Thursday, 8 December 2011

Sandy, Sorry it's taken so long...

It's been a while since I jotted down what I've been up to, but I've been a bit busy. Not busy birding as I would like to be, but working (Boo).

Sandy at Sandy... Strangely by the Bird feeders
So let me take you back in time (wobbly hands wobbly hands) to Saturday 19th November and my annual trip to RSPB HQ The Lodge, Sandy in Beds. There were reports of an Osprey that was still hanging around. Possibly confused with the unseasonably warm weather we experienced in November, or possibly not strong enough to make the flight to Africa, either way it was there. So I packed up the car with all the important stuff, Bins, Camera, Lenses, Extra Batteries, Extra Memory Cards, Sandwiches, flask of tea, Oh and I took the Wife too.

Last year I took her to Sandy, and it so happened that the weekend we chose fell on the weekend of the Xmas Fayre, so we thought we'd try and return the same weekend. For her it was for Xmas rubbish, for me it was so I could draw a comparison by returning to the same site 12 months apart and see how different the conditions are, and the resulting bird population. In 2010 Sandy had reported Redwing, Fieldfare, Redpolls of varying types and a few sightings of Waxwing, 2011 heralded pretty much none of the above, just a confused Osprey still thinking it's summertime!

Grey Waggie, with bling or possibly an ASBO tag
Bird wise it was quiet, almost a limbo. Migration was happening, but not here. There were none of the usual Autumn / Winter types about, and the highlights for me were a Green Sandpiper at the hide, and a Grey Wagtail that was very happy to perform in front of me for a good 10 minutes. My Wife, not known for being much of a birder was impressed with a pair of Raven that seem to have moved in there. Every time she saw a Crow I heard "Is that a Raven?", when she saw the Raven she said "Bloody hell, it's massive!!" Not something I've heard her say before. So all in all a strange day, not a great one for birding, but a pleasant day to walk about and enjoy the sunshine... In November?!?

PS - No sight of the bloody Osprey either!!

Monday, 14 November 2011

Crisis averted, and Ghosts a plenty

 CRISIS... Averted...

Firstly to deal with my earlier crisis of identity. I decided I don't really care about whether I am a photographer, or a birder, or both, or neither. Sometimes I enjoy taking pictures, sometimes I enjoy just watching birds. This was proven to me on Saturday when I spent an hour sat in my garden watching House Sparrows flitting into my tree before grabbing a snack from one of my feeders. I think sometimes when I'm out in the field I grab for the camera, when there isn't really a shot on, and miss the enjoyment of just watching the birds, so if anything I need to learn restraint. Bins first, lens second. That said I did take a few snaps of the Sparrows even though it was a very, very gloomy day, some of them came out quite nice. This is mostly due to the setup I now have being able to deal with those conditions, so to change away from this would be a bad decision.

My "Pet" Sparrows

I can never see myself with a scope watching the seas in the hope of catching migrants, and Patch ticks, year lists don't really have a place in my life. I do keep a record of what I've seen, when and where I've seen them etc., but this is more for a record that I can revisit these places in the future and compare. For example I'm off to RSPB The Lodge in Sandy at the weekend. This time last year there were Waxwings (which I didn't see), Redwings and Fieldfares, Redpolls and Bramblings (which I saw none of), however I did see a Nuthatch and a Goldcrest, both of which I have rubbish photographic records of so to improve on these would be great. So I will continue as I am, but who knows what the future holds.

There be Ghosts

I had the privilege of visiting the Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibition in Shoreditch yesterday, and I was blown away. A couple of things really surprised me, for me the diversity of artforms from Painting to collage, Sculpture to musical installations were incredible, but the real surprise was that my wife was taken aback at the treatment of birds, and the way that humanity is careless in the way we treat the diverse range of lifeforms that share this planet with us. I think the destruction portrayed in birds killed in Malta really shocked her, as it did me. The form of a bird on the floor created from a border of photos of birds, filled in with spent shotgun cartridges was particularly powerful.

There are some extinctions that we have caused, and can't undo but to allow it to continue is appalling. The Dodo you could say we knew no better, but the Albatross? Surely now we know the dangers that we create for these creatures, and to not change the actions that cause their unnecessary deaths is careless in the extreme. Animals will naturally die out, and extinctions sometimes just happen, but when that extinction is caused by Humans then questions need to be asked.

Ralph Steadman Room
Anyway, back to the art and what stood out for me was the Ralph Steadman room. Floor to Ceiling, 4 walls covered in paintings. They laid out binoculars so that you could see the ones at the top of the walls, it was incredible.

The exhibition won't be there for much longer, but I urge anyone to make the effort, you will not regret it.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Crisis! I've lost my way!

About 18 months ago now I rediscovered my love of birdwatching. As I wasn't sure if this was just a temporary fad (of which I have had before) I didn't go crazy with kit. I decked myself out with some cheap binoculars, and a cheap scope and I set off in pursuit of all things feathered. As an amateur birder I wasn't 100% sure what I was looking at, so decided a camera would help me ID the birds I couldn't initially identify. After a bit of research I went for a cheap dSLR, a Sony. The kit lens with it wasn't so great, so I upgraded to a larger 75-300mm zoom lens. This was fine, until I decided to upgrade the body, which in turn broke the lens, so I upgraded the lens again to a 150-500mm zoom.

This new setup was rubbish, the body I now had (dSLT A55 and Sigma 150-500) was no good at all for what I now thought I wanted, so I eBayed the lot, and bought a Canon EOS 40d, 300mmLf4 prime lens, and after a while a 1.4x TC to give me an extra bit of reach. And here is where I have reached my crisis. What happened to the birding?

My initial use of a camera to help with ID'ing birds, has led to me being completely involved in the photography, and I've forgotten about the birding. Now I've never really fancied myself as a twitcher, but my skills as a birder have not developed at all. I read a tweet earlier from Dominic Mitchell of a Brambling being spotted in a finch flock, I wouldn't have seen it, and if I had I'd have been too busy getting my camera ready for a shot, and not actually looking at the birds. And where next with the kit? I'm not a millionaire, I'm not an award winning photographer, nor will I ever want to make a living taking photos so how can I justify that the next lens I want is £5000, or the next camera body over £1000. I've already spent loads on Cameras, lenses, bags, batteries, tripods, monopods, memory cards blah blah blah, when all I really need is a GOOD pair of binoculars, possibly a compact bridge camera with decent zoom, and a whole lot of practice.

So there's the crisis. I need to put some serious thought into it and decide if I want to be a birder, with a camera, or a photographer, with a penchant for shooting birds. I have a feeling I know the way it is heading, so you may want to start looking on eBay soon if you want some decent second hand photography gear.

On another note I will be going to the Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibition in Shoreditch tomorrow, followed by a trip to Hamleys with my 4 year old daughter. I am looking forward to one of these, I'll let you guess which.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Autumnal Sunshine

Saturday morning had a few things in store for me. One thing unexpected was the slight hangover I felt from possibly one small Brandy too many, and another totally expected, 4 hours at work. Every third Saturday I have to work, I do not like this. As previously mentioned I love my job, but not so much that I want it to get in the way of the rest of my life. However, I begrudgingly downed the paracetamol and headed into, what turned out to be a very busy morning at work. Fast forward 4 hours...

Pulling up at home just in time to see a Green Woodpecker flying over my house. I've seen them before in Barking and at Hainault, but quite surprised to see one in War Torn Dagenham. With my hangover now passed and a tummy full of bacon sarnie I was happy again, and cheerfully loaded up the Family into the Volvo and away we sped to Sunny Hertfordshire, to spend the evening with the In-Laws.

After relaxing my Wife with a couple of glasses of Vino on the Friday night I broke the news that I would be doing my usual "dropping them off and then going for a walk somewhere" once we arrived so she wasn't surprised to see me loading my Camera and Binoculars into the car. After a brief chat to the In-Laws she waved me off with a tear stained hankie (yeah right) and away I went for a rare trip to RSPB Rye Meads. I used to go there a fair bit, but since discovering the habitats on the doorstep of my Wifes family in Ware and Amwell End I usually stay closer to home, but tales of a recent Osprey at Rye Meads, and the hope of seeing a Bittern (which I didn't) were enough to make me take the short drive.

The sun was beautiful, but as is usually the case with Autumn sunshine it was too bloody low. Wherever I walked it seemed the sun was glaring right into my eyes. Photography was therefore difficult as trying to find anywhere to shoot from where the sun was at your back was rare. Rye Meads, if any of you have been will know, is a Hide based Nature Reserve. There are trails, but the main focus is the hides, named after what you can expect to see from those hides. The Kingfisher hide being most popular as you have a very good chance of seeing a Kingfisher or 2, provided you have the patience to wait. I'm not a great one for hides personally. I get more enjoyment from actually moving around a bit and seeing and hearing what's around you, but when in Rome and all that so I found myself in one of the hides for maybe 30 minutes watching what turned out to be 4 Snipe. They were like London Buses. A guy to my left said "There's a Snipe there", I looked where he was pointing and said "There are 2, one behind the other", before we realised that what he was pointing at, and I was looking at were totally different, so there were 3, and another on a distant island made 4. They were all quite open, enjoying the sunshine until something spooked them and they all hid (quite badly really, I could beat them all at Hide n Seek) behind stones they were near. This was my cue to walk on.

Marching Snipe

I enjoyed the walk along the Otter trail, although it didn't yield many more birds, a quiet day in all. Apart from the Snipe and a Juvenile Great Crested Grebe eating a MASSIVE fish there wasn't a lot about. And it wasn't until I was getting in the car that I saw my first raptor of the day, A Kestrel which was a fair distance away (No Osprey for me). Looking forward to a bit more Autumnal weather, and my first Fieldfare, Redwing and hopefully Waxwings of the year.

Bird list: - Black Headed Gull, Coot, Moorhen, Shoveller, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Grey Heron, Cormorant, Snipe, Lapwing, Pied Wagtail, Pochard, Wood Pigeon, Pheasant, Green Woodpecker (another one), Kestrel, Herring Gull, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Free at Last

Worked double hard this weekend to make sure all the jobs that are associated with being a husband and homeowner were completed by Saturday. Who knew that agreeing, in front of a Priest and a congregation of my friends and family, to wear a little gold ring for all eternity would turn me into a painter, decorator and whatever you call somebody who replaces gutters... A Guttereplacerman possibly. In doing so I left myself an opportunity for some birding / photography. Knowing I only had a few hours I thought I'd best stay local and headed to RSPB Rainham Marshes.

Close up of one of the Swans
The weather was good, beautiful sunshine, unseasonably warm and just perfect for a stroll. I had heard the Bearded Tits were back, with a report of 6 on Saturday so I made this my first target, but as soon as I arrived Howards voice came over the radio with a report of a Male Marsh Harrier and looking up there he was twisting and turning over the pools in the centre of the reserve. My first Marsh Harrier so I was really pleased to start my walk with a big tick. I then headed off to where the Beardies usually reside, but was disappointed that they were not showing for me. I knew they were there as I could hear them intermittently calling, but the song was from too far back and after half an hour of standing still I decided it best to try again another day. As I was leaving a woman told me of a couple of fellas at the next pool who had taken some shots of a Water Rail, so thought this would be where I head to next. After speaking to the guys I thought I would hang around for a while to see if the Rail returned, and after a few minutes I could hear it moving through the reeds just to the side of me, and this is where I got a bit annoyed. You see I have a daughter. She is gorgeous, bubbly, fun, everything you want a 4 year old to be, and as much as I really want her to take an interest in Nature, I know she is too young to behave in a manner quiet enough so as not to disturb other birders at a reserve. So when I was stood silently staring into a bunch of reeds, seconds away from the Rail giving me a great photo op I did not appreciate the 2 little girls that, at that second ran screaming, singing and stamping onto the boardwalk. My thought now was do I wait and let them pass or do I move on. My decision made for me when the loudest of the girls shouted "Mummy this is a perfect spot for our picnic!!" Grumpily I moved on.

My last shot of the day!
So I arrived at the half way point of the reserve with 2 nearly, but not quites of 2 birds that I dearly want a chance to photograph. I've seen them both before, both this year in fact, but never got a shot I was happy with (not a shot at all when it comes to the Beardy). So although grumpy I consoled myself with the memory of the Marsh harrier, and then the Peregrine. He was bleedin miles away, right at the top of an electricity pylon, but sure enough there he (or she) was. My hopes were now on for a raptor hat-trick. There wasn't really an awful lot else about. Some Swans with their Cygnets, a Little Grebe, a Little Egret fishing away happily, and plenty of ducks, Geese and Gulls on the main pools. But the one thing that stuck with me was the sheer amount of Goldfinches there were. Everywhere I looked there were flocks of them. At the feeders there were fights, which is great to see. Such aggression in such a small bird, is something you really have to see. Popping into the Ken Barratt hide There was a very poorly Greylag, probably not long for this world and some Wigeon that were quite close to the hide, but by this time the sun had gone, and it was getting quite cold. A couple of circuits of the Woodland area and I thought it time to go when I saw a familiar shape in the sky, the completion of the Raptor Hat-trick thanks to a Buzzard soaring above. Just had time for the final shot of the day, which I think was my best Goldfinch shot of the lot.

Friday, 14 October 2011


I am nearing breaking point. It has been AGES since I last got out in to the big outdoors with my Camera and Binoculars. Family engagements and decorating (Grrrr) have meant that I have been locked away for weeks. Sure I can escape at Lunchtime for a quick half an hour by the Thames, or a traipse around the local Nature Reserve, but all this seems to do is make me feel worse. I am desperate to pull on the Hiking boots, load up the rucksack and hit the trails.

This weekend holds the promise of replacing the guttering around the house. Although this will get me out into the open air, I'm not sure this will be enough to satisfy my hunger for the great outdoors. This also means that I will miss out on the Wildlife Expo that I wanted to visit. Although given the choice of the Expo or a walking / Birding / Photography outing The expo would come second. So all I can do is dream, and plan.

A Pied Wagtail in a Car Park that I can not see from where I am!
The return of Autumnwatch adds to my agony, as do the tweets and blogs I read from people doing what I want to do. I think I wouldn't feel too bad if I only had a window so that I could see the Pied Wagtail that I can hear in my works car park. You see I work in a workshop, which sits in a warehouse. I have 2 windows, which look out into the warehouse. This allows people to walk past and stare in at me like a fish in a bowl. Don't get me wrong I love my job (I am one of the fortunate ones who does), but I would love to be sat by a River waiting for a Kingfisher, or walking through a heath in search of a great photo opportunity.

So I need to plan. I need to scheme and hope that one day soon I shall be freed, even if only for one day. I have in fact just one days holiday to take this year (excepting Xmas) and I've been holding on to it. You see this year I want to see a Waxwing, or possibly 2, so I'm holding off taking it as late as I can until these beautiful little chaps come my way. Last year they were everywhere. Wherever I looked there were Photos of Waxwings, Reports of Waxwings, Stories of flocks and flocks of Waxwings, but did I see any? No I bloody didn't. So this year I am determined.

I suppose I'll have to get on with the Guttering, attend the next family lunch, finish glossing the doors, but I won't have my mind on it. I'll be planning my escape. I'll be researching where I'd be most likely to see them, when they'll be there, how to get to them and what to pack with me. This year my Wax winged friends we shall meet, and I for one, am really looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Barking Bay - 3rd October 2011

Just a quick note of what was seen by me yesterday at Barking Bay, as I sat by the river for half an hour at lunchtime:

34 - Cormorant
18 - Wigeon
20+ - Linnet
5ish - Great Black Backed Gull
5ish - Lesser Black Backed Gulls
Loads of Black headed Gulls, and a smattering of Shelduck.

Might pop back today.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

False Imprisonment

Wow, a day out birding and in one day I see American Eagle Owl, Pair of Snowy Owls, a Tawny owl, African Grey Parrots and a Budgie... Ah you see through my thin veil of lies. All of the above were indeed seen, but they were all held in cages at Old McDonalds Farm in Brentwood.

Imprisoned for being too pretty!
(One of the luckier Owls from Paradise Park)

There's something about caged birds that make me really sad. It's great that we're able to see them up close, but you're not really seeing them are you? A bird, to me, loses something of itself in being in captivity. I'm yet to see a wild Tawny, but I know when I do that it will feel incredible, exciting. But in this cage I just stood there, looked at her, she looked back at me, we were both quite unmoved, apart from my sorrow that this beautiful bird wasn't scouring the fields for food, but probably eating dead mice from a bowl like a prisoner (not sure what the prison service feeds inmates, could be mice, I'm just not certain). My point is to truly see a bird you see all of the bird, hear it's call, see the way it behaves and ultimately watch as it flies away when it notices you. These captive birds may as well be stuffed as they just sat there.

A few years ago I visited Paradise Park in Hayle, Cornwall and that seemed somehow different. The birds there were pretty much all born into captivity, but they made special efforts to return birds to their natural environment if possible. They were running a conservation project to return the Chough to Cornwall, and I think they are having some success. The cages were high, wide and deep enough for the birds to stretch their wings and it just seemed a bit more like a hotel than a prison. To the point that the Golden Eagle there took me a couple of minutes to find in it's suite. And rightly so, a beautiful bird like that deserves respect. They had bird shows there allowing some of the birds to fly around, and encouraged natural behaviour, even if it was just a Kookaburra trying to kill a rubber snake.

I suppose captivity can be ok, if it's done right. Paradise Park to my mind has got it right, Old McDonalds Farm is way off the mark. Hainault Forest in Essex has a Little Owl in a cage, why? To me that's like putting a child in a cage in a playground. The child can see the fun all the other children are having, without being able to be involved.

Got that off my chest for now, in other news saw a Buzzard soaring over the fields near the farm, and a Sparrowhawk glided over my garden when I got home. That's how I like to see my birds, soaring and free.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Back again

Hmmm... Last time out I said I'd be back to stay, that was January, we are now a day or 2 away from October, so I'll not make promises.

Smiley Migrant Hawker
Anyway, here I am, with a couple of changes. I've moved from Sony to Canon camera wise. Think I had an A55 on my last post, which I added a Sigma 150-500 to, but the image quality wasn't there. The camera was slow to focus, and much too small a body to hold a big lens like that. felt uncomfortable and I had hand cramps from using it. I now have a Canon EOS 40D, with a Canon 300mm f4 fixed prime lens, which I have recently added a Sigma 1.4x Teleconverter to. I really love the new set up. It actually feels at last that the pictures I see on the screen are the ones I wanted to take when out in the field. The added bonus of the TC not altering the focus distance means that Macro function is improved greatly. The Dragonfly here was only slightly cropped.

Not a great Dipper shot, but a Dipper shot nonetheless!

Birdwise it's been a bit quiet, although this year I achieved both of the target birds I had this year. I managed to find a treecreeper early on, which I found at Hainault Forest (subsequently found a nest just outside Ware, Herts which I sat watching for hours as the parents flitted in and out of it feeding the squeaking chicks). And on my recent holiday to Somerset I found a Dipper in Porlock. Looked up and down a stream that runs through the village and just as I was about to give up found one as we were returning to the car. Learnt 2 things, 1, never give up and 2, Stay where you are and wait for them to come to you. Not sure the second one would work, but it would've saved a lot of walking!

Treecreeper (One of the Ware ones)

Not getting as much time to get out as I would like, but hoping this year to get a Waxwing, so my last couple of days holiday this year I will be holding back on until they arrive and then a trip up to Norfolk may be needed. Hopefully we get numbers as high as we did last year, can't believe I didn't see one last year, kept seeing reports saying they were all around us, but think they were avoiding me!

Anyway I'll be off now, back soon (hopefully) and I'm now on Twitter @mikeebateman  so if I have anything to say I shall shout it from there.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Egyptian Geese

Been away for a while, but I'm back and hope to stay.

Had a mixed start to the new year. I received a new camera for Christmas, a Sony A55 DSLT. I kept with Sony mainly as I already had a Sigma lens and I felt comfortable with the Sony menus etc. Went to Rainham Marshes on 2nd January and 10 minutes into my visit my new camera destroyed the gears in my lens. The Auto focus ceased to work entirely, and you could just about use manual focus if you were desperate Dan... Which I am not.
Anyway the day got a little better as I saw my first Water Rail (2 in the day), and 3 Barnacle Geese another first. There were 2 Female Bearded Tits near the building site of the new hide, none of which I could get decent shots of, bit frustrating.

This was the best I got of the Water Rail.

Took a trip again to Rainham on Sunday (16th Jan). Didn't take the camera, but did take Morgan (Wife) and Lucy (Daughter). It was busy, probably due to the Slaty Back Gull that had been sighted earlier in the week, but quite a pleasant day, if a little windy.
I saw another first for me, a snipe. And just like London Buses, you wait for one to come along and then four come along at once. I thought I saw one at Rye Meads last year, but due to my old binoculars being a bit rubbish I couldn't be sure. Lucy had a nice walk out, although at 3 years old she hasn't quite grasped walking and talking quietly. A stomp on the boardwalk led to another Water Rail flashing it's tail feathers at me as it ran for the reeds, and me decising it was hopeless seeing anything else with my little angel stamping her feet and repeating "I'm hungry" and "I'm sleepy" over and over again, so I decided to call it a day.

Had a tip off from my Uncle John on Sunday that he had seen an "Odd looking Duck, a bit lanky with a zorro mask on it's eyes" at the lake in Barking Park. I read this as an Egyptian Goose, and hoped that it would still be there when I got a chance to visit today. Although cold there was some lovely sunshine today, so I took my camera down there (Still with broken lens) and tried to get a few shots. Now dissatisfied with what I got, but I'm sure I could do better.
Another first for me, Egyptian Goose.

So a pair of Egyptian Goose, around 30 Tufted Duck, and a dozen Shoveller along with the ubiquitous Canada Geese and Mallard all seemingly happy on a horribly polluted lake. I've never seen so much rubbish dumped in a lake, depressing really.