Saturday, 8 April 2017

In Which There is a Lack of Both Sleep and Blue Rock Thrushes

Do you ever find yourself by some stroke of bad luck (or judgement) involved in a team project, the workload of which ends up sitting solely, and uncomfortably, upon your shoulders? Whether the project is personal, professional or projectile, being the provider of 100% of the effort input can be a strenuous position to hold. There is at least the benefit of then being in the position to validate having a good complain (as well all secretly love to do*), but that is but a small reward.
It is beginning to dawn on me, like a summer sunrise; gradually at first yet with increasing speed, that I have been stuck in such a situation with birding. My relationship (as it were) with birding has for a while been strained; when a rare occasion arises, and presents me with the opportunity to go birding, it seems that for all the work I put in - travelling, wandering around, more travelling - and all that I suffer - travel sickness, strain upon my decrepit old eyes, cold, hunger, more travel sickness - that birding does not in turn do its part. Like that one colleague whose phone is seemingly more important than the task at hand, the input from the 'birding gods' seems at best, half-hearted.

Over the last 6 months my life has become drastically more busy, what with full-time education, part-time employment and adding the weekly wear upon my camera's shutter-count. This being so, the occasions where have I actually have gone birding are probably few enough to count on... I'd like to say two hands, but I feel that would be an exaggeration... so, one hand it is... and that can most probably be done without including the thumb. A sad state of affairs yes, but it does mean that the crushing disappointment of dipping can be replaced by the subtler disappointment of not finding a Wheatear on the patch for yet another consecutive year.

This week however, with Easter break now in effect, the amount of free time available for me has increased rather drastically, leading me at times with nothing better to do than lounge in the sun and read... ah, 'tis a hard life. 
 When news broke of a Blue Rock Thrush in the county I thought perhaps an expedition away from the warmth of the balcony could well be in order. An egg (of metaphorical reality, of course) was laid, and from it hatched the birding bug. And, like a vivacious mosquito on a summer night, the birding bug bit.  And the bite? The bite didn't produce an 'itch' as such, more a calling. A calling that swayed my mind into believing that it was semi-acceptable to get up at 5:40am during Easter break. Fun fact: it's not.

Thanks to the generosity of a local birder who was willing to give me a lift, I was saved from the multitude of horrors that constitute the public transport system - were I a sardine, I would rather be in the sea than packed in a tin. Thankfully, I'm not a sardine, and so, don't have to be in either; but buses and tins can have a worrying amount in common.
 The thrush had been seen for most of the previous day and was still present at dusk, so our hopes of it remaining were quite high.... a little tip for birding: never, never get your hopes up.
 As we drove to the site we were greeted with a spectacular sunrise over the Sussex countryside. A spectacular sight, and one which was most probably as interesting as the day got, for, despite an hour or so of eye-straining, no blue thrushes of any kind materialised. 

After the hour or so had elapsed, other engagements called, which for me constituted little more than gaining some extra sleep.  It was decided, upon departure, that the bird had most probably, nay, certainly been plastic (as in not wild, rather than literally plastic. That being said, I didn't see any videos of it so you never know) and good riddance to it... No, I'm not a sore loser. Okay, well, maybe just a little bit, but I had only got 5 hours sleep. The hours of sleep one has in a night is yet another thing that should not be countable on just one hand.

It was at least an experience, a break from the norm, and that is something which in most cases should be strived for, even if it doesn't go exactly as you had hoped. Next time birding, you better play your part, otherwise I might just become a patch-birder for good....



*See, a good complain, now wasn't that fun?

Friday, 17 February 2017

Of Marmite, Metaphors and Mathematics

Marmite. Aside being a yeasty condiment, it is also a frequently used and un-yeasty metaphor. It is claimed that one either loves Marmite, or one hates it. This is unfortunately an inaccurate claim, as some people, myself included, do not go in with such strong feelings for the spread. It's alright in small quantities.  Peanut butter is the only condiment worth getting emotional for.

The metaphor however is a useful one for expressing two opposites, and so will be used here, slightly adjusted from the classic and, perhaps overused, love-hate meaning. Here it will express a good-bad equation. With that still hopefully fresh in your mind, I will use this adjusted analogy to describe the birding (see, birds are involved, this isn't one of those food blogs. Yet) encompassed during my annual February excursion to the green ol' land of Ireland. Some years are good, perhaps even encroaching into peanut butter territory, and then some, some are like a tablespoon of Marmite forced down your throat - which hopefully you'll agree is not quite a favourable occurrence.  One year it may ooze with rarities, the next birds may be spread thin.

The first of these winter birding visits was in 2014. That was a good year, as should any year be when it contains both Ross's Gull and King Eider. After that things began to... well, undulate. 2015 was unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable - this being said, for context, through gritted teeth. If yet further enlightenment is required, let me add that this was not the happy kind of unbelievable. It was one unfortunate failure after another and I consider it quite surprising that the events of this trip did not make it into a novel by Lemony Snicket. I guess there's only so much bad luck that can be believable. This trip led me to expect failure when birding (an adaptation that oh so rarely leads to disappointment), dipping 2 megas and 3 rarities in one week has that kind of an effect.

Come 2016 the fates had once again reversed, and like an articulated lorry, it made its reversal known. It was a week of seemingly non-stop luck in which, if memory serves (which would be as rare an occurrence as some of the birds seen) dipping played no part. To the world once again, balance was restored.

The problem with balance is that the load has to be shared equally, you can't have too much on one side of the scale or the balance will tip. One was good, one was so bad that hyperbole would have to stretch to touch it with the tips of its fingers, and one was the American Dream. Mathematically speaking (and who would dare argue with maths?), the law dictated that this year's visit would not be warranting a double thumbs up and a cheesy grin. At least, not where birding was concerned. And.... voila, bang on the money, 2 ÷ 2 = 1st prize (see, I'm smart, me) awarded to Mathematics. As if I needed another reason to dislike maths.

Sure, there wasn't all too much birding done, but when we did go twitching we employed my method to top form and managed to dip rather successfully.  Multiple circuits of an industrial site and its surrounding area on Little Island, Cork, led to a great deal of excitement when we finally found a tree containing berries. We were looking for Waxwing and saw a total of 0 out of 36.

To follow up this expected  great start, we went on to sit by the side of a river for an hour or two. Not one of those small pleasant rivers, but one which resembled the Thames: if it had had its face washed and scrubbed by a doting - if rather un-thorough - parent. Here, we saw a large quantity of gulls, most of which I'm sure consisted of many a (often hollow) boney part, but none of which, unfortunately, consisted of the right anatomic build to be a Bonaparte's Gull. This desired build being almost identical to that of a Black-headed Gull, the difference being that someone once claimed that supposedly, there is a difference.

Although the birding of the trip was not altogether a huge success (I do hope this is the deduction that you came to too), it's good to know that I can still dip. Where photography was concerned however, which was in most places, it wasn't all too poor, with moderately in focus images being achieved of Rock Pipits, Pied Wagtails, Rooks and Robins.



If there's one thing you can say for maths, it is that it is, - like every rom-com ever made - predictable. Patterns will repeat. And so, it stands to logical reasoning that next years pilgrimage should contain enough traces of luck to bear an allergy warning. Or else it will end up like a rusty seesaw with a single occupant a spoon, and a jar of Marmite. I guess we'll have to wait and see.



Tuesday, 24 January 2017

What Am I?

What am I? Besides, arguably, from being human that is. Back in the good old days almost the single most important thing to me, was that I was not a twitcher. I was very adamant about that. What could be worse than being called a twitcher? The shame of it.  Many a blog-post was written to ensure everyone knew that I was just a twitcher birder.  Soon though, the evidence built up against me... I couldn't pretend that I'd just ended up at Kinsale by accident and that the Ross's Gull found there was just a happy coincidence.  Nor could I claim the several hour detour to Aberdeen when I was in Scotland was for the scenery and not for the Harlequin Duck.  It was around this point I decided not to mention my stance on the matter anymore. While I still had some face left to save...

From then on I was an all-encompassing birder.  A couple of days a week I was a patcher, a couple of times a month I was a birder, and here and there I was a twitcher.  It was a happy and prosperous time. But then, (If you had deduced the coming of a 'but', please allow yourself a pat on the back, be it from yourself or a third party) I ran out of that all important thing - Luck.  There came a time when I would have loved to take the title of twitcher.  If only! I became a, oh my this is difficult to say. I became a... a... a dipper.  And a good one at that.  Now, if you're thinking, oh, that's not so bad, a small black and white bird that lives along streams, then you have lost all pat-on-the-back privileges which may previously have been earned. Alas, no, I mean dipper in the sense of a birder (okay, twitcher) who, having travelled to look for a bird, has failed in their quest. Long journey no birdie.  It was a difficult time.  There is a frequently used expression, rock-bottom, which depicts the furthest someone can fall. In the February of 2015 I went at rock-bottom with a pneumatic drill, when in the space of about a week, I dipped two mega's and 3 rarities. At the ripe old age of fifteen I was a washed up birder, it was just about time to retire.

 I settled down soon after, to become more of a patch-birder and occasional local twitcher, and things were good you know, every once in a while I even got to see a Meadow Pipit (insert sarcastic 'wow').  And thus, really, it has remained since. But now, now I face a new conundrum. Can I even call myself a patch-birder?  Sure, I visit my local patch usually 3-4 times a week, and when something unusual turns up, I notice it. But do I ever go over there with a pair of binos?  Do I ever keep a list of what I see in a day, a month, or even a year? To both those birder-ly things, the answer is no. Not anymore.
 Now, when I head to the patch it is to take photos of the birds... and... increasingly, the mammals. Hey, don't judge, mammals are about as good as avians... I mean come on, foxes are too awesome not to photograph.

Throughout my whole birding 'career' wildlife photography has always played a big part, a part which ran alongside and worked in conjunction with the birding. But now it is starting to take the reins for itself (figuratively, I'm too scared of horses for it to be literal).  I'm not saying this is a bad thing, far from it, there's very, very little I enjoy more than wildlife photography.  Yet still... after all this time, all the places I've gone, all the things I've seen... have I lost the title of 'birder'?
Must I change the name of this blog to read 'The Early Worm Wildlife Photographer' and suffer the wrath of misled non-arthropod-invertebrate fanatics?  I'm not sure anyone would deserve to be placed in such a situation as that. Although I doubt it would be too hard to worm one's way out of...
Birder, Patcher or Photographer... what do you think?


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Farewell Valentino

Tradition. It's a well known phenomenon. Whether it's reading a book for half-an-hour before bed every night or eating a peanut butter and cheese sandwich every Wednesday at 14:43, everyone has their little habits and routines.  It's a condition even animals buy in to.  Some people will choose to spend their summers in France each year, and some birds, who have the ability to go almost anywhere, will choose to spend their winters in a London park.  Anyone who has these sorts of regular rituals will know that they can be hard to stop. Once it's become ingrained it's almost second nature.  And really, if you've got something good going, why would you want to stop? 
Now, let me ask you this: Is Valentines Park not a good place to spend your winters? Okay, wait... maybe let's not answer that one...  But surely, a sixteen year long tradition of doing so would be hard to break. By that point it's practically ancient lore, and you can't break ancient lore - there's probably a law against it. But the routine has been broken. And alas, it is for these very reasons that I have passed through hope and denial, and been led to fear the worst for our good friend Valentino. Yes, Valentino the Mediterranean Gull; Ilford's biggest celebrity and only interesting bird. After sixteen consecutive winters, he has not returned.

Cue the sad piano solo.


In previous years he would usually arrive in early October, with his latest turn up being on the 26th of that month. But October has passed. As has November, as has December, and still no Valentino. 
Maybe, just maybe, he's still out there. Somewhere. Perhaps after sixteen winters on the Boating Lake he was beginning to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I imagine the thrill of grey weather and mouldy bread wears off after a while. After 80 or so months.... it may become dull and just a little bit repetitive. An endless cycle of competing for scraps which is interspersed only occasionally by some bozo with a telephoto lens.... living the dream?  Perhaps not.

Has he passed on or has he just broken tradition? Which, well I guess we will never know for sure. Perhaps he's decided to settle down in his home country of Belgium - I hear they produce some rather delicious cocoa based confectionery. Maybe Brexit was the final straw....
 Wherever he may be, whatever he may be doing, let us just take a moment of silence to appreciate just how awesome a gull Valentino was - except when he betrayed us for Wanstead Flats... that wasn't cool. You and your lovely white wings will be missed in the park.





Friday, 30 December 2016

A Brief History of Cameras, and Thoughts on the 5D MKiv

Way back in the good ol' days, when I was but a bairn of thirteen, I splashed out my savings and became the proud owner of a Canon EOS 7D. Ahh, the trusty 7D: that camera served me well for the best part of three years (very well actually, considering the affairs set in place by a certain image of a crow this year).  That camera saw me through thick and thin. Together we saw mega rarities, pigeons, whales, ridiculously friendly Grey Phalaropes, and most likely more pigeons.
Then, during the February of this year, after months of struggle and turmoil, I finally came to a decision.  A decision which once again lost me the trust of a good friend... my poor old savings... they just didn't see it coming.  It was, alas, time to say goodbye to the 7D (this is getting pretty emotional, I know) and welcome a new member to the family: the Canon EOS 5D Mark 3 Okay, I'll be honest with you, it was hard to be too sentimental about the 7D when you're now the owner of a 5D3.
What an incredible camera it was.  All of a sudden my images were consistently much sharper, the colours were oh so much richer, and, I could shoot above ISO 800 without being (just slightly) terrified of my images ending up like a rock concert... noisy.
 It was a big investment for me, and one I was happy with. I didn't think I would need, or (more surprisingly) even want to upgrade again for at least several years.
 Fast forward eight months and umm... well I'm not shooting on the 5D3 anymore. Through a fortuitous chain of events (once again involving that aforementioned crow) and with big thanks to Canon, I became the proud, yet considerably gobsmacked owner or the brand new Canon EOS 5D Mark 4. I have already described the Mark 3 as being an incredible camera... and as such it's rather hard to find enough hyperbole to aptly capture the Mark 4's awesomeness.



 I've now been shooting with the Mark 4 for two months, and week by week it still never fails to impress me.  I have read several posts on the World Wide Waste Web, which proffer to opine that there is only marginal improvement over the previous generation (the Mark 3), but, well, I honestly just could not agree.  Perhaps in a set up, studio test shot between the two, the difference would not be all that noticeable, but in the field, where it counts, it is noticeable. And, really, that's what matters.
 I don't claim to be an expert in the technological functions and systems of cameras, but I would like to think I am not completely ignorant as to how to use one. As such, here are my thoughts, after two months of hands on use of this camera.

Let's begin with the auto-focus and image quality.

Now, as to focus speed, I believe that that is largely the same between both the Mark 3 and 4 (the extra fame per second is nice though), the speed is more largely affected by the lens used than the focus system. As to accuracy however, the Mark 4 steps ahead, as it provides incredibly sharp images with more consistency than the 3... with whom's sharpness I never really had an issue. The new system provides incredibly fine detail in both good light, and, more impressively, it retains that level of detail when shooting in low light conditions.
 Between the two generations, there's an eight megapixel difference. Of course, this doesn't hugely effect you, unless you need to blow the images up for large scale printing, but it is nice to be able to crop in a considerable way and still retain some file size.  Your computer might have a different opinion on this increased file size however...
 Below are two images of a Grey Wagtail, one shows the original size, and one shows the quality that retains from a crop. Can you tell which is which?




Recently, I've spent a lot of time working on photographing foxes. Thankfully, in the park, they're not nocturnal (that would make things a little more difficult), they don't however, often come out before dusk. Now here is where, for me, the Mark 4 really comes into its own. With the 7D, photographing in these conditions with an f/5.6 lens would have been more impossible than any of Tom Cruise's missions... provided you wanted the images sharp that is. With the 5D3, it was very possible, but on occasion the images would end up being perhaps slightly noisy as the ISO begins to creep above 5000. At the beginning of this year my mind boggled at the thought of ISO 1000. The 5D4 now? Well, that just excels.


 Bump the ISO up to 5000? No problem, an electric car would probably have more noise. Even when you reach 10,000 the images are usable. This next image was shot at ISO 10k and is cropped in at around 100%.



A camera's ergonomics are very important; you have to be able to change your settings instinctively, without having to really think about what you're doing.  Canon got it right with the Mark 3, and it's largely the same with the 4.  There are a few pretty cool new features though; the new body has improved weather sealing, the quality of the LCD has been updated, so that it now shows better colour and clarity, and it's also been made touch-screen. I was a little wary of this at first, but it's not without its merit.
 Another new technological step up is with the inbuilt Wi-fi. This means you can control the camera from your phone, which, to be fair, is pretty cool.  And really quite useful if you forget to put new batteries in your remote triggers... ahem, not that I ever do that.


This new technology does not come without some small costs - I've noticed that the Mark 4 drains batteries at a more substantial rate than the 3 did. It's not particularly problematic, as each battery can probably last for 1000 or so images, but the charger does get a lot more use than it once did.

It's still early days, but for me, from my experience, although I have found both to be brilliant, the 5D Mark4 has many improvements over its predecessor. Most notably and most importantly, in the low light control and the accuracy of the focus. The Mark 3 is undeniably one of the best and most popular wildlife cameras around, and is certainly not worth forgetting. The Mark 4 just pushes the boundaries of possibility even further.  I feel hugely privileged to be using this camera, and am excited to see what more it can do in the new year!

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Garden Gold... or Yellow.

Yesterday afternoon I was enjoying the remainder of half-term in true educational form by embracing procrastination with open arms - we do get along quite well it seems.  Sure, I still had a little homework to get done, and I did have the best intentions of focussing on that, but well... it could wait for a little bit, couldn't it? Darn you procrastination and your enticing ways.  And so, there I was on the computer, when a repetitive call outside of the window distracted me from doing (forgetting) my oh so important work. Almost instantly after my cognitive functions had kicked in and I had processed what I was hearing, I realised what it was - a Yellow-browed Warbler!  I jumped up, accidentally kicked something, grabbed my camera, ran outside, realised I would get a better view from my bedroom window, went there instead. And there, with eyes strained I waited. It made its presence clearly known with vocals, but - in the true fashion belonging to loud birds - somehow managed to avoid being seen. After a few minutes the calling stopped, and aside from a brief flutter of movement, I'd not seen it.
 Feeling that these views were perhaps a little inadequate, I went back to the garden to search for it. You know how it is, somedays a brief obscured flutter just won't do. Thankfully, it seemed to be of the opinion that my garden isn't all too bad a place to hang around. Some thirty minutes after first hearing it call, I managed to pick it up again; flitting around a holly tree in the corner of the garden. What a little beauty, and that supercilium! Not quite as good an eyebrow as a Pallas's (honestly though, what is?), but better than a Chiffchaff by a long shot.
 Okay, yes, the views were rather poor, but having only ever seen one before, I don't think I was particularly in a position to complain. Indeed, especially not when it was in my garden, and more so when you consider that my garden isn't in Norfolk - the 5,371km square YBW magnet.
 Another stunning and unexpected addition to the garden list, and a nice way to procrastinate from procrastinating.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Having a Butcher's

Ridiculousness. Complete and utter unbelievable ridiculousness. And no, I don't mean the fact that I'm writing a blog again. Again, no, it's not that I've actually been busy with college, and work since last I related a tale to you all. The sheer crazy, is this really happening??ness stems instead from... please sit down for this... birding.  Actual birding. Okay, maybe twitching, but still, birds were, or rather a bird was involved.  And it was this bird that caused, for many people, a state of flabbergasted awe. Which, to be fair, is most certainly the correct state to be in once a Red-backed Shrike has glided down and taken a grasshopper (R.I.P) from right by your feet. Wouldn't you agree?
 Crippling views is a term which is often overused, here though, it's justified. A shrike sitting on a perfect perch, in lovely light... you don't get much better than that.
 In the off chance that you haven't worked it out yet (I mean it's not as if the internet's filled with pictures of this bird), yes, I went for the Tide Mills Red-backed Shrike.
 It had been present for about two or three days before I managed to get over there, and I had heard it said that it was showing rather nicely.... well they got that right.



I arrived at about 1pm and spent a good five hours there, leaving at around dusk. The days really could do with being a bit longer again. The shrike, a first summer male, was on show almost the whole time, and was having his picture taken at a rate of about 40 times a second. Well, what do you expect, it was basically a photographer's dream, if photographers were ever daring enough to have a dream that crazy.
 At a twitch it is usually considered bad etiquette to approach the bird even a little bit, this wasn't one of those times however (although I'm not saying no one complained), as the shrike would let you approach to within ten feet of it and hardly give you a second glance.



Despite the presence of a large number of photographers, the bird managed to feed well throughout the day, catching grasshoppers, cranefly, bees, Devils Coach Horse beetles, lizards and apparently a Pygmy Shrew.  I was, I must admit, rather fascinated to see a lizard, dripping gook and impaled in a rose bush. Shrikes really are very lovely birds.
 As the evening drew in, it stopped feeding so much and started to sit one legged at the top of bushes issuing forth a soft, scratchy sub-song. Not very common behaviour for a shrike in Britain, but then I'm not sure much that this bird did was.
 Such a crazy good bird, quite possibly the best £2.95 I've ever spent; even if it did take me 2 hours to complete a 30 minute journey to get home... Ahh, good ol' public transport. But even the soul crushing abilities of buses and trains were well worth it.




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