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 fully 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.

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.

Big Downpour, Tiny Lizard

Male Common Blue in low evening sunlight, in amongst bullrushes

We had a tropical downpour in rural Wiltshire the night before last. We were woken by seriously big rain clattering on the roof and there was instant dual springing out of bed and panic closing of all the wide-open windows upstairs. One of our dogs, Roxie, was shaking and whimpering downstairs – she’s not a fan of thunder and lightening – and we had to feed her slithers of ham to calm her down. You give slithers of ham to one dog and you have to give slithers of ham to the other. And then you start getting a bit peckish yourself – at two in the morning. All to a background of dramatic lightning flashes and rumbling thunder. Strange night.

Was hoping the downpours might have eased the humidity a bit but not so far. This is the second day of cloudy damp and drizzle, which is not great butterfly weather. It hasn’t been great butterfly-spotting weather for a while now:  either too hot for the dogs to walk out in the open where the butterflies generally are, or it’s been overcast but still hot and steamy and not great walking weather either, for man or dog. 

Walking has been confined to early mornings under the trees. We’re lucky to have shady woodland at the top of a breezy escarpment five minutes drive away. It doesn’t attract many butterflies but does attract a lot of other dog-walkers. In these socially-distancing times it’s often the most human interaction we get all day.

So, not many butterfly pictures lately. We do now have a few Common Blues in the garden and field along with all the Small Whites which seem to be looking for places to lay their eggs at the moment. About a week ago I managed one or two evening shots with low sun of Common Blues. The one at the top is an example. The one below another.

Female Common Blue on dry grass

The last good sunny walk we had was at Tilshead Down, a week and a bit ago, where I saw my first Small Copper of the year. 

Thought it was a female Common Blue flittering about in the long grass (I’d just taken a picture of one) before I saw it through the lens. And then it was up and away and we didn’t see another. The angle wasn’t right for showing off its shiny copper wings, but good to tick off another species for the year.

UPDATE, AUGUST 28th: I misidentified the butterfly below left. I’m now pretty sure it’s a Brown Argus. Another first of the year for me!

And then we saw a tiny thing wriggling its way across the dusty path just ahead of us. A closer look showed it to be a Common Lizard, no more then a couple of inches long, including its tail.

Not the best shot in the world. But it was almost impossible to see it against the dirt with its perfect camouflage. The autofocus struggles when there is little contrast and low light. And it’s difficult to focus manually when you can’t make out the tiny thing you’re trying to focus on. I include the picture here as it was not only the first lizard I’d seen this year, it’s the first I’ve seen in two or three years. We don’t get to see many of them – or at least I don’t – in this neck of the woods. I suspect the dog element of walking doesn’t help. When you’ve got a couple of them running about ahead of you, scaring away anything sensible that might be in their path, you get to see less small wildlife than you otherwise might. But of course if I wasn’t walking dogs I wouldn’t be out there anyway.