I’ve started a new blog..

This year, I’ll be posting an image a day (that’s the theory anyway!) for the entire year. I’ll be posting them on my other blog, imaginatively called A year of images – go take a look. It might be some time before I get to post on this blog again, but I’ll be back in due course.

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I’m back!

It’s been ages I know.. My last blog was in July 2012.

I happened to be scanning through the various apps on my Ipad last night and stumbled across the WordPress app. It took me a while to remember my user name and password, but before too long I was re-living old blogs. Determined to get back to blogging, I promised on Twitter that I’d be back today – and here I am. Only just though, it almost slipped my mind, again..

I’ll keep them short and sweet this time around, and hopefully I’ll be able to do more blogs than I’ve done recently (won’t be difficult!).

So, the Starlings are back in their nestbox. Last year was a write off as the male got nabbed by a sparrowhawk as he fluttered down to the garden for a snack. The female disappeared soon after, either as a failed breeder, or maybe as sparrowhawk lunch?

A pair have been roosting in the box since February, and over the last few days have been busy nest building. Yesterday (11th April) I am sure the first egg was laid..

I’ll keep following their progress and let you know how it goes. They should be safe from predation as magpies are nesting in a tree at the end of the garden – and are attacking anything dove sized or above that comes near. They seem to be ok with the starlings though.

Here’s a short video of Mrs S in the box, to get us started:

That’s all for now. I did say it would be short and sweet!


Spudders or on Twitter: @spuddrs

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Now that is what I call a proper Relay!

Apologies. I know this blog is called Watching Wildlife and this post is not quite what you might expect to see here. It is however, something that I want to share with as many people as I can – you included.

Last Sunday morning I travelled a distance of about 9 miles… At not even 6:30am… and on foot… and in total awe of a baton….

Let’s go back a few weeks and I’ll explain all.. It started with a tweet sent to me by Louise, a fellow runner. Something about a relay being organised by some bunch called EnduranceLife. It all sounded way out of my league so I pretty much dismissed it – sorry Louise!  A day or so later, another tweet. I felt it only right to have a proper look this time. I am so glad I did!  (By the way, do feel free to follow me. Somewhere on this page should be a link to my Twitter feed – I hope!)

The relay was precisely that – a relay. It was however, the scale of it that got me. This was a relay, carrying a GPS tagged baton, following the route of the Olympic Torch. There was a twist though – and this really sold me on the idea. This baton was not ever going to be placed in a van to get from A to B. No, this baton was going to go from Cornwall to London and all points in between by being passed from the hands of one runner to another.

The baton. Complete with a rather apt quote!

I had, perhaps naively, envisaged that the Olympic Torch would do just that – and be a celebration of the Olympics coming to UK, passed around the route from person to person. To see that it simply was driven from town to town somewhat took away a lot of the ‘ethos of the Games’ for me – and it seems, a lot of other people. I was therefore absolutely thrilled to see that grass roots runners up and down the Country were prepared to do their bit to prove that it was indeed possible to run the relay – every step of the 8000 miles or so.  I was even more thrilled to learn that all I had to do was sign up for a leg and I could be a part of it! Everyone running the relay donated money to CHICKS, a Charity providing respite break for disadvantaged children in UK, a very worthwhile cause indeed.

I followed the route every day using the Tracker map on the website, eagerly awaiting the time when the Dorset legs would be online and available for grabbing!  Eventually, at half time in one of the Euro 2012 matches (no idea which one – I was busy refreshing my screen every few seconds!) there it was – Sunday 15th July at 06:50 Wallisdown to Christchurch, via Bournemouth and Boscombe. I was on it in a flash and couldn’t believe it when I completed the submission, refreshed again and saw that my name was down for that leg!

Fantastic! I would be a part of the Real Relay!

Got the T shirt.. Just waiting for the baton to arrive now.

Training ramped up over the next few weeks. With 2000 runners involved in this relay there was no way I was going to be the one to break the chain – and there was added pressure as the baton was booked onto a ferry to the Isle of Wight the same day as my leg.

To cut a long story short (I know, it’s already quite long!) it was suddenly the night before my leg of the relay. I was fully prepared, the alarm was set and it was time for an early-ish night. Within a minute of lying down I knew I had to go and double check the timings. What if I had mis-read the times and 06:50 was actually the time that I was handing over the baton? Panic set in (as it would) and I checked the website. Surely, it could only be read one way – but I had to check. A quick text to Stuart, who I was handing over to in Christchurch, confirmed all was well and I had got the timings right. Phew!

At 04:40 the phone rang. I was told that the baton had just started out on the leg prior to me – about 30 minutes ahead of the plan, but not to worry as the runners were aiming to lose a bit of time to bring it back onto schedule. Not worry? Like that was going to help!

Just to be safe, Carole (my wife – who offered to drive me to the start and pick me up at the end!) and I were ready and waiting at Wallisdown by 06:10..

The handover in Wallisdown from Ann and Lorraine

By 06:15 Ann and her friend Lorraine had arrived, handed over the baton to me, we all posed for photographs  – and then I was away. Running.. with the baton.. on my leg of the Real Relay.. towards Bournemouth at very early o’clock on a Sunday morning.

Time for a quick pose before I’m off and running

I had loads of time. Stuart was not expecting me to arrive until 08:20 so I had about 2 hours to run 9 miles. I knew I could easily do that in about 80 minutes and I had to consciously keep slowing down.

Sidestepping through Boscombe. Granted, it does look like I’ve taken up fencing with a light sabre.

In Bournemouth Square I did a quick lap then headed off up the hill towards Boscombe. Passing a couple of lads I heard a quip about being late for the Torch, so stopped for a chat..  When I explained what the baton was, and the reason I was running with it at that time of the day they were absolutely blown away by it all! I left them as they were reading all about it on their smart phones – chuffed to bits that they had been able to witness the ‘proper relay’ (as they called it!) as it passed through the town.

Heading down through Pokesdown, loving the run!

As I headed steadily on, through Boscombe and Pokesdown I found myself thinking of all that the baton had been through since it left Lands End at the end of May. I was thinking of all those runners before me, who had carried it through rain, sun, floods, up and down mountains – all with the singular aim of getting it safely into the waiting hands of the next runner in the relay.  I realised then, that this GPS tracker and baton was heading into history. I was, as I said at the start of this post, in total awe of what I was running with.. It wasn’t just a baton – it was a baton that proved just what can be achieved by a bunch of runners who are determined to do their bit to make things happen.

Carole was brilliant! Not only driving me to/from the start and finish, she also tracked me all the way and took loads of pics for me!

The miles passed far too quickly, and before long I was nearing Christchurch and the handover to Stuart. Carole had been stopping every mile or so, taking loads of pictures – it was always such a welcome surprise to look up and see her just ahead, snapping away!

Jenny and Chris, Caroles parents welcomed me to Christchurch

I was even more surprised to then see my in-laws were waiting up ahead to cheer me on!  A few quick pictures with them and I was off again, with just the last mile or so to enjoy as I made my way through Christchurch and into the car park where Stuart was waiting, along with Tamsyn – who was running the next two legs!

Stuart, Tamsyn and friends take on the baton. Next stop Burley.

I had been wondering how I would feel when I finally handed over. I thought I’d be a little deflated that it was all over.  Not a bit of it! I was just so pleased to have been able to take part and to see the baton head off on the next stage of its journey – soon to arrive in London!

Off they go! The baton in safe hands and on it’s way again..

So, that’s another running challenge completed for now.. I’m already looking for the next one – any ideas?

Why not tweet me? 😉

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Splitting Hares..

It’s been raining for weeks now, ever since the drought was announced if I recall correctly.  Time out with the camera has been decidedly limited and I’ve been itching to get a few decent shots – of anything really!

The Axe Estuary Tweet up. I am back row, far left - with no camera!

It’s my own fault. I went to a Tweet Up last weekend at the Axe Estuary (I’m @spuddrs if you want to follow my occasional discussions about wildlife,mixed with a bit of cricket). I made a concious decision to NOT take my camera as I was treating it more as a social gathering than anything else. Sure enough, there were photo opportunities galore -orange tips, redshank, kestrel, godwits and even a sedge warbler singing away in full view!  Lesson learnt – take the camera along if there’s a chance of a photo.

I did just that the other day. A meeting at the Kingcombe Centre in the morning meant I might be able to spend my lunch hour on the Kingcombe Meadows Reserve – so the camera came with me. In fact, the camera had the best seat in the car as it was the front seat passenger!

Perfect for hares? Maybe not...

I took the scenic route,coming off the A35 and heading towards Eggardon Hill before dropping down into the valley and onwards tio Kingcombe.  As I drove, I kept my eye peeled for signs of wildlife (as well as on the road of course!).  Large, open fields with low ground cover looked ideal hare habitat – but despite pulling into a layby and having a good scan around , none were obvious. The next field had only recently been ploughed..

Half way along, I saw two hares – one of which was heading my way, just inside the fenceline. As luck would have it, I was right next to another layby so pulled in and grabbed the camera.  By the time I got out of the car and crossed the road, the hare had passed by and was heading away further down the fenceline. I considered running after it… there would only ever be one winner, and it surely wouldn’t be me!

The second hare,was also on the move and seemed to be heading for a gap in the fence – and would be crossing the road about 50 yards away.  Using the sparse cover from the fencline as best I could, I hurried up behind a hawthorn bush and got ready for the big moment.. It didn’t happen.

The hare had evidently decided to stop in the field after all. Standing up, I fired off a few shots – but it was too far for anything decent and was facing the wrong way. One thing for it. I tried pishing.. That’s right, you read it correctly – pishing.  It’s basically, puckering up your lips and sucking through them to make a noise.  Birders use it to entice birds closer – and it seems to work with them, so why not hares?

The pishing commences, and the hare stands up..

The noise is not loud or sudden enough to cause any alarm as such, and often it at least causes the animal to look around, so you can get a better image.

Success, and the hare heads my way!

I’m not sure what happened this time, but it worked beyond anything I hoped for!  The hare stood up on it’s hind legs, turned and looked my way – exactly as I’d hoped.  It then started loping down a furrow towards me..

The view from the Hawthorn hiding place as the hare approached..

I stopped pishing and started snapping away -as it passed about 10 yards from me, seemingly unaware of me (probably wondering what that ridiculous noise was that it had heard!).

Just passing by, unaware of me being there at all.

I began to wonder if it was alright. I don’t like to take close images of animals that are unwell – it’s sort of like cheating. Not to worry in this case as the hare stopped just after passing by, looked around, saw me standing there – and promptly hit the accelerator! In no time at all it was gone from view, quite obviously a very healthy animal!

Realisation.. There's a bloke with a camera!

Two seconds later!

Bouyed by the experience, I continued on my way to the Kingcombe Centre. My meetings were timed to perfection and sure enough – lunchtime was spent in the meadows catching up with orange tips fluttering around the cuckoo flower. Perfect timing, having missed out on orange tips at the Axe. Pity there wasn’t a singing sedge warbler around to really make my day!

Orange Tip. Not just found on the Axe!

And another.. this time serenading a female by flashing his wings at her. She wasn't impressed!

As a follow up to this I put a few images up on Flickr, and was astounded to find that one of the images was selected as a Flickr ‘Explore’ image. In a nutshell, Flickr select the top 500 images each day (from the vast number that are uploaded) through an algorithm measuring the ‘interestingness’. My hare made it in at Number 125!  Not quite sure what it all means, but it sounds impressive anyway!

The Flickr 'Explore' Image - despite the cut off feet etc!

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Mixing murmurations

You’ve probably seen a murmuration before. You might not have known that’s what is was, but I’m sure you have seen one anyway.  It’s a term usually used to describe the antics of Starlings as they wheel around in large flocks just before going to roost/bed/sleep on a Winters evening.

A murmuration, at least it's a minor one..

I hadn’t given it much thought really. Amazing spectacle  – agreed. Surely though, it’s just a bunch of Starlings whizzing around making pretty patterns in the late afternoon sky?  Well, it seems maybe not that simple after all. For a start, it’s not just Starlings that murmurate.

Last winter, there was a murmuration of over 100,000 Starlings that spent each night in a bunch of trees at the rear of the Poole Speedway site. Not this year. This year they appear to have decided to do their onw thing.

I happened to return from a run yesterday at about 4pm.  As I warmed down, I noticed a large flock of Starlings wheeling around and eventually dropping into the Leylandii trees next door.  Today, I was ready for them – stood in the back garden, camera in hand.

What I didn’t expect was to see that the first birds to perform their murmuration sequence were in fact Goldfinches! 

First to land - Goldfinches

Maybe not quite as much of a spectacle, but they were certainly giving it a good go – several flocks flying around, joining up to a flock of about 80 and circling the gardens at rooftop height before suddenly plunging onto the Leylandii.  I say onto rather than into – because being Goldfinches they simply couldn’t resist a last few twitters from the tops before they descended to safety and to sleep.

Ok, just the one more song but then it's off to sleep like the rest..

Literally 1 minute later, at 1601hrs, there were 5 Starlings flying overhead, circling around.

The Famous Five, or the ones that turned up first.

2 laps later and it was 6 Starlings, they were then joined by another 4, then a small flock of about 20 appeared and joined.  Soon enough there were about 80 of them – flying in unison, the wind rushing through their feathers being clearly audible as they passed overhead.  Occasionally other birds had a go – I saw sparrows, blue tits and more goldfinches all join in briefly before giving up and taking to the trees.

I know - should have used a wide angle lens!

At their peak, I counted in excess of 150 birds.  Not a huge count, but still a great experience to stand and watch/listen to them wheeling around. One final surprise lay in store though.

They suddenly split into three distinct flocks, each wheeling around, occasionally joining back up then splitting out again.  Finally, within a minute of each other at 1624hrs, all three flocks dropped – all into different leylandii.  When I say dropped – it almost seems that’s how they do finally land. One second they are flying by, the next they are gone, having seemingly flown straight into the depths of their chosen tree at full tilt!

1624 hrs and the last of them pile into the far tree - literally!

I can see there is plenty more to be discovered about these murmurations. I knew Starlings did it of course, and I suppose pied wagtails also tend to roost in large colonies – but I’d never realised that finches also ‘murmurate’.   I’m also intrigued by the splitting of the flock.  Reedbed roosts all seem to dive into one particular area – so why do these birds split up and roost in different trees (one of which was about 100 yards away from the other trees)?

That’s Nature I suppose – you learn something new all the time, even when you aren’t looking for it!

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Let sleeping deer lie..

I had another try for the Bittern this weekend, and the Marsh Harriers.  Guess what? Epic fail on both counts..

I should be a bit down in the dumps then – but I’m not.  You see, I revisited a potential new site for a Hide and it seems to be perfect!

I started the day at Hatch pond, in the hope that one of the Bitterns might make an appearance. It didn’t take long to establish that the birds were not out, so it was a case of waiting.. and waiting. In the cold. Literally freezing cold..

Pochard. Probably wondering where all the others have gone, and not told him...

Plenty of other birds were out though, and it was lovely to see a drake Pochard swimming by. 

Great crested grebe. Without the Great crest bit 'cos it's winter.

The Great crested grebes were very active, as were the party of Long tailed tits that flitted up and down the treeline.

Long tailed tit. Complete with long tail, as you might expect.

I eventually decided I needed to warm up, so left the bitterns to start their party without me.

I had a couple of hours free in the afternoon, so popped down to my local Poole Harbour site in the hope that the Marsh Harriers might at least provide some raptor action.  The tide was dropping, so I headed out to a gravel spit at the edge of the reedbed – a site I had looked at before. 

The view to my left...

Crouching down beside a tamarisk bush I waited to see what might turn up. 

The view to my front. The view to my right was a tamarisk - of course!

Plenty of birds flying to and fro, although a little too far out for any decent images. Godwits, dunlin, oystercatcher, curlew, avocet and of course redshank -one of which spent some time feeding on the shoreline on the other side of the tamarisk! The occasional peep told me it was there, but I daren’t try and look for fear of setting it off with it’s alarm calls.

The sika deer, just before they decided to go to sleep. They knew I was there, but couldn't make out what I was and decided it was safe enough for snooze.

My camouflage must have been pretty good – as a couple of Sika deer wandered to the edge of the reeds, had a good look around and then settled down to sleep!

A rather distant shot of the Peregrine, whizzing by..

No sign of the hoped for Harriers, but a peregrine falcon did a bit of a fly by for me.  I’m pretty confident that this spot will produce some really good wader and raptor opportunities if I keep at it.

As I walked back to my car, I spotted a lovely Sika stag out in the field. The light was failing, so I had to really whack up the ISO to get much of a shutter speed.  Interesting to see that he was not only alone, but had also lost part of an antler.  I’m guessing he lost out to a rival during the rut this year – but judging by his size I’d guess he’ll be a match for most of the other stags next year.

If only he'd not lost his antler.. He could have been top Stag. Next year maybe!

It was nearly dark as I reached the car -not often that happens when I’m out with the camera!  I think I’ll be trying for those Marsh Harriers again soon…..

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Unlikely saviours

Some days are harder than others when it comes to wildlife photography – and it’s not much fun when your carefully planned day has produced nothing.  It happened to me very recently.  I was a definite grump, until my spirits were raised by a rather fortuitous encounter.

Two days off work, and I’d planned it all with military precision. Day one:  Otters, Harriers and Bittern.  Day two: Bearded tits.

Day one started well.  I was on the riverbank nice and early, the sun was out and all was quiet.  A huge bow wave coming from under the bank in front of me could only mean one thing.  An Otter stuck it’s head out of the water, dived down again and headed upstream – with me running to get ahead of it, ready for the shot.. which never came.   That was it, and my day went downhill from that point on. The otter was not seen at all for the rest of the 6 hours I spent walking up and down that darned bank!  

Kingfisher - keeping its distance

I had a go at a few kingfisher shots, but even they weren’t very obliging.  I gave up on the idea of Harriers and Bittern, deciding instead to wait for the otters to appear. 

Not quite Tom Daly, but better than I'd be at Diving..

 A few black headed gulls seemed hell bent on catching fish, spending ages flying headfirst into the water to try and catch them.   The otters stayed away. I went home grumpy, yet determined that the next day would be better.

At least the House sparrows were obliging.

It was. Of a sort.  I headed to Lodmoor initially.  Almost the first bird I saw was the Rosy Starling (a bit of a rarity) flying around with the local starlings.  Good start – although it never really got close enough for a decent image. 

It may not look rosy, but trust me - this is a Rosy Starling

A couple of snipe kept me entertained for a while as they dodged in and out of the reeds, but the closk was ticking and they weren’t my target for the day.

One of the snipe, out in the open for a few seconds.

With short winter days the light doesn’t stay very good for very long, so I headed over to Radipole for the beardies.

I saw them. 3 of them in fact.  Not the amazingly clear shots that I’d hoped for, but hey with the way the previous day had gone I couldn’t really ask for much.  I even got a picture – and whilst it’s not at all any good, it does show what is undeniably a bearded tit in the reeds. 

It won't win any prizes, but in the middle of the picture - it's a bearded tit. Believe it!

I was still very much down in the dumps though -two days walking around with the camera and really not a lot to show for it.  Not wanting to admit defeat, I idly watched an elderly couple feeding the ducks near the visitor centre.  As they left, I glimpsed something brown and furry working its was along the bank towards the dropped crumbs.  A rat!

Yep, it is a rat.

Believe it or not, but rats are a species that I’ve been hoping to catch up with – and here was my chance.  To top it off, the sun came out as I approached so the light was great.  I knelt down, kept quite still and before long I had six rats all busily foraging in front of me, no more than a few feet away. 

Another rat, but somehow a little bit 'cuter'?

Brilliant!  I spent the next twenty minutes sat on the pavement snapping away as the family of rats carried on as if I wasn’t there.

Gotta love those rats!

So, there it is.  I never thought I’d say it, but I’ll be the first to say thank you to those rats – for coming to my rescue when I really thought I’d spent two days with nothing to show for it.  Next time I go to Radipole I’ll be sure to drop off a few snacks for them!!

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