Friday, 17 June 2016

Birds of East Kent: Peregrine Falcon

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent.

Beady Eye

The peregrine makes its presence felt long before you see it: a dead pigeon lies on its back on a windswept beach, its wings spread and its breastbone stripped of meat; a golfer notices your camera and calls out to tell you that you "just missed a peregrine"; fulmars cackle their disapproval as a crossbow-shaped shadow glides over their nests and across the cliff-face. You walk and you walk until finally you see a hunched, powerful-looking bird poised on an outcrop of flint. On the beach below a man is walking his dog, blissfully unaware of the apex predator right above his head, but when you peer through the lens you see that the peregrine is looking at you, not the dog or its owner. A peregrine sees everything and misses nothing. It spotted you the moment you stepped into its field of view, and now that it knows you're looking at it, the peregrine alone will decide how close you will be allowed to get.

Peregrine Falcon

Thanks to works like J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, the eponymous falcon enjoys a near-mythical status unmatched perhaps by any other British bird. Baker's account (I can't really call it a memoir since the author effectively excises himself from the narrative) condenses a decade's worth of observations into a single year, a structural choice which also has the effect of condensing his patient study of the peregrine into a singularly obsessive quest. Reading it, you're left in little doubt that Baker - short-sighted and afflicted with a rare and rather unpleasant form of arthritis (I speak from experience on the latter) - wishes he were a peregrine himself:

Free! You cannot know what freedom means till you have seen a peregrine loosed into the warm spring sky to roam at will through all the far provinces of light. Along the escarpments of the river air he rose with martial motion. Like a dolphin in green seas, like an otter in the startled water, he poured through deep lagoons of sky up to the high white reefs of cirrus.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Like dark chocolate, Baker's dense, synaesthetic prose is probably best savoured in small chunks. And yet, for all the linguistic fireworks on display, the narrative is tinged with a wistful, elegiac tone. Baker had good reason to be pessimistic; at the time he wrote his book the peregrine was in serious decline - its numbers ravaged by persecution and pesticides.

But for once, the story has a happy postscript (albeit one that Baker himself didn't live to see). Peregrine Falcons have enjoyed a spectacular resurgence and you can now see them right across the country, repopulating urban environments as well as their more traditional hunting grounds. If you live near a cathedral or a high chalk cliff, there's a good chance you also live near a peregrine. And when you see one for yourself you'll understand why these majestic birds inspire such reverential prose.

See also:
More of my Peregrine photos on Flickr
Keith Ross's YouTube channel (includes a series of short films on the Ramsgate Peregrines)
Peregrine Falcon (RSPB)
Peregrine Falcon (Birdforum)
Peregrine Falcon (Birdguides)

Friday, 8 April 2016

Oare Marshes

Grey Heron in Flight

Alternative Title: A long overdue write-up of a long overdue trip 

The Oare Marshes KWT reserve is a bit further afield than my usual haunts, but I fancied a change of scene and so I took advantage of a warm March day to pay my first visit. The walk from Faversham station is actually quite pleasant if you don't mind a bit of a trek, but it seems a lot of the visiting photographers/birders park along the road that runs through the middle of the reserve, get the required photos/ticks, and then drive off to the next location - sometimes without even leaving their cars! Such is the accelerated and competitive nature of modern life, but you'll forgive me if I prefer a more sedate approach.

Pintail (Anas acuta)

The reserve is quite contained; you can walk all the way around it a lot quicker than, say, the extended Grove Ferry/Stodmarsh circuit. I must have walked round it one-and-a-half times while I was there - perhaps more if you factor in the distance I covered trailing after the mixed flock of Goldfinches and Lesser Redpolls:

Lesser Redpolls (Carduelis cabaret)

For those who wish to give their feet a rest, there are three hides on the reserve. On the day I visited they were all in pretty good condition. They also happened to be completely empty, which is not entirely surprising given that a) there were no birds anywhere near them, and b) they were facing directly into the wind - which made for an eye-watering experience. Fortunately most of the highlight species could be seen quite easily from the viewing points along the road, including this uncharacteristically obliging Water Rail:

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

I don't generally keep lists, but on this occasion I jotted down all the birds I'd seen and heard (written that same evening, from memory). I counted forty-one different species, which were - for those who are interested in such things - as follows: Avocet, Bearded Tit, Blackbird, Black-headed Gull, Black-tailed Godwit, Blue Tit, Canada Goose, Carrion Crow, Cetti's Warbler, Coot, Curlew, Dunnock, Goldfinch, Green Woodpecker, Grey Heron, Greylag Goose, Herring Gull, Lesser Redpoll, Little Egret, Little Grebe, Magpie, Mallard, Marsh Harrier, Meadow Pipit, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Oystercatcher, Peregrine Falcon, Pintail, Redshank, Reed Bunting, Robin, Shelduck, Shoveler, Skylark, Snipe, Starling, Teal, Tufted Duck, Water Rail, and Wood Pigeon.

Not bad for a first visit, though having read subsequent reports it's possible that I may have walked past a Little Owl without spotting it. Sounds like a good excuse for a return trip...

See also:
More of my photos from Oare Marshes
Oare Marshes (Kent Wildlife Trust)
Oare Marshes Latest Sightings (KOS)

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Birds of East Kent: Curlew

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent and how easy (or not) it is to get a decent picture of them.

Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Curlews in April
Hang their harps over the misty valleys

A wobbling water-call
A wet-footed god of the horizons

Ted Hughes, "Curlews", Remains of Elmet (1979)

What's your favourite bird song? Probably the first birds that spring to mind are Robins or Skylarks (or even a Nightingale if you've been lucky enough to hear one), but for me there are few sounds more evocative in English nature than the fluting call of a Curlew echoing over a mudflat or across a fog-shrouded beach. It has something of a plaintive quality to it, which is perhaps appropriate as the Curlew is now sadly on the UK's Red List due to severe declines in its breeding population.

In the winter at least there are still plenty to see around the coast as the numbers are bolstered by European visitors. In my little corner of the country, they're a common sight at low tide, probing for food with their unmistakable long bills on the seaweed-covered rocks. At high tide you'll often find them sheltering in one of the communal roosts between Foreness and Kingsgate Bay, protected by the cliffs on one side and the sea on the other. You may also spot them on the fields near the North Foreland lighthouse, or flying in loose flocks close to the shore:

Flight of the Curlews

With regards to photography they don't tolerate people as much as the other local seaside birds like Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers, but as they're Britain's largest wader you don't need to be that close to get a good shot. Best advice is to approach very slowly, keep low if possible, and always be ready for that dramatic take-off:

Curlew (Numenius arquata)

And of course, that amazing song.

See also:
More of my Curlew photos on Flickr
Curlew (RSPB)
Curlew (Birdforum)
Curlew (Birdguides)

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Two Days in the Camargue

Portrait of a Flamingo

As much as I love writing, if there was one thing I dreaded at school it was having to complete the "What I did on my holiday" essay. So, rather than bore you with every detail, I'm going to boil the trip down to its essentials (i.e. what I anticipate visitors to this blog would want to know about) and let the pictures do most of the talking. If you have any questions not covered by the ones given below then please use the comments section and I will do my best to answer them - though bear in mind that I'm more of a "photographer who happens to shoot birds" than a "birder who happens to have a camera". The object of the trip was not to track down the rarest species, but to have a good time and hopefully get some decent photos along the way. It's also worth noting that the Camargue is B-I-G; two days really only allows time for a whistle-stop tour, but you could easily spend a week there and still only scratch the surface.

Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)

Quick question: Was it worth it?
Quick answer: Absolutely, yes!

Did you have a guidebook to the region?
Most of the guidebooks I could find for sale are a few years out of date, but there is a free booklet online which proved to be extremely useful. It contains maps, species lists, and much more. The English-language version is available via this link:

Where to watch birds in the Camargue Regional Nature Park - France (PDF)

Using Arles as a base, we visited four of the eleven sites listed, as well as the very pretty - and very touristy - town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Fortified Church

So what's the big deal about the mistral?
The mistral is a wind, but it's not like any wind you'll experience in England. When it decides to blow it will do so all day - at the same speed and in the same direction - and it won't ease off until the sun goes down. The Camargue is mostly flat, so there aren't many places you can shelter from it. A light, windproof jacket is recommended.

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

What else should I take?
Sun cream and insect repellent. Make sure you carry plenty of drinking water too; even in September the temperatures can reach the high twenties.

Red Dragon

Best place to go to photograph birds?
There may well be other reserves (that we didn't have time to visit) within the Camargue that provide a similar experience, but if you want to see the key species of the region at close quarters and get photos "in the bank", so to speak, then the Pont de Gau bird sanctuary is the place to go. As well as the famous flamingos, we saw, among other things, grey herons, little egrets, cattle egrets, spotted redshanks, black-tailed godwits, avocets, black-winged stilts, spoonbills, and a sacred ibis (below). Admittedly, with the exception of the flamingos and the ibis, these are all species you can see in England with increasing regularity, but probably not all in one place, and certainly not within a few feet of the viewing hide.

Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus)

Recommended eating?
All three of the restaurants we visited in Arles were good, but the Restaurant Le Plaza La Pailotte was exceptional. I had the duck breast (don't tell the wildfowl!) and it was, quite simply, one of the finest meals I've ever had. (And no, I didn't take a photo of my food.)

Rue Porte de Laure

Other highlights that you can't convey in a photograph?
Bats flying above the Rhone at sunset, the strangely soothing background noise of insects (presumably crickets) chirping at night, stumbling upon a bizarre tractor parade in Arles on Saturday evening, still being able to feel the lingering warmth of the sun and the force of the mistral on my face long after the sun had gone down, the sheer physical and historical presence of the Arles Roman Amphitheatre (below), waking up early to see Sirius shining higher in the sky than I've ever seen it before, and of course a welcome reminder that you can't beat a genuine French baguette.

Arles Amphitheatre

Anything else worth knowing?
The SatNav on the rental car was, unsurprisingly, in French. After some fumbling we found the option screen to change the language. English was not one of the available languages. Fortunately, if you know your gauche from your droite, you should be able to cope.

Finally, special thanks must go to my friends Mark, for his organisational and driving skills, and to Tony, for his near-supernatural ability to liken almost any situation to an episode of the old TV show Only Fools and Horses.

See more of my photos from the Camargue and Arles on Flickr.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Photographing the 2015 Total Lunar Eclipse

Lunar eclipses aren't that rare - certainly not as rare as some uninformed sections of the media would have you believe, but I hadn't photographed one since March 2007, so I stayed up till stupid o'clock the other week to get some images of the so-called Super Blood Moon eclipse. The wind was a little gusty, but fortunately the clouds didn't interfere.

"Supermoon" Eclipse (Canon 7D + Televue-60)

One thing the photos don't convey is just how much the moon dims during totality. (The reason it doesn't go completely dark is because it's illuminated by sunlight refracted through the earth's atmosphere. Or to put that in a slightly more lyrical way, an observer standing on the moon during an eclipse would see all of the earth's sunrises and sunsets compressed into a beautiful ring of light.) The first image in the sequence above (the barely eclipsed moon) was shot hand-held with a 1/1600 second exposure at ISO 800. The last shot (fully eclipsed) was taken on a tripod with a cable release, with the mirror lock-up function enabled; exposure time 1/2 second, ISO 1600. At long focal lengths (400 mm and above), these slow exposure times can be problematic. Shoot for anything longer than about half a second and the earth's rotation will start to smear the image.

So, as is often the case in astrophotography, there's a trade-off to be made. Do you under-expose and increase noise, or do you expose correctly and lose detail? A tracking mount which will correct for the earth's rotation is one way around the problem, but the good ones don't come cheap. Another method (if you find high ISO noise objectionable) is to shoot lots of under-exposed images one after the other, stack them in RegiStax or AviStack to increase the signal-to-noise ratio, and then push the exposure in Photoshop. I did think about doing this, but it was late and I was tired and it seemed like a lot of effort given that I still had several hundred photos from the Camargue to sort through (a post on that is coming soon).

Maybe it's something I'll try for the next eclipse in 2018; or maybe by then cameras will have progressed so much that high ISO noise won't be a big deal... Anyway, to tide us over till then, here's an uncropped view of the eclipse taken at ISO 6400, and carefully pushed in PS to bring out the background stars. A red full moon surrounded by stars; now that's a sight worth staying up for.

The Moon and the Stars

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Anatomy of an Air Display

Pitts Special Biplane

It’s a hot August afternoon and the Broadstairs Water Gala is in full swing. The photographer watches from the promenade overlooking the bay, waiting for the air display to begin. Below him a Punch and Judy stall provides entertainment on the beach; an audience of kids laughing at the antics of model husband and doting father, Mr Punch. Out on the sea a flyboarder performs tricks in front of the jetty, rising up on a column of water as if he were a human missile launched from a submarine. A light breeze brings various smells wafting by: chips and suntan lotion and cigarette smoke.

At approximately 14:45 a Pitts Special aerobatic biplane appears in the sky above Broadstairs, its brilliant red and white livery mirroring the red and white stripes of the Punch and Judy stall on the sand below. The woman in the cockpit, Lauren Richardson, is a skilled pilot, tumbling and looping and rolling her aircraft to great effect. At the end of her display she performs one final pass of the bay, waving to the crowd. Some of the spectators wave back; some don’t even bother to look up from their smartphones. It’s as if, in their minds, an event isn’t real until it’s been uploaded to the Internet, even when it’s taking place directly above their heads. In two weeks they’ll be watching a wholly different event unfold on their screens – the senseless murder of two young journalists captured from both the viewpoint of a live TV broadcast and from the viewpoint of the gunman who shot them – and if they don’t see it online they’ll see it splashed across the front pages of the newspapers the following morning. But that particular horror will have to wait its turn; another tragedy beckons first.

Only five minutes pass before the next display begins: two RV8 planes trailing plumes of white smoke. After performing a sequence of close-formation loops and rolls, the two aircraft break to opposite sides of the bay and then fly straight at each other, appearing to avoid collision by a hair's-breadth. It’s a tried and tested manoeuvre, guaranteed to draw a collective “Oooh!” from the crowd. It’s also perhaps the one manoeuvre where the implicit threatens to become explicit, highlighting the unspoken subtext that underlies every high-speed form of entertainment, from air-shows to Formula 1. No one wants anything to go wrong – of course they don’t – but the potential for disaster is ever-present, adding a tangible air of frisson to the occasion.

RV8 Display

The photographer tenses, tracking one of the planes as it flies right to left. In the back of his mind he wonders what he’d do if something did go wrong and one or both of the planes ended up in the sea – or worse. Would he keep shooting? What if he captured something truly harrowing? Would he sell the photos to the highest bidder? Would he sell them to the Daily Mail? Would he sell them to the Sun? He likes to think he wouldn’t, but of course, until we’re in that situation none of us know for sure. Not really.

The RV8 planes perform a variation on the loop-the-loop manoeuvre, using their smoke trails to draw a huge heart in the sky. Then they fly across the bay, left to right, one after the other, and the display is over. The wind is noticeably stronger now; the third scheduled display will not go ahead. The smoke trails disperse quickly and so do the spectators, kids nagging their parents for ice-cream. Already long queues are forming outside the two main parlours, Morelli’s and Chiappini’s. The tannoy crackles but – not for the first time that afternoon – the speaker’s words are inaudible to a large section of the crowd.

The photographer retreats to the shade of Ballard’s Lounge and orders a cold San Miguel. He sits by the window and reviews his photos. None of them are remarkable as aircraft photography goes, but there are enough keepers to meet his own modest expectations. He finds one from the end of the display, almost the last photo he took: it’s a close-up of one of the RV8 planes, smartly painted in shades of silver, blue and black, designation G-HILZ.


He enlarges the photo on the LCD, zooming in on the cockpit. The pilot’s left hand is raised to acknowledge the crowd, but frustratingly – from an aesthetic point of view – his face is not visible. Perhaps he’s concentrating on the smoke trail left by his colleague moments earlier. Perhaps he’s already thinking ahead to the display he’ll be attending at the weekend.

The pilot’s name is Andy Hill. In three days’ time he will take to the skies above Shoreham in a very different kind of plane – a Hawker Hunter jet. I don’t need to describe what happened next; we’ve all seen the pictures and the footage, and sometimes, when the images linger in our mind like a bright light that takes forever to fade, we might find ourselves thinking about the dividing line between life and death, and wondering if we’ve seen too much.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Fast Bikes and Red Kites

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

A noisy race circuit isn't the first place you'd expect to find interesting wildlife, but a trip to Lydden Hill last Saturday turned up an surprise bonus in the unmistakeable shape of a Red Kite. It spent a good half-hour hunting along a tree-line just to the east of the circuit, during which time I was able to get close enough for the kind of view you'd normally have to travel at least as far as Oxfordshire to see.

Red Kite with prey, Lydden Hill, July 2015.

The trees prevented me from spotting whether the Kite was scavenging or targeting live prey, but it reappeared with at least two successful catches, one of which it ate on the wing, Hobby-style:

In-flight meal, Lydden Hill, July 2015.

And as if that wasn't enough a Buzzard also showed up, giving me hope that I'd get a photo or two of both birds locked in combat, but a pair of angry crows intervened to escort the buzzard "off the premises". Later, with the bigger birds-of-prey out of the way, two Kestrels came to hunt in the same area. Oh, and in case you're wondering, I did remember to photograph some bikes while I was there.

  Lydden Track Day