News

Bee Eaters, Extremadura
14th May 2013
Bee Eaters can be seen throughout Spain in Spring and Summer hawking insects in the air and then perching on wires, trees and fence posts waiting for the next unfortunate insect to fly by. We were driving along the 'Belen Plains' one lovely morning and had just seen a Black Stork and Crested and Calandra Larks were singing everywhere. We had just past an old ruined farmhouse and were driving past some old sandy bankings when about ten European Bee Eaters suddenly appeared, we could immediately see they were using the banking for nesting, several holes now became visible. They would sit on the fence posts and wires and then take off and seize a passing Bee or other insect.
Bee Eaters nest holes are quite small with very little room for access, this is to deter predators, but it means that the Bee Eater has to back its way out, there is no room to turn around. This results in their feathers becoming ruffled around their neck and head, I suppose this is a good way to tell if they have been in a nest!



It was too good an opportunity to miss so I switched the engine off and crawled passed and took a few shots, the birds were very obliging and didn't seem the slightest bit bothered.
We moved on and left them to get on with feeding their young.
Extremadura Spring 2013
14th May 2013
We have just arrived back from a couple of weeks in Extremadura in Spain. It is a lot easier to get to the heart of the Spanish plains now that the road system has been totally upgraded. On previous visits you had to travel through a load of small villages and towns with poor signage and roads.
We prefer to fly to Seville rather than Madrid, they are about equidistant from the plains but Seville is far less conjested than Madrid. All the tour companies fly to Madrid and then have to endure the infamous Madrid ring road.
From Seville airport you just meet the road that bypasses most of Seville's heavy traffic and then just join the newly constructed 'Autovia de la Plata' (the motorway to the plains) which takes you right into the 'Steppe' country of Extremadura. The traffic is really light along the whole length of this road and it is a pleasure to drive along at 120km/hr on nearly empty roads. We stayed in a lovely 'Finca' just outside Montanchez, south of Trujillo, the accommodation was accessed up a 1 km track in a totally quiet and secluded situation among old Olive Groves and Vineyards. Wildlife abounded there and while sat on the terrace in the evening, relaxing or eating dinner with a very nice bottle of the local wine, Hoopoes, Bee Eaters and Woodchat Shrikes among many others were regular visitors.
It was an idyllic location and one which is highly recommended.
Please see the individual blogs for some of the wild life and also latest Images, Extremadura.
A full trip report will follow in due course.
Tragic news of ' Our ' Barn Owl
14th April 2013
I received terribly sad news on Saturday evening, it looks fairly certain that our local Barn Owl that has been present in the area for some time has died. Barn Owl feathers and wings have been found near to where he regularly hunted and there was no other Barn Owl active in the area so I fear the worst. I have not seen him on my last three visits and now I know why. I am truly saddened that such a magnificent bird is no longer with us, I spent many evenings watching him hunting and trying to photograph him and I became quite attached to him. For me there are few better sights of an evening than a Barn Owl hunting in last light.
Around the country many Barn Owls became malnourished in the spell of bad weather during March, much of their hunting habitat was frozen or covered in snow, this made it harder for them to hunt and it also killed off many Voles and Mice. This, however, may not have been the cause of his death because they face many other perils during their fragile existence. One evening I witnessed him being attacked by a Buzzard and subsequently falling into a ditch, he recovered from that episode so who knows what the ultimate cause of death was.
In this area we can ill afford to lose Barn Owls, we do not have the luxury of buoyant populations that can recover quickly so it is a bigger blow. It's a sad loss to all nature lovers when a Barn Owl dies. I am thankful for the time I had with him, it was a privilege!
Here he is on his favourite branch.
Ring Ouzels lower down in the bad weather.
09th April 2013
Normally at this time of the year Migrant Ring Ouzels are high up on their breeding grounds such as Craig Cerrig Gleisiad in the Brecon Beacons. These birds like boulder strewn slopes on the high mountains, hence their old name of 'Mountain Blackbird'.
However, this year because of the bitterly cold weather we have been experiencing their normal breeding grounds are either frozen solid or covered in snow and consequently they are reluctant to move up to this higher ground. This 'Spring' they are being seen feeding in fields much lower down, just waiting for the weather to improve. These birds are inordinately shy and are very unapproachable so getting a photograph is very difficult indeed!
I have been looking for them for the last few weeks and I have only had a fleeting glimpse of a 1st winter bird. However, yesterday I was walking on a local moorland near to where I live and in the distance, when there was a lull in the wind, I could hear what I thought was an Ouzel singing, although a very distinctive song it is something you don't hear very often, but the further on I went the more convinced I was it was an Ouzel. There was a small limestone outcrop and a gully below it, a perfect situation for a bird to shelter during this bad weather.
I stayed low and crept closer until I could see over a small rise in the ground, then much to my delight there she was, a beautiful adult female Ring Ouzel. She saw me but she looked away and continued feeding, a very good sign that she wasn't too bothered about me. I kept very quiet and stayed low to the ground and moved a little nearer until she was in range, she stopped feeding and looked at me again and then she moved up onto a grassy mound so she could get a better view, this was perfect for me and I shot here straight away.
It's quite a privilege to get that close to a very nervous bird like an Ouzel when they are up on a mountain, it is a bit easier when they come in off the sea and land in coastal fields, they are more approachable then.
Then she became restless and just flew off onto higher ground and out of sight, a very pleasant experience with a lovely bird.
Migration stalled by bitter NE wind.
11th March 2013
I felt we were in for an early start to the spring migration this year with a few Sand Martins, Northern Wheatears and Chiffchaffs already in the county. However, we will have to wait a little longer because this strong and bitterly cold NE wind will be holding the birds back for a while. I have put out extra food for the birds this week, they really need it, it could mean the difference between life and death for some. On a brighter note Goshawks are now displaying and the Hawfinches will just be coming into their breeding plumage so I'm going to the Forest of Dean on the weekend to see if I can see some. New fancy view in Parkend is one of the best Goshawk displaying view points. Also Crossbills and infrequently Hawfinches can be seen flying across the treetops from there. The elusive Lesser Sotted Woodpecker can also be seen in this area at this time of year. I hope this wind blows through by then because it can be bitingly cold up on the viewpoint.
I am really looking forward to spring and I hope the weather is better this year, let's be honest it couldn't be any worse than last year. Around Brecon the land is now starting to dry out and the River Usk is as low as I've seen it in March for many a year! This is very good news indeed for the Wagtails, Dippers and Kingfishers, they need all the luck they can get. The evenings are now drawing out and the clocks will be going on later this month. I am looking forward to hearing my first Chiffchaff singing, for me the start of Spring and then a little later on the descending song of the Willow Warbler will follow.
My garden in full of Snowdrops, Crocus and Primrose and there are newborn lambs in the field outside my house, soon they will get more confident and will stray from their mothers and form little groups and start running around the field like children playing, lovely to see, this is without doubt the best time of year.
Bigger the better for wildlife photography?
07th March 2013
I met a gentleman this week who was thinking about taking up wildlife photography, birds in particular. He was expounding his theory that bigger lenses are always better for wildlife. He told me quite bluntly that I should be getting a Canon 800mm lens because it was the best lens for the job. I told him that it was definitely not necessarily the best lens for the job. I find that the people who spout these theories are usually the ones who have no experience of using the equipment they are talking about and that in their mind bigger is always better.
There are a lot of people who justifiably swear by the Canon 500mm f4.0, it is a superb lens for bird photography, sharp, lightweight (especially the new model) and with a reasonably fast aperture it takes some beating.
By most peoples standards, me included, the 500 is a big lens, however, not this gentleman, his only consideration seemed to be focal length.
He did tell me though, that he thought a Sparrowhawk image I had taken was superb and that the Canon 600mm lens was a great lens but the 800mm was still superior! The old saying about giving someone enough rope to hang themselves is a very true one and he was somewhat taken aback when I told him the image was taken with a Canon 300mm lens.
I also told him that my latest Barn Owl shots could not have been taken with the Canon 800mm because I was already on an aperture of F4.0 and the ISO on my camera was already up to a high level, so using the Canon 800mm with an aperture of F5.6 would have been unsuitable in that situation. Also many of the shots that I take very early in the morning and later in the evening in low light would not be very good with a f5.6 aperture.
A lens with a maximum aperture of f5.6 is fine if you are living somewhere blessed with an abundance of good light, Norfolk for instance, or Lesvos or Cyprus. However, in most of the UK and especially in Wales for me f5.6 is too small for a maximum aperture.
Another thing I told him to consider was the corresponding decrease in Depth of Field as focal length increases. When an image is taken with a big prime lens there is very little DOF and most of the time part of the subject is out of focus. These lenses are very unforgiving in this area and unless the subject is 180 degrees across the focal plane then there is going to be some blurring, this blurring of your subject will magnify with an increase in focal length.
Another thing to consider is that if you add a 1.4 converter to a f5.6 lens you will lose auto focus unless you are using a Canon 1 Series camera body. You may say that with a focal length of 800mm you don't need a converter but a 1.4 converter on a Canon 600mm f4.0 lens will give 840mm of focal length and with the new converters there is not much difference in image quality to the bare lens. Add to this the cropping factor of 1.6 from eg a Canon 7D and you have 600 x 1.4 x 1.6 giving an equivalent focal length of 1344mm with auto focus, image stabilization and very good image quality indeed, this focal length should be more than enough for most wildlife.
Finally if you need less focal length then you can always remove the converter, with the 800mm lens that's it, that's what you are stuck with!
An interesting choice for some, but for me an f4.0 is always better than an f5.6!

However, an 800mm f4.0 now that's different, but the wheelbarrow you would need to move it around would be rather inconvenient!
Beautiful Spring like evening with the Barn Owl.
06th March 2013
What a beautiful evening it was yesterday, I was down on Llangors Lake shoreline looking across the adjoining rough pasture. It was mild and windless, Curlews were calling in the distance and the Wigeon's whistling call was echoing across the water. It was so peaceful, the water was as calm as a mill pond. I was sure the Barn Owl would fly, it was perfect hunting conditions, clear visibility and no wind which is essential for them because the wind interferes with their hearing.
Sure enough, right on cue he appeared and flew around hunting for about five minutes, he disappeared quite soon after and didn't return, this is normal behaviour for him, he must go to a secret perch and sit out and digest prey that he's caught or just enjoy the evening like the rest of us. I don't attempt to look for him, he needs his peace and quiet and must be left alone to enjoy it. I want him to feel safe and comfortable where he is and to ideally stay and breed.
Just that five minutes is a pleasure to spend in his company, watching him fly around hunting for his supper.
Please see Latest Images, Brecon Barn Owl.
Barn Owl, tracking the ' Silent Assassin '
21st February 2013
For the last few weeks there has been a male Barn Owl hunting the local farmland, this is not at all common because most farmland in this area is used for grazing sheep. This means that most of the grass is cropped short and therefore there is no place for Voles and Mice to hide, so they don't live there, this in turn does not provide food for these most iconic birds.
I first noticed this particular bird hunting a rough pasture one evening a couple of weeks ago just as the light was dimming. Barn Owls are crepuscular in their habits so this is not good for the photographer, they always appear just as the light is fading and usually this means there is not enough light to maintain a high enough shutter speed to capture a sharp flight image. Some evenings he was hunting in reasonable light, for whatever reason they come out earlier some nights, although in the main they are 'light triggered'.
Something just tells them that a particular light is when they should start hunting.
I was hidden behind a small tree one evening and I could see him hunting in his usual place, gradually he came closer and finally I was able to get a flight shot. My experience in shooting Barn Owls in Norfolk has taught me that up to a point they are not that bothered about people as long as there is no noise and movement and they will happily glide past the lucky observer if these criteria are adhered to.
This birds are very predictable in their habits but that does not mean it is easy to photograph them, they hunt ditches and fence lines and are very good at disappearing despite their light colour. This was exemplified another night when i was watching him hunting, he flew behind a hedge and didn't reappear, I couldn't see him anywhere and as I looked around I couldn't believe it, he was heading straight at me, by the time I had focussed my lens he was upon me, now I know what a Vole feels like! I managed to fire off a couple of shots but his wings were cut off, nevertheless I still loved the shot of him so close.
As the days wore on I just couldn't get really close to him, he was so wary and alert and I felt he was just playing with me. I could see what a beautiful bird he was, his plumage was so 'Orangey' and his eyes so black, I just had to try and get near to him.
I watched him over a period of a week or so and I could see he was landing on a particular branch quite regularly, but because of all the flooding of late this area was very difficult to get to and I also had to cross a stream to get there. However, its no good giving up before you have tried and last night off I went with my portable hide.
I crossed the stream with great difficulty, soaking my trousers in the process and ploughed on through glutinous mud almost losing my wellingtons a couple of times.
I managed to find a small area of reasonably firm ground and got into my hide and set my gear up, almost immediately I heard a horrible sucking noise and I began to sink into the mud. I was just about to get out when my hide and tripod stopped sinking and settled down, both in about six inches of mud.
His favourite branch was about ten yards away and I thought, 'I'm here now so I'll stick it out', excuse the pun! It was four O'clock and I knew he didn't usually fly until about five. I waited in silence until quarter past five, adjusting my camera settings to the now rapidly failing light. I decided to wait until five thirty and then I would pack in because the light would be too bad then anyway, I was not hopeful!
Suddenly he glided past my hide and landed right on the branch in front of me. I obviously knew Barn Owls were silent but when you see a bird that big glide past you six feet away in absolute and total silence it is quite awe inspiring.
He turned around and looked straight at me and I fired five shots, immediately he heard the shutter he took off, he didn't like the noise and he melted away into the evening gloom.
Two hours of effort, soaking wet and covered in mud all for half a second with this absolutely magical bird, worth every second!!
Please see Latest Images, Brecon Barn Owl.
Winter in my garden
21st February 2013
I have been putting out all sorts of different food for the birds this winter, a large variety of seed, fatballs and fruit, but one food that a lot of birds really like is porridge oats. I don't buy the expensive brands just a cheap supermarket variety, nevertheless the birds just love it, they are really hoovering it up.
It just goes to show you don't have to spend loads of money on these fancy bird foods just something basic can work very well.
I was sat in my permanent hide a few days ago just waiting for whatever came in to feed and a Lesser Redpoll flew in and landed on one of the perches. While this is quite a common bird I have never had one in my garden in the eighteen years I have lived here, so it was quite a milestone for me.
The G.S.Woodpeckers have started coming back now there is a ready supply of peanuts and a Long Tailed Tit family party are flying around, peanuts being their favourite food also.
I will photograph them once they start coming to the feeders.
I have seen my old friend the Sparrowhawk flying around the last couple of weeks and sure enough he came in and landed on one of his favourite perches, good job I had my 300mm lens already pointing right on it. What a special bird he is, so beautiful and yet such a clinical hunter. Now that the cold weather has set in again more birds will be looking for food and now is the time to attract them to your garden.
Please see Latest Images, Garden Birds.
A Quarter of a million hits!!
24th January 2013
Quite a milestone for me, when I started this site I could never have imagined this number of hits, It's quite amazing really. Finally this horrendous weather is set to end and perhaps I can get around and capture some images. I will try and get a few shots of my old friend the Sparrowhawk, he is starting to pass through again. There is also a Song Thrush coming to the garden and it is winkling snails out of an old stone wall and smashing the shells on some stones to get an extra meal to help in this horrible weather.
Once again many thanks to all the people who visit the site.
Steve.
Happy Xmas from Beacons Birder
23rd December 2012
Another year is almost over, they are rolling by a bit too quickly for my liking but there you go. It's been a diabolical year weather wise with unprecedented rainfall having a devastating effect on the country's wildlife. There will undoubtedly be less birds around to breed next spring after the horrendous weather during the breeding season of 2012. Nests washed away near rivers and ponds and ground nesting birds just drowned by the relentless rain. Nature, however, has a way of recovering and I sincerely hope she can work her magic once again.
Above all there is a human cost and it is dreadful to see people with their homes flooded out and their livelihoods destroyed and some even paying the ultimate price. It is a stark reminder of the power of nature and it illustrates just how fragile we really are when it comes down to it!
My thoughts and prayers go out to the people affected and I sincerely hope things can be put back in order very quickly.

I have started my winter feeding programme and the birds are flocking back to the garden already and within two days the male Sparrowhawk has appeared. Everything has to eat and it's all part of the chain, although it can be brutal sometimes.
Looking back I want to remain positive and I am amazed at the amount of images I managed to record considering the weather. In Spring the Cuckoo numbers were obviously up in this area so there is hope there. Also the Redstarts seemed to be successful in their breeding attempts. Large numbers of wintering thrushes arrived and departing and passage Ring Ouzels stayed very late this year, birds recorded as late as Dec 6th.
I can't end without mentioning the glorious irruption of Waxwings that started in November, even in this area they came in numbers. I love them, I could watch them all day, they are so full of character.
I would like to thank everyone who visits this site and I hope they enjoy what they see and read, long may we continue.
It's just left for me to wish everyone a Happy and Peaceful Christmas and a prosperous, bird filled 2013.
Steve.
My top five birds. ( Cuckoo )
18th December 2012
I am always asking people what their their favourite birds are and inevitably they can't answer without a great deal of thought and even after thinking they change their minds again and again. I am in the same boat because my favourite bird list is often influenced by a recent birds behaviour.
However, a few birds keep returning back to the top of the list, even if I haven't seen them for a long time, so these birds I have to conclude must be my favourite birds. In my case these are inevitably enigmatic species, by this I mean birds that are usually extraordinarily shy or require a great deal of effort to see and in my case photograph.
I have no particular order to what I term my 'top five' birds they all have their reasons for being there.
They are;
Cuckoo.
Red Backed Shrike.
Wryneck.
Hawfinch.
Dotterel.

My reasons for choosing these birds are as follows;

I always used to heard a Cuckoo calling every May and June but try as I did I couldn't get anywhere near enough for a photograph. This was extremely frustrating so I decided to try and do something about it, this however, achieved nothing it only added to my frustration because any one who has tried to photograph Cuckoos will tell you just how elusive and shy they are. Then out of the blue one day while out walking I turned a corner and there was a young Cuckoo sitting on a fence being fed by a Meadow Pipit. I could barely believe it, after all my previous fruitless efforts here was a bird in front of me. I managed to take a few quick shots before they flew away but at least I had got near, this made me even more determined because I could see what a beautiful and unusual bird it was.
I now knew what type of terrain to look for and the following spring when I could again here a male bird calling, this time instead of walking around trying to get near to him, which I knew from past experience was futile, I just waited and watched for hours. Using this MO I was able to establish a pattern to his behaviour and I could see that at some time he was going to perch on the same isolated branch because he had done so frequently throughout the time I watched him.
However, getting near to that branch was difficult and I knew I also had a potentially long wait in front of me. Nevertheless I decided to try and outwit him and I got up very early one morning and arrived at the location in darkness. As I got out of the car to my great surprise I could hear him calling nearby in complete darkness, I never realised that Cuckoos did that, I was totally demoralised, I thought that it would be impossible to get to the place I wanted to be in without him detecting me because I had to go in by torchlight.
Nevertheless, I decided that I had to go forward with my plan and I got my portable hide set up under some old Gorse bushes and with the rising sun coming up behind me everything was in place. Once it had become light I could see him in the distance sitting in a tall tree just looking in my direction, I was not hopeful!
He just stayed there for about an hour doing nothing but then out of nowhere I could here a female Cuckoo calling. This really livened him up and he took off immediately in my direction, I had my lens focussed on 'the branch' but he just shot over the top of me and started calling in a tree behind me. Then the moment I had been longing for happened he landed on the branch, I shot him immediately and the feeling of achievement was really overwhelming, he took off and I thought OK that's my lot, but never mind I had him!
That wasn't it though, he came back again and again sometimes with hairy caterpillars in his beak and I was able to observe him flicking the unwanted poisonous insides away before eating the rest. When he finally left I almost floated back to the car I was so pleased.
Since that time I have had more success shooting these birds using this method. The Cuckoo is so full of character and because of its unique call and behaviour it is etched into the natural history of our spring. This is why it's one of my top five!

Next Blog... Red Backed Shrike.
My top five birds. ( Red Backed Shrike )
17th December 2012
The Shrikes are one of my favourite families of birds, there is just something about the way they perch on the top of bushes, out in the open, almost declaring that they are around and then completely disappearing and no amount of searching can relocate them.
I have seen and photographed all the European Shrikes and many others around the world but the Red Backed has always been my favourite, I love its subtle colours, the pink, the rusty red, the powder blue, for me all these colours combine beautifully to make it a glorious bird to see.
I always remember travelling to Norfolk over twenty years ago and it had been a busy stressful journey, hot and with heavy traffic. We had arrived at the cottage we were renting and after unpacking I checked the 'Norfolk Birdline' and it said a male Red Backed Shrike Holme Dunes, (about 3 miles away). It was about three O'clock and the FA cup was just kicking off, Spurs V Arsenal, Gazza etc. I said to Susan we'll go for that first thing in the morning, she agreed. We went out later and had a nice meal and a few beers to relax, but looking forward to our 'FIRST' Red Backed in the morning.
First thing we arrived at Holme and were told there was no sign of the bird and no further sightings were seen at all. I was shattered, I mistakenly believed that Red Backed hung around like Great Greys...THEY DON'T. Over the years I had always reacted the same day to Shrike reports but they were always juveniles, still a lovely bird but not the male with that gorgeous plumage. I was in Norfolk in the spring of 2012 when a report came through on my smartphone from birdguides... Male RBS Cromer on waste ground east of town. I left immediately I had to try and get it, I was so anxious about getting to see and possibly photograph one that it hurt. I drove around for ages and couldn't find the waste ground and we were about to concede defeat when we saw a group of birders in the distance on some ground behind a private housing estate. We drove around the estate and finally found a pathway on to the waste ground. I ran all the way over to the birders and one confirmed the bird was there, hidden in a bramble patch. Then suddenly it flew up into the air and flew away over the trees, I thought it was all over, so near and yet so far!
The birders began to disperse but I just couldn't leave yet, one thing I have learned is you have to be persistent or you will get nowhere. When it had quietened down I walked on further and I could see him on another bramble patch, I was really nervous, but I crept closer and closer until I was quite near, I focussed and when the shutter finally clicked I was so elated I can't describe it, all those long twenty years and here it was 'in the can' to use motion picture parlance.
It felt really good to finally get that shot of a bird you have longed for, a bird that used to be fairly common in the UK in the past but now is so elusive. I was talking to two seasoned birders recently who have been birding since the fifties and they said that Red Backed used to be easy to see in the UK countryside. Those days are gone and sadly will not return.
This is why the Red Backed Shrike is another of my 'top five'
Next Blog... Wryneck
My top five birds. ( Wryneck )
16th December 2012
The truly enigmatic Wryneck, although considered part of the Woodpecker family it is a very different proposition indeed. It can be an extremely difficult bird to locate and you can spend years trying to see one. It's not a bird you can go out to look for, it's almost like a gift that some higher power allows a birder to see once in a very long time with a caveat that says 'don't expect to see one again, you've had your share now'!
The same two birders I mentioned in the Red Backed Shrike blog who have been birding regularly since the fifties told me they had never seen a Wryneck, that is a testament to its enigmatic nature.
I had numerous encounters with Wrynecks in Norfolk and everyone was incredibly difficult to see. I've seen birders just sat around for hours on end waiting for one to appear out of a bramble patch only to leave totally disappointed. These birds can stay concealed for days at a time, everybody knows exactly where they are eg in a particular area of scrub, but they will not show. Then for the lucky observer they will just pop out for five seconds and then disappear for days again. They are such fickle birds, sometimes they can sit out on the top of a fence line in full view of everybody, or wander around a golf course eating ants while golfers walk by, such is their nature, in general though they are very difficult to see.
I remember being in Winterton on Sea in Norfolk many years ago after a good Easterley blow and I had already seen a Snow Bunting and a Juv Red Backed Shrike there and Winterton has a justified reputation as a hot spot for rare migrants turning up in these conditions so I was hopeful of more birds. There was an isolated Oak sapling about a hundred yards away and I could see a bird moving around in it so I zoomed in with my telescope and there was a Wryneck sat there looking at me, what a bird, I was delighted.
Then one of those special moments happened, a couple came walking along and they stopped to talk to us and I told them about the Bunting and the Shrike but before I could say anything else the woman said that her dream bird of all time was a Wryneck, she had been looking all her birding life for one with no success and she thought that it was never going to happen for her because she had never even been lucky enough to be in a place where one had even been reported. 'Well never mind, one day' I said 'but there is quite an interesting bird in my telescope'. She looked through the viewfinder straight at the Wryneck, she looked back at me with tears in her eyes and I knew what she was feeling because it can get you like that sometimes. It was very nice to help someone realise their dream.
On another occasion my wife Susan and I were on holiday in Cyprus standing looking out to sea one evening on the old Roman ruins above Pafos, before it had all been fenced off and totally commercialised. I caught sight of something moving on the ground about ten feet away and I said to Susan, 'don't make a sound, just look down at your feet', she looked down and to her astonishment a Wryneck was just sat there, unbelievably looking up at us completely unconcerned, then it just hopped away like a typical Woodpecker and disappeared.
I became totally fascinated by the Wryneck's cryptic plumage and also the way it twists its head around which gives it its name and it's because of this and those experiences and just the total uniqueness of these birds that it's in my top five.
Next blog...Hawfinch
My top five birds. ( Hawfinch )
15th December 2012
If there is one bird that is high up on a birder's 'To See' list it's the Hawfinch, they are so shy and elusive and these days their numbers are much less than twenty years ago.
I have known birders that have not seen one after years of trying, this is because they are usually high up in the canopy or hidden away in the forest feeding discreetly in a pile of leaf litter. I remember being in this position myself, really wanting to see this secretive yet absolutely gorgeous bird. I used to bump into people over in the Forest Of Dean twenty years ago who said that they had seen flocks of up to eighty birds. I could hardly believe my ears, I only wanted one!
However, slowly but surely I got to see distant telescope views of birds, sometimes quite a few, up to twenty birds. This was not, however, enough for me, I wanted a photograph, I wanted to be close to these almost mythical forest dwellers.
The only way that a Hawfinch betrays its presence is by its call, a sharp 'PIX'. If you can imagine having a live electrical cable in your hand and then touching it on a piece of metal the sharp noise the current makes as it makes contact is what a Hawfinch's call is like. Their song is a very quiet and weak affair, barely recognisable unless you are up very close.
One day I was in a forest car park before first light trying to photograph a male bird that was coming down infrequently to feed on seed that was being left out by the forestry commission. After a few hours the bird dropped down from the canopy for about twenty seconds and I managed to shoot a few frames and I was very pleased that I had finally managed to get close to a Hawfinch. Fifteen minutes later a car pulled alongside me and a man got out and stood in front of me and announced he was 'here to photograph the Hawfinch', he then returned to his car and proceeded to talk quite loudly to his mate who was sat in the back seat. This conversation was carried out through the cars two open windows. I felt like telling him he had more chance of winning the lottery because these birds will not tolerate this type of disturbance. I left them to get on with it because I was confident no birds would come near.
The male Hawfinch is best viewed around mid to late March when they are showing more as they look for females and as they come into their breeding plumage their huge beaks turn from a straw colour to a superb silvery blue. They are at this time one of the UK's most beautiful birds!
A year or two later, one weekend in March we were walking through the forest and some birds took off from the leaf litter in front of us and we could see that they were Hawfinches. We backtracked and waited almost an hour until one or two birds came back down and we could see they were feeding on Beech mast. Next to this feeding area was a holly tree with a perfect hollowed out bowl underneath it where sheep had been sheltering, I immediately pictured my hide tucked in there. If you are in a hide and it's out in the open these birds will still not approach because it's something new and they are very wary of it.
The following day I was tucked away in this bowl before first light, it's no good setting up in daylight, they wont come near no matter how quiet you are. I waited for about two hours until I heard the first 'PIX', I was a bit concerned because time was getting on and people might come walking through and that would be the end of it.
Suddenly I could hear a faint song, I didn't recognize it but I now know it was a Hawfinch. I could hear scratching and I realised a bird was sitting on top of my hide, I could not move or make a sound, I was terrified of disturbing it whatever it was, I didn't know for sure what is was but I soon did as a beautiful male bird hopped onto the ground and flew about twenty feet in front of me to feed on the Beech mast and Cherry kernels. Thinking back if he had been any closer I couldn't have photographed him because the minimum focussing distance of the lens I was using was eighteen feet!
I was mesmerised by his beautiful plumage, I moved the lens an inch at a time until I locked on to him, then the shutter fired and I realised I had him. He just looked at me but I kept shooting and I knew I had some cracking shots! What a feeling that was, to be that close to such an elusive bird, then off he went and I didn't see him again. I waited for about another 30 minutes but he didn't return. Such an elusive creature, there and gone without anybody except me knowing, fabulous!
Then I could hear voices and four birders came walking along the track and stopped right beside me, ten feet away, I must have been well concealed because they didn't know I was there. I could hear one say 'looks like there's none here today, lets try somewhere else', I watched them go and packed up and left, if I had seen them later I would have told them about the possible birds where I had been, but they had left.
This exemplifies just how elusive these birds are and that is why they are in my top five birds.
Next blog...Dotterel
My top five birds. ( Dotterel )
14th December 2012
If there has been one bird that has continually frustrated me for over twenty five years it is the Dotterel. It is even more annoying because every Spring these stunning birds appear on the high peaks and moors of the Brecon Beacons. The irony of it is they always appear to people who are not looking for them, typically hill walkers. One instance was a group of walkers from southern England walking between Corn Ddu and Penyfan on the Beacons and they literally had a bird land at their feet. They thought it was a Woodlark and just walked on having no real interest, birders would love something like that to happen to them!
I was on holiday in Extremadura in Spain and I had parked my vehicle near to a watering hole on the Belen plains and was just waiting. I was about fifty yards away from the water, I had Pin Tailed and Black Bellied Sandgrouse come in to drink and remarkably a Booted eagle come in to bathe. It was extremely hot there and I was about to leave when seven Dotterel flew in, they were the last bird I expected to see there. I could see how beautiful they were and I would have loved to have been closer to them but I knew it was not possible. From that time I just took a real shine to them, they were so elusive, they just had a drink and then they were gone, goodness knows where.
Another time I was walking along the beach in Holkam in north Norfolk in October and I could see a bird running along the creeks in front of me, as I looked I could see it was a Dotterel in Autumn plumage. This was quite a shock, it was there for a few minutes and then gone, that was my only UK sighting. Every year for the next twenty five years I always hoped I would see a bird in Spring plumage but it never materialised. I had literally given up hope of seeing one, things had got that bad.
In 2011 I went to Lesvos in the Spring and saw some great birds there, as always, but when I returned home I checked the local reports and I could see that Dotterel had been seen quite locally in an area very easy to get to. I was so frustrated yet I knew it was totally illogical, I had seen some exquisite birds on Lesvos, but I still wanted that Dotterel!
One day I was up in mid Wales and I had not seen very much, parked up I was drinking a cup of Coffee and decided to check my messages. Good job I did, I could hardly believe my eyes, Birdguides: Dotterel, Llanderfalle Hill, Brecon. Last seen midday. It was two O'clock, I literally left immediately, it was a bank holiday, traffic was horrendous. I had fifteen miles to cover, I was stuck behind everything, it's always the same, I felt like chewing the steering wheel in frustration. Finally I got there, hoping to see a few birders...nothing, not a soul, my heart sunk, I said to Susan it's gone we've missed it. I felt absolutely dreadful, all those years of trying and failed again! Then we both saw something in a small clump of reeds and unbelievably the most gorgeous female Dotterel walked out into the open. I was absolutely worried stiff she would fly off but I had to get closer, I got to within fifty feet and I thought that's enough, but she came walking towards me, like two destinies finally meeting in some film. I took some great close up shots as she continued feeding around me. I was there for almost an hour watching her, she was absolutely stunning. I finally left her alone on that remote hill top on her own.
I sincerely hope she was safe wherever she was heading for.
That is why this beautiful, elusive, yet confident bird is in my top five.
The UK Waxwing irruption 2012
10th December 2012
This Autumn and Winter has seen a very large irruption of Waxwings into the UK with birds appearing virtually everywhere at one time or another. This appears to be happening a little more frequently in my mind since the turn of the century. I am not in possession of any statistical data to reinforce this supposition but for Waxwings to turn up in numbers in the Brecon area is unusual. Brecon, because of its UK geography and the lack of a large amount of ornamental berry trees is usually one of the last places to record these birds. However, three times since the year 2000 we have had birds in the town suggesting these irruptions are happening more frequently, before that the times I can recall Waxwings in numbers in this area are very few indeed.
It's always nice to see these birds but I suppose it's better to see them infrequently because you appreciate them more when they do arrive. When I have spoken to Scandinavian birders on my travels around the world and I mention Waxwings, Bramblings and such like, they say 'Oh those things'. It's part of the human psyche that it doesn't matter how beautiful or rare a bird is when they are seen more regularly people become disinterested in them, I suppose even the sweetest cloys with the tasting.
I have seen a number of small flocks of these lovely birds in different areas this winter and there have been some nice spectacles, but one of my favourite things about them is their song. It is a lovely, faint and delicate affair sung both in fight and when perched, it has been likened to a small jewellery chain being shaken so If you get the chance it's well worth listening for.
Waxwings can be aged and sexed by their primary and secondary wing patterns, adult males usually have 6-8 red waxy tips and females have 5-7 with the red tips being shorter on the female, so there is an overlap, but in general terms males have more red tips. Juveniles have white edging to these feathers with a very faint yellow tinge and very small or no red tips. Adult males also have a broader yellow band on their tails and a darker black throat patch.
I have, however, had a great deal of difficulty tracking down a really decent flock of these birds this winter but on the weekend I finally managed to get reasonably close to a flock of around sixty birds feeding on an ornamental Rowan. I have found by bitter experience that if you hear about a flock of these birds you have to go, if you can the same day, and at the latest first thing the next day. I am always on the alert to news of Waxwings and I am always looking in likely locations for them. This theory was borne out again with this particular flock of birds because the day after I saw them they had moved on having consumed all the berries on the Rowan tree.
I first saw these particular birds high up in an Ash tree but I saw the low level Rowan tree across the road and I knew they would be coming down to feed and they duly obliged. It's a lovely experience to have them flying right past singing and then feeding in front of you. Lets hope they hang around in the UK for some time because they look superb feeding on red berries in frost and snow.
It is still early in the winter so any area with ornamental or indeed wild berries can still attract these birds for a few months yet. They usually like Rowan first then the likes of Guelder Rose and Sorbus. Cotoneaster and Pyrocanthea are usually last, they will also feed on Hawthorn and Rose hip and they also have a liking for apples.
They 'Hawk' insects in Summer and they can be seen doing this here but it is more of a token thing as in this cold spell insects are rapidly dying off.

I have taken a few shots around various locations, Please see Latest Images Waxwings.
Wintering Thrushes
19th November 2012
Fieldfares and Redwings are here in numbers now and finally they are starting to settle down. When they first come in they are so spooky, they just fly around in a flock hardly settling before they are off again and are very unapproachable. It's no good chasing them around because you cannot get near them, experience has taught me to wait until they establish a pattern of feeding and then stay in your car or hide and wait for them to come to their favourite berry tree. They nearly always go for the Rowan first and then later Hawthorn, sometimes they will favour Holly berries and this is the best situation for the photographer.
For me personally the background of a photograph and the ambient light is far more important than the subject itself. If you have a nice background and the light is mellow then the subject will take care of itself. On that basis Hawthorn is the least preferable tree because of its branches sticking out at all angles often in tangles that give an image what I call a spaghetti background. This often obscures part of your subject and can reflect light badly to create shadows and highlights.
With Rowan the berries often hang down away from its branches and when a subject perches to get at the berries you can get a cleaner shot and you can line up the background easier before you start shooting.
My favourite is the Holly because it is so dense and evergreen its branches are rarely totally exposed and it always provides a nice background to a bird like a Redwing.
I have taken a few shots of these birds lately while there are still berries on the trees, before long they will become difficult to find as the berries disappear.
I am praying that the berries will last for some Waxwings to come to the Brecon area, they are in Cardiff and Mid Wales and most other places but not here yet.
Please see Latest Images, Wintering Thrushes.
Golden Plovers
12th November 2012
There are always a couple of flocks of Golden Plover around on the upland areas of the Brecon Beacons in winter, they are often overlooked, but if you see them they are a very beautiful bird. I saw a flock as I was driving across a local moor so I stopped and took a few shots. I watched several people walk right past them without noticing because these birds defence is to crouch down until you can hardly see them. Providing you don't make a noise and don't move too much they are quite approachable, they were sunbathing in amongst some old bracken stubble, not the most ideal location for a good shot but still worth photographing.
Please see UK Birds, Waders and Plovers
Ring Ouzels
12th November 2012
Thousands of wintering thrushes are coming in to the Beacons now, quickly hoovering up the Rowan and Hawthorn berries. These birds can strip trees of their fruit very quickly in an almost Locust like fashion. Up in the nearby Elan valley there was a super abundance of Rowan and Hawthorn berries this Autumn, trees were laden with fruit, one week later they had been completely stripped by Redwings and Fielfares. There were only a few small trees left with any berries, these were situated in two car parks quite close together. I had a message that some passage Ring Ouzels were in the area, these are Scandinavian birds which pass through Wales every Autumn but are usually very difficult to get near because they are painfully shy. However, because there were only these few trees left with any fruit there was a fair chance they would be nearby. I decided to travel there the next day after I had the message, you can't afford to wait as they don't hang around, once the fruit is eaten then they are on their way South.
I arrived at one of the car parks at first light but after 15 mins waiting there were no birds to be seen so I moved on to the other car park and after a few minutes I spotted a male Ring Ouzel. You have to take it very easily with these birds they are very spooky indeed, one male bird I had been watching at another location a week previously, in an old quarry, was incredibly wary and would not come anywhere near as soon as he saw any movement.
I positioned my car where I thought the best angle was to the Rowan trees where I had first seen the bird and I sank down in the seat with a lens resting on a bean bag, immediately I could hear the distinctive 'chuck chuck' call that they make, but I could hear another noise and as I looked in my mirror a car pulled into the car park. With all the car park to choose from this guy in a suit came and parked right between me and the Ouzel tree. He got out of his car, looked at me, with a Canon 600mm lens sticking out of my car window, draped in Camo netting, pointing at a tree right behind him and proceeded to get a flask out of his car and pour a cup of tea or coffee. I found it incredible that someone could be so lacking in common sense, he was standing there with a white shirt on just looking at me while stirring his drink with a spoon he produced from his inside pocket. While I accept fully that it was his right to park wherever he chose and I have found from experience that it's no good saying anything because it only makes people dig their heels in and come out with it's a free country etc. I just found it so strange that at 07.30 in the morning in an isolated location with someone obviously trying to photograph 'something' that you would choose to park in the very worst spot possible. I really thought that the day was ruined for me because these birds will not come anywhere near with someone standing out in the open, especially with a white shirt on!
Then something seemed to click and he must have realised that he was being a plonker and he just got into his car and left with no prompting from me.
I must say I was very relieved because as the morning goes on there is less chance of a shot because it is a very popular area, so I settled down again and waited.
I heard the bird again and amazingly, again in my mirror, I could see three male birds in the tree right behind me. I thought I'd picked the wrong tree but it's no good trying to move you just have to put up with it, however, after 5 minutes or so they began to fly into the tree I was looking at. This was a very rare opportunity and although the tree branches were awkward I managed to get some reasonable shots. I was very happy to have the opportunity to get some shots as it could be years before another opportunity arises.
Please see UK Birds, Ring Ouzels.