Monday, 29 June 2009

Lakenheath is quite good

and Golden Orioles are a bit rubbish. Those are the conclusions I can take from this weekend.

The uber-camera came out in place of scope on this trip, since I didn't expect to be doing the usual Essex birding thing and distinguishing brown wader sized blobs at half a mile across marshland. And besides, I was still keen to play some more with the new toy. I was chauffered and accompanied by these people respectively, which was very nice of them.

Turned into a bit of a butterfly watcher on the early part of the walk, because they were everywhere and nothing poses for a photo quite like a butterfly. We had Small Tortoiseshell, Ringlets, Painted Ladies, Green-Veined Whites, a Large White, a probable Meadow Brown, and a definite Red Admiral before we'd even got round the first Poplar stand. A bit further along we picked up a Large Skipper - my first Skipper of the year - which hung around for a good 5 minutes, and gave some fantastic photo opportunities. Gratuitous butterfly photos below:

Small Tortoiseshell

Ringlet - notice the rings on the underwings. I had a wings open picture as well, but this is better

Red Admiral - The shallow depth of field pleases me

Large Skipper - tough call, but after much consultation with the butterfly ID book all were agreed

Pictures were somewhat less exciting on the bird front:

A friendly Reed Bunting

Sometimes having an expensive camera just gives you a better quality of blob

A yellow leaf that wasn't an Oriole

The birds themselves were quite respectable. I saw a brief sillouhette that everyone else said was an Oriole, and combined with the brief snatch of song Spooooooooonbillz and I heard earlier in the walk, and the cat call we all picked up on the way back, I'm giving it a tick. There was also some very nice booming from the resident Bittern which kept us entertained while we fried on a bench waiting for the Oriole to no-show.

My only other tick on site was a flypast Turtle Dove from the Crane/Harrier watchpoint, though I did get to see something I hadn't seen before on one of the lakes.

I actually think the young Great Crested Grebes look a bit smarter than the adults at this time of year

Other birds of interest were a few loud Cuckoos, one of which provided a brief cabaret in the trees where the masses were watching for Golden Orioles, a Hobby and singing Reed and Sedge warblers everywhere.

Other misc birds seen from the car were a Buzzard over Essex, and Yellowhammers on the way back from Orsett (year tick there). Parus apparently saw a Spotted Flycatcher on a wire in Lakenheath town proper, which is irritating because I didn't. He does this often. They all go into the book of grudges.

A good site, but too far away for regular birding. Next visit will probably be a winter one, hopefully on the way to some awesome Norfolkian coastal winter birding. Watch this space.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Best laid plans

Well the plan for today was to get over to Rainham and break a 2 week bird-drought, but while paying for petrol I saw a big lump of something hanging off the bottom of the car. Turns out it's a metal cover of some kind and it's been ripped off the brackets under the bonnet. Don't know how, it doesn't hang down below the car so it can't be speed bumps. It's not a functional bit, in fact it looks like it might be a heat deflector of some kind so the car was still drivable and presumably perfectly safe so long as I'm not thundering down motorways, but the engine was too hot to take it out straight away and now it's cooled down it'll be too late to get over there before the rugby. Such is life. Have wired it back on now anyway. Keep an eye on Rainham's recent sightings page, I'm expecting the rarities to come pouring in.

So I'm playing with Spotify instead. Verdict so far is pretty good. I've managed to find and listen to most of a Dream Theater album most of a Spiers and Boden album and I've just found a Jazz album with ITZHAK PERLMAN AND ANDRE PREVIN ZOMG!!!11!1 (two of my very very favorite classical musicians) playing together, pretty much the opposite ends of my musical taste, with nary a hint of an advert. The audio quality is good enough that my speakers arn't high def enough to find anything wrong, the software is easy to use and, most importantly, it runs under Wine so I don't have to boot into V***a to use it. This may well be the future of online music, so I want in at the beginning.

Birds tomorrow. Definitely. Whatever happens.

For this afternoon, I'm watching Lions.

In the spirit of birdlessness, here is a disgruntled Wood Pigeon.

Monday, 15 June 2009

A bird related update at last

Just this second had a Coal Tit in the garden. Score! Tick Tick Tick. What with the forked lightning (5 seconds until the thunder = storm about a mile away) my window's much more interesting to look out of at the moment than is usually the case.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. Yesterday I got to spend a couple of hours birding round Frensham Little Pond in Hampshire while the woman was rehearsing for a concert, a large area of land heavily forested by Conifers. Almost entirely Conifers. In fact, you couldn't take a step without crushing half a dozen pine cones. Want to guess at what I didn't see? Perhaps predictably, no luck with Loxia curvirostra this time round. Nice scenery though, and the usual smattering of Robins and Blackbirds trying to trip me up by singing eachother's songs.

And of course, the Small Pond itself.

A bit more interesting on the bird front round this area. There were warblers galore nesting in the reeds and I initially took them all to be Sedges based on the song I could hear, but a couple of poor photographs* have thrown up some doubt. I'll be sticking them up in a Birdforum ID thread, but feel free to have a go yourselves. I'll label them BIRD 1 and BIRD 2.

BIRD 1: Well defined pale supercilium, but the top of the head doesn't seem dark enough for Sedge, and then there's the orangey/brown shade of the legs. This looks more like a Willow than anything else to me, having compared it to the books. Obviously no song with a mouthful of bugs.

BIRD 2: Resigned to the fact that this is probably unidentifiable. Very orange legs and bill though. Could be a young version of bird 1, except that it appears to be gathering food - would assume it's feeding young of its own.

More unexpected was a Common Tern fishing on the side of the lake not disturbed by swimmers. He was most obliging.

Showing beautifully the black tip to the bill that makes it a Common rather than an Arctic. Because, you know, it might have been an Arctic in the middle of rural Hampshire. Pfft.

Also heard but not found were 2 Chiffys in amongst the trees, and more Wren than I could count. It made for a pleasant walk, and deserves far more time than I gave it.

Other than that, a green streak flying across the front of the car while I was driving marked only my SECOND Green Woodpecker of the year. And a walk round the Weald and Downland open air museum on the Saturday produced a vertible flood of Swallows nesting in the old style thatched rooves. Many of the windows are unglazed and its quite a thing to walk into a doorway as a Swallow bursts out above your head.

Weekend butterflies consisted of a definite Speckled Wood, and another which looked skipperish at the time - brown wings with orange streaks on the upperside of the forewing - but resting the forewings weren't held over the hindwings. Nothing in the book quite matches, and I didn't get a photo, so here's an artists impression:

A poor artist to be sure, but an impression nonetheless. Perhaps the woman will tell me if she remembers differently.

After a few weeks of very little birdwatching activity it's been quite refreshing to get out and get back into practice again. After next weekend I get a big leap in free time, so hopefully interesting content will abound. Or something.

*Basically I'm an idiot. I'm still not used to this camera and its many many buttons and features, and forgot that the last time I'd played with it it'd been tripod mounted, in which case image stabilisation is just a waste of battery power. So I'd switched it off. Didn't show up too much on the landscape pictures, but the telephoto lens didn't suffer it so well at 300mm. The later pictures were taken with image stabilisation ON and are generally much better.

Sunday, 7 June 2009


Because I would hate to disappoint Spooooooooooonbillz.

The walk from Regents Park station to London Zoo is a pleasant one. It also contains a pleasant little cafe called The Honest Sausage. If you are hungry, weary traveller, and your wallet is suitably well endowed, you should stop there. And actually, considering we're in London at this point, and considering the location of the cafe, the prices arn't nearly as astronomical as they could be. I didn't photograph the towering bacon roll that Maiden_Lulu somehow tucked away, but I wish I had. Personally, I had a very acceptable sausage. Can't speak as to its honesty, but the flavour was pretty good.

Fortified for an afternoon's wandering, we headed for the zoo.

If the aquarium was a chance to me to play with the kit lens, in London Zoo the Sigma 70-300mm never left my camera. And really, I didn't use it to anywhere near its capabilities. However, I did leave the Zoo knowing exactly what functionalities I needed to look up when I got home. It was a good trial of camera owner as well as camera. So without further ado:

First animals to get the long-lens treatment were the African Hunting dogs, Giraffes and Zebras. All quite obliging - zoo photography is such a cheat.

Look at those lips go.

As we walked toward the next enclosures a couple of damselflies put in an appearance. Not exactly zoo animals, but a perfect chance to test out the lens's Macro capabilities from a couple of metres away.

The other thing I hadn't learned to do with the camera is spot focus - hence a slightly blurry damselfly and a nicely focused leaf.

I haven't got round to buying my damselfly book yet, so answers on a postcard.

The Warthogs lived up entirely to my expectations.

Which made quite a contrast to the aviaries on the north side of the river. Your patience will now be rewarded. I know, bird photos on a bird blog, how shocking.

Grey Headed Gull - weird looking things

Bald Ibis

Believe these are both Von der Decken's Hornbills

Hawk Owl

Spectacled Owls

This post is getting far too long. I shall rush through a few mammal pictures.

Meerkats with mini-Meerkat

I love otters. Too much Tarka/Ring of Bright Water as a child I think

The Golden Eagle captured my imagination. Look at those eyes - so fierce. I think a trip to the Highlands is on at some point.

The Gorillas are incredible animals - their expressions and movements are so close to human, and they showed genuine intelligence and curiosity about all these odd hairless apes trying to watch them eat. Could have watched them for a lot longer, but the crowds around them were huge.

Komodo Dragon anyone? This is one big lizard. And with both venom glands AND highly pathogenic saliva, one to watch out for.

The last creature we saw was a particularly dangerous one. Responsible for widespread extinction of species, destruction of habitat and Andrew Lloyd Webber. You guessed it:

A nicely thought out little exhibit, which consisted of a smallish glass box with a pegged off area outside so that the humans could get access to fresh air if they wanted. It appealed to my sense of humour anyway.

Much not included, as it's not a birdwatching post and I only have 1 gig of photo memory to last me on this blog. Besides, you're mostly busy people.

Zoo verdict: Definitely worth a visit. We spent most of an afternoon there and didn't get round everything. Would definitely go again.

Camera verdict: Awesome. I feel fully justified in spending the money, and keen to get out there and learn more about it.

Saturday, 6 June 2009


Although first of all, I would like to offer an explanation for my being a crap blogger recently. It is threefold:
  1. I am not a very good guitarist, and must become a much better guitarist in the next couple of months unless I want to spoil a good friend's wedding. Much time and effort is currently devoted to making this happen.
  2. I am working on a sooper sekrit sekrit bird related project, the results of which will likely be shared with the rest of mankind for the benefit thereof if I ever get the damn thing working.
  3. The twitter feed has absorbed much in the way of the pointless short postings which make up the vast bulk of my output.
So with that out of the way, see below for the magic:

A couple of weeks ago, I managed to happily combine the first off-site trials of my new camera/lens with a cool wildlife related day out with the missus. The London Aquarium near Waterloo and London Zoo in regents park. It was good fun - I'd never been to the former, and it's been years since I'd visited the latter. As far as photos are concerned the Aquarium was, for obvious reasons, a bit dark for photography, but I managed to get some good ones.

First stop was the Ray pool where we'd arrived just in time to see them fed. Rays are extremely cool, possibly because they are closely related to sharks. Both have a cartilaginous skeletal structure as opposed to the more traditional material of bone, and the skin of both feels rather a lot like sandpaper. Disappointingly, touching the rays is no longer allowed (it used to be, and I remember doing this as a child at the equally exciting Southend Sea Life Centre), but in these days of health and safety and following the completely unrelated death-by-stingray of Steve Irwin, I imagine the letters of complaint from uninformed parents were too much to bear.

Low light conditions were extreme, the fish constantly moving and flash photography not allowed - this a flavour of the best level of photo I was able to get:

Which I'm not unhappy with - the length of shutter speed I was using really demanded a tripod so if anything I'm impressed with the level of image stabilisation. The pattering on the back is clear, and reading the instruction manual properly before the visit would probably have allowed me to ramp up the iso values a bit. My fault.

The other animal we particularly wanted to see here was the Seahorse. I don't know anyone who isn't somehow fascinated by seahorses - they're the most unlikely looking creatures. Photos were a bit more successful here as the tanks were well lit, and seahorses are by nature fairly sedentary creatures:


Am I the only one who sees this?

Plenty of other usual suspects were present - the obligatory sharks, some terrapins, more tropical fish than I could shake a stick at. The missus took a particular liking to anything yellow - particularly the Yellow Tang.

Giving an excellent view of the small spines just in front of the tail fin

Being male and unable to help myself, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to photograph the fast moving sharks in low light conditions.

All in all I was impressed with the set-up and the collection at the aquarium. It's expensive - don't get me wrong - even buying in advance over the net, and I wouldn't go again unless there was a very special offer on ticket prices, but it was well worth doing once.

To finish off, here are some other pictures that came out particularly well:

Garden Eel. Very odd. Though not quite as odd as the upside-down jellyfish that I forgot to photograph.

Terrapin, and my first taste of the kind of crisp image this camera can achieve when it's not shooting through thick glass in low light.

Sorry, can't remember the name of this one. Royal something I think.

Rainbow something for this one.