Tuesday 31 December 2019

I Have a Problem

As I sit here typing this I should imagine that at least a few potential NQS readers are working their way boozily towards midnight. And what am I doing? I am seeing in the new decade by telling anyone who wants to listen about a sewage farm I visited today.

Very sad.

It's called Kilmington Wastewater Treatment Works, and it's a beauty...

Just look at all those old-school filter beds!

I previously mentioned Kilmington WTW in THIS recent post, and added that viewing was difficult and birds usually quite distant. Well, that was certainly the case back in the day, when I last visited. The only access in those prehistoric times was along the W side, and at the NW corner. But look at it now! There is a new cycle path all along the NE side. Fantastic! Access could hardly be better. I reckon it will probably be just like Colyton WTW, in that a good SW breeze will encourage birds into (and through) that hedge along the NE border. The wind was E or ENE today, so pretty rubbish really, but it was still tremendous winter birding, with literally hundreds of birds to enjoy and sort through.

The post title alludes to the slight addiction I seem to have right now when it comes to Chiffchaffs. More specifically, pale and interesting ones. Siberian ones. Initially today I had brief views of just one, and mainly quite distant views at that, but then chanced upon two together in low brambles next to the cycle path. Heaven! I managed three incredibly poor shots of one of them. Here's the best...

Very bad photo of a Siberian Chiffchaff.

I will visit again, and do better. But as a taster of what the potential might be, today was great. As well as the 2 Sibe Chiffs, there were at least 30+ regular Chiffies, 10+ Goldcrests, a Firecrest, a female Blackcap and a surprise Cetti's Warbler which, I can add, was a male. The Cetti's was very unexpected. I am used to them down on the coast, on the Axe Estuary and at Cogden and West Bexington, but Kilmington is on high ground, some 5 or 6 miles inland. Throw in 150+ Pied Wags, several Meadow Pipits, a pair of Bullfinches, some Chaffinches, etc, etc, and you can see why I was rather excited about the place. Among the Pied Wags I once again had what I am sure was a White Wag, but until I get some good photos/video it will have to remain the dodgy string that you probably think it is...

More than 130 Pied Wagtails. Noisy.

Anyway, this will definitely be my last post of the decade, of which there are only a few minutes left. So, see you next year my friends...

Monday 30 December 2019

Black Redstart Meets Nikon P900

This afternoon I paid brief homage to one of the best-looking birds in Seaton, a spanking male Black Redstart. I would like to have stayed longer but there were already three camera-toting folks present when I arrived, and it felt uncomfortably like a twitch. Actually, not just a twitch. A photo-twitch. Not my cup of tea at all. Anyway, I thought Nikon P900 owners (or prospective owners) might like to see how I got on...

Here's a scenic shot of the location...

Seaton Hole. Black Redstart heaven.

A stepped pathway brings you down to the beach from above, and emerges where those signs are in the middle of the photo. I could see the bird on the rocks beneath the cliff, roughly where that chap now is on the right. So I walked along the lower tier of shingle to where you can see my scope and tripod in this shot; it's level with maybe a third of the way along the rocks. Meanwhile one tog marches straight along the top tier until he reaches the bird, and then lies prone with his legs down the slope. Amazingly the Black Redstart tolerated this liberty for several seconds, before coming my way.

Today I used my scope as a rest. I wound it up to a level where I could support the camera across it (not lengthwise) and use the eye viewfinder. In total I took 12 shots between 14:22:15 and 14:25:22, just over three minutes. The camera set-up was exactly as described in THIS post. In a sec I'll add my favourite four of that dozen. First though, a closer view of the scene...

At its closest, the bird was on those rocks to the right, so maybe 10-15m from me? When I took this photo it had flitted off along the beach to the left, in the direction that couple in blue are looking. Between their heads you might just about be able to see another tog (in camo top) following it down there...sigh!...which illustrates why I didn't want to stay.

Enough moaning. Results...

1600mm zoom, ISO 400, 1/100 sec
1600mm zoom, ISO 400, 1/80 sec
What an absolute stunner!! 1600mm zoom, ISO 400, 1/60 sec
1600mm zoom, ISO 400, 1/100 sec

Just to recap: in the settings I am using the camera automatically adjusts the ISO (up to a max of 400) and the shutter speed. All I do is choose the zoom, and I've already opened up the aperture as far as it will go (at 1600mm zoom that equates to f6.3). I appreciate that the quality of these photos is not quite DSLR standard, but personally I am delighted with them, and my wallet is still intact. The second one isn't as sharp as I'd like, but hey...

Sunday 29 December 2019

The Ups and Downs of Local

If you fancy a bit of solitary foot-slog with little or no chance of encountering other humans, the Dorset coast on a Sunday is probably not the place to go. So I didn't...

A few weeks ago I invested in the Ordnance Survey phone app, and this afternoon used it to find myself a footpath walk from home that would take me into the wilderness a bit. Our home is in Bradpole, on the NE outskirts of Bridport and just a few minutes from proper countryside. Bird-wise I had no expectations whatsoever, but obviously hoped for some interest. Here's my route...

The route (in red) is nearly all footpath or bridleway. The coloured stars all have birdy significance...

If you follow the route in the clockwise direction I took, you will quickly spot the purple star. This was the first birdy surprise. Nothing that special, but 5 Meadow Pipits in the grassy field there was still nice, and an excuse to fire up the camera...

Meadow Pipit. Straight off the camera, untouched. 1600mm of zoom, hand-held. ISO 400, 1/250 sec, exposure bias -0.3. To make life simple I took the focus and exposure off the fence post, not the bird.
Same again, tinkered with. Good enough for me.

Shortly before the northernmost point of the route I came across a good-sized flock of Redwings, certainly 50+ birds. Very flighty, as per normal, but still worth a photo I thought...

From where I was standing I certainly wouldn't have known if one of these Redwings had actually been a Black-throated Thrush, but the camera would... Full zoom, hand-held, 1/160 sec.

The red star is next to a little lake which I'd never come across before. No surprise that there were a few Mallards, but I was pretty amazed to see a pair of Tufties also...

Smart drake Tufted Duck. 1500mm zoom, and just 1/60 sec shutter speed. Camera supported on fence post.

On my old Seaton patch a pair of Tufties would have been quite notable. Perhaps they're notable here as well? I don't know. Basically I know next-to-nothing about my local birds, and that really hit home this afternoon. As I toddled along, wondering if this stream might hold Dipper, or those hedges might harbour Yellowhammers, I genuinely had no idea whether or not such musings were realistic. If I'm honest I was mostly disappointed at the apparent lack of birds. For example, at one point (on the RHS of the map) the footpath went across an open field (where it was totally unmarked!) and beneath a line of pylons. I took a couple of photos...

I don't know exactly what crop I was walking through, but the stuff seemed lifeless, and the whole area rather sterile...

These fizzing, crackling monsters are such a blight.

Anyway, no Dipper or Yellowhammers. And I was almost back at the starting point when I got my final surprise. Here the path runs along the edge of a field, separated from the adjoining road just by a hedge. Unexpectedly I flushed a Snipe, then 11 more, and then another single, straight off the weedy path. I certainly would not have predicted that.

In addition to the above I saw or heard 3 Green Woodpeckers and a couple of Nuthatches, but little else made me go "Oh, that's nice..." Quite interesting though, and I will try it again one day. A different route. I can highly recommend the OS app; it was invaluable. Some of our local footpaths are marked very poorly indeed, or not at all, and without the app I certainly wouldn't have had the confidence to go steaming diagonally across a crop field.

I'm no different to most birders I guess, and focus 99% of my effort on places where it's obvious there will be good birding (that's 'good' in a local context of course) while completely ignoring enormous swathes of surrounding countryside. While I fear that much of that surrounding countryside might well be an ecological desert, surely some of it isn't...?

Saturday 28 December 2019

Nikon Coolpix P900. Hand-Held Full Zoom Stuff.

Had time for a decent outing this afternoon, so I headed for the Abbotsbury beach car park. Initially I ventured E to overlook the Swannery, then back again and off towards E Bexington. I wasn't expecting much, but it was just so good to be out again at last. Scoping the Swannery from Chesil Beach was quite enjoyable. If there had been any Scaup I think I might have scored today, because the Aythya ducks were not too distant. However, I did experience gull envy on a grand scale. There were stacks, mostly far, far away. I stopped counting Med Gulls when I got to 100, and mainly concentrated on trying to find a white-winger amongst the big gulls. The thought of picking up a possible Casp at that range was not appealing. A nice surprise was a Chiffchaff foraging by the tank teeth.

Heading back towards the car park and beyond, I had in mind the subject of a comment on the recent Nikon P900 post...

Hi there, I had made the decision not to upgrade to the P900 as I had heard that at full zoom you would need a tripod. Carrying a tripod around with me whilst birding is not my cup of tea so I would be grateful to hear how you managed at full zoom. Thanks, Sam

I decided to just take a few shots at full zoom and post them here with some thoughts...

First off, what is 'full zoom'? I am going to assume we're talking full optical zoom only, ie, 2000mm (35mm format equivalent) and not straying into digital zoom at all. Let's be straight. 2000mm is an absolutely monstrous telephoto lens. It's basically the magnification equivalent of what you see through a 40x scope. That fact puts Sam's query into perspective. Can you imagine using a 40x scope without a tripod? I once made the schoolboy error of going to Scilly with my old 27x scope attached to a shoulder pod, and left my tripod in Penzance. It was dire...

Anyway, enough talk. Here's a shot I took this afternoon, just for demonstration purposes. It is hand-held, at full zoom. Apart from the appended 'properties', the photo is exactly as it came off the camera. No processing at all...

Stonechat. Hand-held @2000mm zoom. Afterwards I paced it out. 35 big strides is approximately 35 metres.

The shutter speed was 1/100 second. That is pretty slow. If that was a Siberian Stonechat and I was in need of some record shots I would be perfectly satisfied with that. Here it is again after a bit of cropping and tweaking...

It's not going to win any awards, but it'll do.

When hand-holding the camera I use the eye viewfinder, grip the camera with my right hand - my left cupping the lens - and press it to my face pretty firmly. I then stop breathing and allow my heart-rate to slow to 50. I will have reached the required level of immobility within 30 seconds...or blacked out.

Okay, just the first sentence.

When it comes to camera shake, here's the reality of what we're dealing with, roughly speaking...

At 2000mm of optical zoom, I reckon the camera's objective lens (front) and sensor (back) are very approximately 20cm apart . So if your shaking hand moves the lens 1/10 of a millimetre in relation to the sensor, that translates to a movement of 17.5mm at 35m, or 175mm at 350m. To put it simply, a tiny movement of the lens becomes a big movement of the bird, and the further away the bird is, the worse the effect.

And let's say that 1/10 of a millimeter shake takes 1/100 of a second to complete. When you fire the camera's shutter, what chance has it got of freezing a movement of 17.5mm at 35m range? Or a mahoosive 175mm at 350m? Even if that shake is much slower - say 1/10 of a second - the bird is still moving across your lens at a heck of a rate.

Which is why any kind of support is preferable to 100% hand-held I think. That said, I am sure you will agree that the above photo of our Stonechat is pretty acceptable at a pinch. Rubbish light, 35m range, 1/100 of a second exposure.

Remember how camera shake is amplified by distance? These gulls were at least 80-100m away...

Totally hand-held. Straight off the camera. 2000mm zoom, 1/125 sec, ISO 400
Cropped, unsaturated a little, sharpened. Obviously I was focusing on the Med Gull.

I did take several pics of the gulls, and they're mostly of this kind of quality. A few duffers though, and the moral is: if you are forced to use full zoom, hand-held only, take a lot of shots. I think I'd apply that rule whatever the shutter speed, but especially when slow.

By way of comparison, the following were taken with a decent support. My scope is a Nikon ED82A with soft, stay-on case, mounted on a Manfrotto tripod. What I do is point the scope at the bird and lie the camera lengthwise along the scope. I have the tilt adjuster fairly stiff, pan adjuster fairly slack. Not being a contortionist, I use the fold-out viewing screen to compose the picture. It all works fine. By the way, if you don't carry a scope use a fence post, gate, rock, passer-by. I intend to make myself a bean-bag for such eventualities. I think it will help.

All images cropped and tweaked. The Stonechats were probably a lttle closer than the first Stonechat pic, the Great Black-backs a bit further away. All at full 2000mm zoom, resting on scope.

ISO 400, 1/100 sec
ISO 400, 1/100 sec
ISO 400, 1/250 sec
ISO 400, 1/250 sec

I'm no bird photographer, but as a birder with a camera I am perfectly happy with those. My previous experience with the Lumix Fz38 (with 1.7x converter, by the way) had already taught me that the modern 'Vibration Reduction' (or 'Image Stabilising') technology does a pretty amazing job, but that a firm support helps enormously if you can wangle it somehow. And if you can, it is simply amazing how low a shutter speed you can get away with, and still wind up with a decent photo.

So, Sam, many thanks for your comment, and for prompting me to put this post together. I hope that it helps with your query.

One thing on my photographic to-do list is Birds in Flight. Still, one step at a time...

Having said that, four days ago the NQS household found itself talked into a quick late-afternoon walk at E Bexington, whereupon 3 Black Swans flew past, heading for Abbotsbury Swannery no doubt. I spotted them when they were level with us, whipped out the camera, zoomed it straight to 800mm and got three shots. Here are the first and the third...

800mm zoom, ISO 320, 1/500 sec
3 Black Swans with Portland Bill as a backdrop. Dorset birding at its best.
800mm zoom, ISO 320, 1/500 sec.

Friday 27 December 2019

What Next?

Why am I finding it so hard to write something about the end of one year and the start of the next? My aim was simply to summarise 2019 and outline one or two plans for 2020, but I cannot seem to do it...

NQS has had a characteristically sporadic year. For most of 2019 I can truthfully say that I had little inclination to write about what was filling my time, despite the fact that there were many 'firsts'. Like the first time I have plumbed a complete central heating system, plastered a ceiling, screeded a floor, fitted a window, built a 6-door, 17-drawer wardrobe out of MDF from absolute scratch (painting it took an eternity!) and umpteen other DIY adventures. And anyway, that's not what NQS is for. So...

2019 started like this...

January 4th, and it's late afternoon on the River Frome at Wool

Rob and I managed just one trip in pursuit of grayling before he had to fly back to Zürich, and work. It was not an auspicious beginning to the year; we blanked. I couldn't muster any enthusiasm to write about it, so NQS didn't get going until a fluky Caspian Gull on January 16th. Then came several months of just the odd token post, followed by a remarkable deluge from early October. What can I say? Yep, I know. Typical...

I am glad to have rediscovered a zeal for birding, and I hope it lasts. A zeal for writing too. In many ways the NQS 'Dodgy Birders' series has played a major part in that. This blog has always meant more to me than a means to record events, share exciting moments or entertain. Just occasionally it is nice to explore something a little deeper, and that particular topic allowed me to do so. And I enjoyed it. Judging by the number of 'page-views', I was not alone. Most pleasing of all was the unanticipated opportunity it provided to say "thank you" to someone who did me a good turn a long time ago (see HERE). Needless to say, I hope too that this desire and enthusiasm to write remains keen.

This may or may not be the final NQS post of the decade, but I'll nevertheless use it as a vehicle to wish all readers the very best with their upcoming plans. And I'll close with this final thought...

When you and I read a blogger's output we are just seeing that which he or she feels is appropriate to share on a public platform. In other words, the very tiny tip of an iceberg. I don't know about you, but personally I cannot help but try to read between the lines, to get a glimpse of the individual behind the words. Once in a while that does happen, and you get this little hint of something more than just a name. I like that. It connects me to the writer, and is one of the reasons I still enjoy reading blogs. Long may that be so...

Major 2019 highlight which didn't make the blog. Granddaughter.

Thursday 26 December 2019

Nikon P900 - Initial Steps

Disclaimer: I am not a photographer. Photography is not one of my hobbies. Some of what follows might inadvertantly be utter tosh.

In which case, why on earth be so presumptuous as to write a 'How To' kind of post about the Nikon Coolpix P900? Well, because I'll bet there are loads of birders out there who own and use a P900 or other bridge camera for exactly the same reasons as me, but know even less about using it than I do. So, if you bought such a camera in order to take record shots (or better) of the birds you encounter, and are struggling a bit, there is a slim chance you might learn something from this post.

Almost all the pics on NQS in the last two months were taken with the Nikon P900. A quick scroll through recent posts will soon tell you whether it's worth reading beyond this next full stop.

Nikon Coolpix P900. Quite a handful, but even with its bag weighs only 3lb 8oz (1.6kg)

I'm going to avoid technical stuff as much as possible, but in a few areas it is useful to understand a photographic principle or two, so be warned.

When I point my camera at a bird I basically want the resultant image to be
  • As sharp as possible
  • As well-exposed as possible
And that's it. So what I'll do now is talk through the one and only setting that I've been using for almost everything so far. In time I'll muck about with other settings and experiment a bit, but for the moment I just want to keep things as simple as possible. This is about as close as I can get to 'point and shoot'...

Turn the mode dial to 'A' for Aperture Priority. The aperture, or f-number (f2.8, f5.6, f8 etc) tells you how far open the camera's iris is. The smaller the number, the wider it is, and the more light is reaching the sensor. Mostly I will set the aperture to as small a number as it will allow, and leave it there. Aperture Priority mode means the camera won't alter the f-number without your say-so.

When you point the camera at a bird in Aperture Priority mode it will do its level best to give you a well-exposed image by adjusting the only other parameters it's allowed to: the ISO and the shutter speed.

For us bird-snappers, here are a couple of photographic principles:
  1. The lower the ISO number, the less noisy the picture. For anyone old-school enough to remember actual film, for 'noisy' think 'grainy'.
  2. The faster the shutter speed, the more likely you are to 'freeze' movement. In other words, the more likely you are to get a sharp, unblurred image.
So, what you're after is a low ISO and a high shutter speed. Sadly, what you need for such an ideal-world scenario is a great deal of light. Like, not a dull winter's day. However, modern cameras like the P900 have a miraculous something called 'Vibration Reduction' technology, which negates a great deal of the dreaded 'camera shake', that merciless killer of sharpness. Because of this feature, I am happier to sacrifice shutter speed before ISO. My reasoning goes like this. If you set a high ISO (800 or 1600 or worse) you are absolutely guaranteed to get the 'noise' that goes with it; there's nothing you can do. On the other hand, the risk of camera shake because of a slow shutter speed (anything below 1/100sec, say) can be at least partially offset by the VR system and a steady hand/solid support, especially with close birds. It's a risk, but one I'm mostly willing to take. So, here's what I've done...

Select 'A' mode. Press the 'menu' button, select 'A' ('shooting menu') and set as follows:

   Image Quality - FINE
   Image size - 16M (4608x3456)
   Picture Control - Standard (with default values)
   White Balance - Auto1
   Metering - Spot
   Continuous - Single
   ISO Sensitivity - ISO Auto 400
   Exposure bracketing - OFF
   AF area mode -  Manual (spot)
   Autofocus mode - AF-F
   Flash exp. comp. - 0.0
   Noise reduction filter - NR- (low)
   Active D-Lighting - OFF
   Multiple exposure - OFF
   Zoom memory - ON (and I've set 800, 1200, 1600 and 2000)
   Startup zoom position - 50
   M exposure preview - OFF

Most of the above are default settings, but not all. I'll briefly explain the thinking behind some of my custom settings here...

Metering and AF area mode
The idea here is to focus and measure the exposure requirements on the smallest area possible. Hopefully it gives me the best chance of getting the bird (rather than an intervening branch) in focus and correctly exposed. Which reminds me, I mostly have the 'exposure compensation' (multi selector dial on back of camera) set to -0.3, which gives slightly faster shutter speed for little loss of brightness. A doddle to correct in image processing, and often necessary anyway to prevent over-exposure of white bits on some birds. Gulls, for example...

ISO Sensitivity
This setting automatically changes the ISO sensitivity as needed, up to a maximum of ISO400. In other words, in low light conditions it'll give me 400, plus whatever shutter speed it has to. Warning: in really dull conditions the shutter speed can be dire, like 1/30sec or worse. As the light improves, the shutter speed will get faster and faster, up to (I think) 1/500sec, then the ISO will switch to a smaller number (320?). Again, once a certain shutter speed is achieved, it will automatically switch to a less-noisy ISO still, and so on. To be frank, I am not sure this is the optimum way to play things, but I'll stick with it for the time being.

Zoom memory
When I switch the camera on, and trigger the zoom control (next to the shutter button) I want the camera to be ready for action asap. By setting these zoom memory values I know my initial prod will take it straight to 800mm, and each prod thereafter to the other preset values. Also, it will not venture accidentally into 'digital zoom' territory, which is somewhere I do not wish to explore right now. Any tweaking away from these presets can be achieved with the zoom control on the side of the lens (photo above).

Personally I find that a great deal of photo quality is achieved via image processing on the laptop, but hopefully some of the foregoing will get things rolling in the right direction. Sorry if some of it was a bit technical (or not technical enough!) but I am what I am, and that ain't no photographer...

It was quite good light when I took this photo just recently. Note camera settings. It still wasn't bright enough to do better than ISO400 at 2000mm of full optical zoom.

There are countless possible settings with this camera, and I have barely scratched the surface yet. Every time I play around with it I learn something new. Can I recommend that you invest in a printed version of the manual. I acquired mine through eBay. It is enormously helpful...

Depicted here in cool B&W, and, so you can gauge its size, I perched it upon an even more essential tome

By the way, the P900 has an 'Auto' mode (the little green camera icon on the mode dial) and a 'Birdwatching' mode within the 'SCENE' options. I am sure they will give you decent bird photos on occasions. But I guarantee you will generally do better by getting away from any kind of 'Auto' as fast as possible. Have fun.

Wednesday 25 December 2019

Caspian Gull X78C Update

This morning I received an email from the ringing project leader, so this is just a quick post to fill in the gaps about last week's Axe Casp...

From the ringing location to the Axe Estuary is roughly 800 miles.

So, ringed as a pullus in June, and 800 miles further W by December. I love how mobile gulls are. Anyway, as you will have noticed, it was ringed as a Caspian Gull. However, the gull colony it came from is notorious for inter-specific promiscuity, so hybrid traits would not be a surprise in any gull hatched there. As I've stated previously, despite the bird's not-quite-textbook plumage I am comfortable with recording it as a Caspian Gull myself (see HERE). And obviously I'm pleased to have had this viewpoint vindicated by some birders who are far more experienced with Casp than I am (see HERE). At the end of the day it is me who has to be happy with what I count, even if my decision might not meet with the universal approval of my fellow birders (though I'm not aware that's the case with this bird, by the way). I'm not some rabid lister, desperate to include any old sketchy rubbish to get my numbers up; I do have standards. But neither do I require perfection; to me, that's a bit unrealistic.

I feel I've really learned something through this bird, and I hope that one or two NQS readers might have as well. I think it's been dead useful for us SW birders, who aren't as familiar with the taxon as some.

So there you go. That striking and rather characterful gull is my 13th Axe Casp.

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Brightening the Winter Gloom

I really don't keep abreast of rare bird news these days, but Twitter lets me know at least some of what's going on. For example, there is currently a Little Whimbrel (or Little Curlew, in new money) in Holland - the first for the country - and a Little Bustard nearby. In Norfolk a male Eastern Yellow Wagtail is drawing admirers from afar, and in Bedfordshire a photogenic Black-throated Thrush ditto. And there will be other birds like this out there, but as yet undiscovered.

Which is why now is good time to put on your winter woolies and go find stuff.

I've usually done okay in winter (when not phasing) and quite enjoy the challenge. This is where my interest in gulls comes in handy of course (because in winter they're everywhere) and a willingness to dabble in niche interests sometimes, which for me right now is Chiffchaff minutiae. And today it was a Chiffy hunt that reminded me of another valuable principle of winter birding: wherever birds congregate is always worth a careful looking-at. Across the road from Colyton WTW is a large field with stubbly weedy stuff in it. It's wet, and ankle-deep mud in places, but there is allegedly a footpath across it, so some access is permissable. Today, finally, I made an effort for Water Pipit; I think up to three have been seen here. Well, I found several Skylarks, a decent flock of Linnets, some Meadow Pipits and - at last - a single Water Pipit. Working the habbo was tricky, and all sorts could have been hiding in the vegetation. There is obviously plenty of food, because the birds seem to love it. The Water Pipit was as flighty as they usually are and did a bunk across the road. So I headed over to track it down again...

Now this field is immediately N of Colyton WTW, and has some newly-sprouting crop in it, winter wheat possibly. Because I was after the Water Pipit I looked properly for a change, and noticed that it too was busy with birds. Eventually I found the Water Pipit...

Water Pipit. Typically shy, and a right pig to photograph.

Keeping the Water Pipit company were several Meadow Pipits, 60+ Pied Wagtails and at one point a sizeable flock of Redwings. A quiet little bell was going off in my memory somewhere, and suddenly it came to me: in the past I've seen winter White Wagtails in this field. So I searched very carefully through all the alba wags, and lo-and-behold, I came across a solitary White Wagtail. I tried for a photo, but lost it, so shall just mention that it had an entirely grey crown (no evident black at all) and a clear grey rump, concolourous with the upperparts. Altogether a very neat, clean bird.

So, success in the birdy fields, but what about the Chiffy hunt? Not so good. Again, loads of Chiffs leaping out of the hedge at regular intervals, but just one unconfirmed glimpse of a pale bird. To be honest though, I did get a bit sidetracked by the adjacent pipits and wagtails.

An Axe patch post wouldn't be complete without the estuary getting a mention, so...

There was a Common Sandpiper near the tramsheds, but who cares about that when the river is crawling with gulls?! And it was! Best by far was a near-adult Yellow-legged Gull which led me a right merry dance, but eventually showed well for both Ian McLean and me. Unfortunately it was distant, and with a heavy shower approaching fast I didn't even try to get a photo. No sign of it post-rain.

One last look at the river mid-afternoon...

Oh yes! An absolutely stonking 2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull. In truth I have seen very few winter YLGs on the Axe, so two in a day is unprecedented. It loitered for a while. A few shots...

Oof! You beauty! 2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull.
This and the shot above were taken in sunshine, so are a bit more contrasty than I'd like.
Flatter light for these two, and both have other species in shot so you can get some idea of the shade of grey on the YLG's upperparts. In life it was slightly darker than the Common Gull, and considerably more so than the BHG.

I do understand that some readers of this blog would rather stick needles in their eyes than examine gulls in any way whatsoever, let alone closely, so I shan't dwell on this too much, but... It occurs to me that there may also be one or two who would like to know why exactly this bird is a Yellow-legged Gull, rather than one of the myriad common-or-garden Herring Gulls which litter the Axe. So I'll try and remember to annotate one of these photos with some helpful words to that end, and post it in due course.

Saturday 21 December 2019


In my day-to-day birding it is rare that I encounter another birder, yet I am very conscious of the 'birding community' which exists, and that I am part of. I meet it via media like the local WhatsApp group, this blog, Twitter, and so on. And one of the major assets of this community is its collective knowledge. If there is something you don't know or are unsure of, someone out there will either teach you or point you in the right direction. It's been a while since I tapped into that resource, but just lately I have certainly felt the need. I'll start with Wednesday's [putative] Caspian Gull. Here it is again...

Yellow X78C - Caspian Gull, or not?

Though not a textbook 1st-winter Caspian Gull for at least a couple of reasons, I had basically persuaded myself that it was close enough to count as one, and have already outlined my reasons in the relevant post. However, I sensed that two or three fellow SW birders for whom I have great respect when it comes to bird ID possibly had reservations. It was suggested that I seek the opinions of some of the London/SE birders who are far more familiar with Caspian Gull than I am, birders who actively seek out these gulls, love spending time with them and studying them. What did they think? Did this bird make the grade as a Casp?

It was both a good idea and the right thing to do. I'll admit I was apprehensive though. Would my confident claim be vindicated? Suppose it wasn't! Would I eat humble pie and strike this impressive gull from my list of Axe Casps? Or would I defiantly stick out my jaw and say I'm having it anyway?

So, via Twitter I sought the opinions of some birders who know their gulls. Below is a collage of their responses. I hope they won't mind being name-checked here. Obviously I am very grateful for their input...

I'm particularly encouraged by Rich Bonser's comment about the bird's facial expression. Although I haven't seen many individuals in the flesh, I've examined hundreds and hundreds of photos, and that 'look' stands out after a time. It was probably the clinching factor in my original decision.

I'll tell you what, I am delighted that I don't have to choose between humble pie and arrogant defiance. And I'm definitely having it now!

So that's one example of the birding community as a helpful fount of knowledge. Here's another...

Siberian Chiffchaff. As a consequence of the reading I'd done thus far, there were a couple of unanswered questions bothering me, mostly in connection with the genetic determination of birds trapped in the UK, both tristis (Siberian Chiff) and abietinus (Scandinavian Chiff). It struck me that one person who might be able to help is Martin Collinson. Martin is Professor of Genetics at Aberdeen University, and the go-to person when you want your tricky Stonechat poo DNA-tested. Several years ago he was enormously helpful in nailing the ID of the Iberian Chiffchaff which Steve found at Beer Head, using the song recording that Karen Woolley had captured, and analysing the sonograms. So I sent a brief email, with my questions. It was promptly answered, and a PDF of a recent British Birds paper attached to the reply...

I haven't been a BB subscriber for years now, but this was published in the July 2018 edition, and answers all my questions. Timely or what?!

Regular readers will know that I like birding alone. I'm not antisocial (at least, I don't think so) but I relish solitude. So going for weeks without meeting another birder doesn't bother me one bit. However, it is very heartening to know that I am nevertheless part of a wider community, a community which so frequently comes up trumps when you need a bit of help, and ask nicely. Thanks all.

Friday 20 December 2019

A New Camera?

A couple of months back I decided it was time to retire my elderly bridge camera, and asked birdy Twitter for recommendations. In my budget range the Nikon Coolpix P900 was easily the most popular. And now that I've owned one for a few weeks I can see why.

However, the purpose of this post is not to sell you a Nikon, but to outline my camera-ownership rationale. It won't be of much interest to photographers, but if you think of yourself as a 'birder first, photographer second' kind of person, well, that's me too. Perhaps one or two NQS readers might be in the market for a camera? Or maybe are at the stage prior to that, and wondering if it's worth adding one to their birding kit? So, if the cap fits, please read on...

Back in December 2004 I was birding the Coly Valley with @birdingprof, trying to suss a Dipper stake-out for an upcoming bird race. A large raptor landed in the hedge across the field from us, but it wasn't the expected Buzzard, it was a stonking adult Goshawk! It perched in full view for several minutes, and while binocular views were amazing enough, a scope would have been handy, and a digital camera to use along with the scope, even better. I doubt I'll ever have better views of a Gos, but it's a memory I can never revisit in picture form.

So if you're wondering whether it's worth bothering with a camera at all, there's reason number one in favour:

1. To capture some of those unique, unrepeatable birding moments.

I was a bit slow to learn from the Goshawk incident, and it was another 18 months before I bought a Fuji Finepix F30 to use for digiscoping. What persuaded me was the desire to add photos to my posts on the 'Backwater Birding' thread that had been running on Birdforum since the beginning of 2006. So there's reason number two:

2. To illustrate any digital publishing you might do.

Since then I've never looked back. I added a bridge camera to the armoury in 2010, and on Steve Waite's recommendation it was a Panasonic Lumix Fz38. Both cameras were still in action up until very recently. Between them they have captured images of the first 12 (of 13) Caspian Gulls I've seen on the Axe, and right there you have reasons three and four in favour of owning a camera:

3. To allow you to capture, and analyse at leisure, photos of tricky species.

I have found it brilliant for gaining familiarity with challenging taxa, especially gulls.

4. To confirm the ID of birds you're not able to 100% clinch in the field.

That has happened three or four times with Casp in my case.

And if you are inclined to submit records, there's a fifth reason:

5. To provide photographic evidence of local/national rarities for records committees.

That's a no-brainer really, but as a former records committee member I cannot stress enough how helpful decent photos are to the record assessment process.

And here's a thought. If, like me, you often prefer birding without the encumbrance of a scope, it's inevitable that you will sometimes be caught out by birds which are simply too far away to be successfully identified with bins alone. Step forward, mighty mega-zoom bridge camera! Photograph the object of your frustration and magnify it on the camera's viewing screen. Frequently that will do the trick. So...

6. To facilitate the identification of birds too distant for your optics to resolve.

But maybe you're wondering if toting a camera around with you all the time is going to be a hassle? Well, for starters the P900 weighs very little. I stick it in a bag, sling it across my body and barely notice it. Yet it is really quick to access the camera and fire it up when the need arises...

This is a Crumpler Muffin Top bag. Naff name, brilliant bag. Indestructible. For a bridge camera, can't recommend highly enough.

Of course, there is at least one more reason why a camera is a handy piece of kit:

7. Being able to produce photos (perhaps I should make that 'verifiable photos') of your nice finds will help prevent your reputation being sullied with any taint

So there's my case for owning a camera, or more specifically, a bridge camera. In a future post I'll offer some thoughts on using one. What settings to use, and why, is a perennial head-scratcher for the part-time tog...

PS. I'm sure there are other good reasons for a birder to carry a camera. If you spot something I've failed to mention, please add it in a comment. Ta.

Thursday 19 December 2019


So, yesterday I spent a bit of time chasing Chiffchaffs at Colyton WTW. Uncharacteristically then, quite a few photos and not so many words. I am still reading up on tristis, and at some point in the future I'll post something a little more analytical and in-depth, but for now...

Phylloscopus collybita collybita
First up, a couple of photos of your common-or-garden, everyday Chiffchaff, to pave the way for what follows.

P.c. collybita
P.c. collybita

Bird 1 (P.c. tristis?)
I suspect this is the bird I saw on December 11, but cannot be sure. I only managed a handful of photos of this individual, and none gave me a really good comparison with photos of last week's bird. I am conscious that it looks quite grey in these pics, more so than I thought it did in the field.

One of the first photos I took yesterday, but this bird ended up being the most elusive.

Bird 2 (P.c. tristis?)
This bird kept returning to one particular part of the hedge, and was therefore much easier to photograph (not that you can call anything in perpetual motion 'easy to photograph') and it has a rather different look to Bird 1. But notice how much its colour tone can change. Same bird, same camera, same flat light. I'm pretty sure the factors influencing this phenomenon are more to to with photographic variables than the bird itself, but none of the images have had their colours tweaked in any way.

Again, in the field it looked a warm, buffy, grey-brown in the main. Noticeable absence of yellowy-green fringing to the wing and tail feathers too, unlike Bird 1.

On the LHS it has a little white mark in the alula, which helped me be sure it was the same bird when analysing the photos later on.
And on the RHS a stubby new flight feather (?) growing out from below the greater coverts