Kingfisher in Betty’s Wood

Kingfisher in birch tree

Kingfisher

I’ve only ever had sight of a kingfisher as a brief flash of blue. Today, we set out for a gentle amble. I was not expecting to take any bird photos, and took a different lens for my camera to try out. We reached the bottom of Betty’s Wood and sat on the bench, when a flash of blue caught Stephen’s eye. A kingfisher! The first ever sighting at our woods, and a wonderful sight to behold. It stayed for almost one hour, feeding on three of our ponds and in the ditch. It seemed to be feeding on larvae or possibly small newts – difficult to tell at a distance.

So I apologise for a VERY bad picture. This is a 100% crop from a totally unsuitable lens. But it proves that if you build it, they will come. One of the best days ever in Betty’s Wood!

The feeling of spring

Primroses

Primroses

Early Mining Bee on Willow Catkin

Early Mining Bee on Willow Catkin

Spring is here at last, and what a welcome thing it is. It started when I was cooped up in a hospital room for two weeks, watching the crocuses on the balcony bloom in their tubs, and the first small tortoiseshell butterfly flutter past my window. But I could not go out and enjoy it.

Coming out of hospital, the first thing I noticed was the wind on my face. Cold, for sure, but very welcome, and something that had been sorely missed.

They seemed almost imperceptible at first, the signs of Spring at the woods. It was very subtle. One week, you could see through the understorey, through the woods to the fields beyond. Then a few days later, you couldn’t. Just a few buds bursting here and there and the woods were transformed once again.

Birch Leaves and Catkins

Birch Leaves and Catkins

Daffodils

Daffodils

The daffodils came out in great numbers, followed by the lesser celandine, primroses and cowslips. This last weekend the first bluebell buds appeared, the blossom was profuse on the blackthorn, and the first cherry blossom also came into flower. Snakeshead fritillary are also in flower, and the smell of wild garlic hits you before you see the emerging leaves.

Cowslips

Cowslips

Ladybird on the edge of a leaf

Ladybird on the Edge

Within a few days, tiny green leaves were all over the birch trees, like little jewels, backlit by the sun. Catkins cover the willow trees, leaf buds bursting, early bees feasting on the pollen. Comma, small tortoiseshell, brimstone and peacock butterflies are everywhere in the sheltered parts of the meadow. Chiffchaffs are calling. The first blackcap is in song.

Surprisingly, for most birds are still building their nests, we even have a robin feeding her young, the nest precariously perched in an empty log bag thrown onto the top shelf of our log store.

Robin Feeding Young

Robin Feeding Young

This is the feeling of spring. The wind on your face. Some warmth in the sun. Frantic bird activity, flowers on the woodland floor, and the delicate sight of new leaves and catkins. A feeling magnified by my release from captivity. A glorious feeling. A joyful time of year.

Blackthorn

Blackthorn

Lesser Celandine

Lesser Celandine

Comma Butterfly

Comma Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly – shame about the background but lovely butterfly all the same.

Cherry Blossom

Cherry Blossom

Helpful Robins

Robin looks like he is sitting in a bubble

Robin looks like he is sitting in a bubble

Robin on a Stick

Robin on a Stick – sitting on the cloned willow stick

Round Robin

Round Robin

Robins nearly always show up whenever you do any work in the woods. Last week I was cloning some willow. This means you cut about 18 inch/50 cm lengths of wood about 1 inch/2.5 cm diameter.  Then, making sure it is the right way up, push it into the ground about 15cm or so, put a guard around it to prevent browsing, and the vast majority of willow will re-sprout into a new tree.

I nearly didn’t take my camera.  But I was glad I did.  The little robin was waiting for me to hammer in one of the sticks, then coming down to perch on it while I went to fetch the guard from the wheelbarrow.  And when he wasn’t doing that, he was perched in the tree close by.

I managed to snap one photo of him with the light just right – he looked like he was sitting in a bubble!

 

Winter Wildlife Watching

Chubby Little Squirrel

Chubby Little Squirrel

Squirrel Approaching

Squirrel Approaching

Of course the birds are there all year, but you can see them much more clearly at this time of year, when the leaves have left the trees, and when they are keen to move in to our feeders for food.  This winter has been unusually mild so far, and there has been relatively little activity at our feeders, because there is still plenty of natural food around.

Robin

Robin

Nevertheless, on a sunny day in midwinter, there is nothing better than the low and slanting sunshine for spotting the little birds, and other creatures, moving in on the feeders.

Great Tit

Great Tit

Great Tit

Great Tit

At the moment we are getting a huge number of great tits and blue tits, as is usual.  But we are also getting some reed buntings, coal tits, greenfinch, goldfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, robin and nuthatch, as well as the occasional great-spotted woodpecker.  Little mobs of long-tailed tits range along the edges of the woods and tops of trees in huge groups – eleven or more of them – finding their own food in the trees.  Underneath the feeders, any spillage is rapidly swept up by pheasants, mallard and squirrels (sadly we only have grey squirrels in this area). We are still awaiting the willow tits, which we usually see at this time of year, as well as yellowhammer.  We have heard both, but not seen them on the feeders.  Overhead, the buzzards are still active, and the kestrel is hovering along the woodland margins, looking for unwise mice and voles.

Chaffinch

Chaffinch

Chubby Little Blue-Tit

Chubby Little Blue-Tit

Occasionally there is a panic, and a sparrow hawk swoops in, or a magpie comes to try its luck.

Most of the birds seem to be able to use the feeder intuitively, but some of them just never get the hang of it – in particular one female blue tit who pecked at everything except the feeding port, and eventually resorted to finishing the spilt food on the ground.

Incapable Blue-Tit

Incapable Blue-Tit

There are also relatively few fieldfare in the trees, and I haven’t seen any redwings either this winter yet. This could all change if the weather gets colder in the new year.

It is a privilege to sit in my portable chair hide, with my camera and a flask of coffee, and watch these little birds.  I don’t really mind if they are common birds – I never tire of watching or photographing their antics.

Dunnock

Dunnock

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting

Nuthatch on Feeder

Nuthatch on Feeder

More Little Birds

Scruffy Blue Tit

Scruffy Blue Tit

Spring is definitely upon us.  This weekend, I noticed that we could no longer see through the woods, as the elder leaves are coming out and blocking the view.  The catkins are almost finished and the leaves on hawthorn and hazel are also starting to come out.  It will not be long before the oak leaves are out too.

Of course this makes it harder to photograph the little birds, as they become progressively obscured by foliage.

I haven’t spotted the willow tit for a week or so, but we do have a good collection of reed buntings, including at least three males and one female, and these have been coming to the feeders as well as settling down into the reeds on our small ponds in the clearing.  I hope they are nesting.

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting

Long-tailed tits are difficult to photograph, but I finally managed some shots this weekend.  The little birds have been seen collecting feathers and moss, so are clearly nest-building at the moment.

Long-tailed tit

Long-tailed tit

This weekend I also noticed an absence of cackling redwings, although no sign yet of spring migrants.  I will be listening for chiffchaff and blackcap (they overwinter in the garden, but not at the woods) in the next week or so.

Another really excellent piece of news is that the lesser-spotted woodpecker is around.  Not seen, but the high-frequency drumming and song have been heard and this points to its presence again this year.  The song/call and drumming are quite distinct from the greater-spotted and it is fortunate we have both as it allows us to compare.  The buzzards are also thinking about setting up home in our woods after a year off – we think this may be the chick from two years ago.

There are at least three skylarks singing from the set-aside strips in the adjacent fields, which is brilliant news.  The mallard are also taking a keen interest in our ponds as a slightly quieter option when compared to the adjacent nature reserve and canal.

These are a few shots of the little birds around our feeder and around the woods taken in the last couple of weeks.  Soon it will be in leaf, and it will be time to swap the long bird lens for the macro lens when the butterflies emerge – a few brimstones are already on the wing.

Robin

Robin

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

Buzzard

Buzzard

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

Great Tit

Great Tit

A walk to the lakes

Coot in Pursuit - chasing off a rival

Coot in Pursuit – chasing off a rival

Stonydelph lakes are only a short walk from our home, and I don’t visit them nearly enough.  So today I set off with my camera hoping to catch some of the squabbles among the water birds as they fight for their territory.  Normally you don’t have to encourage coots to fight – they do it all the time.  However today there must be something in the air, because they were abnormally placid and I had to wait a long time to catch any of them having a squabble.

There were relatively few birds on the lakes, mostly mallard, coot, moorhen, black-headed gull and mute swan.  I heard a very loud wren in full song, and there were blue tits, great tits and long-tailed tits in the surrounding trees.  No sign of the tufted duck that are often there in the winter, nor of the pintail that was there last year.

I did manage a few shots of birds in action though.  Maybe a bit later in the year there will be more birds about, and more action to capture.

Coot in attack posture

Coot in attack posture

Female mallard

Female mallard

Portrait of a coot

Portrait of a coot

Duck bathing and splashing up the water

Duck bathing and splashing up the water

Mute swan failed take off

Mute swan failing to take off

Signs of spring

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Wild Daffodils

Wild Daffodils

After a long and very wet winter, there are at last some signs of spring around the woods.  In particular, there are catkins.  Lots and lots of catkins – hazel, birch, alder and willow – and my hay fever tells me they are producing a lot of pollen.  This is wonderful for the honey bees and bumblebees that I see around the woods, waking up from their hibernation.

The wild daffodils have also started to come out, although the naturalised domestic daffs are a little behind their wild cousins.  The bluebells are also showing their shoots through the ground.

The little birds are singing their territorial songs:  dunnock, robin, wren, great tit and blue tit are in full song, as well as willow tit and yellowhammer, and the great spotted woodpecker is drumming away.  A pair of buzzards are calling as they circle over the woods.  The skylarks are up as well and that is truly a sound of summer.  And in our meadows, the grass is rising and the speedwell is in flower in places.

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

Buzzard

Buzzard

The light, too, is getting that lovely light and watery quality of spring as the sun creeps higher and higher, and sets later and later in the day.  The sunshine and showers weather is a big improvement over the wet winter storms.

Hazel Flower

Hazel Flower

Spring is such an exciting time and always welcome, whether the winter has been cold and snowy or mild, wet and windy.  It represents a time when the winter work in the woods is finally done and we can sit back, enjoy the fruit of our labours, cease worrying about the dwindling supply of firewood logs and concentrate on the beauty, tranquility and peace of the woods again.  And maybe even turn our hands to a little bit of green woodworking again with the fresh supply of coppice wood…but that is a post for another day!

Spore Heads on Moss

Spore Heads on Moss

Photographing little birds

Blue tit at feeder

Occasionally a feeder picture is particularly nice – like this blue tit

Willow tit

Willow tit – a red-listed species

I love taking photos of the little birds at our woods, and one way of ensuring that I get some reasonable shots is to take the photos near the feeder.

I don’t usually bother with shots at the feeder itself, since these don’t really show the birds in their natural environment.  The best feeder shots involve some kind of action, such as a fight, or a bird about to fly off with a seed in its beak, or occasionally just a very cute, very handsome bird.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch on his way to the feeder

So how do I actually go about getting shots of birds in and around the feeder area?

First of all I feed the birds regardless of whether or not I am taking photos.  This is very important.  To photographers, taking pictures of birds is fun, but for the birds this is deadly serious stuff – food at this time of year is a matter of life and death to them.  If you get the birds used to feeding at your feeders, you must persist in feeding them, or many will struggle to get food from elsewhere.  Yes, you can get pictures by setting up feeders, and the birds will come in quickly, but don’t leave them in the lurch once you have finished your photographic project.  If you are going to withdraw feeding, then do it at a time of year when there is abundant natural food and they can adapt to having no available supplemental food – usually this is late summer or autumn.

Blue tit

Blue tit

Second, and this is aligned to the first point, have more than one feeder.  This gives the birds an alternative if they are too nervous to approach when you are getting close to get your pictures.  If they can’t approach and you are sitting there, then they are missing out on vital food.  I have three feeders operating, so the birds have plenty of choice.  We operate the feeders between November and late August – then take them down so the birds get used to natural forage – and put them back up again when the natural food diminishes and the birds need help for the winter.

Female Reed Bunting

Female Reed Bunting

The first thing I do is to check the light and background – which direction is going to get me the best pictures?  I also look at these in the light of how the birds are approaching the feeder – no point in having fantastic light and background if by using this angle the approach path of the birds is obscured by undergrowth.  Different species have different habits, so you may need different angles if you want to photograph, for example, a dunnock and a nuthatch.

I then get my little camouflage chair hide (which cost £65) and pop it up in the place where I want to sit and leave it for a while so the birds get used to it being there – they usually get comfortable with it fairly quickly.  I then set myself up in the hide with camera, lens, spare battery, tripod, flask and biscuits.  I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with either a Canon 100-400mm lens or the Canon f2.8 300mm lens with a 1.4x convertor.  Even with these, the little birds will not fill much of the frame, but a longer lens will lead to difficulties with minimum focal distance since you can put the hide about 2-3 metres from where the birds are coming in.

Male reed bunting almost obscured by the top of the feeder

Male reed bunting almost obscured by the top of the feeder

I then sit and watch for a while with the camouflage netting still in place over the opening and only when I know I’m in the right place do I open it up to start taking photos.  I use a 3-Legged Thing tripod, which is very compact, with a ball and socket head (Air Head 2) kept quite loose, so I have the support, but also can move quickly.  I also have a larger Giottos tripod with a gimbal head which is more stable but less compact.

I usually take a few shots without birds to check the exposure compensation that is needed in different places – a bright bird against a dark background will need underexposure, whereas a dark bird against a bright sky will need overexposure.  I usually use a moderately-wide aperture (somewhere around f5.6 to f7.1) in order to isolate the bird from the background but keep the whole bird in focus.

Blue tit with nice afternoon light

Blue tit with nice afternoon light

Then I get stuck in.  There is an element of luck, but I try and make my own luck by ensuring I am working at a time of day with good light.  In our woods this is always late afternoon – in other places early morning would also be good.  At these times the birds are feeding very enthusiastically.  The feeders are quieter at midday, but on the other hand you might see different birds on the feeders at that time.

Blue tit

Blue tit

I do try and sit pretty still.  I also wear camouflage or khahi clothing, and a dark hat to blend in with the inside of the hide, and sometimes a hood as well – anything that keeps the birds from seeing a human silhouette is good.  I also try, however excited I get, to move the camera slowly and not to make any sudden movements in the hide.  Other things help too – like putting mobile phone onto silent (birds don’t react well to Led Zeppelin blasting out at them), putting the camera onto silent mode and auto-focus onto non-beeping mode.  It is sometimes worth having a look out of the side openings of the hide – you may find the birds have changed their approach route and you can get better shots from the side of the hide.  If the birds really are being put off by your presence, then it is worth backing off a little bit and trying again.

Nuthatch at feeder

Nuthatch at feeder with seed in his beak

You don’t always know what you will get – most of the time you get blue tits and great tits – but it is a wonderful way to spend a little bit of time, enjoying the birds, enjoying being outdoors, and hopefully getting some special shots.

Autumn Colours

Spindle Berries

Spindle Berries

Autumn has started in earnest at the woods, with spectacular colours mingled with green and yellow, a brown tinge on the oak leaves, and acorns clattering to the ground all over.  The colour of the spindle berries in the hedge in Betty’s Wood is unreal, with the clashing colours of bright pink and orange shining like a beacon in the gloomy and rainy weather.

Guelder rose leaves and berries

Guelder rose leaves and berries

Another spectacular resident of our hedge is guelder rose.  The berries are now a shiny red, almost metallic in colour, and the leaves have turned the same red.  Red on red makes for another beam of light in the gloom of the autumn rains.

Field Maple

Field Maple

Field maple is also turning a wonderful mixture of colours in our hedge and in the few trees we have in the main wood.  Red, orange, brown, green and yellow in one leaf, autumn in miniature.  All the maples seem to turn the most amazing colours, and although we no longer have sycamore in our woods, the ornamental trees around the town are a beautiful rich golden yellow at the moment, waiting for the autumn gales to strip the leaves from the trees to form a golden carpet instead.

Spindle berries

Spindle berries

Autumn is my favourite time of year for many reasons:  the colours, the outrageous surplus of frutifulness, the restless departure of one set of migratory birds and the arrival of another set of migratory birds – the fieldfares arriving as the swallows depart.  We love autumn, and I hope to post a lot more autumnal photos over the next few weeks.

Baby Wrens, Thunderstorms and Brown Argus

Baby Wren

Baby Wren

Danger!  Baby Wren!
Danger! Baby Wren!

It is always a privilege to be out in the great outdoors, and an even greater privilege to share it with wild creatures.  I was recently doing some green wood-turning at the woods when I noticed I was not alone.  The loud, high-pitched tweeting noise that was coming from our broken-down old goat shed turned out to be a group of little wrens that had just fledged.  These trusting little creatures were flittering and fluttering around my head while I was working on the lathe and shave-horse.  One even landed on the shave-horse, not entirely sure yet of his flying, or where exactly he could go.  They hopped and skipped around as I was having my coffee and lunch, coming to sit on the pallets next to me, and flying in and out of the old goat shed, getting their bearings and learning what those wings are really for.

Baby Wren

Baby Wren

Some of them were so tiny that, as well as their baby gape, they still had tufty feathers on their heads.  They made up for lack of size with a lot of noise and enthusiasm.  It really is wonderful to watch this special moment in the life of a baby bird.  As yet, they had not developed a fear of humans, and I was thus allowed to be part of something that is rarely seen.  I felt like I was a member of this little flock that had placed their trust in me not to harm them while they found their wings and began to fly.

Thunderstorm Approaching

Thunderstorm Approaching

It has also been a good week for thunderstorms and thundery weather.  A lorry broke down outside our woods, and I was helping to direct traffic round it while a storm was approaching.  In a quiet moment, I managed to snap the sunny fields with stormy clouds on their way.  It looked like we were all going to get soaked, but the storm veered off at the last moment, and we only had a few raindrops on our heads.

As the storms left the woods behind, a quick walk round Betty’s Wood revealed a new hatching of Brown Argus butterflies.  These butterflies were one of the target species when we planted the woods and meadows, and we put in storksbill and cranesbill to attract them.  Unfortunately, the cranesbill has not appeared in great numbers in our meadows, although the storksbill has been more successful, but even in our first year, with poor growth, we managed to get the Brown Argus to move in.  We hadn’t noticed them this year, but they are now with us in some numbers, sitting in their lovely upside-down pose on our grass stems, rubbing their wings to release the pheromones and attract a mate.  We plan to add more cranesbill to the meadows this year when we mow (should be in the next week or two depending on the weather), so we hope to see even more of them next year.

Brown Argus

Brown Argus

Brown Argus
Brown Argus