Worcestershire: Little Owls, Kingfisher and A Confiding Snipe

A few years ago I made the conscious decision to focus on Scottish wildlife when it came to photography and have therefore spent all my holidays in Scotland familiarising myself with specific areas and the wildlife that lives there – so that I could learn their behaviours and hopefully improve my photography of them. Plus, of course, I love Scotland and its countryside, why on earth would I ever need to leave!??

However, one of the two guides on the fab otter workshop I participated in on Mull last November, Pete Walkden, does little owl guiding down in Worcestershire on a local farm. On my return from Mull I looked at some of Pete’s images and videos (this is a good one!) and decided it might be a nice thing to do. To be honest, owls have never really excited me. I love looking at and taking emotive images, and most owl photographs I’ve seen don’t really do it for me, much as I can admire the skill in taking them – mind you I’ve only ever had a brief encounter with a tawny owl & seen some tawny owlets.

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Tawny owlet at Aigas, 2015

But little owls appealed to me, Pete’s photographs and videos of them ticked the “make me smile” box – so I booked a week down South to see the owls and hopefully some other “exotic” English wildlife.

It was a great week, and although I confess in the weeks leading up to it I was craving to return to the highlands and the gorgeous purple heather carpeted hillsides, I actually really enjoyed the experience. It’s good to do something different every so often and the highlands aren’t going anywhere!

I was staying in an Airbnb cabin at the bottom of a garden in Lickey Hills. Small, but very well laid out with everything you could ever ask for. Perfect base for my nights down there. On the Sunday I visited the Worcester Wildlife Trust’s Upton Warren reserve which consists of two sets of pools – The Moors and The Flashes. The Flashes are bone dry due to the lack of rain although there were plenty of lapwings (there was no shortage of these gorgeous birds in Worcestershire) and curlews.

I spent time in The Moors’ hides and chatted to some friendly locals which is always helpful when visiting a new area. All the birders seemed to know one another and became quite excited at a Caspian Gull – I couldn’t get enthused by that, and to be honest couldn’t even figure out which one of the gulls it was… Nice area though, good set-up but little to see at this time of year sadly. Some massive dragonflies mind you! I saw and photographed my first banded demoiselle which was beautiful plus some butterflies. I didn’t have a macro lens with me, so these were taken with the Tamron 150-600 which doesn’t have a close focus so I had to stand way back!

A couple of the people I spoke to recommended I visit Grimley Pools. So as it wasn’t too far away I went there in the afternoon. As I approached the very first pool I saw a little egret at the edge – beautiful. I tool a few photographs before it flew off, not the most exciting image, but the best I got!

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I then saw something out the corner of my eye. It flew a little like a game bird, and landed on a fence post a fair distance away. I took a few shots just to see what it was and it transpires it was my first green woodpecker! I then moved on past a pool used for fishing and walked along the side of a field where the next pool was obscured by reeds (no reed buntings to be seen though). Eventually I came to an opening…

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My first impression was that this was a perfect spot for a kingfisher, and no sooner had the thought entered my head, I spotted a brief flash of blue. It was gone in a second though! Optimistic that it might return I settled down and initially entertained myself trying to photograph the migrant hawkers that hovered above the water and a passing cormorant.

Suddenly out the corner of my eye I saw a bird fly down and land less than a couple of metres from me at the side of the reeds – it was a snipe. Figuring it would disappear as soon as it realised I was there I slowly picked up the camera and took a few photographs of it within the reeds.

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It seemed completely unphased, and in fact, stayed in the area feeding and grooming in the shallows until I departed. A really beautiful bird so close up, and because it was there for so long I was able to work with it to take some lovely images, getting down low. Fab! I’m not sure 400 photographs of it were strictly necessary, but still…

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This has been my most successful image on Twitter for some time!

Whilst photographing the snipe I caught another flash of blue and turned to see that the kingfisher had reappeared and was perching in a nearby tree. I swung the camera round and fired off four shots before it flew off – amazingly all were in focus! I’m pleased with this especially as I had no time to compose! I’ve been reliably informed that it’s a juvenile female kingfisher.

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Eventually I decided I should leave as I had dinner plans, but it was a very enjoyable and fruitful afternoon.

Monday was little owl day. Pete took me to the farm and parked by the barn where the owls have their nest. Mum has moved on, but Dad and the two little owlets were around. The barn roof is relatively photogenic and Pete has erected a few perches next to it. Dad and one (or other) of the youngsters were around for an hour or so, and entertained me running around the barn roof to eat the worms Pete had provided. So full of character with the most amazing, penetrating yellow eyes. The first two here are of the owlet, the third of Dad.

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A rare cheery expression!

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Interestingly the only time they seemed to shut their eyes was when eating.

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I loved how they scuttled across the roof, it was quite delightful and so great to watch.

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Dad would often sit in the tree and watch over the youngster.

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Unfortunately they didn’t land on the perches and after not much more than an hour disappeared and never returned. This was possibly due to at least six buzzards flying overhead and calling out for much of the day plus the nights had been warm and muggy so probably ideal for late night hunting. A bit disappointing but it was great to have seen them for the hour, and you can never guarantee that wildlife will “perform” as hoped. Plus, for the most part (with the exception of Neil McIntyre’s red squirrel hide and Bob Smith’s Perthshire hide) I am cursed when it comes to hides, and Pete’s had great success so far this summer – so it was probably my fault!

Pete was kind enough to offer me another go the following morning, and again the birds appeared almost immediately. On this occasion the Dad did spend a fair bit of time on the perches in very photogenic poses in good light. So that was brilliant.

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Sadly though, again, after an hour they disappeared. But I came away with images I like and although more time with them would have been good, I was pleased with what I had achieved and at least I had company during the hours of inactivity. I think my favourites are of the birds looking skywards.

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Tuesday afternoon I returned to Grimley. This time I ventured a bit further and checked out some of the other pools. Lots of birds including a number of little egrets but none close enough for photographs. When I’d mentioned to Pete on Sunday that I’d been there he’d asked if I’d seen the hippo, to be honest I thought he was joking, but no, transpires there is one… why? I have no idea!

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I therefore returned to my spot from Sunday hoping to see the kingfisher again. As before it appeared briefly a couple of times and I was beginning to give up hope of photographs when eventually it came and perched on quite possibly the least photogenic spot in the area – a barbed wire fence. Typical! Still, it stuck around for a good few minutes in lovely light so not all bad.

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I also saw a couple of snipe fly by, plus little egret, heron, cormorants and more dragonflies. Gorgeous and fruitful spot and I’m amazed I had such luck here over my two visits given that I wasn’t in a hide, just sitting at the side of the pond (I did try my bag hide, but it was too hot!) Here’s a great crested grebe that passed by a few times.

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Wednesday, again on the recommendation of someone I met at Upton Warren, I headed further South to Gloucestershire to the Slimbridge Wetland Reserve. I’ve never seen so many varieties of duck and geese! Incredible how many there are. Some very pretty ones. They have a number of hides, but there was little to see that was close enough for photographs. Lots of lapwings though (as there were at Upton Warren and Grimley). The final one I went to gave good views of the crane family – 2 adults and 2 juveniles. When I arrived there were a few photographers getting very excited that the birds were about to fly… they didn’t! So they all left. I stuck around and eventually they came really close to the hide which was good. Very elegant birds.

Lovely to see avocets for the first time too, they breed at Upton Warren, but had already left.

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I also loved the black winged stilt – it looks so delicate and ever-so-slightly comical.

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Other than that I photographed lots of ducks & geese, most of which I have since deleted, and attempted to get action shots of them. Don’t ask me what any of these are though!

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There was a very young flamingo.

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I also enjoyed the water vole tank in which there was an active family of voles. They seemed smaller than the fossorial water voles I photograph in Glasgow, but quite adorable as you can see from this video.

Otters were great too, always a joy to watch. This is the North American river otter, a close relative of our Eurasian otter, almost identical but apparently a little bigger.

Thursday I bid goodbye to Worcestershire and headed west to Gigrin Farm to photograph the red kites, a place I’d been keen to visit for some time. But given how many photographs I took there, I’m going to save that for a different blog! Here’s one as a taster:

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Suffice to say, I had a great few days in Worcestershire/Gloucestershire, and no regrets about deciding to forego the highlands for a rare trip South – maybe I do need to consider leaving Scotland every so often for variety’s sake. My thanks to Pete for the little owls, local advise & company (a novelty when I go away).

Aviemore: Ospreys in the Mist, Mountain Hares in the Rain

This is part three of my whistle-stop tour of Scotland blog.  I began in East Lothian, then spent three nights in Mull before heading up to Aviemore to try my hand at photographing the ospreys again.  I visited Gordon’s hides in mid-August 2017 at the very end of the season (blog here).  We had quite a few drops but the birds disappeared before the light improved.  Gordon told me that mid-July was a good time to come, better light and more birds, so after Andy Howard invited me to join his Lunga day during his photography workshop on Mull I decided I could combine the two.

So on Thursday morning I was up at silly o’clock (3.30am) to meet Gordon at 4.15.  The forecast was good, and although it was a chilly morning (5 degrees) I was optimistic. Unfortunately events conspired again us.  The chill in the air meant mist hanging over the pond – it felt more like an October morning.  Birds started coming down very early, way before there was any workable light.   The first images I have were taken at 4.47am – far too early really. I had to use an ISO of 11400 for a decent shutter speed and the widest aperture of f4. (I was using my Nikon D500 and Nikkor 300mm F4 lens, tripod mounted).

Here’s one of those images, nik efex dfine2 has come to the rescue slightly but it’s not great, you can see the mist.

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The next bird dropped at 5am. I had reduced the ISO to 3200 and also lowered the shutter speed.

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Atmospheric, yes, but quality is poor.  I tracked this bird as it flew off.  I like this first image, mostly for the expression on the fish’s face, except for the fence in the background!

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The next bird arrived moments later and I was feeling hopeful that this would be a good morning, so long as they didn’t all drop before the light improved! ISO between 3200 and 4500 with a shutter speed of 1/800th.

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Then the action slowed down and I took what is probably my best image of the morning – of a mallard who was pottering about with her two fairly advanced ducklings.

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The light was beginning to improve although the mist was slow to shift off the water.  The issue now became a dominant male who perched in a tree on the cliffside and chased off any approaching birds. Even more frustrating, he didn’t come down to feed himself.  So we’d hear Gordon tell us a bird was heading our way and then be told that the dominant male was preventing it fishing.   We had one more drop at 6.17 and that was it although others did try.

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It was so annoying!!  The dominant bird was one of the reasons some of the others were coming so early (to avoid it) and then it prevented the late-comers feeding, probably pushing them to feed at Rothiemurchas instead.  The light by 6.30 was awesome but that was it.  My images, now I’ve worked on them are okay, but the potential was there for something special.

After a great breakfast at the wonderful Ardlogie Guest House and an hour’s snooze I went to visit the mountain hares.  It was a gorgeous day and as I trudged up the hill I realised it was the second anniversary of my very first mountain hare experience when I fell in love with these wonderful animals.

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One of my first hares two years ago.

Sadly by the time I reached the hilltop the hares had gone to ground to escape the heat.  I spent seven hours walking about, sitting about and having the odd snooze, but the only hares I saw were those I disturbed which ran off.  Beautiful up there though. It was so dry that the heather crunched under foot, very different experience from my usual visits.  Talking of the heather it was blooming already carpeting the hillside in beautiful pinks and purples. So although the photography wasn’t successful it was lovely to be there.  This is about the only photograph I came away with, which I like, so not all bad!

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What a difference a night makes! I awoke the following morning to heavy rain. I’d postponed my second visit to Gordon’s hide to the next day due to the forecast so enjoyed another excellent breakfast and decided to give the hares another go.  I figured that this wet weather would hopefully bring them out so I donned my waterproofs and trudged back up the hill (I hate that hill!).  The hares were, as hoped, much more visible but still tricky to approach.  Everyone talks about how you can get close to the animals here, but most are basing this on winter hares when they are hunkered down to preserve heat.  At other times of the year the majority don’t tolerate such a close proximity so it takes time to build trust and get within a reasonable distance.  Personally I never get too close but prefer to use my longest camera/lens combo (Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600mm which gives a focal distance of 900mm) so that I can take frame-filling shots from afar. I hate the thought that I might be stressing the animals be it summer or winter.

The rain stopped as I eventually dragged myself up to the top but there were some pretty soggy looking hares.

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I think they were enjoying the rain though after such a prolonged dry spell.  Today the heather had stopped crunching but the ground was still pretty dry.

I didn’t manage any really interesting photographs as most hares kept their distance, but it was so lovely to spend time with them again, there’s nothing I enjoy photographing more.

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Plus it’s a beautiful setting!

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The final hare I photographed was the most accepting of my presence and it was a beautiful creature, almost golden in colour.

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So definitely a more successful day!  [As I write this the mountain hare culling (slaughter) has begun again which is a hateful thing.  One Kind have yet another campaign under way to try to get this stopped, you can sign the letter here.]

I was heading home on the Saturday, but had my second attempt with the ospreys which proved even more frustrating than Thursday.  This time it was wet and foggy.  I was in the older hide which is side on to the new hide, and quite liked this viewpoint especially as the few birds that did try and fish often approached face on rather than in the usual spot. It was really challenging though as there was hardly any light and the birds couldn’t see the water due to the fog. Gordon struggled to spot anything as the hills disappeared.  One bird did fish though and had to make three attempts before snatching up a fish – without it this morning would have been a total disaster, as it was, it was just very disappointing.

This time I was using the Nikon D500 with my nikkor 70-200 f.2.8 VRII on beanbag.  Having the wider aperture allowed me to keep the ISO down to 1600 for these images, but, again, dfine2 has come to the rescue to remove the noise.

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So that was it for Aviemore ospreys, an expensive disaster really. This is no fault of Gordon’s though, he has a great set-up and is brilliant at giving a running commentary of what’s happening.  Both hides are good.  Typically the following morning was perfect with lots of drops and the images taken by Gary Jones and his workshop are wonderful.  It really tested my skills as a photographer although I’m sure others could have done better.  It was also a test for the D500.  This camera continues to impress. I bought it for the ospreys last year and it performed well this year too finding and holding focus even in the low, misty light with a massive buffer.  I tend to use the group focus mode to give a little more flexibility for fast moving subjects although this only works if there’s a clean background, otherwise I’d suggest single-spot focusing (which is what I use for the hares and most other subjects).

That was pretty much it for my trip although I did spend much of the day en route down to East Lothian visiting with other ospreys. First a location near Aviemore where there were a number of them, mostly hidden behind some trees annoyingly, but sometimes flying about…

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…and then I popped into Loch of the Lowes and watched the osprey family perched in the trees opposite the hide. Too far away for photographs but nice to see both chicks had fledged.

So… it was a bit of a mixed trip. July isn’t the best month for wildlife photography.  That said, I had a great time, it sure beats sitting in the office.  Highlight was obviously the trip to Lunga to see the puffins, but it is a real privilege to witness both white-tailed sea eagles and ospreys so close and any time I can spend with the hares is a real bonus!