Saturday 27 April 2024

Slim Pickings, But...

At this point in the season, a birder here in my West Dorset/East Devon locale might reasonably expect to have encountered at least a few of the following so-called common migrants: Whinchat, Grasshopper Warbler, Garden Warbler, Yellow Wagtail, Redstart, White Wagtail, Swift, and maybe Cuckoo. Less likely are Pied Flycatcher and Ring Ouzel - I might have seen more Hoopoes locally than springtime individuals of either - though I guess they ought probably to be on that list. In which case I suppose Hoopoe should as well! So there we are, 13 species, of which several should have fallen by April 27th.

Yet I have seen just one of them. And bizarrely it is Ring Ouzel. Twice.

The first time was last Tuesday. On afternoon visits to Cogden I like to work the hedges inland of the coast path. I realise that by this time of day many migrants will likely have moved on through, but there are sometimes a few stragglers to be found here. In the few years that I've been birding Cogden, a number of spots have been noticeably consistent producers, and it was from one of these that a silvery-winged thrush burst forth and flew about fifty yards away from me before diving into a hedge. I knew it was a Ring Ouzel, but views were so fleeting and poor that I couldn't even sex it. Ten minutes later it still hadn't emerged, and that was that.

Amazingly, the same thing happened this afternoon, roughly 400m west of Tuesday's occurrence. Again, rear views of a silvery-winged thrush piling into a hedge, though this time I could see it was brown. However, ten minutes later it did the decent thing and flew straight across the field, giving excellent side-on views, and perched up in the far hedge about 80m away, facing me. By the time I had the camera ready a few seconds later it had dropped out of sight, or so I thought. But maybe...maybe...could that be it?

I have seen some great Ring Ouzel photos on Bluesky lately, lovely portraits of this striking migrant. This photo is not like those ones...

Full frame at 2000mm zoom. Spot the Ring Ouzel.

Anyway, the bird was brown, with a dull, off-white bib, so presumably a female. Although four days have elapsed since my first Ouzel encounter, the species is scarce enough here that I cannot help wondering if it is the same bird. In view of the season's conjugal urges it seems unlikely, but quite a coincidence if not.

Just for clarity...

Facing right, but looking at the camera. Silvery wing edgings, scaly underparts, off-white bib and dull yellowish bill, all visible. Just.

By quite a big margin, these two encounters are way ahead of the rest of my own spring birding results. Dribs and drabs would be a generous description of things so far. To be fair, I haven't been out much, but the local WhatsApp chatter - or rather, lack of - tells me I'm not missing a lot. An hour at West Bay shortly after sunrise this morning gave me one Whimbrel, one Common Sandpiper, four Brents, and three single Wheatears which materialised out of thin air on various bits of rock armour...

Female Wheatear views the shore ahead and thanks its genetic programming for omitting West Bay from the list of potential breeding spots.

A few more recent pics...

Yellowhammer this afternoon, uttering its single-note call. With reference to the previous post, without using a 'burst' setting on the camera it is highly unlikely I would have caught it with its bill open, as intended.

Willow Warbler. At least there have been a few of these.

Thank goodness for Wheatears.

My first Whimbrel of 2024, one of five on 21st April.

A proper fat soldier of a Wheatear.

Another one...

...and one more.

The first passage Pom Skua passed Portland this morning. Lovely. Yes, it might have been a bit slow to get going this year but I'm sure there are plenty of springtime thrills to come...

Thursday 18 April 2024

Photography Tips for the Not-a-Photographer

Like loads of birders, I take photographs but am not a photographer. I like to decorate this blog with them, and a visual record of any unusual birds I am jammy enough to encounter is always nice to have. As regular readers will know, since the death of my Nikon P900 super-zoom, I now use a P950. Like the P900 it is lightweight and quite versatile, but a DSLR it ain't. To be the relatively inexpensive Jack-of-all-trades that it is, serious compromises have been necessary. For example, low light and birds in flight are a massive challenge. Even so, on the very rare occasion that a bird presents the opportunity for an exceptional photo, it can do a pretty good job. The object of this post is to demonstrate that decent pics can be had from these super-zoom cameras, and to offer a couple of suggestions for maximising one's chances of a nice result.

Back in the spring lockdown of 2020, I stumbled across a singing Lesser Whitethroat that posed perfectly. The following snap involved no playback or any other nefarious activity, just jam...

Singing Lesser Whitethroat, April 2020

I am confident that I'll never better that shot, and the same is true of the following Whinchat pic from May 2021...

Two members of the Whinchat display team.

Talking of Whinchats, this one from September last year...

A few more examples of photographs that make this not-a-photographer very happy...

The Cogden Tawny Pipit. May 2021.

Just a female Wheatear with a blue-sea backdrop, but pretty sweet.

Clifftop Raven in monochrome.

So, tips.

Not being a photographer, I always feel a bit of a fraud offering photography tips. All I can say is that what follows works for me, with my camera. DSLR owners would doubtless leave me eating dust, but if you're one of the many birders who carry a super-zoom, here you go...

  1. Get off 'auto' if you can. The P950 also has a 'bird-watching' mode, but I've never used it. Learning how ISO, aperture, and shutter speed influence the final image, and how best to employ the various metering and auto-focus options, has been 100% worth the effort. I did write some stuff about my initial steps with the P900, including some settings I used at the time. I've moved on since then, and the P950 is a little different anyway, but the post highlights a few useful principles and might be helpful for anyone starting out. Find it HERE.
  2. Use a 'burst' setting, so that multiple shots are taken rapidly with one press of the shutter release. The P950 recovers from a burst of shots somewhat quicker than the P900 did, but there is still a brief delay before it is ready for action again. Even so, within a burst there may be one shot that is sharper than the others, or captures the perfect pose.

And that's it. Number one is the key I reckon, but definitely requires the most work.

Monday 8 April 2024


March came and went in a soggy flash, and April is threatening to do the same. Birding time has been difficult to wangle. At the very end of the month I have a couple of nights booked at Portland Bird Observatory, and cannot wait. Meanwhile I shall scrape what I can get. And on Saturday afternoon there was finally a little window, through which I jumped quite eagerly.

Earlier that morning, Mike Morse posted news of a Woodchat Shrike at West Bex. By late afternoon it had moved west to Cogden. I really didn't think I was going to find time to visit, but somehow did. And boy, was I glad...

Gorgeous! Woodchat Shrike.

At one point it came close enough to get a few proper frame-fillers - like the one above - but mostly it was further away. The resultant photos reflect that, with a lot more habitat in shot. Much as I like to see rictal bristles in my birdy pics, my favourite photos are always those which show the bird in its environment; they seem so much better at conveying that feeling of what it was like to be there...

It was finding plenty to eat. Here with a hefty bee.

Same bee, demolition underway.

What a bee sees, moments before death.

Probably my favourite shot...or maybe that first back-on photo above. Hard to choose.

So yes, this post has just been an excuse to give my choicest Woodchat photos an airing. A lovely bird, and worth every minute I spent with it. Most of which, by the way, were on my own. En route to the bird's location I passed two birders heading back from watching it, and on arrival there were four more. But they too were soon gone, so most of my half-hour there was blissful solitude. I've no idea how many came and went earlier in the day, but I'll bet it wasn't many. If this bird had been in North Norfolk...

West Dorset is such a quiet place to go birding. And so rewarding.