A Yellowhammer, one of the less-shy species of open country

Over the years, while out walking on the Wiltshire downs and on Salisbury Plain, I’ve noticed a small  species of bird that has a habit of sitting on fence posts along tracks you’re walking down, just far enough away so that you can’t see them well enough to attempt an identification.

As you walk closer they fly off to another fence post down the track which is out of range again. And as you get closer again, they do the same thing again. And again and again. Until they fly off in a long arc back to where you saw them in the first place. 

I have this fantasy that they’re perching there waiting for another walker, also inexperienced at identifying birds of open country and who is also without a pair of binoculars or a guidebook, who they can have fun with all over again. They’ve certainly done it enough times with me over the years.

The birds in question are about robin-sized or perhaps a little larger, small brown jobs with their main noticeable characteristic being, at least for someone whose usual relationship with them is of them flying away, a pale rump. 

I thought I might have identified the species a month or two back (blogging delay due to Lockdown Lackadasia) while out walking on the plain. I was making my way along a newish barbed wire fence that has been erected to protect a local SSSI, when I saw a bird with a pale-ish rump behaving in that familiar way about fifty yards off. The difference this time was that I had my telephoto-lensed camera with me.

There were two of them, and I could see through the lens straight away that they were Stonechats, male, above. And a female, below.

Not great pics but enough to identify them. So that was the species that had been playing with me all these years: mystery solved. Or so I thought.

When I got back home and was looking at the pictures on my computer, I thought I’d double check and do an internet search on “UK, bird, white rump”. 

One of the first images it came up with was a Wheatear.

I cross-checked in our RSPB Complete Birds of Britain and Europe guide book and found the following sentence in the Wheatear entry:

“It frequently flies ahead of people, not going far, and revealing its distinctive white rump each time it moves.”

So. There you go. After all that, the evasive birds I’d seen before may well have been Wheatears rather than Stonechats.

Not sure there’s a message here, except perhaps that identifying shy birds of open country is not always straight forward and some similar-looking birds (at least in the distance) of a similar size (the Wheatear is about an inch longer than the Stonechat) have similar behaviours. Now and again.

Anyway, whatever, I’m looking forward to getting my first picture of a Wheatear some time down the line – it’ll probably be next year now – for personal satisfaction if nothing else. I may have to travel a bit for an opportunity as I haven’t been aware of many close by. There are plenty of Stonechats though, I see quite a few of them in the summer up on the plain where we regularly walk the dogs. They’re becoming a favourite. The same day that I saw the pair fence-hopping I took a picture of what I decided, when I checked out the picture at home, was a Stonechat fledgeling. It could have been the progeny of the pair on the barbed wire fence as it wasn’t far away. With its mottled markings it reminded me of a Robin fledgeling. Pretty certain this is a young Stonechat though, as I’ve never seen Robins anywhere near.

A charming little Stonechat fledgeling

Then again on current identification form, I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

Fledglings and Caterpillars

Some “fledglings” are just too big for the word.

Okay, it’s recently out of its nest and yes it’s doing the wing-flappy thing and calling for its parents to feed it, but it’s just too big and dangerous-looking. For me a fledgling is a small vulnerable thing. Not a harbinger of doom with great big talons.

So I’m going to call it a young Raven.

For the time being anyway. Without hearing their call, I find it tricky differentiating with certainty between Crows and Ravens – particularly when they’re at a distance, which they usually are. There were no distinctive “honk-honk” calls from the adult birds I saw up on the plain a couple of days ago.

I managed to get one or two pictures of the them in flight and although they had longish wings – a Raven characteristic – the tail was not particularly wedge-shaped, which is also a main identifier for Ravens.

I tried to get an idea of the length of the young bird by using the 4 inch fence posts as a scale/guide. By my calculations (treat with caution) the young bird was a bit more than 21 inches long. So if the upper limit for crows is twenty inches, and the lower limit for Ravens is 21½ inches (RSPB guide), that does suggest the young bird was a Raven.

And when you compare the adult bird on the right of the above picture with the young hungry one on the left, the adult is a bit bigger still – more like twenty two inches (using the same method). But then I think the adult was a little closer in this photo so maybe that distorted things. I’m almost a hundred percent but not quite.

[CORRECTION: (posted a few weeks after this post) Glad I didn’t say I was a hundred per cent on the ID. I had assumed the fence posts were 4 inches in diameter as are the barbed wire fence posts alongside our garden, but it turned out they were more like 3.5 inches. Which of course throws out my calculations and makes it look far more likely that they were crows after all. Yet another schoolboy error in my ever lengthening dodgy record of species identification.]

Ravens have been spreading across the country from the West in recent years. I know of one or two other nests not far away (their distinctive “honk-honk” was heard) which have produced young so it looks like another good year for the species. Not all birds have done so well. I learned the other day that a lot of Great Tit and Blue Tit nests have failed this year due to a lack of caterpillars following the record-breaking cold May.

Apparently those parents that did raise young successfully often did so with the help of suet pellets from garden feeding stations. Which ties in with what I saw a few times with the fledgling Blue Tits that I photographed a couple of weeks back.

The bright pink blob turned out to be one of the suet pellets that Chantal had put out on the bird feeder. Apparently they’re made with berry juice which gives them the strong pink tinge.

The nesting season continues. With more insect life about now, current nesters will probably have a better chance of success. I’ve noticed a bullfinch standing guard in an Elder bush on the other side of the field.

He occasional drops down and goes into the brambles where I suspect the female is on their nest. I saw the male goldfinch of the pair nesting in the ivy tree doing a similar standing sentry thing for a while a month or so back. I wonder if it’s a finch thing. They seem so vulnerable to me out on display like that – no shortage of Sparrow Hawks here – but then our Goldfinches survived and raised a brood so it can’t be that bad a tactic.

An upside down Goldfinch Fledgeling feeding on aphids on the willow tree.

I’ve now also spotted a female Whitethroat, and a delicate wee thing she is. I’m guessing she’s partnered up with the male that’s been around for a while now.  She’s even more secretive and cautious than him.

Rare appearance of the shy female Whitethroat, keeping her distance

The male did come close enough the other day for me to get a couple of better photos, but he was still flitting about in amongst the undergrowth, making auto-focusing difficult. Photographically challenging, but beautiful little birds.

Other species seen during the Raven walk included a Yellowhammer and a Stonechat, both singing their hearts out. I’m guessing they were proclaiming their territory or maybe trying to attract females. Whatever, they should have a better chance of success now.

Yellowhammer in full flow
Stonechat contributing to the background twitter of all the other downland birds.

So the unusually cold weather in spring this year had a devastating effect on caterpillars and the bird life that depended on them. But not all caterpillars have had a tough time of it. A couple of weeks ago I noticed an infestation of caterpillars on an Aaron’s Rod plant which had appeared in the gravel by our back door.

I initially thought they might be caterpillars of the Large White Butterfly – they had a similar yellowy green colouring – but it seemed strange that they were on an Aaron’s Rod plant, their normal food plants being of the cabbage family. But as the caterpillars grew bigger and I looked closer it became apparent they were something different. A little research revealed them to be caterpillars of the The Mullein Moth (the Aarons Rod is also know as Great Mullein). Their black and yellow colouring suggests they might be toxic which, I’m guessing, is why no hungry birds picked them off.

Apparently once the Mullein caterpillars have had their fill, they wander off and find a suitable spot to bury themselves and pupate, only reappearing as moths two or three – sometimes as many as five – years later.

After the driest and sunniest spring on record in 2020, and the coldest May on record this year, who knows what kind of a spring will await them.

Fledglings in Dappled Light

Back on April 17th, I took a series of pictures of a pair of courting Blue Tits.

(If you visit the website, rather than viewing on email or the WordPress Reader, you’ll be able to see the below slideshows rather than all the individual pictures.)

The males do a lot of schmoozing, showering the females with gifts – a juicy caterpillar here, a sunflower heart there – and I’d always assumed it was the Blue Tit equivalent of boxes of chocolates and bunches of flowers. But having watched the way the adults feed their fledglings over the past few years, I’ve started wondering whether the female’s approach is a bit more pragmatic than that.

The adult females puff themselves up and flutter their wings in a way that looks very similar to the behaviour of fledglings begging to be fed in the hours and days after they’ve left the nest. 

Could the females be imitating the chicks to see if their behaviour triggers a sufficient feeding response in the prospective male? Maybe they’re checking out the male’s parenting potential before they take the plunge. Doesn’t seem unreasonable: you’d want a male who was good at feeding duties, especially when you could have as  many as ten chicks to look after.

Last Thursday, May 27th, two days short of six weeks since the Blue Tit courtship display, the pair’s progeny fledged. I first realised it was happening when I came outside the backdoor and saw one of the adults perched on the electric cable leading to the house.

He had a juicy looking caterpillar and was twittering in a way that sounded like he was trying to tempt the chicks out of the nest box. I went to see what was happening and I could hear three or four of the fledglings already in the willow tree and there was one in the long grass of the field on the other side of the stream that was calling out repeatedly.

The willow tree, handily positioned for fledglings on their maiden flights

I didn’t see any others leaving the nest box so I’m guessing the rest of the brood – if there were any more – had already dispersed.

Most of the brood were up in the willow tree already.

It can be a bit tricky getting the autofocus to work when your target is in the middle of a tree with branches behind and in front

One fledgling higher up was preening himself thoroughly which was understandable after two or three weeks cooped up in the nest box with all the attendant creepy crawlies.

And then I noticed the fledgling in the long grass fluttering its way up to the lower branches of the willow. It just made it and clung on.

He struggled his way up the dangling branch to a more horizontal perch.

But he was partially hidden behind a vertical branch so I moved a little closer to get a better angle.

The fledgling didn’t seem too impressed by my presence.

A few squeaks and wing flaps later, and one of the parents was down to feed him.

As he perched there, the dappled light shifted as the wind moved the leaves in the branches above, occasional giving the effect of a spotlight trained on him. 

Handsome young fellow
Another one partially in the spot light

Photography gets a lot easier when the subject is on the same level as you and not far away. It’s also handy if the subject is unsure about flying away, unwilling to risk another flight quite yet. It helps too when there aren’t too many branches in front or behind. And when there’s a small puff of wind and dappled sunlight flashes through the leaves for a moment and illuminates your subject perfectly, it’s the icing on the photographic cake.

Of course the fact that the fledglings are clumsy and reluctant flyers does make them easy targets for predators. A few jackdaws landed in the willow tree and looked around for the source of the tweeting. I couldn’t help myself: I shooed them away. And one of the crows saw other jackdaws off as well, as if to say these are my juicy little morsels, not anyone else’s. And then a squirrel turned up. He’d tight rope walked his way along the electric cable that passes through the tree. I know they raid nests and they might just be tempted to go after a clumsy fledgling or two. It was like the bush telegraph had put the word out: easy meals in the willow tree today. Of course we shouldn’t interfere with nature, but then again…

…I shooed him off as well. They’ll have enough time to do their predatory stuff when we’re not around.

Strange Flutter

On the rare occasions over the past couple of weeks that I’ve been out into the garden – we’ve had pretty relentless cold winds and rain – I haven’t seen a huge amount of nest site activity. I suspect they’re either sitting on their nests keeping eggs warm, or the chicks have fledged and the families moved on.

There is one site though, where there have been plenty of comings and goings: the Long Tailed Tits’ nest in the brambles. And it’s a slightly weird kind of activity that I’ve not seen before.

Both parents seem to be visiting the nest regularly with beaks full of mushed up insect life – they clearly have a hungry brood – but they don’t go straight into the nest. They usually land nearby and then fly a few feet into the air above, and do a sort of fluttering hover for a few seconds, before dropping down into the tangle of brambles and the nest below. But they don’t always go down into the nest first time. Sometimes they land on the brambles and fly up and do the hover-flutter thing again, occasionally several times before finally dropping down to the nest.

(If you visit the website, rather than viewing on email or the WordPress Reader, you’ll be able to see the below slideshows rather than the individual pictures.)

It’s a strange and delicate display, almost a dance. And it’s conspicuous too. I’ve been wondering what the purpose of it is.

Log Tailed Tit Ballet

Pretty much all the other species of birds do everything they can not to be noticed entering their nest, or otherwise do it very quickly. Which is understandable with all the potential nest raiders around.

But not the Long Tailed Tit.

If they wanted to alert a partner of their arrival, a partner perhaps sitting on the chicks to keep them warm in cold weather, why not just make a gentle tweet, or call out in some way like other species do, while staying safely hidden and not giving away the location of the nest to any watching eyes. 

I can understand why they would need to enter the nest from above: The Long Tailed Tit nest has a roof to it, and the entrance is on the side near the top, so from above would be the easiest way to access it in a bramble thicket with sharp, potentially wing-shredding thorns on every side. And I can also understand why they might want to alert their partner to get out of the nest to allow easy access for feeding the chicks. But why be so conspicuous?

I wondered whether fluttering above the nest was some kind of evolutionary trade off: the security of a thorny bramble protection weighed against a necessarily conspicuous entering-the-nest-from-above behaviour. Maybe. But it seems odd that no other birds seem to do it.

Apparently Long Tailed Tits have a nesting success rate of less than twenty per cent and I’m tempted to think their conspicuous behaviour may be part of the reason. But then again their population is currently stable or increasing so they must doing something right.

And then I saw two of them fluttering above the nest at the same time. What was that about? If both the long tailed tits were off the nest either one could have entered straight away. Why still hover?

Second hovering long tailed tit, low to the right

A little while later, I noticed three Long Tailed Tits together, foraging in the large willow tree near by, and it occurred to me that the third adult might be a related bird perhaps from a failed nest that was there to help the original couple (Long Tailed tits are apparently well known for this behaviour). So maybe there were now three Long Tailed Tits – or more – raising the brood. After the very blowy, potentially nest-wrecking weather we’ve had lately (gusting to 45 mph today and all tomorrow), a few casualties would have been inevitable. So perhaps when there are two birds hovering over the nest at the same time, they’re waiting for a third to make way.

Thinking about it some more, I can’t remember ever seeing magpies or Jays trying to get at a nest in a bramble thicket, so maybe the Long Tailed Tits’ behaviour isn’t that reckless. Even if they know where the nest is, the corvids may not want to risk damage on the thorns trying to get at it. I’ve seen sparrow hawks going after birds from blue tits to pigeons, but their prey is usually taken when perched on a branch or in mid air by the pursuing raptor. I’m wondering if, when Long Tailed Tits are hovering up and down they would be difficult, unpredictable targets. And I suppose if a Sparrow Hawk mistimed its strike, it could easily end up tangled in the thorns, which would be a bit off-putting as well.

Whatever, their hovering dance behaviour seems to work, though a Whitethroat who was watching from another bramble patch near by looked sceptical.

I first noticed him about a week ago. He seems to keep his head down most of the time. I haven’t seen a female yet, but I have noticed him returning now and again to another bramble patch not far away, so he may be another bramble-patch-nester. Or it may just be coincidence. We’ll have a better chance of knowing when the chicks – if he has any – start demanding food. It’ll be interesting to see, if he does have chicks, what the Whitethroats’ nest-approaching behaviour is. I can’t see it being as much of a delicate dance as the Long Tailed Tits.

Mixed Feelings

We now know the location of the Goldfinch nest. They’ve chosen an old ivy-clad, and previously pollarded, willow tree that died two or three years ago from Honey Fungus. At the time we cut off all the dead willow branches to use for kindling, and the ivy has since pretty much taken it over. We now call it the ivy tree. The Goldfinches are nesting near the top, on the field side.

The “Ivy Tree” is to the far left.

I’ve seen one of them, I assume the male, spending a lot of time hanging around outside at various vantage points. A securing cable for the near-by pole for the electricity line is a favourite, if uncomfortable-looking, spot.

He’s been singing his heart out which is his way, I think, of proclaiming his territory. I’ve seen him chase off other Goldfinches that have been passing by or pottering about in near-by trees. And then his partner occasionally pops out from the nest and they go off to do a bit of together foraging.

Yesterday one of them arrived back at the nest with what looked like a piece of grass or two, so maybe they’re still applying the finishing touches. Finished or not, the female is spending most of her time on the nest at the moment.

The thick coat of ivy seems to make the old willow tree a popular location. Pigeons have nested there in the past and a pair of Robins are currently nesting further down, about three foot off the ground. There was a pair of them nesting there last summer and the young fledged successfully – we watched them leave the nest one by one on a sunny afternoon – so it may well be the same couple back again.

In the winter I looked over the area where I thought the Robins’ nest was, but couldn’t see anything. The old tree trunk is hollow and there’s a long narrow opening which the ivy has now largely overgrown.

The entrance to the hollow inside extends maybe a couple of feet above from where it’s visible.

I suspect the Robins might be entering through the ivy and that the nest is actually inside the tree. Then again, the ivy growth is pretty thick and the nest might just be nestled against the trunk with the leaves covering it.

One of the residents. They don’t like going in when anyone’s watching.

There’s more than one pair of Robins in the garden and field, and they’ve had a few tussles lately. We’ve also noticed them having a go at a pair Dunnocks, who I think may be the pair now nesting in the largish bramble patch (to the right in the picture at the top) along with the Thrushes and Long Tailed Tits.

Robin with Attitude – is there any other kind

It’s all pretty competitive out there. And dangerous. The old willow tree with the Goldfinches and Robins is next to a couple of conifers in which I suspect there are one or two other nests as there’s been a lot of small bird activity there recently. Every time a member of the crow family flies by a flurry of small birds raise the alarm and chases after them.  They went berserk a few days ago when two jays passed through at the same time. 

A potential nest-raider watching over the garden, looking out for any give-away signs

A lot of birds become more predatory at this time of year it seems. We have a pair of Greater Spotted Woodpeckers regularly visiting the garden. They’ve always been welcome visitors in the past, but they’ve taken Great Tit chicks and Blue Tit chicks from our nest boxes in recent years – once wiping out an entire brood, so my feelings about them have become a little mixed. 

I’ve also had a soft spot for our resident pair of Carrion Crows. I saw one of them, a year or two ago, messing about in the stream and watched as it selected a white stone from the gravel bed and then flew off to his partner in the field who he presented it to. Which was kinda cute and endearing. Then a few days ago I stepped out of the back door and heard a loud commotion by the stream – wild screaching and flapping. I saw a Crow with what I thought initially might be a duckling in its beak – we’ve had mallard broods here in the past – but a male Blackbird’s loud alarm call, and its sudden appearance chasing after the Crow, which was flying away across the field almost immediately, suggested otherwise. Seeing the fluttering, screaming bird in the crows beak was pretty shocking. I thought it was a bit early for fledglings – I haven’t seen any about – but on the other hand I wasn’t aware that Crows took mature adults.

It all happened very quickly and I only managed to get a hurried picture of the Crow with its prey when it reached the other side of the field. The yellow edges of it’s gaping beak as it was being carried away, and its mottled chest, suggest the victim may well have been a fledgeling rather than an adult, but I don’t think there’s enough detail to be sure. Whatever, it’s now also a case of mixed feeling when it comes to crows. 

Another spring casualty

There’s a lot of new life about at the moment, but quite a bit of sudden death too. I guess that’s the nature of Nature. It’s tough out there.

It’s All About the Brambles

The birds are doing their usual springtime partnering-up thing and I’ve noticed one or two species returning to nest sites that they used last year. Once again the brambles are proving popular.

A pair of Long Tailed Tits are back, which is a bit of a surprise as I thought they’d deserted their nest, situated in one of the larger bramble patches in the field opposite, last year. I’ve read somewhere that if nest sites are predated, the birds will not return, which doesn’t seem unreasonable. But than again maybe this is a different pair and the site just has potential-long-tailed-tit-nest-site written all over it. Who knows.

Anyway, the pair of them are now busy collecting building material for the nest which seems to include little bits of dried grass…

…lots of cobwebs – presumably to help bind other materials together…

Plenty of cobwebs under the eaves and in the corners of windows

…and what looks like pieces of lichen from a near by willow tree:

I thought lichen seemed an unlikely building material but I’ve learned from a website called Nurturing Nature that Long tailed tits do indeed use lichen for the exterior of their nests. In the pictures on that site it looks like a kind of green/grey pebble dash which camouflages the nest and, I’m guessing, might strengthen the structure too.

I’ve also noticed that the Long Tailed Tits seem pretty relaxed about hanging around above the nest site – in between, that is, their frantic sessions of nest material collecting. Their occasional laid back attitude is very different from the nervousness of a pair of thrushes which are back nesting in the same bramble patch but on the other side. They’re incredibly secretive. I’ve never seen them hanging out close to the nest site and they always seem to approach it in a very round about way, taking their time about it too. They seem to do everything they can to avoid attracting attention.

Spot the Song Thrush, watching me watching her. She subsequently flew off without going into the nest. It really does feel like they know when they’re being watched.

I first noticed them this year when on one of the pair nipped out from the bramble patch and swiftly flew away. The pair that were nesting there last year always flew off at high speed when exiting the nest. My assumption was that they felt exposed out in the open with all the potential predators about. We didn’t see any thrush fledglings last year and I wondered whether they might have been predated too. But they could have just moved away to somewhere with better cover as soon as they’d left the nest. It’s quite open in the field and Sparrow Hawks are regular visitors. Particularly when there are fledglings about and they have their own young to feed.

I saw one of the thrushes again yesterday, going into the brambles with a mouthful of goo-like material in its beak. Seems a bit early to be feeding young but maybe it was a beak-full of mud, which I know they line their nest with. There’s a ready supply by the stream. Talking of lining nests, I read on the Nurturing Nature website that Long Tailed tits use something like 1500 feathers to line their nests. That’s a lot of little feathers to find. Apparently the tiny young need serious insulation to protect them from frosty spring nights. I think they’re now approaching the finishing stages of nest construction as they’ve just started collecting feathers. Just another 1,498 feathers to go.

Other possible bramble-nesters I’ve seen include a Dunnock that I noticed sitting proprietorially on another bramble patch that I’m pretty sure a pair of them nested in – or at the base of – last year.

And I’ve seen a Gold Finch hanging around on its own which is unusual – they usually come in pairs or flocks – and I’m wondering whether he has a mate brooding a clutch of eggs near by.

I also saw a robin singing its heart out perched on some painfully sharp-looking brambles a while ago, but that may just have been a good vantage point for his performance. 

With all the different nest-raiding corvids about – magpies, jays, jackdaws, a resident pair of crows and even the odd raven passing through  – the thorny barrier of a thick bramble patch must seem like good nest protection for smaller birds that can nip in and out to their nests without a problem.

Yesterday, in one of my regular wanders up the garden I saw – and heard – a male Blackbird chasing away one of a pair of Jays. And there was a magpie lurking around as well. They were back again pretty quickly. The odds do not look good. Maybe the Blackbirds will try a bramble patch next time.

Below is another picture of one of the delightful Long Tailed Tits. I include it here just because I like the image – a bit Japanese print-ish – and it’s also the first time I’ve noticed the curious circular bokeh effect of the new lens.

I think Long Tailed Tits are becoming one of my favourite species.

Right Place, Right Time

Nothing much has been happening in the garden lately in the way of photo opportunities, or in the field opposite, so on a sunny day last week I decided to have a wander round a local lake to see if there was any bird life about that might be worth capturing. 

First glances were not promising. The resident swans were on the bank and made it clear, as we approached, that we should keep our distance, which we did as much as the fence would allow: about ten or twelve feet which was a bit close but there was no hissing or puffing up of feathers, even with the dogs in tow.

Further along the bank a bunch of moorhens and a pair of little grebes scattered and shot off into the reeds – a lot less chilled out than the swans. And that was about it. I saw a cormorant fly overhead at one point and managed to get it in focus just as it turned to fly away again. But then, as I pressed the shutter, Flint, the younger of our two whippets, jumped up at me for some reason and below is the resultant picture.

Flint-assisted photograph of cormorant: fresh air.

So not satisfied with scaring off potential photographic subjects, Flint has now started jogging me at just the wrong moment as well.

There was no other birdlife to be seen. We did see some toads in the shallows having their annual orgy, so I made do with them as a subject. And I was unexpectedly pleased with the result. The lighting was good and the angle has caught the viscous surface of the water nicely. My best toad photograph to date – though admittedly there’s not a lot of competition.

Spring, Sprung, cuddling toad-style

One other aspect of the walk which I hadn’t expected was that I found it pretty easy carrying  around the camera with the new long lens attached. I’d expected it be a bit heavy at around two and half kilos. And awkward – possibly clumping about on my hip with the camera strap over my shoulder – but I hardly noticed it. Yes, it was only a relatively short walk but it was okay. I took it with me yesterday to see how practical it was on a longer dog walk.

At this time of year I wasn’t expecting to see much on the downland where I was going to walk the dogs, but you never know. I didn’t see any birds as we started out but It wasn’t long before I heard a large flock of starlings twittering in the distance. As I approached the tall beach trees, I could see the birds were all in the high branches. The sun was on the other side, so I walked through the avenue of trees to where I’d have a better chance of seeing the birds more clearly and not in silhouette against the sun. They were too far away but I took a couple of pictures anyway just for the hell of it.

And then, just after another smaller flock of starlings arrived, all the birds suddenly flew off in a rush.

The reason was soon apparent: a larger bird was fluttering down to the ground and I recognised immediately what it was and what had happened. I had seen something similar years ago in Savernake Forest when I witnessed a Sparrow Hawk taking down a full-grown Jay. This time the unlucky bird was a starling.

They landed not too far away and I’d been standing still, with my camera in hand, so I really was in the right place at the right time. I tried to get a shot of the predator and prey as they fluttered down, but the camera didn’t focus in time. I did however get one shot pretty much as they landed.

Sparrow Hawk with unfortunate starling in its talons

You can see one or two feathers still floating down.

I kept motionless and took several more shots of the raptor “mantling” its prey while the poor starling squawked and flapped away its final seconds. And then the Sparrow Hawk flew off to get under the cover of some brambles not far away. I left him to it. Below is a slide show of some of those shots.

And this time the dogs were both far ahead and didn’t interfere. Maybe causing me to miss the probably dull picture of a cormorant in flight was Flint’s idea of quality control. One thing’s for sure: if he’d messed up my chance of capturing the Sparrow Hawk sequence, it would’ve been no treats for a day or two.


On Salisbury Plain

The above picture is one of the first I’ve taken with my new iPhone. It’s replaced the old museum piece of a mobile which, over the years, has been working less and less well and falling further and further behind in terms of its functionality compared to newer models, particularly the ability, via WiFi, to connect to the mobile network in places where there is only the faintest of mobile signals. Like our house. And also there’s only so long you can go on using elastic bands to keep the plug attached to your phone when you’re trying to recharge it. Having such an old model had become a kind of badge of honour, but the cost in terms of its shortcomings had become too much: the bullet had to be bitten.

The transition to the new phone was surprisingly painless in terms of data transfer and stuff, but I hadn’t tried out the camera up until a particular crisp and frosty morning about a week ago. I knew the the software was capable of exposing different parts of an image in different ways, enabling you to get more balanced pictures in contrasty conditions. So I thought I’d see how it would handle capturing the sky and the more delicate colouring of the frosty grass in the foreground with the camera pointed directly at the sun. You don’t get much more potentially contrasty than that.

The colours are a little hazy, but I thought it did pretty well. And it was much easier than it would have been fiddling about with HDR settings on the Nikon.

It’s been a slightly sad nostalgic farewell to the old iPhone though.

Pretty much the last picture taken on my old iPhone 4: snowdrop buds poking though the leaf litter on Boxing Day (plus over-exposed whippet foot in top left corner).

Of course the Nikon has its own strengths, particularly when it comes to telephoto photography, but it’s been a bit of a struggle over the last couple of months when clear frosty mornings have been the exception to the gloomy norm.

In terms of subjects, there’s been little in the way of wildlife in the garden or the field opposite. And when wildlife has appeared, it’s either been passing through at high speed or been there in dull light. Or both. There was a female muntjac we spotted running through the mist the other morning and I had no idea they could move that fast. The mist was swirling in her wake.

We’ve seen Egrets on a couple of occasions, but they are rare visitors here and amongst the most nervous. They seem always to see you before you see them which means, generally, what you get to see of them is their rear view flying away very quickly. Another challenge for 2021.

I managed a few pictures of Muntjacks back in November when the days were a bit brighter, but since then I haven’t seen much at all apart from the local fox which passes through now and again looking for mice and voles. Nice to see them doing that prancing jump thing they do when trying to land on one, but it’s not happened yet when I’ve had the camera on them.

Below are a few of the pictures I have managed to get with the new 500mm lens.

And below is a slideshow of the fox trying to catch a small rodent: “Gotcha!”, “Well I thought I’d gotcha”, “I’m sure he’s here somewhere”, “Where’d he go?”

Like all of us, I’m looking forward to brighter, longer days ahead.

New Photographic Opportunities

My new telephoto zoom lens has arrived. It’s huge and heavy and not for taking on dog walks. It’s a Nikon 200-500mm and it weighs in at nearly two and half kilos. Wandering around outside, strap on shoulder, hand on the camera grip ready for test-shot action, I felt like a paparazzi. A self-conscious one. This new set up will take a bit of getting used to.

I decided to shell out what was around twice the cost of the camera itself to enable me to get better shots of the various animals and birds that pass through (and sometimes take up residence in) our garden and the adjoining field. It should result in noticeably more detail than I’ve been getting with my 70-300mm lens. And it should mean less cropping generally.

View of the adjoining field, taken back in May

I’ve told myself that the expense is justified ‘A’ because of lockdown – what else you gonna do? – and ‘B’ because we do get quite a lot of wildlife – and resultant photographic opportunities – from Roe Deer and Muntjacks to stoats and water shrews. When it comes to bird life we’re lucky too. We’ve had Egrets on the stream and even occasional visits from Kingfishers, though with no fish to speak of in the shallow stream they’re only ever passing through (I’ll have to be quick and have the camera within reach if I’m ever going to get a shot of one). We get a few bird species you’d normally see in open countryside, as well as the more typical garden birds, but not too many of them. They all look bit nervous. I suspect it’s because we have a lot of Corvids here as well – particularly Magpies, Jays and Jackdaws – and Raptors too. Buzzards nest each year in a tall oak a couple of hundred yards away, and we usually have Sparrow Hawks nesting nearby.

The buzzards have had a tough time of it this year as the rabbit population locally was devastated by Myxomatosis. It was horrible to see the sickly things struggling blindly about in the field and finding their way onto the patio occasionally where it was my job to dispatch them. Within a week or two there were no rabbits left. It seemed to me the Buzzard fledglings, when they appeared, were squawking more loudly for food from their parents than in previous years. And for longer.

One of the squawking fledgelings, waiting for the next food delivery

There were two survivors from the nest and they sounded increasingly desperate as the days went by. On one occasion I saw a parent trying to teach them the basics of hunting with a tiny mouse – or at least that’s what I think was happening. Maybe she was just making them work for it. Whichever, it felt like an indicator of just how tough things were getting for them.

Hungry buzzard fledglings, desperate for that mouse. Hopefully sharper images will be get-able with the new lens.

Anyway, we’re hoping we’ve seen the back of the Myxomatosis – for now anyway. I saw a couple of rabbits chasing each other the other day and that’s as many rabbits as I’ve seen in the field at any one time for a few months now. 

Without rabbits we don’t see their predators so much. There’s always been a buzz of excitement when a fox wanders through the field or peers out from behind some undergrowth, or just sits there watching on.

Surprisingly – to us anyway – the rabbits usually seem pretty relaxed about it. Some of them behave as if they’re sentries, sitting up ramrod straight, watching, listening. It looks like they know when a fox is on the hunt and when it’s just passing through. They also seem to know exactly when they need to make a dash for their burrows – or the adults do. The carefree young ones, with their first days out in the open air, full of the joys of fresh grass and buttercups, are not so wary. You see the mothers shepherding the young back towards the safety of their burrows when they stray too far away. And they do it quite briskly sometimes. The young rabbits don’t always want to be told.

Spot the point of interest

In the winter the foxes can look a bit skinny and muddy, from getting in and out of their earths during wet weather, I’m guessing. But during the summer when it’s dry and there’s usually plenty of food about, they’re in peak condition.

Wider shots with animals seen in the context of their surrounding are possible with the 70-300mm.

The device you’re viewing this on may have cropped the ends of the picture which would defeat the purpose of it. Apologies if that’s the case.

And when you’re looking to emphasise distance between predator and quarry, the less strong telephoto lenses are also okay. In fact I seem to remember I knitted two shots together for the picture above, as the wider end of the zoom couldn’t capture both rabbit and fox at the same time. It will be nice, though, to have the possibility of closer shots.

The relationship between foxes and rabbits provide much of the wildlife drama here. And the rabbits provide a bit of humour too. Their chases and their crazy acrobatics in particular. Not sure whether the whirling backward flips that some of them do is to impress prospective mates or just the result of over excitement. Whatever, it’s one of the things I’m hoping I might be able to capture this year with the new lens. We’re hoping the rabbit population recovers more quickly than it did when Myxie passed through a few years ago.

Now that I have my new lens, there have been fewer opportunities to use it. The migratory birds have gone and there are fewer daylight hours than there were. We’ve had a Roe Deer appearing in the field now and again. But she’s always at the further most point – a hundred yards or more away – where she likes to lie down and watch over the valley (if you look at the view of the field at the top of this blog, she’s between the small copse and the hedgerow at the top left of the field). And we only ever seem to see her when the light is gloomy. Now the sun is out, she’s nowhere to be seen. Managed to get a few shots of her when she was here, hiding behind tufts of grass. I couldn’t see her with the naked eye – or my naked eyes anyway (it was Chantal who spotted her). Below is my first attempt – cropped a bit – with the new 200-500mm.

Promising, I think. But here’s hoping for some sunny days in the next few months with beautiful creatures doing interesting things. And for me to have camera to hand when I spot them.

Photographic Cautionary Tale – yet another

And Some Late Season Surprises

When I did the regular dog walk on Friday I didn’t bother taking my camera with me as it was overcast and I didn’t expect much in the way of butterfly action anyway. And sure enough there wasn’t any. The days definitely have an end of season feel to them now. But then, when I arrived back home the sun popped out, I saw a couple of Small Whites fluttering about in the front garden and also, more interestingly, a Small Copper. It landed and stayed landed on a grass bank. I hadn’t taken a picture of a Small Copper in the garden this year, so I nipped inside to get the camera and when I got back the butterfly was, unusually, still there. The sun had gone in but it was sheltered in that particular spot and the butterfly was very still. I decided to try dropping the exposure speed down to 1/50 to see if I could get a sharp image with a reasonably low ISO. And I did. The result is below.

Small Copper on a tangle of grass

Fast forward a couple of minutes to the back of the garden.

I thought I’d have a bit of a walk-about to see if there were any other late season butterfly surprises. There was nothing, initially. And then Chantal, who was enjoying the warmth of the Autumn Sun with a cup of tea at the back of the garage, called out that there was a yellowish butterfly heading towards the garden from across the field. And she thought it might be a Clouded Yellow. As soon as she’d said it, the butterfly had turned round and landed somewhere in the thick undergrowth, so I didn’t get to see it.

I hadn’t taken a picture of a Clouded Yellow in the adjoining field – or the garden – before, so I thought it worth a try. I asked Chantal to keep an eye on where it had landed as I clambered down to cross the stream. I also had to get over the barbed wire fence on the other side which can be a tricky manoeuvre when you’re holding a camera, making you effectively one-handed for holding down the springy barbed wire while balancing on one leg to lift the other one over. But I managed it without any nasty rips in awkward places.

The field back in May. (The white of the Hawthorn Blossom at the back of the field has now turned to berry red.) The garage from where Chantal gave directions (bench just out of shot) is to the right of the stream

Once in the field I asked Chantal to direct me to the where she thought the butterfly had landed, which she did. “Left a bit, right a bit, keep going…”. It’s usually quite boggy ground in that part of the field and that’s what it felt like underfoot (it’s difficult to see where you’re treading with the weeds waist high at this time of year). I’d discovered previously, when following escapee whippets or stalking small butterflies in the field, that the best way to cross the boggy ground, when you’re not wearing  boots, is to try to step from tussock to tussock, of which there are quite a few. But searching for the next one through the thick undergrowth is not easy. You haven’t got much time to look ahead for butterflies. It was tricky.

“You’re just about there,” was the call from behind the back of the garage. 

I looked over and around the foliage in front of me and, sure enough, there it was: a Clouded Yellow. “You were right,” I called out. And then as I was manoeuvring into a good photographic position, the butterfly flitted off again. “Oh well, opportunity gone for another year,” was my immediate reaction. Clouded Yellows spend a lot of time flying quickly and not a lot of time landing and keeping still – in my experience – and I wasn’t expecting it to land again close by. But this time, to my surprise, it did. It landed almost immediately on another piece of vegetation just a few paces away. In my excitement I forgot the tussock to tussock rule and immediately felt a slip-on deck shoe splodge into the watery bog between them. A brief pause as I felt water seep in between the laces and then I was off again. And the slip-on deck shoe, predictably, slipped off. I’d never managed a shot of a Clouded Yellow in the field before so leaving the shoe behind didn’t seem like too big a deal, and within a few one-shoed paces the butterfly was in range. I manoeuvred into position – it still hadn’t flown off – and started taking pictures. Through the lens it looked like I was getting one or two nice shots. I managed to move round to the other side to get a couple of shots with the sun on the butterfly which would mean a nice variety and a few shots to choose from. Brilliant. And then the butterfly was off and this time it didn’t stop, disappearing behind trees at the edge of the field. But I’d got my pictures. I found my shoe, slipped it back on to a soggy-socked foot, and wandered back towards the garden. I have to admit to a small feeling of triumph at that point.

And then I had a thought: had I changed the speed back to my usual default setting of 1/500 from 1/50 which I’d set it to when I took the shot of the very stationary Small Copper.

I checked the setting on my camera. The answer was no. 

It had somehow got to 1/100, but with the breezy condition out in the middle of the field, and the way the butterfly had been moving about, it meant the chances of having a good crisp picture were low.

And so it proved. Below is the best of the bunch.

As you can see, the picture is not sharp. And it could’ve been a nice shot: the composition was okay; the background was nicely blurred; the wings had a little bit of illumination from the sun, which I like, and the rusty brown markings on the yellow wings nicely echoed the rusty brown markings of the fading leaves. What can I say? When it comes to taking photographs it’s a good idea to check the settings before, rather than after, you’ve taken them. Even if I was a bit excited at the time, it was a schoolboy error and yet another good opportunity blown. I stomped about in my soggy sock and waterlogged shoe for a bit before I stopped cursing.

The story does have a more positive ending though.

The next day, Saturday, I was walking towards the garage when I noticed a yellow butterfly beyond it, flitting about over the grass. I hurried back to the house to get my camera, and about half a minute later I was in the middle of the lawn, looking around for yellow butterflies and this time double-checking the exposure on the camera. And then there it was: high up, moving along the line of a tall hedge and flying at speed away from me. I went in pursuit, hoping against all reasonable expectation that it might just change direction and fly directly at me. And that’s exactly what it did. I couldn’t believe it. And it landed on a late flowering blue geranium a few paces away. I managed to get about a dozen shots and the best three are below. Simple as that.

The dead and dying foliage with the bright green background makes for a confusing image, but the contrasting blue of the geranium in a garden pretty devoid of colour in early/mid October was a positive. And this time the focus was pretty crisp.

I noticed a couple of things in the pictures when I saw them on the computer screen.

Firstly, judging by the markings on the wings (particularly the shape of the smaller of the two white dots ringed in brown) the one I saw on Saturday was a different individual from the one I saw on the Friday. Secondly, there were some blueish markings near the base of the wings of the Saturday Clouded Yellow, which I don’t think I’ve seen before. I’m wondering whether they are actually unusual markings or whether perhaps it’s been smudged with blue pollen on its travels. Do any flowers out there have blue pollen? Or could it be some kind of bruising? One to check out.

Then today, the sun came out again. After the last couple of days I had my camera (settings checked) with me while I enjoyed the end of a Sunday lunchtime beer behind the garage. I could see a couple of what looked like Small Whites flitting around some bramble bushes some distance away and was absent-mindedly wondering whether the butterflies might be sipping the sugary juice of the over-ripe blackberries, when another butterfly, a brown and orangey one, suddenly appeared and landed on one of the few remaining flowers of Catnip in the garden. I had a vague idea it might be a Gatekeeper, but were they about at this time of year?

As soon as I saw it through the lens I could see it was a Wall Brown, the first one I’d definitely seen in the garden. I managed to get a couple of shots before it was off again, landing twenty feet away on a tiny Herb Robert flower, and this time it kindly opened its wings. I managed to get a picture of it there too. And then it was off and away and the visitation was over. A look at the Butterfly Conservation website confirmed that Wall Browns are around until Mid October.

So there we are. I’d thought the butterfly season was pretty much over, and within the space of three days I’d seen two species I’d never seen in the garden before. And taken pictures of them too, even if I did fluff the first attempt. Lesson learned. At least for the time being.