons reflected.

Working at home and a few days in Norfolk.
05th November 2014
Sadly I haven't had much birding time over the last two months because of a heavy work schedule at home. I have been fitting new wooden doors internally and plastic doors externally. I have also been fitting plastic internal wall cladding to our porch, it really is marvellous material, it is so easy to keep clean and maintain, and it looks great! I have also fitted some external plastic cladding for protection against the weather, all part of my plan to decrease routine maintenance as I get older and more importantly I can then spend more time out birding.
In addition it's remarkable what you can order online these days, we had a large 2.4 x 1.0 metre window in a lean-to on the back of the cottage, it's been there twenty years since we have lived here and I suspect about ten before that. However it's time had come and it was in need of replacemant. I found a company online that supply windows by courier, if you provide the measurements and style of window they will post it to you. I must admit I was a little dubious about ordering a large window online, but after speaking to the owner of the company I was reassured. I measured up very carefully, several times, and then placed my order. Sure enough about a week later it arrived and it was exactly to my specifications and very good quality, more importantly it was much cheaper than getting somebody to supply and fit one. The total cost of the window, double glazed glass, the window sill and carriage was only £230.00, as opposed to over £500.00 for a supply and fit. There really is nothing to fitting these windows, you just need a sensible plan beforehand, the necessary tools and anyone can do it.
The next fine day I removed the old window, recycled all the materials and fitted the new unit, the followind day I fitted all the trims and mastiked the whole job. it was very satisfying and £300.00 more in my bank account!!
After all this work we decided to have a short break to Norfolk to recharge the batteries, the main birding was over but the weather was nice and we had some lovely early morning walks along secluded beaches and just generally chilled out. Back home the leaves are falling at a pace now and with the first real frosts due this week many more will fall. The hedges are being cut next week and then all the work is done until the spring.
I have started my winter bird feeding programme and this morning three young pheasants were in the garden, always nice to see.
I have also started work on my annual wildlife calender and I am just one image short. I only construct a calender for friends and family, it's too much hassle trying to sell them, I see people trying desperately to sell calenders but the general public wont pay enough for them to make it worthwhile. If you say £15.00 they look in disbelief, they want one for a fiver, considering the quality of the calenders that I get printed, large original images that no one else can possibly have, printed on high density gloss paper, along with the time and effort put in to get these images, I think that price is quite reasonable. There are some people, however, that recognize quality, because last year I gave a calender to my neighbours at their farm shop and some other people saw them and wanted them as well. I ended up selling all I had and then had to order more for relatives! But there you go, you can't please everybody.
However, this weekend my one year old nephew is coming to stay, (with his parents), so it will have to wait until next week.

Pictured below; Spoonbills near Holme next the sea, Norfolk.

Autumn's bounty.
08th September 2014
Autumn’s bounty.
What a fabulous spell of weather we are having in the Beacons at the moment.
The hedgerows are laden with fruit and nuts, the hazlenut crop this year is one of the best I can remember. The nut shells are just turning that light brown colour which means they will be ready for picking in a week or so. There is nothing like shelling a few fresh hazlenuts and just throwing them on top of your breakfast cereal, they are so full of flavour. When I was a youngster everybody used to go out picking hazlenuts in September but I hardly see anyone doing it now. I am afraid we have become too supermarket orientated and unless it’s in a plastic tray covered with cling film people don’t want it. Many young families these days just don’t even know about wild fruit and nuts they probably haven’t got the time and that’s fair enough I suppose.
I have a wild plum tree in my garden and it has to be fifty years old and every year it gives a wonderful crop of lovely ripe sweet plums. Again no good for the supermarkets because they are all different shapes and sizes and some have a small bare patch on their skin. Susan has been making gorgeous plum jam and we have been enjoying plum tarts and crumbles for the past week. They are equally as nice straight off the tree with a bloom of wild yeast still on them, just a quick swill under cold water and eaten straight away. I remember one year counting two thousand plums from this tree.
I also planted fruit trees in any available space, they cost as little as ten pounds each and this year I have pears hanging in bunches, cooking and eating apples weighing the branches down. The pears will be ripe later this month and the apples stored correctly can last right up until Xmas.
While we were out walking yesterday we commented on the bushes being laden with fruit such as blackberries, sloes and elderberries. I have a wild area at the bottom of my garden where my little mini nature reserve is and in the corner there is a lovely blackberry patch and today we have been picking trays of berries and as I write they are ready to go into an apple and blackberry crumble for tonight’s desert, accompanied by some vanilla ice cream.
Also in this little area are some blackthorn trees and they are laden with bunches of sloe berries. These sloes make a gorgeous sloe gin, I used to make it regularly, just pick a good crop of berries and wash and prick each berry a few times. Place these berries in a large vessel like a demi john and cover them with sugar and a few bottles of cheap gin, you don’t want good quality gin for this. You can also throw a few freshly cut almonds in for flavour. All you need to do then is mix it all up, stopper the vessel and leave it on a shelf in a cupboard, there is no fermentation to worry about so there can be no mess. Then once a week gently up end the vessel once or twice and repeat this procedure until Xmas, when the liquid will become a lovely rich red colour. Just filter it into bottles and enjoy on a winters evening with a good book or even in your hip flask on a winters walk, mmmm!
The elder is also a wonderful tree, its flowers in the spring make an absolutely superb cordial and I have made this many times it is so easy. The biggest prize, however, is its berries and as the year gets older the elder leaves are turning that beautiful pale colour, they are always the first to turn in autumn, now pick those superb wine coloured berries, these berries make the king of all fruit wines, it is my all-time favourite.
The old wine makers never picked fruit for wine making after rain because the wild yeast which is the bloom on these fruits would be washed away. Just rub your finger over a sloe berry and see the powder blue bloom come away to reveal the fruits true colour. These wild yeasts were essential before all the modern yeasts were available.
Soon all the hedges will be cut and shaped and all these wild foods will be gone, these fruits were an essential part of our birds autumn diet, one more thing gone in the modern era!
Kingfishers Part Two
16th August 2014
I have been hoping that the young Kingfishers would soon be out of the nest and that I would have an opportunity to photograph them. They tend to stay fairly close to the nest site for a couple of weeks until the adults drive them away. I have been back to the site a few times and have seen no sign of the female which suggests to me that she still has unfledged birds. Yesterday I was watching the male bird perched on ‘Nessie’ and after he flew up river and five minutes had passed a bird landed and I could immediately see that it looked very different. It looked in better condition than the male because he is looking much more worn after constantly fishing and going in and out of the nest tunnel.
On closer inspection I was delighted to see that it was a one of the youngsters, a female displaying all the classic markings of a juvenile bird. Then the adult male returned and pushed the youngster off the perch, they do not allow any other bird on their primary perches, in this case ‘Nessie’. It’s lovely to see all his efforts rewarded with a young bird flying around even if he doesn't appear to tolerate his offspring. This youngster is preening well and fishing with great enthusiasm but not too much success, but that skill will develop in time. The river remains low and there are plenty of small fish for her to practise on, so conditions are perfect for a high success rate for these iconic river birds. I will be watching their progress in the coming week.
Please see Favourites, Kingfishers.
Five Days with Kingfishers
05th August 2014
Last week, on a walk along the banks of the river Usk near to where I live, I came across three Kingfisher territories. It’s so nice to see these lovely birds breeding on the river, especially after last winter’s unprecedented rainfall.
The banks of the Usk have unfortunately become colonised by large swathes of the very intrusive Himalayan Balsam. In places it is above head height and you have to cut your way through. It is suffocating the river banks, overpowering our native plants that are unable to get enough light to survive. I would dearly love to see it removed, however, it would be such a huge undertaking to eradicate it because if you don’t remove it all then it just spreads again. This plant makes it very difficult to observe wildlife, especially birds.
I was not deterred by this because it’s been a few years since I have photographed any Kingfishers and lately I have been getting an urge to try for some shots. I don’t like sitting in a hide on some pond waiting for a bird to perch on a stick in front of me. Anybody can do that and it wouldn’t give me any sense of achievement. I prefer to try and set my own location up on a river, then I feel that I have actually produced something.
Two of the aforementioned Kingfisher territories were not a viable proposition. One site was too near the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal and this is really busy at this time of year. The birds just hide when water traffic comes along, but it’s different if you are trying to take photographs from a portable hide because you are constantly being interrupted.
Site two was much quieter, however, what put me off was a herd of cows with young calves. These animals were regularly coming to drink from the river very close to where I was observing the birds perching. I am very wary of this situation and only this week I read of a woman in Lincolnshire who was badly injured by cows. This woman got too close and was trampled, suffering two broken arms, a broken collarbone and broken ribs. Cows are fiercely protective of their young and they will attack anything that they feel is a threat.
The third site was not affected by people or animals, it is a very quiet stretch of the river, hardly visited. It is overgrown with Himalayan Balsam in places but this is a bonus because it puts people off. I want to remain anti-social when I’m trying to get images. I shun any company, if contact is inevitable then it’s a polite greeting and move on. Most wildlife watchers are the same if the truth is known.

This is a day by day synopsis of my attempts to photograph this pair of Kingfishers.

Day One
I was on the river at the bird’s territory at first light, this meant getting up at 04.30 and just taking a pair of binoculars, an LED head torch and my Walk Stool, both are invaluable pieces of kit when you are out walking in this type of situation. I tucked myself under the overhanging branches of an old Beech tree and just waited for daylight to break, this happened around 05.30. Soon after I heard the tell-tale ‘PEEP’ of a Kingfisher, this is a very distinctive sound and separates these birds from all others on the river, there is no other bird call like it! Soon after a bird flew past me, characteristically direct and low over the water. It didn’t see me, if you keep quiet and still most birds will not detect you. It flew right up river out of sight and didn’t return for fifteen minutes, however, the light had improved by then and on its return I could see it was a male bird carrying a fish in its beak. This could only mean one thing, it had young to feed. Kingfishers always eat their catch on or near to the perch it was caught from. This process was repeated several times so I decided to try and see where it was going to catch fish. I made my way up river but what I saw next was very disappointing, this male bird was going further and further up river out of sight to catch fish. I watched from a large bend in the river that gave me a view right up and down. I couldn’t believe how far this bird was going to catch fish, I estimated it as being 800yds each way; Kingfishers really do have large territories. I left for the day wondering how on earth I was going to pin him down.

Day Two
After my observations the previous day I had decided I would try and erect a perch that might be attractive to this male bird. The alarm went at 04.30 again and off I went, this time with my machete and wearing wellingtons. Yesterday I had seen a small shingle bank on the riverside that had been exposed by the recent dry spell, the river is very benign at the moment. I found a suitable perch among the many piles of driftwood that the winter storms had piled up. Looking at the height of this wood pile it must have been pretty wild there. I made my way through the shallows and erected the perch and anchored it down with some heavy stones. There was only one problem, because of the high banking I would have to view this perch from the other side of the river. This meant crossing over the Usk in darkness!! I only entertained crossing because of the very low water levels, it is far too dangerous to cross otherwise and I would advise anyone not to attempt it! I cut two pieces of wood to act as walking sticks for the following morning and I left them right by my crossing point.

Day Three
I was on the river at 05.00, I found my two walking sticks and I tentatively made the first crossing with my camera bag and tripod on my back, this is where the LED head torch is priceless. I came back across the river and then carried my portable hide across, I made two crossings because the combined weight, although stable on dry land, was a little awkward in a foot of rushing water. I find it best not to look down for too long at the water because it can make you feel dizzy and you can lose your balance quite easily, it’s better to probe the water with your sticks and find a smooth path across. Once across I quickly set up my hide and got undercover. I didn’t have to wait long the birds were active almost immediately. I waited and waited, three hours in total but both the birds flew past completely ignoring my perch. I was hugely disappointed, it was obvious the perch was not in the right position. I waited until the birds went on their usual flight up river and I quickly packed-up and crossed back across the river, Twice! I put all my kit out of sight and kept watch once more and to my surprise the male bird flew and landed on the stones right on the river side. I could see a large tree branch shaped like the Loch Ness monster near to the river bank and that set me thinking, so when the bird flew up river I crossed over again and dragged this tree branch into the river. I positioned it so that the ‘Body’ was in the shallows and the 'neck and head' were over the deep water where I could see shoals of Minnows. The male bird returned and immediately saw the new perch and he almost landed on it but veered off at the last second and flew up into a large Willow tree above. What happened next surprised me as he proceed to dive into the water from this Willow, a height of between twenty and twenty five feet, I have never seen a Kingfisher dive from this height before. He caught a fish and flew down river with it, presumably to the nest site. I waited for another half an hour and that ‘peeping’ told me he was on his way back up river, he flew low past me and I hardly dared to look as he landed right on top of ‘Nessy’. Hooray! At least I had him perching; that was an achievement in itself. I resolved to be back at first light to hopefully get some shots. I decide to leave my hide hidden at the river because I didn’t want to carry it in the dark the following morning. I hid it in an old tree surrounded by ivy and holly, nobody would see it there and anyway nobody goes there to see it. I covered it up with bin liners to keep it dry and I left full of hope.

When I got home I was severely disappointed after seeing the weather forecast predicting an inch of rain to fall overnight! I have seen what an inch of rain can do to that river, I was absolutely drained, all my hard work could be washed away, literally.

Day Four
There was no point in going to the river early, in fact there was no need to take any gear with me I just went to have a look at the water levels. When I got there my original perch, the one that had been ignored was still there, solid as a rock. However, I could see ‘Nessy’ keeled over lying flat where it had been swept away by the river. I felt really deflated and that it just wasn’t to be. I could see that I couldn’t cross the river with Wellingtons because it had risen about three inches and was flowing much faster. However, I had come this far and I picked myself up and became more determined to overcome these problems. I returned home and got an old pair of shoes that I use in the garden and I dug out an old pair of shorts. I took a few bin liners, a towel and my machete, all in a rucksack. I arrived back at the river and stood on the bin liners, removed my shoes, trousers and socks and put my old shorts and shoes on. I crossed the river again with my two trusty sticks, crossing was harder this time as the current was much stronger. I carried some large flat stones to the river’s edge and proceed to re-erect ‘Nessy’. I weighed it down until it was really solid and I then added another upright stick to stop it from keeling over again and to act as the final perch. I was confident it was stable so I crossed back over again. I dried off and redressed and just sat under the trees never expecting anything to happen. I could hear his tell-tale peep as he came back up river and he landed without any hesitation right on my perch. I couldn’t believe it, I thought I had made too much noise for him to come anywhere near. That was it; I decided where I would place my hide, it would be no good trying to assess it in the gloom tomorrow. I hoped I had turned a corner and I might get some shots after all.

Day Five
Up at 04.00 again, I was really feeling it now, the accumulative lack of sleep was catching up with me. What drove me on was that I had hopes that this morning would be the final piece in the jigsaw. I arrived in the gloom, I wasn’t taking any chances on him seeing me erecting my hide, I know he tolerated the noise yesterday but no two days are ever the same.
I set up and got under cover, as it started to get light I was almost falling asleep. It’s quite comfortable in these hides, out of the cold and sitting in a canvas chair. The first hour or so after day break are no good for photography anyway; you have to wait for it to get brighter. I could hear the 'peeping' as he flew back and fore up river and then he landed right on my perch, exactly where I wanted him, however, I just had to wait for the light to build. At around 07.30 with the bare lens at f4.0 and with the iso up a touch to 400 I had a reading of about 125th of a second on shutter speed. This was good enough to start with and the next time he perched I shot him and as the light improved he came back time and again, he was really favouring this perch. He posed in numerous positions and he appeared to be totally oblivious to me. I was sitting there waiting for him to return again when a bird landed on the perch and it seemed different to the male. I looked closer and I could see it was a female, Mrs Kingfisher obviously, I gratefully accepted her to the perch, having a pair to photograph is very nice indeed. I took many photographs as they went about their business over the next few hours and in the end I was really glad I persisted. I have left the perches there just in case the youngsters start flying about over the next week or so, that would be nice.
Please see Favourites, Kingfishers.
Is bigger always better?
10th July 2014
There seems to be a commonly held belief these days that you have to buy the biggest telephoto lens you can afford in order to obtain good quality wildlife images. While I don't deny that the 500 + 600's of this world are invaluable for some situations and I am indeed a huge fan of these lenses, there are times when they are not suited to the task at hand.
I have written in previous blogs about the unsuitability of the Canon EF800 5.6 lens, particularly in low light situations and also its almost non existant depth of field. Yet people still seem to crave this lens as if it's some sort of status symbol. It is a marvellous lens for shooting stationary small birds but after that it definitely has its limitations. Trying to wield a Canon 600 f4.0 to catch small birds in close flight and also quickly moving around is a major challenge ( Wood Warbler, typically ) and the 800 f5.6 is a bigger challenge. An f4.0 lens lets in twice as much light as a f5.6 lens and the smaller focal length makes it a bit easier to locate flying and moving birds. Yesterday on Skomer Island,( previous blog), was a prime example of a large telephoto lens being next to useless, not only because of the weight factor as I mentioned, but the difficulty in focusing on fast moving Puffins flying across your lens!
I found myself in a situation yesterday where Puffins were shooting past me as they came in to land at their burrows. I managed to catch a few with my Canon 300 f4.0 but there was no open perspective to the image, so there was no alternative but to use a much smaller lens.
I decided to use my Canon ef 17-40 f4.0 mounted on my old Canon 1D Mk2,( which my wife kindly agreed to carry in her rucksack ). This might seem an unlikely solution to the aforementioned problem but I had an idea it might work.
I waited for the Puffins to fly past reasonably close and then I just blazed away at them, while hand holding my kit. I wasn't too worried about focussing because there is such a large depth of field to a wide angle lens. However, I knew even if I was lucky there would need to be some post processing involved.
Later when I examined a few images from this type of shooting I thought I might have one or two images that were usable.
This image was one of candidates;


This is just a jpeg converted from the RAW image out of the camera, nothing done to it whatsoever. Consequently you can see that the horizon is far from level and the image is dim and lacking contrast and sharpness. In short a typical RAW image, but even if they are under exposed and look poor, all the data is still there and as I have said before RAW images can be recovered much better than jpegs.
Using Adobe Photoshop CS6;
First thing to do is to level up the horizon, this can be done by choosing the arbitrary function on the image rotation caption. Then just keep levelling up until you are satisfied and then crop the image. It should be noted that you will inevitably lose some of your original image by doing this. Once you have your cropped image you can process as normal, in this case I isolated the flying Puffin using the magic wand tool and just increased the sharpness and contrast of the bird. I then saved this and reopened the image to proceed to 'liven up' the overall look. In order to do this I just increased the vibrancy and saturation of the overall scene. Then I gently sharpened up the whole image and then using the curves function I added some more contrast and also removed some shadows from the scene, before finally lightening the image using levels.
This is the final image, nothing is superimposed and the only thing lost from the original was the Puffin on the ground, a casualty of the image levelling and subsequent cropping.



I managed to process two images using this method of shooting.

Please see Latest Images, Skomer Island.
Pembrokeshire Parrots.
09th July 2014
It's been over twenty years since my wife and I have visited Skomer Island off the west Wales coast so we decided to take advantage of this lovely weather we are having at the moment and take a trip.
We left early yesterday morning at 06.00 and made the journey in two and a half hours. We thought that we would get on the first boat across but we had forgotten how popular this little island is! The carpark was full and we had to wait for the second crossing on an extra trip that the boat was making. It was a beautiful warm sunny day, the sea was calm and the crossing only took fifteen minutes. We had decided not to walk too far, we were just going to chill out and have some fun with the Puffins - which were everywhere.
What little comedians these birds are, literally walking around our feet, they were totally oblivious to all the people watching them as they went abouit their routine.
We had a picnic on the cliff top and just took a few casual photos of the Puffins.
I only carried my little Canon 300mm f4.0 lens, anything else is just an encumberance. If you are thinking of going I recommend leaving any big lenses at home, firstly because of all the steps up from the boat landing area to the top of the island and secondly you wont need them because the birds, the Puffins that is, are so confident with people.
It was a thoroughly enoiyable day and I recommend it.
Please see Birding sites in the UK, Skomer Island.
Spring in Llangasty reedbeds.
26th June 2014
I was up early again today, I'm on a roll now!
Today I went in searh of the trinity of reedbed birds;
Reed Warbler (A bit awkward to shoot).
Reed Bunting (Quite obliging).
Sedge Warbler (Quite difficult).

I was in the new bird hide at Llangasty quite early and almost immediately I could see a half grown Water Rail in the undergrowth, although it never came out into the open it was a good start to the day, but not my target.
My first bird the Reed Warbler was flitting around the base of the reedbed, however, it's only a matter of waiting for one to sing from a reed out in the open. All a photographer needs are some unobstructed shots, I'm glad to say after a few attempts I managed to pin one down.
One down two to go!
There are a number of saplings dotted around the reedbeds and Reed Buntings like to pitch on these and sing. I was lucky because one of the male birds favourite perches had a clear background behind it and the light was getting better all the time. I have made my priorities clear in previous blogs, in my humble opinion the background of an image is at least as important as the subject and good mellow light is the cherry on the cake. I'm pleased to say the Reed Bunting duly obliged!
One to go!
I knew this would be the most difficult, sometimes they sing out in the open but mostly they are feeding young this time of the year and they fly in and just dive straight down into the long grass. They tend to favour the meadows rather than the reeds at Llangasty and this makes it really awkward. I didn't get one single opportunity for a shot, they were only perching on the vegetation for literally two seconds before disappearing. You have to stay on the recognized pathway because they are a nesting bird and the young come first and walking though the long meadow grass is not really acceptable this time of year.
I decided I needed to changs tack and there was a small Beech sapling at the paths edge and I wedged up tight against it, hoping to make myself less obtrusive. I still spent about an hour waiting for a shot but at least they were now flying around. Finally a bird perched reasonably close and I managed to fire off three shots and that was my only opportunity, very difficult to get the third bird of the trinity.
Please see UK Birds.