Sunday, March 06, 2011

How Blipfoto changed my life - for 50 days.

I've been neglecting my blog again, but this time I think I have a slightly better excuse than usual. Last time I mentioned that I was aiming to try to photograph and post on Blipfoto (link to photo no 1 - you can scroll though to no 50, if you wish) 50 different birds on 50 consecutive days. I did it! There were times I didn't think I would - round about mid-February when I wasn't too well, the weather was pretty grim, and I was rapidly running out of garden birds. I think you'll find it an eclectic mix: the common and / or garden stuff - tits and pigeons etc, the exotic - mandarin duck, the thrilling - peregrine falcon, the seasonal - waxwings, the colourful - kingfisher, the large - heron, the small - goldcrest, in the water -  great northern diver, in the air - Kestrel, upland - red grouse, seaside - oystercatcher ... to name but a few. Because of the constraints of the challenge, they haven't always been the best photos and some groups have been under-represented e.g. I've managed to get to 50 without a single gull, and there are not many waders and waterfowl generally. Of course there are no summer visitors. So, what next? It's been a pretty intensive experience. I've learnt a lot, and got out in all weathers, but I don't think I'd realised how all-consuming it was going to be. I'm enjoying the idea of Blipfoto journal, so I've decided to maintain that and try to post a wide range of subjects - mainly wildlife I hope, but as spring and summer come along, I can widen the range - insects - especially  butterflies and dragonflies, mammals, and of course fungi. I'll continue with the birds and number them up from 51 for each new one, so it will be a sort of photographic year list. There are some I've seen and photographed already on my year list, such as black-headed and herring gulls, thrushes, swans, reed bunting, bullfinch..., but they've been upstaged by something more unusual on the day,  I think I should be able to get to 100 by the end of the year, but I'll do it at a more leisurely pace. The photos here are some of those that didn't make the cut, but that I particularly liked.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

First Blogger, then Flickr, next Twitter now Blipfoto

This morning, I saw house sparrows in the garden for the first time this year. I was delighted for a particular reason. Since January 14th, I have been signed up to Blipfoto and immediately set myself a challenge which has all but taken over my life: to post a photo of a different bird each day. One of  rules of Blip are that the photo has to be taken on that day, which is OK on days when I'm out and about in good locations, but on other days it can be a real challenge. I don't want to use up all my garden bankers too soon, and even some of the more common birds can't be guaranteed. On other days, for instance when I go to RSPB Old Moor, I have to choose one of many possible bird photos. It's also frustrating when I have to post a photo that is not one of my best, especially when I have a better photo of that bird. One example was posting a poor photo of a fieldfare at Old Moor because I'd never seen on before, and because it's a winter visitor, I wasn't sure I'd see another. I'd got much better pictures of other birds on that day, and ironically, I got a wonderful photo opportunity of a fieldfare close-up a few days later. It's proving more of a challenge than I expected, but it's proving good fun most of the time. I've set myself a target of 50 now I think I know what might be realistic, so I'm over half way. And today, the house sparrow is in the bag!!!  Follow my progress here. Wish me luck! Or why not join me!
It's unrealistic to expect good weather in January and February. In fact, it's unrealistic to expect any kind of weather at any time of year in this country - increasingly so, it seems. The last few weeks have brought a very mixed bag, the worst of which was high winds for several days, followed by heavy rain. However, I think it's fair to say that I've been really lucky when it's mattered - for example, the superb weather I had in Scarborough. We went for a walk around Agden Reservoir with a friend, and saw a good number of birds at the feeders, and much to her delight, a good sighting of the bank voles. We had an excellent lunch at The Plough in Low Bradfield. Top meat and potato pie for me.
The following Saturday was an excellent day - lovely bright weather; I decided to do the walk along the River Don from the city centre to Meadowhall. It's a surprisingly nice walk, and ironically, as it passes through a post-industrial landscape, and some heavily regenerated areas, the wildlife is some of the best I encounter. This walk was no exception. I'd hardly got underway, when a flash of blue betrayed the presence of a kingfisher. I'm learning through advice and experience that hanging around and watching patiently can result in good views and photo opps. Shortly after this in quick succession, I saw a pied wagtail, a wren, and a solitary fieldfare (see above) which was feeding on some fallen crabapples. Signs of spring along the way in the form of catkins and pussy willow were in evidence along the way and near one of the weirs, I watched as a fisherman pulled out and returned a grayling to the river: another wonderful indicator of the health of a river which not that long ago could be considered stone dead.
The following day I decided to join the Bugpeople of Sorby. Not sure wether that will be a regular thing, but my interest in dragonflies will certainly be re-kindled once they start to emerge.
As the forecast was cold but clear for Monday, I decided an extended trip down the valley (Rivelin, that is) was in order. I discovered a bus which I didn't know about which goes via the bottom of my road to the top end of the valley. Ideal to catch this and walk the 3 or so miles home at a leisurely pace. The highlights were getting some good shots of a nuthatch at the start of the walk, my first sightings of great spotted woodpecker down there, and some good glimpses of a dipper. Oh, and not forgetting a good sighting of Roger (aka @ukphenology on twitter and  - Mr Nature Bloggers )
I've resumed doing some walk checks for Get Walking Keep Walking  so last week I did 6 of these over 2 days. It involved walking through several parks in the NE of Sheffield and some birding opportunities at the same time. On the first day, I saw a sparrowhawk and a very obliging pied wagtail. On the second, I saw lots of redwing feeding in the smallest area whilst people passed on their daily business, unaware of the winter visitors in their midst.
Saturday was foul - heavy rain, but as I'd seem a number of reports of waxwings in the area, I decided to go searching. Turned out to be a wet, but very successful outing, I also got some really good views of a jay in yet another park.
A short outing in the valley on a blustery Sunday produced my first grey wagtail sighting of the year, but sadly no photo. Tuesday was another glorious day and I enjoyed it at Old Moor. Not a lot of waders or waterfowl, but plenty of reed buntings, bramblings and various finches.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Of Gulls and other birds

Just when you think it's safe to use the S word, along comes an indescribably miserable day like today! Still, it's good for catching up, which seemed like an idea before February is upon us. I seem to have done quite a lot since last time, especially considering the time of year. I've decided to try to get down to some part of Rivelin Valley once a week if I can, and my second visit of the year was on 13th January. I walked down via the cemetery. Not for the first time I heard a nuthatch there, but failed to see it. Immediately on reaching the valley, I saw a large heron in the river, and thought I saw a woodpecker between the trees. The river was very high and the stepping stones were well under water. Again there were lots of fungi around - mainly jelly and crusts but a few oyster types as well.
As I sat by the bridge eating my lunch, I saw a very small creature darting amongst the tree roots. It was very quick, and although I had several sights over the next half hour, I didn't even manage to see whether it had a black tip to its tail, but it was certainly a stoat or a weasel. On a nearby dam, I saw another heron. it seemed very scraggy, and it occured to me how difficult it must have been for them to find food during the cold snap, when even the river was frozen. At the green, I saw what must have been a sparrowhawk bringing down a pigeon between the trees. As I disturbed them, it was a very unsatisfactory outcome for all of us - for me because I didn't get a clear view, let alone a photo, for the pigeon because despite the fact it got away, it must have sustained injuries, and for the raptor, because it didn't get its supper.
The following day, I decided to have a quick wander down to the river Don near the city centre. No sign of any kingfishers this time, but I saw a number of female goosander fishing. Reports say they are still around, and have been joined by at least one male. The pied wagtail from my last visit (?) was still at Kelham Island strutting around.
On the 15th, I went to Longshaw on a fungus foray with the local group. We had a plethora of experts. We found plenty of fine specimens and the rain managed to keep off for us for most of the time. I stayed behind at the end and had a little wander, and saw a few birds - lots of chaffinch, but also nuthatch, treecreeper, siskin, long-tailed tits, blue tits and great tits, but not the fieldfare or redwing I had hoped for.
The next couple of days were spent painting and preparing for my trip to Scarborough. Thanks to anyone who kept their fingers crossed for the weather; it was glorious! Just had a wander round Peasholm Park and the North Shore along to the harbour once I had booked in to my B&B. I saw Canada and Greylag geese , moorhen and tufted ducks in the park, and redshank, turnstone and rock pipit by the sea wall. I'd had a tip off about some interesting birds by the harbour, but by the time I got there it was too dark to see much.
I had anticipated spending my full day there to the north of Scarborough - Robin Hood's Bay, Ravenscar or Whitby, but I discovered that RSPB Bempton Cliffs was do-able on the train, so I went for that option. It was a really enjoyable day, the highlight being the gannets, but I also saw tree sparrows, goldfinch, brambling, greenfinch and blue tits on the feeders and a kittiwake,  a black-backed gull and quite a number of fulmar. As I walked back to the station at twilight, I'd hoped I might see some owls, but so such luck. But it was a fantastic sunset.

On my final day, I decided to go down to the harbour to see if there was any sign of the birds I'd been tipped off about. It had been a few days, so I wasn't especially confident. It was a dullish start, but by about 11am, it had turned into a glorious day, and it felt almost Mediterranean in the warm winter sun. To cut a long story short, I knew I was probably in luck when I saw lots of blokes with spotting scopes and long lenses dashing round the harbour, and sure enough, before long I'd seen an Iceland gull. a red-breasted merganser, and a great northern diver, not to mention a cormorant fishing, house sparrow, a range of other gulls (as feared, unable to put Martin Garner's excellent advice on gull ID into practice) and some very approachable turnstone. A leisurely stroll in the warm sunshine up as far as Scalby Mill and up onto the cliffs completed my stay very nicely. The sea was covered in hundreds of wigeon, and there were several flocks of lapwing circling overhead. I also saw a solitary oystercatcher and a couple more redshank.
I had toyed with the idea of staying for another night, as the weather was so nice, but decided to come home as scheduled and have a few hours in Rivelin the following day while the fine weather still held. It was bitterly cold in the valley, but I was rewarded with sightings of a treecreeper, long-tailed tits and a dipper, and back at the carpark, I put a bit of food on the bird table and attracted robins, blue tits, great tits, coal tits and nuthatches.
Yesterday, I paid an overdue visit to Old Moor. Although the weather was quite promising, sadly it deteriorated again to the poor light we seem to have had a lot of so far this year. However, the water was now all ice free, and I ended up with a long list of birds, if not photos, including 4 new ones: goldeneye, redwing, fieldfare and green sandpiper. I'd hoped I might see some of the waxwings that have been hanging around as I haven't seen any in 2011, but no such -  I'm just being greedy, I suppose. Did manage some nice pictures of some fine bullfinches by the feeders, though.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A reserve, an urban riverside and a country jaunt

Made it back to RSPB Old Moor last Tuesday. It was a really disappointing visit, as much of the water habitat was still completely frozen and the waterfowl were all on the far side. Lots of goosander and wigeon, and I had a lesson on common gull IDing from the ubiquitous Man in Hide, (becoming even more ubiquitous than Heron of Doom). The best places were the garden feeders and the sparrow farm, but the light was also very poor so I only got a few poor shots. Yellowhammer, reed buntings and greenfinches mainly.
Much better was my Saturday outing when I set off from the city centre to follow the Don upstream towards Hillsborough. I got "stuck" for quite a while at Kelham Island as a result of seeing a kingfisher - my first in the city proper, although I've often seen them on the Loxley. It looked so special in this environment - the light was petty good as well, and the additional  presence of a great tits, blue tits and a strutting pied wagtail kept me entertained for quite some time. Not much further up, I saw a heron and a large flock of long-tailed tits.  After that, things got a little sticky - literally, as my path beyond Hillfoot Bridge went from a narrow tarmac road to a sea of sticky brown mud. I had hoped to explore a hidden cemetery nearby but the long paddle through the mud had left me exhausted and very grubby - also, it's impossible to enjoy the scenery and watch for wildlife when you are concentrating on where you are putting your feet.
Yesterday, in spite of very changeable and unpredictable weather, I decided on an outing into Derbyshire. After a few false starts, I took a path along Barbrook towards the reservoir. It's hard to believe that after all that seriously sub-zero weather, it actually felt much colder in the wind blowing across the moor. The wildlife had very sensibly stayed at home too. By the time I got to the end of the track, things had improved a bit, so I planned a circular walk which took me a little lower and through some woodland. This paid off with sightings of lots of treecreepers, a goldcrest or two and a trio of goldfinches. Also found a large clump of oyster mushrooms. OK, not a lot, but a very pleasant walk with some interesting skyscapes. Off to the N Yorkshire coast for a couple of days next week. Fingers crossed for those blue skies.

Monday, January 03, 2011

More fungi than feathers

Today was my first outing of the New Year. A combination of a cold, problems with the central heating and unappealing weather had kept me indoors thus far. Down in Rivelin Valley, much of the path was still frozen, so it was not too muddy. The birds were shy today, but I got quite a nice sighting of a jay, and several of goldcrests. Odd to think that I had never seen a goldcrest until last October in Suffolk, and now I see them all the time on my own patch. I think birding is about knowing what you are looking (and listening) for. I'm waiting for the day when I can get a decent photo; today I got some good views, but there was too much scuttling in undergrowth for a chance at a shot. I also saw a pheasant and a very exciting grey squirrel chase!
There were lots of fungi about. particularly jelly ears in all sorts of shapes and sizes, the usual long-lived brackets and velvet shanks. With the moss at its best, it was very colourful!
Last Wednesday, I ventured up to the start of the Loxley Valley trail, catching a bus up to Damflask, then walking home down the valley. Again, quite disappointing on the birding front. One of the dams had a solitary tufted duck on it, and the carcass of a canada goose on the ice. I saw jays and wrens, but nothing of note on the river itself. The later part of my walk brought me past the confluence of the Loxley with the Rivelin and a short walk along that valley. I was surprised at the difference in the two valleys in terms of how much more ice and snow still remained in Rivelin. I suppose it must be more sheltered; certainly, there was a huge amount of ice there immediately prior to the thaw. It seems like a different world now most of it has gone. I wonder what the rest of this winter has in store for us. There was a mist descending as I approached home, which made my walk through the cemetery very atmospheric. A pheasant on the path was the closest I had seen one to home. Perhaps they'll find their way onto the menu by next Christmas!
I've long had planned a garden sightings diary, and that began well with a dozen species on New Year's Day, including a bullfinch, which we haven't seen for a very long time. I'm planning a trip to Old Moor tomorrow, so hopefully that will get my "year list" off to a flying start (pun intended).

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Icily does it.

Managed to get out a couple of times recently, despite my wussiness about the ice. On Tuesday, I went out to Bradfield on the bus, intending to walk home along Damflask Reservoir and the River Loxley, but the lure of Agden was too great, so I walked around the reservoir and was fulsomely rewarded with some fine landscape views as well as the reliably good wildlife. I managed to flush out what might have been a woodcock (or was it a snipe?), but it was way too fast for me. At the feeders, the usual array of blue tits, coal tits, great tits and eventually some brilliant long-tailed tids (my favourites - sooo cute!), blackbirds, robins, a single nuthatch  and the bank voles were obligingly coming out to feed on the bird seed, and towards the end of the walk, a brown hare was highlighted against the snow as the light began to fade. Getting a blackbird, a bank vole and a coal tit in one shot was a bit of a highlight for me, although I have to say, I'm proudest of the long-tailed tit pictures.
Yesterday, Christmas Day, with fond memories of last year and a dipper that made my day, I set off via an atmospherically frosty Walkley Cemetery, down to Rivelin Valley. With all the ice along the river, it really was most magical. I had not got too far along before I arrived at a spot where there were lots of birds flitting around so I set up base camp, took a few photos and has my hot drink and mince pie. I saw wrens, treecreepers, jays, goldcrests, and - wait for it - long tailed tits. Although I got photos of the jay and goldcrest, they were not brilliant, but the treecreeper and the wren were a bit better. As well as the birds, I also spotted, and had a pleasant chat with the family from across the road, who were also enjoying a Christmas Day stroll. Also, and with a degree of inevitability, I final ran into Roger Butterfield, a fellow Tweep, and Flickrer, and a wonderful photographer, with whom I've had quite a lot of communication, but never met in person, despite the fact he lives only a few hundred yards from me. (see links).
I also took quite a lot of shots of the icy river, and did a bit of experimenting with the guide setting, a new feature on my new camera body. which looks like a good learning tool, as well as a handy shortcut to advanced settings.
When I got home, I realised that I had got 2 key settings wrong, so the fact that I got some reasonable shots was really a bonus. No dippers this year, but I'm sure it won't be long before I see some again. I've booked myself on a couple of day courses to make me try harder to get the best out of my camera, rather than just stick in Auto, so that's all part of the plan for next year.
Happy New Year to everyone! I'm looking forward to even more wildlife watching in 2011.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Splashing and splurging

Since the last lot of snow, pretty much all of my organised activities have been cancelled. I've done a few more local walks - Rivelin and Loxley Valleys in even deeper snow. It was nice to get into Loxley Valley again as it's been a while. As I was walking from home, I didn't get very far, but that didn't matter as there was plenty to see. The first highlight was a flock of long-tailed tits, and a wren by the first dam. I decided to head for an area where on my last visit I had seen kingfishers and grey wagtails. No such luck on these, but possibly even better, as I was entertained for about half an hour by a lovely dipper going about it's daily business.

As I climbed up the steep bank above the river, I got some good views of 3 jays amongst the trees, and a couple of treecreepers.
After a few days at home, the snow began to clear and I ventured out to Manchester for a wander round the Christmas Market, which I think is one of the best. and then along the Sheffield Canal to Blackburn Meadows SWT Reserve. There is always plenty to see along this stretch, and as well as the ubiquitous long-tailed tits, I was rewarded with sightings of kestrel, goosander, song thrush, goldfinch and a squirrel doing a circus act using one of the pipes across the canal as a bridge.
I'd been toying with the idea of getting a new camera body and when I noticed that mine was in need of cleaning, I went up to the camera shop to explore my options. To cut a long story short, it cost me a lot less than I was expecting to upgrade and I now have a higher spec camera which is actually simpler to use. One feature is that it is supposed to perform better in low light, so the following day I paid a long overdue visit to Old Moor to really put it to the test. It was a grim day: one of those where it never seems to get light, but in spite of this I saw a good number of birds, and the camera stood up well to this test. No masterpieces, but some good record shots in very poor light, so I'm looking forward to seeing what it can do in better light. Here's a shot I got of a brambling - a first sighting and a first photo with the new camera.

I had hoped to go waxwing chasing again today. Lots of reports still in the area, but I wussed out as it was icy on the pavements after another snowfall yesterday. At least I can stay in the warm watch birds at the garden feeders and draw them, even if I don't get out to see them. I've added a few more drawings to the drawings page. I'm hoping for more snow - the forecast is for sub-zero temperatures - at least I can do local walks in the snow, whereas the icy pavements make getting out and about no fun at all.