Yellowhammers in the sun

Thursday, March 29, 2012 Adam Tilt 6 Comments

Why is it that you can go the whole winter without catching a cold but as soon as the nice weather arrives so does the man-flu? This week hasn't been all bad though as I've caught up with several jobs around the garden and just generally enjoyed the feeling of being outside. At least three Chiffchaffs are now calling continuously around the house, a pair of Bullfinches looks to be nesting near our back lane, Blue Tits have been popping in and out of one of the nest boxes and the male Yellowhammer is still visiting regularly and has even been singing from a perch just over our boundary wall. It's amazing what you see while doing DIY.

This evening we headed up to Bryn-bach-Common after work and were immediately greeted by the sight of a Buzzard soaring on thermals off Goppa Hill. This was the first opportunity I have had to try the new camera out on a bird in flight and once again the autofocus has blown me away. Although a bit distant the bird is pin sharp, something which was very much hit and miss previously.

25808 - Buzzard, Bryn-bach-Common

A Jay and the first singing Chiffchaff I have actually seen this year as opposed to merely heard entertained us on our way up to the common itself where four soaring Ravens could be seen high in the sky. As we searched for Yellowhammers it was the Meadow Pipits and Skylarks who provided the background audio track, which good though it was didn't seem to be attracting our little yellow friends. If this past couple of weeks is anything to go by it seems that the Yellowhammers only move up onto the common just before sunset so instead we decided to try out a couple of other locations further down into the valley. On the way there it was hard not to stop and photograph one of the newborn lambs suckling from its mother.

25812 - Lamb, Bryn-bach-Common

At Craig y Bedw a fly past from a Red Kite was only narrowly eclipsed by this stunning male Yellowhammer which briefly appeared on an overhead telegraph wire. I just had chance to grab a quick record shot before it flew back along the valley and out of sight.

25813 - Yellowhammer, Craig Y Bedw

As we walked further down the lane other calling Yellowhammers could be clearly heard from both sides before I spotted a female bird in one of the Gorse bushes to our left. She almost immediately flew up into a tree where remarkably another two females were already sat.

25814 - Yellowhammers, Craig Y Bedw

With at least another two calling birds further along the valley floor we must have seen most if not all of the birds that I estimated were present in my previous post. Given that our search was far from extensive I wonder how big the population there truly is? What is for certain is that it seems to be growing year on year which is fantastic news.

Our return route took us along the River Dulais where we spotted a male Pheasant running up the valley side. Although in many parts of the country these are common birds, our local population is very small indeed. I think I have seen one in the valley once before but never as well as on this occasion. Three Mistle Thrushes were also a nice find but it is the humble Robin which I shall end this post on. I mentioned previously that a new camera is never truly christened until its photographed a Robin, something which this evening I finally achieved. And what a beauty it turned out to be.

25816 - Robin, Craig Y Bedw


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Where's my cheese?

Thursday, March 22, 2012 Adam Tilt 8 Comments

Now that the dark days of winter are behind us it's so nice to be able to get home from work and put in a four mile plus walk before the light has completely gone from the sky. Yesterday was even better as with the sun shining it meant that the birds were far more likely to still be out instead of having settled down to roost. This was perfectly illustrated by a male Yellowhammer appearing in the garden before I had even had chance to leave the house, an event that resulted in a quick shoeless sprint out onto the patio. Unfortunately my ninja skills failed me and a combination of the door closing behind me and a less than stealthy approach spooked the gathered birds, including the Yellowhammer, into flight. To be honest I was very surprised to see him there at all as I was fully expecting his visits to stop once the cold months had passed. As it is it looks like we will be enjoying his company for some time to come. I waited for a few minutes on the off chance that he would return but in the end had to make do with one of our very attractive male Chaffinches instead.

25803 - Chaffinch

With my appetite suitably whetted I headed out to Bryn-Bach-Common to see what was about. The walk up was filled with calling Robins, Tits and Blackbirds but it was the two singing Chiffchaffs that really caught my attention, my first of the year. Despite their volume they were still somewhat distant and I couldn't locate them, something that was definitely not a problem for the next call my ears picked up on. Yellowhammer's are typically known for the "little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeeese" call (bet the title to this post makes more sense now), but it was their shorter contact call that alerted me to their presence. A quick hunt through the Rhododendrons and I soon had another stunning male in view.

25804 - Yellowhammer, Bryn-bach-Common

A few metres along and yet another male was also calling in the presence of a further two individuals which I only glimpsed as they disappeared into the thicket. That makes at least four birds on the common along with the one from my garden and at least another couple of pairs that I know of down in the valley. Quite a nice little population considering it was a species that I hadn't seen for years until moving here.

25806 - Yellowhammer, Bryn-bach-Common

Elsewhere displaying Meadow Pipits were the predominant species with some great parachuting flight displays just a few foot away from where I was standing. A couple of overflying Pied Wagtails and another singing Chiffchaff were the best of the rest. I had hoped for my first hirundine of the year as well but was out of luck. It can only be a matter of time though with Sand Martins already having been spotted a few miles away.


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Bracelet Bay Stonechats

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 Adam Tilt 14 Comments

After a couple of hours in conference calls on Sunday it wasn't until late afternoon that I finally escaped back outside with my new camera. Clouds and heavy showers were the name of the game but with incoming sun forecast we headed down to Bracelet Bay. My original intention had been to spend a while with the Mediterranean Gulls but they were completely absent, probably as a result of the hordes of people who were enjoying the views. That put a bit of a halt on proceedings while we considered our next move. As it turned out the solution literally popped up in front of us when a female Stonechat appeared on the bushes bordering the beach. With a light rain falling and no sun this was the ideal opportunity to test the cameras low light level performance that had finally convinced me to upgrade.

25783 - Stonechat, Bracelet Bay

25782 - Stonechat, Bracelet Bay

The male above was photographed at ISO350 whilst the female was even higher at ISO400. With my previous equipment the results would have resembled something built with Lego blocks such was the drop in image quality at those settings, but now they are pin sharp with very little noise in either shot. Consider myself convinced and I promise that's the last time I'll mention the new camera again (probably).

After a few minutes of being led a merry chase along the top of the beach the promised sun began to put in an appearance. Out of the pair it was the female that was proving to be the most approachable so she was the one I focused my attention on. Eventually I was with rewarded with the frame filler I was after.

25785 - Stonechat, Bracelet Bay

Looking up from the undergrowth I realised that Mumbles lighthouse was being lit superbly against the menacing grey skies that were still hanging over the rest of Swansea Bay. A better contrast you could not have wished for.

25788 - Mumbles Lighthouse

With my back turned the Stonechats had moved up onto Mumbles Head itself so I duly followed. At the very top a Crow was posing nicely so it would have been remiss of me not to point myself in its general direction.

25795 - Crow, Bracelet Bay

Nice as Crows are they are never going to compete with the little bundles of character that are Stonechats.

25798 - Stonechat, Bracelet Bay

25797 - Stonechat, Bracelet Bay

25793 - Stonechat, Bracelet Bay

Elsewhere around the bay there was a large raft of gulls just off Mumbles Pier that I have a sneaking suspicion may have been the returning Kittiwakes. Unfortunately I didn't have my binoculars with me at the time and forgot to go back to check later on. Emma also spotted a couple of largish Terns further out but again the exact id eluded us. I was just glad that after a week of fog we finally had some decent weather that looks like set to continue.


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New Camera for Spring

Monday, March 19, 2012 Adam Tilt 5 Comments

As I mentioned in my last post, this weekend heralded the arrival of a new camera into my life. For the last three years I have been using a Panasonic Lumix FZ28 which revolutionised the photographs I was able to take. Its combination of small size and big zoom meant that it was always at my side and it has performed faultlessly despite almost daily use in every weather imaginable. However for the last few months I have found myself becoming increasingly limited by its ageing specs. Far too often I was missing great photos due to low light levels or the subject being that little bit too far away. Regular readers will recall numerous comments on here throughout that time which seemed to indicate that I would be heading down the SLR route. After much thought and option weighing though I have decided to stick with Panasonic's bridge cameras and purchase the top of the range FZ150. This brings with it a new CMOS sensor, 24x optical zoom and an increase in resolution to 12 mega-pixels. What this all means when out in the field is that I will have far better low light performance (no longer will I be limited to ISO 200) as well as that extra reach that could make all the difference. On top of those headline figures the autofocus is now lightening fast and video capture has been upgraded to full HD with a new stereo mic. An SLR would obviously have been even better but for my needs the FZ150 represents the perfect compromise between image quality and practicality.

25762 - Pochard, WWT Llanelli

25766 - Pochard, WWT Llanelli

To test out the new set-up I headed down to the WWT's Llanelli reserve on Saturday to see what was what. As the Pochard shots above show I am more than happy with the results. Straight out of the box the camera was a joy to handle with a more solid feel and better fit in the hand than its predecessor. The quick auto focus exceeded all expectations though I did get caught out with what appears to be a shallower depth of field on a couple of occasions (must focus on the birds head not the body!). Turning my attention to the FZ150's lens and its leap from 18x to 24x is very noticeable. For the first time birds from the Peter Scott hide were within range resulting in my first ever Shoveller photos. This pair would swim the length of the reeds in front of us, do a short bonding display and then swim back in the opposite direction before repeating.

25777 - Shoveller, WWT Llanelli

25779 - Shoveller, WWT Llanelli

Other more violent signs of spring were evident over on the observation pool. There several male Shelducks were continually posturing and calling using their strange whistling voice that seems completely at odds with their appearance. Every now and then though direct action was deemed necessary and two Shelducks would lock horns (beaks) until one backed down. Apologies for the branch in the photo but they just wouldn't move their fight into a more open area.

25767 - Shellduck, WWT Llanelli

25768 - Shellduck, WWT Llanelli

Several Moorhens are already well advanced with their nest building programs as are a pair of Mute Swans over in the Millennium Wetlands. Elsewhere Tufted Ducks, Gadwall and Mallard are all paired up while the Black Headed Gulls are gathering noisily in preparation to breed. The superb light and relatively tame nature of these wild birds gave me a perfect opportunity to try out various settings and compositions, my favourite of which are below.

25759 - Tufted Duck, WWT Llanelli

25751 - Tufted Duck, WWT Llanelli

25742 - Mallard, WWT Llanelli

25772 - Shellduck, WWT Llanelli

Despite all the spring activity the reserve itself was relatively quiet, most likely due to this being the transition phase where overwintering birds are leaving and spring migrants have yet to arrive. For example the Wigeon flock is down to about thirty birds with Lapwings almost none existent, but there are still a few Pintail hanging around. On the wader front a solitary Greenshank and three Black Tailed Godwits were as good as it got, though with Easter on the way it was nice that the Easter bunny put in an appearance.

25776 - Rabbit, WWT Llanelli

For some reason I never consider a new camera properly christened until I've got a nice photo of a Robin. Inevitably this means that all Robins immediately go into hiding as soon as said new camera arrives. As a result I am yet to cross off that particular hurdle. Despite this I am very happy with the results the FZ150 has turned out and have identified a couple of areas that I need to work on. This is all great preparation for our annual Mull trip which is fast approaching. I can't wait.


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Cosmeston Part 4 - Mopping Up

Sunday, March 18, 2012 Adam Tilt 3 Comments

Much like a Sunday roast has its leftovers, this fourth and final instalment from Cosmeston contains a few of those photos that I really liked but which didn't quite fit into the previous entries. It also represents the final output from my present Lumix FZ28 which this weekend has been replaced by its big brother the FZ150. There will be more on my upgrade in the coming days but for now I hope you enjoy my final offerings from what has been a truly superb camera.


Reed Bunting

Juvenile Herring Gull

Juvenile Herring Gull


Canada Goose


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Cosmeston Part 3 - Bittern at Forest Farm

Friday, March 16, 2012 Adam Tilt 5 Comments

Forest Farm is a small wildlife oasis a few miles from Cosmeston that always manages to pack in so much more than I ever believe is possible. A couple of years ago I saw my first Bittern since childhood there with the added bonus of renowned photographer Andy Rouse also being present. This time our company was not nearly as illustrious but with recent reports of two Bitterns from one of the hides we settled down to wait. For some reason the hope of a Bittern sighting is the only thing that has ever made me willingly sit in the same location for hours on end. I don't know what it is about them but they seem to build a sense of expectation within me like no other bird or animal has ever been able to do. When one finally appears that expectation is instantly replaced with joy, closely followed by a quick grab for the camera that is invariably switched off (I never learn). This time was to be no different but the means of arrival for the Bittern in question was somewhat unexpected. I'm used to seeing them creep out of the reeds but this individual instead flew in from our left and landed right at the top of the reeds.

25736 - Bittern, Forest Farm

Its landing was less than graceful as the reeds beneath it started to give way and wings were deployed in a frantic effort to maintain some semblance of balance. Fortunately an equilibrium between gravity and reed strength was reached and the Bittern lifted its head in triumph. For the next ten minutes it sat there and looked around, no doubt wondering why one of the people outside the hide was using a camera that sounded a lot like a machine gun.

25725 - Bittern, Forest Farm

25733 - Bittern, Forest Farm

Eventually the Bittern dropped down further into the reeds and out of sight but what an encounter. It was so nice to see one not out on ice for a change as well.

During our wait a staggering number of species passed by including my first Stock Dove of the year and great views of a Green Woodpecker climbing up a nearby power pole. A Kingfisher flew past a couple of times and then seemed to be joined by a second bird somewhere behind us. There was obviously an exchange of words as both became quite vocal. Back out in front and two Jays, numerous Reed Buntings, two female Bullfinches and numerous overflying Grey Herons kept us entertained. A Common Snipe was also snoozing on a small island in the middle of the pond but we just missed catching a glimpse of a Water Rail. What a reserve. If you've never been before I highly recommend it.


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Cosmeston Part 2 - Reed Bunting Encounter

Thursday, March 15, 2012 Adam Tilt 3 Comments

In this second of four posts covering last Sunday I shall, as promised, be focusing on the smaller birds that were to be found in the trees and bushes surrounding Cosmestons two lakes. All of these photographs were taken in the space of about twenty minutes while standing on the first lookout point over on the west lake. Some kind hearted soul had left plenty of bread, seeds and nuts on the fence posts there and it wasn't long before the first birds had decided we weren't a threat and started to come down to feed. As usual Great Tits and Blue Tits were the first on the scene with the Blue Tit below striking a perfect pose as it eyed up its next meal.

25710 - Blue Tit, Cosmeston

While waiting for the next arrival Emma spotted a Goldcrest to our right moving towards us through the bushes. It got closer and closer until it was almost in range, at which point it promptly turned around and started to retrace its route. Not to worry though as a male Reed Bunting also chose that moment to show up and spent the next ten minutes or so hopping around the area as it decided if it should risk an assault on the tempting display of seeds. It frequently chose perches that were in the shade but every now and then it stayed in the sun just long enough for me to get my first photos of this species. (I did get a single shot of one at Cosmeston a couple of years ago but it was so poor that I don't think it really counts).

25712 - Reed Bunting, Cosmeston

25713 - Reed Bunting, Cosmeston

Eventually the Reed Bunting finally plucked up enough courage to take the plunge and landed on a post not more than a couple of metres away from us. I expected a quick snatch and grab but in fact he stayed sat where he was until his beak was completely stuffed. I certainly wasn't going to complain.

25722 - Reed Bunting, Cosmeston

A Dunnock was also in the vicinity and had chosen a beaut of a sun trap to rest in. As you can probably imagine it was perfectly content to sit where it was and I don't think we saw it move more than a few inches the whole time we were there.

25717 - Dunnock, Cosmeston

This Magpie on the other hand was a very fleeting visitor. As a species they never seem willing to stay put for long and are easily disturbed so again its was nice to get a few photos.

25714 - Magpie, Cosmeston

Over near the medieval village we heard a couple of yaffling Green Woodpeckers but were unable to locate them. While I think about it I also heard my first one up on Bryn-bach-Common this evening after their apparent disappearance for the last several months. A fly over Mistle Thrush, numerous calling Chaffinches and what seemed like a never ending supply of Robins and Blackbirds all made the place seem so much more alive than it had done during the winter months.


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Cosmeston Part 1 - Whooper, Lesser Scaup and more

Wednesday, March 14, 2012 Adam Tilt 10 Comments

On Sunday we had our most productive and enjoyable day out of the year to date; so successful in fact that a single blog entry would never be sufficient to cover it entirely. Instead consider this the first of a trilogy that is likely to be in four parts (if you don't get that reference then go and read Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy now!). Our morning had been spent shopping so the afternoon found us at Cosmeston Lakes on the outskirts of Cardiff. Regular readers may remember it from our visit there in December to see a Whooper Swan that had recently dropped in. Amazingly the same bird is still present and even more tame after a couple of months of interaction with people.

25692 - Whooper Swan, Cosmeston

25689 - Whooper Swan, Cosmeston

This time around the Whooper was being far more vocal, regularly calling with a voice that to my ears at least sounded almost mournful. I know we as humans have a tendency to transplant our own feelings onto birds and animals but it really felt as if it was calling out for others of its kind. Why this particular individual has arrived and stayed on its own is a mystery that we will probably never solve, but I did at least manage to photograph its jewellery that shows that this bird was ringed in Worcestershire during January 2011.

25694 - Whooper Swan, Cosmeston

Our native Mute Swans can't be much help either when it comes to conversation, as their name suggests.

25687 - Mute Swan, Cosmeston

Unlike during our last visit we also managed to catch up with Cosmeston's other celebrity bird, a male Lesser Scaup. With only one or two records in the UK per year these are very rare ducks indeed, so this being my second after the female at Slimbridge in January is pretty good going. Unlike the Whooper however he was being far less accommodating, preferring instead to stay near the centre of the west lake.

25718 - Lesser Scaup, Cosmeston

Away from the rarities I was actually more excited to see so many Lesser Black Backed Gulls sitting around on the waters edge, squabbling over bread being thrown to the ducks by visiting families. Despite seeing them on a regular basis I have almost no decent photographs of them so this was an opportunity too good to miss. My only challenge was trying to pick out an individual from the thirty or so that were present without any extra beaks or bums creeping into the background.

25681 - Lesser Black Backed Gull, Cosmeston

25702 - Lesser Black Backed Gull, Cosmeston

It was interesting to note that since December the pecking order amongst the gulls seems to have changed quite considerably. Back then it was the Black Headed Gulls who were the most numerous and were fighting each other for the bread. Now though they have been very much misplaced by their bigger rivals and were only to be found skulking around the quieter areas of the lakes.

25698 - Black Headed Gull, Cosmeston

Another species I don't really have many photographs of is the humble Mallard. This is partly due to the fact that they are so darn common that I rather unforgivably overlook them, but it has more to do with how difficult it sometimes is to find one in pristine plumage which has not cross bred with any escaped farmyard species. Fortunately the superb male below prompted me into action and I got some lovely shots.

25695 - Mallard, Cosmeston

Coots are a bird that I love to watch given their gawky nature and massive feet. The individual below gave a particularly impressive swim past as it showed how it puts those oversized feet to good use.

25684 - Coot, Cosmeston

Around the lakes the number of smaller birds were more than a match for their water loving cousins. Reed Buntings, Goldcrests, Long Tailed Tits and Mistle Thrushes were all present but you'll have to wait until tomorrows post to read more about them.


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