Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Swan feed, at the WWT Welney

This weekend, I was back in Cambridgeshire visiting family.  While I was there, I took a trip to the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust at Welney to experience one of their winter swan feeds.

Each winter thousands of swans and migratory ducks flock to the Ouse washes from their breeding grounds in Iceland and Arctic Russia for winter.  To help them out, the WWT provides daily feeds to boost their own foraging and it's quite a spectacle.

At the last count, taken on the 18th December, there were; 1075 Bewick swans and 2427 Whooper swans, not to mention nearly 8000 Widgeon, over 1000 Mallard, over 500 Teal, nearly 500 Pochard and over 300 Tufted Ducks, amongst many other species of water fowl.

We arrived around 30 mutes before the feed and were met with a large amount of Whoopers and a few Mallard mixing with the Pochards, Mallards and Teals in front of the observatory.

There were a large amount of young swans, which is one of the beautiful things about the experience; the family groups of swans returning to Welney with their new brood of signets.

After a brief introduction by one of Welney's wardens, giving some background as to why there are so many swans and waterfowl returning to the reserve, the feed started.  And, in all honesty, the birds went a little crazy.

Thousands of birds appeared in front of the observatory taking full advantage of the free food and, with it, out went any pleasantries and manners.  If any birds got too close, they soon knew about it.

The water was soon turned to a jacuzzi as ducks, swans, pochards and teal all fought to get at the feed.

While the swans had the advantage of their long necks, the other fowl has to make do with furiously kicking their legs to get at the rapidly sinking pellets.

Once all of the feed had sunk to the bottom, it was left to the swans to pick up the leftovers.

It was a great experience and I will definitely be returning in the new year.  Hopefully when the waters which covered the Ouse wash had receded somewhat.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Snettisham in winter - a cold, early start...

Back in February, I made the trip to the RSPB nature reserve at Snettisham, Norfolk, to see the wader spectacular.  This is when a spring tide forces the many thousands of waders, here on migration, towards the shoreline, offering twichers and photographers alike unprecedented views of their morning flights.

Leaving my bed at 5am was not my favourite part of the day by a long shot and, when we arrived, it was still very much dawn and was very cold to boot, at around -11.

Arriving early ensures you see the birds waking up, including the flocks of pink-footed geese flying from their night-time roosts in the Wash, to their sugar beet feeding grounds inland.  It also rewards you with, if you're luck's in, some gorgeous views of the sun rising.

As always, the pink-footed geese put on a spectacle...

... and on this particular day, there were plenty of other like-minded folk to watch.

Once the sun was well on its way, the waders awoke and began to perform for the crowds.  It's always such an amazing sight to see so many birds flying in formation, changing their shape in a heartbeat.

Unfortunately, after only a couple of hours, fog began to roll in off the sea which essentially put an end to any landscape photography involving flying waders.  There were, however, snow buntings flitting around, which began to feed on the shoreline.  The change in subject prompted me to begin thinking more about the composition of the photo, rather than just focussing on the subject and snapping away.  I began experimenting by lying on the floor (in the snow) to be at their level, as well as using shallow depth of field.  I'm very pleased with the results and I will definitely continue to play around with this.

My wildlife spotter (aka, my girlfriend) managed to spot this red knot lying quietly next to the path.  I think it must have thought that it was well blended in to its background which, if it wasn't for the snow, it probably would have been.  I sat perfectly still, allowing me to take some shots.

On our way back to the car, by this stage dreaming of the warmth it offered, I spotted this female blackbird rooting around in the undergrowth.  Again, she was very calm and posed nicely for this photo.

After finishing at Snettisham, we drove to North Creake on the hunt for barn owls, as I'd kind of promised my girlfriend that we would find some.  Unfortunately, that didn't work out as planned, but we did see a few buzzards soaring overhead.

And finally we spotted a mistle thrush sitting quietly on a telephone line, a first time spot for me.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Barnes Common - back to my new favourite spot

Over the last few weekends, I have been heading back to Barnes Common. This area of south west London is fast becoming my favourite area for watching and photographing urban wildlife. Even though it's a busy route for commuters walking to and from the station, it's large enough to get lost in and away from everyone else.

There are plenty of grey squirrels to be seen and, due to the commuters, they are fairly used to human presence, allowing you to get quite close to them.

I was also lucky enough to spot a female kestrel, using the common as a hunting ground, pictured below with it's latest meal, a rather large brown rat. I have seen the kestrel here a number of times, leading me to think that it's using the common as a regular hunting ground.

As mentioned, I have found out that Barnes common is home to a rather large population of brown rats. It should be noted that they are not mangy sewer rats but are actually rather cute. Still a bit of a shock when you first spot one though.

One of the weekends I went was the weekend London was hit with the first snow of 2012. There was a lot of it around, for London standards anyway, and, whilst it was beginning to thaw, it was a nice change of background for photos.

It seems this pigeon had seen the weather forecast and had prepared for the snow by digging out its Arctic camouflage.

There were also a lot of redwings to be seen flying from holly tree to holly tree, feasting on the abundant red berries.

The rats were also seen again and they seemed to be enjoying the alternative weather we were experiencing, jumping around and playing.

On the way home, I saw this lesser black backed gull resting at the edge of the river. It got me wondering how its feet didn't get cold, as mine were and they were wrapped up in thick socks!

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Richmond Park - Deer and something a little odd

Last weekend, I had a wander around Richmond Park to see what was going on and what, apart from deer, I could see.  As it turned out, not a lot.

My aim was to ignore the deer and try to concentrate on the bird life.  Unfortunately the light wasn't great and the first thing I saw was a huge group of Fallow Deer.  It seemed a little silly to not take a few photos while the opportunity presented itself.

Then, as I continued around the park, I very nearly tripped over a rather large Red Deer.  Fortunately, now well out of the rut, it was quite calm and relaxed and allowed me to regain a safe distance.

The next thing I saw was rather odd.  It was an Egyptian Goose, perching up a tree.  I, for one, have never seen this before.  Granted the tree was quite big and had been pruned of all minor branches but I still found it a bit strange.  There were also two other geese up a different tree near by and there seemed to be some kind of territorial or dominance issue between them, perhaps confused by the mild weather.

Then it was more Fallow Deer, this time amongst the trees.  They were quite happy grazing on the last of the fallen acorns, getting ready for when the cold weather finally arrives.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust - Portraits

A couple of weekends ago, at a loose end, I paid another visit to the London Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Barnes.  My visit was full of hope that I would see the illusive Bittern but, again, no, it was not playing along.

That said, the Wetlands centre always has something to offer including, this visit, a rather devious Grey Squirrel, desperately trying to gain access to the peanuts caged in the bird feeders.  Long story short, it failed.  Credit where it's due though, it had a good go. 


As there wasn't a lot of wild birds to be seen, I decided to head over to the resident geese in the area towards the World Wetlands to try my hand at close ups and portraits, with mixed results. This is a selection of my best shots.

Then, suddenly, a meteor started to fall from the sky!  Luckily, for all around, this Eider duck spotted it and warned everyone else.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Wash in winter

This week, while I was visiting my parents for Christmas, I decided that, rather than relaxing, having a lie in and generally getting ready for the New Year, I would instead wake up at 5 am and drive to the RSPB Snettisham nature reserve to watch and photograph the Pink-footed Geese spectacular.

Pink-footed Geese from Iceland and Greenland migrate to the wash for the winter, roosting out on the open water of The Wash. Every morning, from September through to about March, huge squadrons of geese fly inland to feed on the sugar beet remnants in the fields of Norfolk farms.

I arrived at the reserve at 7 am, even before the sun had woken up. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I was greeted by a chorus of honking geese, somewhere out in darkness of The Wash. Thank goodness my phone has a torch on it as, stupidly, I'd forgotten to pack one. I'd also managed to leave one of my gloves at home. My hands were going to be cold! I walked through the reserve to the beach and could just about make out the huge dark groups of geese out on the water beginning to wake up. Then, at about 7.30 am, as the sun began to shine brightly, they began to take flight in great skeins.

I really struck it lucky with the weather as well. Yes, it was cold, especially when the wind blew in off the water, but it was also clear and my early morning efforts were rewarded with a spectacular sunrise, which changed and evolved with every passing minute.

Once the geese had flown inland to find their breakfast, I began to take a look around the reserve.  I went into one of the hides and was immediately greeted by a friendly Robin.

He flew from bramble to bramble and then off to find his breakfast elsewhere. Watching all of these birds go and find their breakfast made me realise that my bowl of Cheerios at 5.30 am were clearly not enough and my stomach started to voice its displeasure.  I did, however, remember to pack a flask of tea which managed to keep hunger and cold at bay for a while longer.

The reserve has a lot more to offer other than just geese and robins. As the tide began to recede, uncovering vast mudflats, the beachcombers began to appear. First I spotted a few Turnstone, rooting around on the newly uncovered beach, joined shortly by a couple of Reed Buntings. Unfortunately the small LCD screen on my camera let me down, in that I didn't see that the photo of the Turnstone wasn't the best it could have been. I'll have to stick that shot down on the "redo list" for the next time I go.

Back on one of the reserve lagoons, an incredible number of Oystercatchers were sitting on a shingle beach, slowly waking up. I didn't notice at the time but there were also an incredible number of Knot roosting on the same bank (the grey bits on the right hand side). I also spied a Bar-tailed Godwit hiding in there as well.

Back on The Wash, the sun was now well and truly up. Unfortunately, the temperature had not followed suit and the wind compounded that fact.

Looking over one of the banks between the beach and the lagoon, I spotted a very large flock of roosting Knot, just beginning to wake up.

Their alarm clock obviously went off as, all at once, they took to the skies.  The collective sound of their wing beats sounded exactly like a breaking wave. It was an amazing thing to see and hear.

They went out onto the mudflats to meet up with the other tens of thousands of Knot and waders already feeding, occasionally taking to the sky, always signalled by the crashing wave soundtrack.

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