The amazing potential of phone photography

A few weeks ago, in August, I was in Toronto and on a glorious sunny day I took a boat trip out to Centre Island, which, in the unlikely event you ever find yourself in Toronto wondering what to do, I can heartily recommend. There were many huge and colourful butterflies including monarchs and swallowtails fluttering around the island, and some others I didn’t recognise. It was a work trip so I hadn’t taken my DSLR with me and the only way to get a photograph was with my phone camera. And then I discovered that monarchs are skittish and it’s not easy to get close to them, which I needed to do as I only had a phone to take pictures with, but after chasing several and failing to get within range I managed to sneak up on this one:

monarch-toronto-aug-2016-ppMonarch butterfly – Danaus plexippus

I stooped down on the opposite side of the plant to the butterfly and reached around to point my phone and take this picture. I must confess, I was a little gobsmacked at how well it worked. The light conditions were challenging as it was late morning and the sunlight was intense, so there was lots of contrast between the shade and the light. But after minimal post processing to darken the sunny bits I think is a pretty good image! I changed my phone earlier this year for an iPhone 6S plus and I was impressed with the quality of the camera from the start, but after this shot I’m really impressed with it.

I hope it’s not a global phenomenon, but this year, due to climatic aberrations, many butterfly species have been hit really hard and their numbers have plummeted. The results of the ‘Big Butterfly Count‘, an annual survey of our Lepidoptera here in the UK, was reported today, and the news was bleak. Many erstwhile common species have really suffered and this is a phenomenon which I’ve noticed and commented on several times since the Spring this year. And now it’s official. Sir David Attenborough (the worlds greatest living human being), and president of the charity Butterfly Conservation, said that butterflies are a good barometer of the state of nature in general. I’m inclined to agree with him and I think it’s a very bad sign that the plight of our butterflies in the UK is so dire. It doesn’t augur well.

small-copper-wandlebury-roman-road-sep2016-ppSmall copper – Lycaena phlaeas

But one of my absolute favourite butterflies, and one that I only see very infrequently, even in a good year, is the small copper. I think they’re gorgeous. I haven’t seen one for about three years and then, randomly, a friend of mine showed me this picture a couple of weeks ago which he took with his phone, also an iPhone 6S, on the Roman road between Cambridge and Linton.

So there are still some lovely butterflies out there, but please think of them and, if you can spare it, leave a little bit of your garden to grow wild with no chemicals to help them recover. And if you don’t have a camera handy to take a portrait give it a go with your phone instead, you might be surprised!

Conder Green

A few weeks after the outing to Norfolk I wrote about in the last few posts, I found myself in a place called Conder Green, which lies on a small tributary of the River Lune in Lancashire, with Morecambe Bay to the west and the Lake District to the north east. I stayed in a hotel which was on the Lancaster Canal and surrounded by farmland, and there was lots of wildlife in the immediate vicinity.

Little egret at dusk on the Glasson Branch of the Lancaster Canal (Egretta garzetta, Dansk: silkehejre)

The little  egret, or indeed egrets in general, were birds I had always associated with more exotic  parts of the world. The first time I saw them in numbers they were perched on fish stalls in the market at Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles. Their numbers have been steadily increasing in England after they first began to colonise here in 1988 having moved across the water from France, where they had also been expanding their range northwards. But to see one in Lancashire reminded how far north and west they have migrated compared to the location of my first sighting!

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus, Dansk: grønbenet rørhøne)

Goldeneye female on the Lancaster Canal (Bucephela clangula, Dansk: hvinand)

The moorhen and the goldeneye were on the canal adjacent to my hotel, and in the field next to that was a hare which appeared at first sight remarkably unfazed by my presence, until I got just a little too close, and then common sense prevailed and it did what hares do best, and ran:

The European brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

I was pretty happy with these two shots, I’ve previously got some good pictures of hares by creeping up on them very slowly when they’re sitting tight, but I’ve never got a good picture of a hare in full flight before.

The hare is a member of a taxonomic group called ‘Lagomorphs‘ along with rabbits and pikas. It’s a group that has been around for 90 million years, so hare-like creatures may have been running around with dinosaurs. The modern version evolved in central Europe but only since the UK split away, geologically that is, from mainland Europe. So it is thought that it was introduced to these islands around 2000 years ago by the Romans.

Wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand)

Just a short walk from the field where the hare was is the River Lune, which appears to be tidal as it’s so close to the coast of Morecambe Bay, so when the tide’s out there are extensive mudflats for waders and ducks including these wigeon, and I’ve also seen teal and curlew here:

Curlew (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storspove)

This bird, with its unfeasibly enormous beak, was one of a flock of around 100 curlew, and that’s an extremely unusual sight these days.

More ducks and more waders at RSPB Titchwell

This is the final instalment from my trip to Norfolk when I ended up at the RSPB reserve at Titchwell. Even though it was in the middle of January and it had been ferociously cold at 6.30am before the sun rose and warmed the earth, by midday it was a bright, sunny and warm day. Perfect conditions really for a trip to the coast to see the wildlife.

A raft of shovellers (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand)

The reserve at Titchwell consists of two fresh water lakes separated from the sea by a high dune. And to the west lies an expanse of scrubland which provides more space for wild birds and animals to exist unmolested. Consequently, and because of its location on the north Norfolk coast, it’s a very good place to see  many water birds some of which can be rare sightings, such as the spoonbill.

There were no spoonbills to be seen on this trip but there were plenty of other species including shoveller, whose Danish name ‘skeand‘ translates as ‘spoon-duck‘ for reasons easily divined. Another of my favourite ducks, because of it’s gorgeous colours, is the diminutive teal:

Male teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand)

The teal is about half the size of the chunky shoveller and there are around 2000 pairs breeding here in the summer. I like etymology, so the collective noun for teal – a ‘spring‘ (because of they they rise en masse almost vertically when flushed) – is a fun one. Both the teal and the shoveller, which has 700 breeding pairs in the UK, are amber listed. But a ray of hope for these threatened water birds is that huge areas on the east coast of England have been opened up to the sea and allowed to flood as a mitigation of the worse ravages of the effect on the oceans of climate change, and this will hopefully create homes for hundreds of thousands of resident birds and migrant vistors throughout the year.

Ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula, Dansk: stor præstekrave)

There are 110-180,000 pairs of ringed plover in Europe and around 4% of them breed in the UK, but the numbers and range of these have been steadily declining, so this species has earned red conservation status in the UK, although it is a species of least concern in Europe as a whole. Hopefully the new coastal habitats being created here will help to reverse this trend.

The next four pictures are of birds which appeared in the previous two posts and were photographed at Snettisham, but one of the great things about Titchwell is that it’s possible to get close to the wildlife. And as they were there too I’ve included these images in this post because I like them:

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe)

Black tailed godwit (Limosa limosa, Dansk: stor kobbersneppe)

I really like the ripples and the reflections of the godwit in this image.

Curlew (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storspove)

Grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola, Dansk: strandhjejle)

Another thing that I like about this collection of pictures is that it demonstrates the importance of mudflats for these birds to find the molluscs and crustaceans they need to refuel. It doesn’t make for the most interesting background for a wildlife portrait, unless there are some photogenic reflections, but I guess it focusses the eye on the subject!

There was no image of this small seabird in the previous, at least not on it’s own, but there may have been significant numbers mixed in with the huge flocks of dunlin:

Knot (Calidris canutus, Dansk: islandsk ryle)

The knot is another of those truly magnificent creatures that breeds in the northern Arctic (a real feat of survival in it’s own right) and then migrates to its winter feeding grounds as far as south Africa, south America and Australia. And then a few months later they do the same journey in reverse. I wonder how many miles one of these little birds can cover in its whole lifetime – and all under it’s own steam? I can’t help but have immense respect for them!

Ducks and more waders

I wrote a couple of posts a while ago about a trip to the north Norfolk coast in the depths of winter, but I didn’t get round to completing the story. All the wader (‘shore birds’ in N.America) images in that post were taken on the beach at Snettisham, and as I was leaving there at around half past nine in the mornng to head along the coast a short hop to the RSPB reserve at Titchwell, the sun had risen and more birds were discernible on the previously invisible small lakes immediately behind the beach.

A handsome male goldeneye (Bucephela clangula, Dansk: hvinand)

The goldeneye is a diving duck which has recently colonised Britain and there is an annual breeding population of around 200 pairs but it’s also a winter visitor when around 27,000 individuals arrive here to seek sustenance on lakes, rivers and tidal mudflats.

A lone redshank poking around for molluscs and crustaceans in the tidal mud (Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben)

Also prominent on tidal mud flats is the redshank, or ‘the sentinel of the marsh‘ as it’s often the first bird to raise the alarm when a disturbance occurs, is amber listed in the UK although there are 24-25,000 breeeding pairs and up to 130,000 winter visitors. As with many other birds, encroachment by humans and habitat destruction has limited their range and therefore numbers in the UK. But despite their struggle with humans I always expect to see redshank when I visit the coast, and the other wader that I’d be very concerned if I didn’t see is the unmistakable oystercatcher:

A few members of a big flock of oystercatchers passing overhead (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade)

Despite high expectations of seeing some of the 340,000 wintering UK oystercatchers their conservation status in the UK is amber, the European status is ‘vulnerable’ and globally they are ‘near threatened’ due to recent population decline. But there are still good numbers of them in the UK so I hope their numbers can be stabilised.

Another amber listed wader in the UK is the grey plover:

Grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola, Dansk: strandhjejle)

The grey plover is a truly global bird, it breeds on the Russian tundra and in northern North America but can be found as far afield as southern Asia, Africa and even Australia – it has a huge annual range! So it’s remarkable to think that this little guy came from Canada or northern Russia to feed on a Norfolk beach – and also that some of its relatives may be in Australia. It seems that many of our birds are struggling, including the statuesque black tailed godwit which is faring even less well than the grey plover and is red listed in the UK.

Black tailed godwit taking flight (Limosa limosa, Dansk: stor kobbersneppe)

According to the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) the taxonomic name derives from the Latin word ‘limus‘ meaning ‘mud‘. In order to name such a handsome bird ‘Muddy muddy‘ I can only imagine that particular  taxonomist was having a bad day. It deserves better! The black tailed godwit also breeds in the north and like the grey plover can also be found in southern Asia, South Africa and Australia. Another accomplished globe trotter.

Curlew (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storspove)

The largest European wader is the curlew which can be easily distinguished by it’s enormous downcurved beak and it’s equally unique call. Alas for the curlew, it is also red listed in the UK with 66,000 pairs recorded by the BTO in the UK in summer 2009. Even though it’s numbers are declining it’s still not unusual to see one or more on an outing to the coast.

At this point, between 9 and 10am, I decamped along the coast to Titchwell, pausing mid way where another iconic winter visitor was patrolling an adjacent hedgerow:

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger)

It’s pretty depressing to report that the fieldfare is also red listed, but fortunately this is a local UK phenomenon and it is a species of least concern in Europe and globally. It’s our most colourful thrush and visits the UK from Scandinavia in the winter when it can be seen in large flocks in fields and hedgerows, often mixed in with redwing – another Scandinavian thrush which overwinters in the comparatively warmer climes of the UK.

All those flocking waders…

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the vast flocks of geese which overwinter on The Wash; and there were also big numbers of other birds including small groups of dunlin close in by the shore:

Dunlin (Calidris alpina, Dansk: almindelig ryle)

But a little further out, and almost invisible until they took to the air, were enormous flocks of thousands of dunlin. I couldn’t see what flushed them, but every few minutes they rose en masse and put on a stunning display of aerobatic prowess:

Thousands of dunlin moving in very close proximity at high speed and never colliding

Occasionally they turned into the sun creating a shimmering ribbon of grey and white across the sky:

And as with the geese in the previous post the other thing which I hadn’t thought about until they were swirling overhead was the noise. It was a very different sound to the geese which gave a slow muted beating sound, the dunlin sounded more like a fast moving cloud of enormous insects. It was a really exciting spectacle. And as well as the dunlin flocks of oystercatcher wheeled over from behind and landed in a line on the mud flats:

Several hundred oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: Strandskade) seeking safety in numbers

… and it’s always good, but increasingly seldom, to see flocks of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe):

When I was a kid in the 70’s vast flocks of lapwing were a relatively frequent phenomenon in the fields out in the countryside around home, but their numbers have plummeted twixt now and then, so it’s good to see there are still places where thay can still be found doing what lapwing should be doing!

Aurora borealis

A couple of weeks ago my very good friend from Thessaloniki, Agni, returned from a trip to Finland and sent me these pictures of the Northen Lights, or to give it its correct scientific name, the Aurora Borealis. The Aurora occurs when streams of charged particles from the sun are driven out into space by the solar wind. They are largely deflected by the earths magnetic field but at the poles where the magnetic field is at it’s weakest they can enter the atmosphere and react with different gases, and different gases produce different colours. The most common colour is yellowy green which is generated by oxygen at a height of around 60 miles.

Despite being half Danish and spending nearly all my summer holidays, and some winter holidays, in Scandinavia, I’ve still never seen the Aurora, so I think these pictures are absolutely stunning. And it must have been totally jaw-dropping to see it for real so I’m now even more on a mission to go and see them for myself!

Aurora borealis‘ means ‘dawn of the North’ and is named after the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and the corresponding Aurora in the Southern Hemisphere is called the ‘Aurora australis‘ or ‘dawn of the South’.

I don’t normally post other peoples pictures here but these are so special they have to be shared, so I’m really grateful to Agni for letting me post them. They were taken with a Nikon D3200 on a tripod with a 10s exposure time. And they’re so cool!

Winter in the Wash

One of the ‘must see‘ natural events in the UK occurs in the winter when hundreds of thousands of ducks, waders and, in particular, geese spend the season on the mudflats of the Wash. The Wash is a huge bay on the east coast of England into which the rivers Witham, Welland, Nene and Great Ouse all drain into the North Sea.

When the tide recedes, like Morecambe Bay in the previous post, enormous areas of mudflats are exposed which provide sustenance and a roost site for colossal numbers of birds. Every morning at dawn thousands of geese take flight to head inland to feed, and the geese are what everyone goes there to see.

Multiple skeins of pink footed geese at Snettisham at dawn (Anser brachyrhynchus, Dansk: kortnæbbet gås)

I arrived at the coast at Snettisham on the north Norfolk coast around 6am when it was just starting to get light. Already sizable flocks of geese were in the air and I was concerned that I’d missed most of them. But then as the sun rose higher gargantuan flocks started to pass overhead and it was a truly incredible sight!

I don’t know how many thousands of geese were there but at the end of the day I went back to the same place to see them return. It was getting dark and all was still, so, as in the morning, I thought I’d missed them. And then they appeared, quite suddenly in their tens of thousands. I tried to estimate the numbers by counting small numbers of each wave and multiplying up, and I estimated there were between 30-40,000 birds returning.

Skeins within skeins, I like this formation

And if you’ve ever spent any time near geese you’ll know that they’re not afraid to announce their presence, so the other thing that I hadn’t expected, but maybe I should have done, was the noise. It was a magnificent cacophony! And not just the squawking, but the sound of them flying when they came over lower to the ground.

These birds breed in the summer up in the Arctic, in Greenland, Iceland and Spitsbergen and then head south to the relatively balmy conditions of the UK coast in winter (!).

Another skein of pink footed geese passing low overhead

It’s unknown why geese fly in skeins, but it’s thought to provide an aerodynamic advantage to the ones behind as they slipstream in turbulent air generated by the bird in front. Which makes me wonder if they constantly switch the pacemaker or if the biggest and strongest bird is always the one at the front.

I estimated there were around 500 birds in this huge flock, but even that was a tiny proportion of the total

To see this meant getting up and out at 4am which is never my favourite thing to do, and it was ferociously cold, but it was worth it to see such a unique spectacle. And as the sun rose and it got lighter, it soon became apparent that the geese weren’t the only seabirds in the area:

A shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand) on final approach past a lone dunlin in the foreground

Small flocks of shelduck and dunlin were mingling and feeding close in to the shore

The Wash is now not the only significant area of coastal mudflat in East Anglia. In order to attempt to mitigate some of the anticipated ravages of climate change, flood defences protecting areas of farmland on the coast further south in Essex have been deliberately breached. This has allowed the land to be reclaimed by the sea and to regenerate the tidal mudflats that were there before humans originally interfered. The new habitat  was created with the millions of tons of earth removed the ground under London in order to build the Crossrail tube train tunnels. And as soon as this happened the wildlife started to recolonise, and even though it is still fairly barren in comparison to established habitat, I hope that in the near future it will also provide refuge to hundreds of thousands more birds, and lots of other wildlife too.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina, Dansk: almindelig ryle)

But more of dunlin in the next post, and plenty more species of sea birds both at Snettisham and after that at the RSPB coastal reserve at Titchwell.

Morecambe Bay

Since my posting rate plummeted a couple of years ago, due mainly to the increased pressure of work, I’ve still been out and about accumulating a lot of photographs so now I’m going to try to get some of them into posts.

In early spring 2014 I found myself at Morecambe bay in Lancashire which is famous for its vast tidal mudflats that constitute a well stocked larder for a multitude of seabirds, and maximum danger for the unwary beach walker. The Irish Sea tides race in and swirl about at incredible speed and there are areas of treacherous quicksand too.

A pair of shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand)

The bay is so enormous that when the tide’s out it’s not always easy to see much wildlife, but by the pier in front of the Midland Hotel there were shelduck, curlew and oystercatchers and I also caught a tantalising glimpse of a distant red breasted merganser.

A curlew on full power for take off (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storpsove)

As I didn’t have my camera with me and I’d never succeeded in getting a picture of a merganser, I returned to the same spot very early the following morning with the relevant optics. It was the end of February and the weather was filthier than a Springbok in a ruck (which as any rugby fan will know is as dirty as it gets!) –  it was freezing cold and blowing a gale, so I sat on the ground with my back to the wind, and waited.

Despite what I said earlier, there were a good number of birds in the vicinity including curlew, shelduck, redshank and this oystercatcher who landed right in front of me and every so often he popped up into view as he mined the crevices in the rock for his breakfast.

An oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) landed close by on the rocky shoreline

And I didn’t have to wait too long before not one, but a pair, of red breasted merganser appeared in the water just 20 or so metres away, which justified getting out early and braving the elements:

Male (dark headed) and female (brown headed) red breasted merganser (Mergus serrator, Dansk: toppet skallesluger)

I think these are spectacular birds. They are generally resident breeders on the west coast of England and winter visitors on the east, so these were probably residents. They are one of two species of saw-toothed ducks, the other one being the goosander, which are resident in the UK. They have serrated beaks which they need to grasp their fishy prey which they can catch by chasing them under water. According to the BTO there are 2200 pairs in the UK in the summer and their conservation status in the UK is green suggesting the population is stable at least in this part of the world. The only other time I’ve seen a merganser was a month ago down on the south coast at Keyhaven, so they’re an uncommon but splendid sight!

Fenland falcon

A few Saturdays ago in January I made a trip to Burwell Fen, which is separated from Wicken Fen by the Burwell Lode. The whole area is a great place to see birds of prey in winter, and it’s not unusual to see buzzard, marsh harrier, short eared owl, barn owl, sparrowhawk, peregrine falcon, occasionally hen harrier and in the summer hobby. And it’s also not unusual to see 4 or 5 species in one visit. On this trip I saw marsh harrier, buzzard, short eared owl and sparrowhawk. And there were kestrels hovering over the fenland the whole time I was there.

A male kestrel (Falco tinnuculus, Dansk: tårnfalk)

Kestrels are renowned for their ability to seemingly hover. In fact they’re flying into the wind at the same speed as the wind is moving, so I guess it’s not technically a hover, but either way it’s impressive to watch. Incidentally, there were strong winds in my part of the world last weekend and I saw a buzzard which looked to be doing a reasonable impersonation of a kestrel… which gives you a good idea of how strong the wind was!

I’ve seen kestrels described as the ‘motorway falcon‘ because many sightings are of them hovering above roadside verges. This has created the impression that kestrels are very common and that the countryside between the roads must be full of them. But alas, as with most things, that’s not so. It’s not the presence of other raptors which has forced them to the roadside but the large swathes of agricultural devastation which has depleted habitat and rendered the farmland barren as a source of food for them. Consequently, they’re nowhere near as common as they may seem.

This male kestrel was perched on top of a telegraph pole and I’d been keeping an eye on him for several minutes to see what he might do. It was a beautiful sunny morning with good light for some photograsphs if I could get myself, the sun and the subject all in the right place relative to each other.

And after a few minutes the kestrel took off from his post, looped around and did a low altitude, high speed fly past. At his closest he was no more than  ten metres or so away and less than a metre above the ground, like he was posing for his picture! He executed his fly past and then swooped up higher and zoomed off over the fen on a hunting trip.

It was a remarkable twenty seconds and I don’t know why he looped past so close to where I was. It almost looked as though he was checking me out, and in the last picture he was definitely looking in my direction. It made my morning too, kestrels are spectacular and beautiful highly specialised predators, and it’s rare to see one in the air so close.

Ouse Fen

First things first, a very happy new year to you all. I hope 2016 brings you peace and prosperity. Heading back into the depths of last year I spent a very cold morning at the end of November exploring Ouse Fen which is a great place for songbirds and water birds.

RSPB Ouse Fen is another collection of exhausted gravel  pits which have created a series of lakes and been turned into a nature reserve. It’s part of ongoing extraction so new habitat is being created all the time and will all eventually become nature reserve, creating an enormous network of varied habitat. It’s located between Needingworth and Bluntisham near St Ives in Cambridgeshire.

The entrance onto the reserve is via a pathway across a bleak field leading to a sheltered path that’s lined with established hedges, and the hedges are always full of songbirds. On this trip it was as busy as ever and within a few metres I spotted a goldcrest just a few feet away and within a few seconds there were four of them. In my experience goldcrest are devilish difficult to get good photographs of, because like wrens, they are tiny and they flit around at high speed in the undergrowth. But this time I ramped up the ISO to 1000 which allowed a reasonable shutter speed of 1/320 s and got lucky:

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus, Dansk: fuglekonge)

The Danish name translates as ‘bird king‘ I guess from his splendid golden crown, and it’s the smallest breeding bird in the UK, weighing in at 5-6g.

Despite its diminutive stature it’s conservation status is green and more than half a million territories were recorded in the UK in 2009. Hopefully it isn’t suffering too badly with climate change…

Another bird which was in good numbers on this trip was the bullfinch. When I was a kid it wasn’t too unusual to see bullfinch on the feeders in the garden. But after the 1970’s their numbers plummeted such that it was years before I saw one at all. But nowadays I see them fairly frequently in the countryside (never in the garden though) and they had 190,000 territories in 2009 in the UK, so they can’t be doing too badly and their conservation status is amber.

The female is striking but has fairly drab colours in the winter:

Bullfinch female (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Dansk: dompap)

And the male is splendid even in winter with his peachy orange breast, black cap, grey back and white rump:

The bullfinch is a chunky finch with a beak to match which they use for cracking the seeds or stones from small fruit like cherries. They also eat shoots and consequently part of the reason for their downfall in the 1980’s was a result of falling foul of the fruit farmers. I love to see them and because of the relative scarcity of sightings and their skittish nature I’ve been waiting a long time to get a half decent photograph of one. And on this occasion I managed to get pictures of the male and the female. So I felt particularly smug on the way home!

Goldfinches harvesting seeds from teasel heads (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits)

Ouse Fen is known for the prevalence of finches including redpoll, linnet and goldfinch all of which I’ve seen there before but this time it was only goldfinch that were on parade so I’ll try to get some redpoll and linnet pictures next time.