Purple Sandpipers, Red Kites and Snow

Tuesday, January 17, 2017 Adam Tilt 5 Comments


P1060375 - Purple Sandpiper, Aberystwyth
Last week finally saw our first snow of the winter. Not enough to deliver that all important day off work but certainly sufficient to coat the nearby hills and deliver an occasional five minute blizzard down at lower altitudes. Just the conditions I hear you say for an evening drive to mid Wales which, disappointingly, passed off with only a couple of brief flurries. I had hoped to enable “snow mode” on our 4x4 but I guess that particular thrill will have to wait a little while longer. Our reason for being on the road was a weekend away in Aberystwyth, something of an annual tradition at this time of year and a chance to enjoy one of our favourite haunts without the crowds which descend during warmer times. They felt a long ways away indeed as we stepped from our warm cocoon into a strong Northerly, bitingly cold and whipping the sea into a frenzy. Far from the worst sea state we’ve ever experienced here but still enough to cause waves to break with some regularity over the seawall, drenching a couple of unsuspecting evening strollers in the process. My mirth would soon come back to haunt me.

Next morning and after a full English it was back out into the wind to enjoy another high tide. Again waves were breaking well over the prom, particularly alongside Old College and out by the harbour where camera and dignity were risked in a an effort to bring you, loyal readers, a little taste of Wales at its most fierce.

P1060335 - Aberystwyth Storm

P1060319 - Aberystwyth Storm

Despite a couple of close shaves we remained relatively dry and having taken our fill of wave action set about searching for Purple Sandpipers. These have taken to roosting on the sea wall in recent years though whether or not they’d still be doing so in the face of such an onslaught was anyone’s guess. Initially we drew a blank turning up only a lonely Turnstone before finally spotting six individuals seemingly clinging on for dear life. Huddled together far higher up the wall than usual I was amazed that they hadn’t decamped to somewhere a little less fraught but at the same time pleased that I’d get to spend some more time with these attractive little birds.

P1060375 - Purple Sandpiper, Aberystwyth

P1060359 - Purple Sandpiper, Aberystwyth

P1060352 - Purple Sandpiper, Aberystwyth

P1060362 - Purple Sandpiper, Aberystwyth

With light levels incredibly poor I’m pretty pleased with the photos I managed to get though never quite managed to capture bird and wave in one convincing shot. The closest I came was spoiled by the Purple Sandpipers taking flight, an event proceeded moments later by a distinctly damp feeling all down my back. It appears that an errant wave had somehow managed to break at the exact position I was standing causing a degree of soaking and much mirth on the part of my other half.

Significantly wetter and colder than an hour previously we jumped in the car and set off for our main target of the day, Nant y Arian. Owned by Natural Resources Wales this is one of three Red Kite feeding stations within an hour of home and probably one of the most dramatic. Set at the head of a valley with hills all around it regularly attracts up to 150 birds in winter, several of which were already circling in the vicinity as we pulled up. For now though they’d have to wait as seeing the snow covered mountains further inland we couldn’t resist heading a couple more miles up to Nant-y-Moch reservoir. Remarkably I’ve never been here before despite living in Aberystwyth for five years and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Despite a couple of heavy rain showers passing through there was still plenty of snow about and not a single other soul for as far as the eye could see. With the cloud base barely clearing our surroundings it felt about as isolated as anywhere we’ve been of late, and I loved it.

P1060393 - Nant-y-Moch Reservoir

P1060394 - Nant-y-Moch Reservoir

P1060401 - Nant-y-Moch Reservoir

Having endured the freezing wind for as long we could we were soon back at Nant y Arian. Wrapped up in an extra couple of layers we took in a very enjoyable four mile walk along the top of the site where views have been opened up considerably in recent years by the felling of conifer plantations. On a clearer day it would have been stunning and even with our limited visibility was pretty darn good.

P1060403 - Nant y Arain

We spent much of our walk in the company of Goldcrests whose high pitched calls were an almost constant presence though the birds themselves were rarely seen. We were also treated to a spectacular Raven flypast who seemed to delight in flipping upside down, all the while surrounded by an ever growing number of Red Kites which were getting more and more vocal as each jockeyed for air space above. This bode very well indeed for the coming main event which was still just over an hour away. Eager to get a spot we walked down to the lake on whose shores the birds are fed but for some reason there weren’t that many people about. It’s almost as if others don’t like freezing cold, grey winter days. Talking of grey it was by now so dull that I seriously doubted that we were on to a winner photographically. The presence of five Goosanders (four male, one female) gave an opportunity to at least attempt however and this one came out rather well I think.

P1060421 - Goosander, Nant y Arian

Then it was feeding time. The appearance of a wheelbarrow full of meat sent the gathered Kites into raptures of excitement as birds homed in from all directions on their quarry. Numbers were impossible to judge but the sky was soon filled with a swirling cyclone of life, concentrating into a single mass the likes of which I’ve rarely experienced. As the first morsels hit the ground Red Kites started dropping out of the sky like missiles only to pull up at the last minute, valuable winter nourishment grasped within dangling talons. Squabbles were breaking out everywhere with ever resourceful Crows more than happy to step in and take whatever they could get their beaks on. Despite being across the water we had Kites regularly flying within a few metres of us and it was very much a case of not knowing where to look next.

P1060434 - Red Kites, Nant y Arian

P1060441 - Red KItes, Nant y Arian

P1060446 - Red KItes, Nant y Arian

The whole event only lasted a few minutes before the food supply was exhausted and birds began to disperse back into the surrounding countryside. An epic encounter which revealed another surprising beneficiary. In their eagerness the Red Kites dropped several pieces of meat into the lake itself which the Goosanders from earlier were only too happy to pick up. This was certainly new behaviour for me and I wonder if these birds have just happened upon this in passing recently or now make a habit of overwintering here in order to get an easy meal.

Our day finished with the Starling roost under Aberystwyth pier and a surprise but very welcome Kingfisher fishing in the harbour just as the last few streaks of light were draining from the sky. We were able to watch it make a couple of dives before it shot off across the water, quickly lost to the deepening murk. An awesome way to round off what had been an excellent day.

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#pwc2017 Damp Beginnings

Thursday, January 12, 2017 Adam Tilt 0 Comments


Last Saturday was my first opportunity of 2017 for a proper days birding and, in keeping with my new year resolutions, that meant Patchwork Challenge time. As mentioned previously I’ve abandoned the two patch plan from last year and instead returned to the area that started it all, Cefn Drum and Bryn-bach-Common. Hopefully this will refocus my efforts and allow me to put in the time required to trump what, to my surprise, turned out to be a rather competitive score in 2016. Despite a scarcity of visits from summer onwards, early two-pointers and good appearances by spring migrants meant that things weren’t as bleak as I’d expected falling only one point short on 2015. If I’d known that a little earlier I might have put a bit more effort in towards the end but alas I didn’t pull together a final tally until London was being engulfed in firework smoke. Something else which I must improve on this year to avoid me toiling at the bottom of the league tables before a last minute jump to something approaching respectability.

P1060302 - Cefn Drum

But I digress. This is 2017 and having battled through a working week which saw some stunning winter weather, Saturday dawned misty, dull and mild. Bum. Still, we had our target set and were soon picking up a few easy ticks care of our garden birds. Numbers have remained pretty healthy over winter despite a lack of snow and ice with most days seeing a trio of Coal Tits, up to eight Long-tailed Tits, two Robins, three Dunnocks and our usual selection of Blue Tits, Great Tits and House Sparrows. Goldfinches continue to be as numerous as ever with what I’m pretty sure is a record 45 yesterday morning as well as Bullfinches which are increasingly gaining in both confidence and regularity. What used to be a hard to find species during the first Patchwork Challenge has now become much more common, a fact perfectly demonstrated by the presence of six (three males and three females) on this particular morning. Pretty impressive I’d say! Heading to Gopa Hill added several Blackbirds before two Goldcrests brought a splash of colour to proceedings up by the old ruin. Both were feeding high in the canopy only a stone’s throw from where I’ve found evidence of breeding in the past. Members of that same family perhaps? Breaking out onto open ground delivered a small flock of Starlings making their way down the valley before it was on to Bryn-bach-Common where things began to get a little more interesting.

First up were a pair of Red Kites (my first two pointer of the year) closely followed by the local gronking Ravens before a passing Lesser Black-backed Gull hinted at poor conditions out at sea. A distant Jay was relatively unusual up here as they tend to prefer the wooded valley bottom but the same couldn’t be said of the mixed Thrush flock in a neighbouring field. Each January for the last three of four years has seen a similar gathering with today’s consisting of at least six Redwing, two Mistle Thrush and a solitary Song Thrush. All were very mobile continually switching between the ground and surrounding hedgerows whilst frustratingly remaining well out of camera reach. Another similarity to previous years as was the complete absence of Fieldfares. Is it me or do these get harder and harder to find.

There wasn’t much time to ponder before a quartet of Herring Gulls took our attention as they passed overhead. That’s why I love the Patchwork Challenge as when else would such a species cause anything approaching excitement? They too were soon usurped though as I spied a smaller lone Gull stood amongst some distant Sheep. Closing the distance a little it soon became evident that it was in fact a Common Gull, only my second ever patch record and in exactly the same location as the first. Disappointingly though we couldn’t turn up either Green Woodpecker or Stonechat, two normally reliable species, before we had to move on to Cefn Drum. By now a light drizzle had developed which, accompanied by the  strengthening breeze and some illegal dirt bikers, made for a rather unappetising proposition for birds and walkers alike. Indeed all we could turn up was the resident flock of Rooks and a Buzzard before it was back to the valley floor and then home.

P1060304 - Cefn Drum

Probably not the greatest first day of a Patchwork Challenge then but a solid start on my, comparatively, meagre patch. A couple of glaring omissions and the absence of Woodcock could put me on the back foot if I don’t turn them up in the next couple of weeks, but there are signs of hope. I’m pretty sure I glimpsed a Peregrine but didn’t get a good enough look to definitively tick it quite yet and there are now a couple of promising pools as part of the flood alleviation works that still look a good ways off completion. At least we are up and running though and that’s the most important thing.

2016: 68 / 2017: 29

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Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 Adam Tilt 1 Comments


Tramping around Ilkley Moor photographing Red Grouse wasn’t all we got up to during our few days away in Leeds. On New Year’s eve we paid a rather splendid visit to Fountains Abbey near Rippon in North Yorkshire, one of the largest and best preserved ruined Cistercian monasteries in the country. Dating from 1132 and in use for over four hundred years until its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1539, what remains today is both remarkable and awe inspiring. To see a building of such scale with columns and windows stretching far above you to giddying heights is simply breathtaking, even more so when you consider that in all likelihood the skills to build something like this are probably no longer in existence today. We spent a good while walking around the abbey, marvelling at the craftsmanship and often intricate designs on display. Being a near perfect winters day I couldn’t have hoped for better photography conditions with the sandstone positively glowing in the low winter sunlight and ended up taking far more images than I had ever intended. Such a change from the dullness which typically accompanies our winter trips “up North”.

P1060198 - Fountains Abbey

P1060240 - Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey

But what of the birds I hear you ask. Fear not for Fountains Abbey is part of the Studley Royal Park UNESCO World Heritage Site. This eight hundred acre park includes an eighteenth century landscaped garden and its various ponds and lakes were surprisingly rich in wildlife. Probably our strangest find was a grouping of at least sixteen Little Grebes at the centre of one pond, the largest single count of this species I have ever recorded. All were busy fishing but has anyone else ever seen or heard of them in such numbers elsewhere?

The real stars were out on a large lake in the Deer Park however where we turned up both a male and female Goldeneye plus ten Goosander. These were being kept company by an assortment of commoner waterfowl species including Tufted Duck, Gadwall and the inevitable Mute Swan. This is an ornamental water garden after all! Away from the water the rest of the park seemed a little quiet with a couple of Stock Doves about all we could turn up during a very enjoyable wander through the grounds.

P1060176 - Billing Hill, Yeadon

One unexpected bonus from our trip was a new trig point to add to my burgeoning 'bagged' list of these mapping icons. We stumbled across this one (S3875) completely by accident atop Billing Hill near Yeadon. The lighting was just stunning after a rather dull day and was our last sunset of 2016. Not a bad one to go out on really.

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New Year Red Grouse

Monday, January 02, 2017 Adam Tilt 0 Comments


P1060279_2 - Red Grouse, Ilkley Moor
First of all let me start by saying Happy New Year, particularly to those birders amongst us for whom January 1st is probably one of the most exciting dates in the calendar. It's the day on which new notebooks are cracked open, year lists begun and when even the humble Robin is an exciting find. Many of us will have been kicking off another year of the Patchwork Challenge but as I was away visiting family in Leeds we decided to head out to Ilkley Moor for my semi-annual date with Red Grouse instead. In the distance a light dusting of snow could be seen on the highest peaks yet where we were there was nothing but mud, mud and more mud. And a bitterly cold wind that froze you to the very core of course. Combine that with about as much light as one can expect from an energy saving light bulb and we were faced with conditions hardly conducive to a great photographic outing. Not to worry as we had endless optimism and enthusiasm on our side and after a couple of minutes we were already hearing the laughing sounds of Red Grouse from various points across the surprisingly busy hillside. Figuring our best chance of an undisturbed bird was to head in the opposite direction from a plethora of ill disciplined dogs we were soon tramping through dead bracken when a grouse popped up directly ahead of us. Being ever on the ball I of course had the camera on the wrong setting, switched off and still in its bag. Classic preparation which meant that by the time I was looking through the viewfinder our quarry had vanished. Or so we thought. A quick scan of our surroundings soon had the bird relocated but even once found it did a remarkably good job at blending back in.

P1060276 - Red Grouse, Ilkley Moor

Creeping forwards I was able to get fairly close before the Red Grouse took to its feet and slowly started to amble away. I have a theory that the tamer birds found closer to the busiest areas are perhaps that way because they escape the shooters for whom this moorland is managed. Whether that's true or not we may never know but it gives photographers like me a perfect opportunity to grab some quality images without too much hard work. This was just such an individual and I hope the following photos speak for themselves. Check out how varied and patterned those feathers are!

P1060279_2 - Red Grouse, Ilkley Moor

P1060288 - Red Grouse, Ilkley Moor

Our encounter abruptly ended when the bird stumbled across another hidden in the Bracken sending both into raptures as they took flight and disappeared from view. Heading deeper into the moor revealed more and more Red Grouse but all were increasingly wary and none willing to entertain anything like an approach. Low light levels were also playing their part until the red eyebrow of this individual caught my eye amongst the heather. There was just chance to grab this image before it too was gone.

P1060296 - Red Grouse, Ilkley Moor

Of course Red Grouse weren't the only birds present and we were soon adding Raven, Meadow Pipit and Black Headed Gull. Not the best of hauls admittedly but then we all know from the campaigns of last year quite how barren a grouse moor can be when it comes to other species of wildlife. Thankfully there are areas nearby where birds can be found in abundance, one being Rodley Nature Reserve in the heart of Leeds. Since our last visit a couple of years ago the area has come on leaps and bounds with several new hides and lots of new habitat created. Given the time of year that translated into plenty of waterfowl including Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and a lone Pochard. A couple of Little Grebes were sneaking around in the background whilst overhead we were treated to a flock of at least sixty Stock Doves who seemed to be enjoying the bird friendly seed crops being grown on Tim's field. There were plenty of smaller birds present as well including a very vocal Great-spotted Woodpecker, Grey Wagtail and two Jays. Our best find by far though was a fantastic Water Rail feeding right out in the open, something which scarcely ever happens and we all enjoyed great views, if a little distant. Time I think for one of my classic record shots.

P1060299 - Rodley Nature Reserve, Leeds

OK, probably not the best photo ever to grace this blog but an excellent bird with which to kick off the new year. Hopefully there's plenty more where that came from.

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