26 Apr 2011

EarthShots Photo Of The Day

Today This Photo is Earth Shots Photo of the Day.

Here is the Link

For those of you that have come from the EarthShots website here is my blog post of when I was out at Kaikoura New Zealand

Having left Kapiti Island we stayed in Wellington with my father's first cousin Jan for a few days before we headed to the South Island and went our seperate ways. I wanted to see Albatrosses at Kaikoura and Kea in Arthur's Pass and my father wanted to visit friends and go fishing.

I arrived in Kaikoura and stayed in the Adelphi Backpackers Lodge.I had booked to go out with Albatross Encounter about a week earlier on the internet. I got up on a beautiful morning and headed to the Encounter building.I had made sure I had taken my seasickness tablets the previous night and an hour before we were to leave. At the Encounter centre there is a really nice cafe serving excellent breakfasts and great coffee. so i had a quick coffee before our group of seven were to meet up with our guide Alastair Judkins.

Alastair drove us from the centre around a headland to where we would board the boat. Pretty much the same as Kapiti we got onto boat and it was then reversed into harbour. We made our way out to an offshore canyon which is pretty close to the shore.It is about a mile deep. It is here that two currents converge and forces nutrient rich water upwards which in turn supports a wide variety of fish and marine animals creating a wonderful feeding habitat for many different species of seabird.

The first we were to see were the Cape Pigeon or Cape Petrel.
They have a black and white colour and were named cape pigeons because they frequent Cape Horn. They are not a pigeon but a Petrel and in NZ follow fishing boats looking for scraps.

Once we were over the canyon Alastair put a bag of frozen chum overboard and what felt like seconds birds were coming in all directions. There were Great Northern Petrels,
Albatrosses and as they came in Alastair was pointing them out and naming them as they came in, as I was trying to photograph them. Westland petrel, Sooty Shearwater, White Chinned Petrel,
Buller's Shearwater,
Hutton's Shearwater, Salvin's Mollymawk,
Gibson's Wandering Albatross.
The shear beauty of these very large birds cleaving the water as they bank over the waves was awe inspiring. Also the backdrop of the Kaikoura Mountains made it all the more spectacular. To me it was one of the greatest birding experiences I have ever had.

Alastair then shouted Chatham Island Mollymawk.
This had to be the bird of the whole NZ trip for me. It is critically endangered on the IUCN red list. There are about 4500 pairs in the world and they breed on a rock called the Pyramid 800 miles to the East in the Chatham Islands. They would be a very rare visitor to New Zealand and this was only the third time in six or seven years that Alastair had seen one.It is one of the three sub species of Shy Mollymawk. It flew round the boat before coming intoland right next to the chum.It really was a beautiful bird.

It then flew off not to be seen again. I then tried to take photos with my sigma 10-20mm lens with my camera body as low to the water as possible. I got a range of shots. In this one immediately below the tip of his bill is only about an inch away from the lens!!!
This Photo was runner up in Naturescapes Bird Photo of the Year 2009

Then we were visited by a Black-browed Albatross of the Campbell Island Race. It is one of the most widespread albatrosses. It looks as though it is wearing eyeshadow.

The only other Mollymawk we saw was a New zealand White -capped Mollymawk. This one is immature.

Alastair then headed to show us the Spotted Shag Colony on a rock just a few hundreds from the shore when we stopped at a group of Buller's Shearwaters sitting on the water. We looked and photographed them and then he chucked the remaining chum into the water. The albatrosses and the giant petrels went into a feeding frenzy.It was a pretty noisy affair.

As a photographic experience it was second to none.It had to be one of the best mornings of my life. The next time I am in NZ I will definately go out on an earlier trip in the day to experience the early morning sunlight. I would also love to photograph the birds from an underwater perspective.

I entered this photograph, which I changed to Black and White, into the Birdforum Monthly Photo Competition (In this case the title was Monochrome Birds) and it won so I was pretty pleased with that.

25 Apr 2011

A Few More Migrants And A Lifer. Not A Bird This Time But A Pine Marten

Had a great day I first of all headed to Castle Island Hide on the Quoile and spent some time watching a pair of Little Egrets courting. Then a Little Gull flew once around the bay followed by some Common Terns. They didn't like what they saw and headed to the opposite end of the pondage. 
Little Gull at Quoile Pondage
Then it was quiet and I walked down the road hoping to hear the Grasshopper Warblers that I had heard a few days ago. Nothing only Blackcaps and Willow Warblers but it was later in the day and the Groppers tend to sing in the early morning or evening.

Male Blackcap at Quoile Pondage
I then headed over to Killard and there were a few Whimbrel on the shoreline and quite a few Whitethroat calling. There was also a Kestrel hovering almost motionless in the strong and quite chilly breeze. I noticed a quadbike had ridden along the tideline where the Ringed Plover breed. I didn't see any evidence of damage thankfully.
Whitethroat Display Flight
In the afternoon I walked from my house to Castle Ward the local National Trust Estate where I used to live. The NT has cleared 18km of paths within the estate and they are brilliant. As I was walking down one of them I heard a Blackbird calling with alarm and I looked over and there was the first Pine Marten I had ever seen in the wild jumping across some branches. Sadly I only got two record shots of which this is the best. It gave me a real buzz.
Pine Marten at Castle Ward Estate

I then carried on down to Temple Water and the Ring Necked Duck was still there with a female Tufty. He wasn't letting any of the other Male Tufties anywhere near her.
Ring Necked Duck at Castle Ward

Ring Necked Duck and Female Tufted Duck

As I was walking home I found a Buzzards Nest so all in all a pretty good day.

22 Apr 2011

An 80th Birthday and My First Sighting of a Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warbler Locustella naevia
I have been up in Co.Donegal for the last few days. On Wednesday it was going to be my Fathers 80th Birthday. My sister and I went up on Monday to prepare for the day. It was fab weather and all around us we could hear the sounds of Spring, Willow warblers and Blackcaps singing all over the place. The recently returned Swallows preparing their nests. In the garden we had a pair of Treecreepers heading to their nest along with a pair of Mistle Thrushes who also breed in the garden every year. There were Chaffinches everywhere along with Coal, Blue and Great tits. There was as yet no sign of the Spotted Flycatcher that breed in the garden I suppose a wee bit early.

On Tuesday after my stint preparing food for the following day I walked to the edge of Lough Fern hoping to find Sedge and Reed warbler but was surprised to find no sign. I did see at least one pair of Lapwing protecting a nest against a passing Hooded Crow. There was also a Mute Swans nest on the edge of the Lough. On the water there were Mallard, Teal and a pair of Wigeon. There was also no sign or sound of Grasshopper warbler that breeds here every year.

On Wednesday my sister and I spent the day preparing my fathers 80th Birthday lunch for just over thirty friends which went really well. The weather smiled on us as we were eating outside in a marquee. A starter of Potted Shrimp with my mothers wheaten bread. A main of cold fillet of beef with  three salads, a tomato cumin coriander and red onion salad, New potato and peas with pesto dressing and a baby spinach, feta and asparagus salad. For pudding a chocolate cake made by my sister with a raspberry coulis. Here's the birthday boy :-)
My Father on his 80th Birthday

After the party I was heading to bed about 10.30 and my mother had just come down from the farm from feeding the dogs and said she could hear some Grasshopper Warblers reeling away. We went out and couldn't hear anything and then suddenly the unmistakeable sound was coming from the bottom of the garden. Happy days!! I went back into the house and fluttering against the window was an enormous moth which I let into the house and caught. It was a female Emperor Moth.

In the morning after a bit of post party tidying up I could hear the Grasshopper Warblers again and I decided to go and look for them. This up to now is a bird that I have only heard and never seen. I have heard them in Co.Down and many times in Donegal and on each occasion I have searched for them but have never seen them. They are very difficult to see due to their skulking behaviour and their love of low tangled ground cover particularly bramble patches. I have quite often seen photographs of them on Birdguides perched up on brambles,and been extremely envious, but until today this had never happened to me.

I crossed the road in front of the house to a boggy field and at first could not really determine where the sound was coming from. It seemed to be all around me. Then I thought it was behind me and then bingo there was this bird on a bramble branch. I looked through the binoculars and yes it was a Grasshopper Warbler. I reckoned there were at least three different birds singing in the area.
Grasshopper Warbler
I approached it slowly and it remained for a while before flying to the next patch of brambles where upon it started to sing. For those of you that have never heard it, it is quite unlike any other birdsong in that it sounds very similar to a fly reel being wound in. You can listen to it HERE
Grasshopper Warbler Singing
I watched the bird for about twenty minutes and it would disappear deep into cover and the only sign that it was there would be the odd twitch of a blade of grass before re-appearing.
Grasshopper Warbler Amongst The Brambles
 Sometimes it would sing low down in the bushes and at other times right out in the open. It would also fly low into the rushes and dive at the last minute into the base and again the only way to keep track was to watch the vegetation move. It appeared at times almost to jump between the clumps of rushes.
Male Grasshopper Warbler Singing From Gorse

Male Grasshopper Warbler Locustella naevia
I felt really lucky to witness this bird and hope that I will still be finding them when I am 80 and Father Many Happy Returns

15 Apr 2011

I Love My Visiting Goldfinches

About eight years ago I rarely had a goldfinch to my feeders and even when I started feeding nyjer seed it only seemed to attract a few birds. Then I started to use sunflower hearts and ever since I have had loads of Goldfinches visiting the feeders every day. This has enabled me to be able to photograph them at fairly close quarters. This latest photo is I think my all time favourite. Click on a photo and it opens in a new window at a larger size.

Goldfinches on Feeder

Goldfinch on Holly

Goldfinch on Teasel

Goldfinch alighting on Teasel

Goldfinch on Holly Branch

Goldfinch on Dead Cow Parsley

7 Apr 2011

Great Grey Shrike at The Ulster Wildlife Trust Slievenacloy Reserve

Great Grey Shrike sitting on Blackthorn

Last week a Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor) was found at the Slievenacloy Ulster Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve in the hills above Belfast. It was found by Dermot Hughes, who was a former director of conservation at the Trust. There have been only 17 records of one in Ireland since 1900. I had resisted the urge to race off and twitch it and had decided if I was going to look for it I would wait until we had better weather. As the reports kept on coming in that it was still around and I had to go to Belfast anyway I decided to combine the two.
I arrived at 10.30 and there was one other bird photographer there. He had not seen the bird at this point.  I had just missed Cork/Donegal birder Ronan McLaughlin who I was told had got some nice photos of the bird. I scanned the blackthorn bushes on the north side of the road and immediately a bit of white caught my eye on some far off bushes. I was thinking Yes! this is easy. But it didn't move and after a while I decided it couldn't be. So I headed in it's general direction and was disappointed to see it was a small plastic bag. I spent an hour and a half looking along with some more birders that had arrived from Dublin. The only thing I had seen of note at this stage was this Orange Tip Butterfly.
Orange Tip Butterfly Anthocharis cardamines
 I was going to give up and I decided to drive up and down the Flowbog road and scan from the car again no success. A birder I didn't recognise waved and I waved back and then I drove to where I originally parked and decided to have a snooze. Little did I know until later that the birder was waving me to stop as the bird was on top of the bushes in the roadside hedge as I was passing by under it ! After kipping for an hour I headed back up the road and saw Mark Killops with his scope and the birder who had waved at me, who introduced himself as Mark McMullan. It turned out that he read my blog and I had also come across his photos on Flickr . They had the bird in their scopes on the south side of the road. Brill a lifer for me and thanks Mark K for the use of your scope. It was a long way away and even with the two times converter on my sigma 500 lens I was getting pretty poor results.
Great Grey Shrike
It then flew off to some adjacent bushes and as you can see I couldn't manually focus fast enough :-)
Great Grey Shrike in Flight
We also got good views of the bird dropping down into the grass and catching some prey before flying back into blackthorn and impaling it on a thorn and then eating it. From it's size it looked most likely to be a small frog.
Great Grey Shrike Dropping Down Onto Prey
 Mike O'Keefe then suggested that we were not going to get decent shots of the bird if we stayed on the road so we slid under the fence and headed closer to it. I learnt a lesson do not take your eyes of a bird in this type of habitat as it had disappeared. It took us a wee while to relocate it and  by this time it was hundreds of yards away. After about ten minutes it flew back again to where we had originally seen it and on this occasion I was able to stalk the bird and get within about 20 yards and it posed nicely for me :-) Click on images for larger view.

Great Grey Shrike at UWT Slievenacloy Nature Reserve