Thursday, 16 February 2017

Waxwings at Work

Sometime after lunch I received a tweet about 15 Waxwings round the corner in Argyle Way near the railway line, between 1230 and 1330. Since I wasn't feeling all that great, I thought I'd leave work early and have a stroll round-its only a couple of minutes and I could do with some air. Unfortunately a brief message some time later said they'd flown off, but I decided to go anyway and finished at 3.
I was walking up to the car to dump my bag and pick up the bins and noticed some interesting birds fly into the big oak by the car park exit. Got the bins up and was looking at a flock of very vocal Waxwings!
I popped back into work and called one of my mates out-unfortunately the one who is really interested had left ten minutes earlier.....

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Panasonic Lumix GX8-initial thoughts.

Looks like its a stay in weekend-the weather isn't very nice, sleet and a little bit of snow, very cold and the wind is increasing. I had hoped to get up to the Norfolk coast but there isn't much news at the moment, I guess a lot of others are staying in as well.

I thought I would write a bit about the new camera, which I've had for a month now. I haven't really used it a great deal, so its very much a first impression.

Some years ago, I started to consider getting a small camera of some kind. I think it was driving into work one day that got me thinking. There had been a very heavy frost, the trees by the roadside looked absolutely fantastic and even though there was no-where to stop I regretted not having a camera to hand. A bit later, at the Chelsea Flower Show, I came to the conclusion that taking the D3s, and Zeiss 35 and 100mm lenses was a bit much. They fitted the rucksack style bag (barely) but weighed a ton, and after a day on my feet, and several bags of purchases I would get home completely exhausted. What I really needed was a high quality but much smaller and lighter camera that I could have with me at all times to complement rather than supplement my Nikon gear.
Initially I started to look at the compact point and shoots and there seemed to be two options. I could either go with one of the super zooms which at the time had just about reached 1000mm effective focal length, or one more limited but better overall performance that could also be used for digiscoping.
A trip to a camera store with Colin offered another alternative with a mirrorless compact system camera. I spent quite a bit of time in there playing with an Olympus E-PL5 and a couple of lenses and it seemed to offer a lot of benefits. Some of the pancake style lenses made it pretty much a pocket camera and I found out later, one of the kit lenses would fit an old digiscoping adaptor (which although bought for a Nikon scope luckily fitted the Leica that I currently use). I later had a look at a few others, including the Sony Nex-6 and various Fuji's but eventually decided on the tiny but superbly performing Sony RX100 with it's 28-100mm zoom. A favourite of many digiscopers, pro and semi pro photographers, it has served me well as a true pocket travel camera. The HD video results have been pretty good, though  more recently I have started to use the iPhone 6s instead as a 4K video camera.

After the Swamphen twitch and my less than perfect video I came across a superb clip by long time rare bird videographer Alan Shaw with a Panasonic camera coupled to his old Nikon lens rig, and about the same time became aware that quite a few others I knew were also using these cameras so I started to research mirrorless systems again. I wanted 4K video, which pretty much ruled out Olympus and really left me with two options, the Sony A6300 and the Panasonic Lumix models. The Sony was really tempting, and while the body is very compact, considering it has an APC sized sensor, many of the lenses are rather big and heavy and there isn't a great deal of options in the longer focal lengths.

There are a various Lumix models available , but I wanted a compact rangefinder body which meant the end of line GX7, the high end weatherproof GX8 or the recently introduced, cheaper GX85. The 20.3 Mpx sensor in the GX8 is supposed to be the best m4/3rds sensor, though the lack of filter on the 16 Mpx GX85 makes it a tough call in terms of image quality and resolution. Reviews suggested the newer improved stabilisation on the GX85 would be the deciding factor and this seems to have had had an impact on the sales of the GX8. However when I went to look at both side by side in a local shop in September, the key differences for me were with the handing and operation. I liked having dials rather than the extra menu button pushes of the GX85 and I really liked the superb performance of the tilting electronic viewfinder on the GX8. It fitted my hands better and felt really comfortable to use Unfortunately the shop couldn't offer the lens that they advertised and they wouldn't honour the price on their website, so I didn't buy one.
However after Christmas I learned of a cash back offer with the weatherproof 12-60mm lens. Basically compared to the September price in the shop, I would save well over £200 on the body and get a £300+ lens for free. No brainer really. I also bought a Metabones 4/3rds-Nikkor adaptor and a couple of batteries, and installed the Panasonic app on my phone allowing the phone to control the camera wirelessly.

So Ive had it a month, used it a couple of times so how is it?
Well the first test involved the Metabones adaptor and putting the camera on the Questar scope that still gets used occasionally. Photographically its around 3200mm focal length with the 2x crop factor of the sensor and I got close ups of the gate hinges at the end of the garden. Not a great test, the light was poor, the scope was working at f18 but the 1/15th second exposures at iso 3200 were acceptable, suggesting it might be an option for long range video. Dust on the sensor might be an issue at f18 though.
Around the house, the results with the 12-60 lens were pretty good. The image stabilisation produces sharp images at ridiculously low shutter speeds. Basic handling is good, I like the mode selection dial, the two control wheels are just about right and most of the switches and buttons although a bit small are easy to use and straightforward.  The menu looks straightforward but there are a lot of options to consider once you start to look at the various focus metering and display functions so there is going to be a bit of a steep learning curve once I get out of the default settings.
I was hoping to try digiscoping last weekend. The 12-60 lens doesn't work, with severe vignetting but tests at home with the Zeiss 35mm f2 were a lot better. Its a bit long, it seems that the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 lens is the one most people use, although the focussing is a bit slow-and the manual focus Zeiss is likely to be a problem in the field. I was going to get the 20mm when I first looked at the camera, but later changed my mind and am more likely to go with the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4.
The first day out and about around Aston End on 22nd January was rather pleasant. The body and 12-60 lens was small enough o fit in my jacket pocket, and I also took my old Nikon 70-300 zoom which went in the other pocket, so basically I had everything from wide to telephoto in two pockets.
The camera was so light it was barely noticeable while walking around and the 12-60mm lens worked very well on landscapes as well as close ups. Its not regarded very highly in reviews, but I liked the results I got with it.  The Nikon zoom was a bit of a handful on birds, with its 600mm effective focal length and having to use it in manual focus, but once set up in the menu it is image stabilised so thats a big bonus.
At the Pacific Diver twitch, I used the camera with the manual focus 500mm f4 Nikkor, which as I noted proved to be a bit too long for the occasion. I obtained a number of 4K video sequences, one of which is posted here
I think I am more than happy with the video results, its certainly a lot easier than my previous attempts. The flip-up viewfinder really makes a difference, and the tilt and rotate rear touch screen is great to use as well.

So early days and only a few opportunities to test the camera but I am very pleased with the results so far and expect to take it out and about all the time. More comments are likely to appear later as i get more use out of the camera.

Looking ahead, I expect to get a longer autofocus lens-there are a couple of possible options in the Olympus and Panasonic lines though ideally the 100-400 is the most desirable. It means I should be able to discretely take a camera over to Norton Green at lunchtimes. Will be interesting to see the results with the Zeiss 100mm macro on insects and plants-I expect it to be very good and would negate the need for a native macro lens. One or two wide-medium focal length primes are likely but there isn't an urgent need just yet, so I will see how I go with what I currently have and take it from there.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Rye Meads and a foggy Graffham

On Saturday I decided to go down to Rye Meads, It been quite some time since my last visit and I thought I would be able to pick up a few species to add to my year list.
The first addition was a Little Egret just a few minutes from home, sitting on the side of the stream just past the Sainburys at Poplars. Sarah and Ed saw one here a while back, but this is the first Ive seen in this area.
I got to Rye around 0930 and parked my car under the usual pylon which now houses a Kestrel box.

The centre has had a bit of a revamp since my last visit as well, and there has been quite a bit of work on the various scrapes.
Part of the reed bed on the Draper scrape has been cleared and this has been very attractive to the wintering Water Pipit which was feeding with a pair of Grey and a pair of Pied Wagtails. These were distant and also mobile-I also saw the Pipit and Wagtails later on the islands off the Gadwall hide.
One Cetti's Warbler was calling from time to time, and there was also a single Green Sandpiper here. The Barn Owl nest boxes were as usual occupied by Stock Doves.
I didn't see much else until I reached the Gadwall Hide overlooking the north lagoon. The water level is kept low to expose the islands which were attractive to Lapwing and Snipe. Three Shelduck and a variety of wildfowl were on the water but I never saw any Grebes and there weren't any gulls apart from Black Heads.
Walking up to the Meads produced a few tits and Song Thrushes plus a Grey Heron which I had been inadvertently flushing all morning as it tried to feed in the drains crossing the reserve.

No Siskin or Redpolls in the Alders. I stopped off at the Kingfisher hide briefly-no action here and decided to leave as I heard that Waxwings had been seen again down the road at Turnford, before flying off to a nearby estate.
Unfortunately by the time I got there I couldn't  find any birders, let alone Waxwings and after fifteen minutes of driving around the area I gave up and returned home.

Sunday was intended to be a rather quiet short day out with Colin but it turned out to be rather more abbreviated than planned.
We drove up to Graffham Water, leaving a fairly bright Stevenage and headed up the A1 getting rather worried by the amount of mist and fog on the way. Visibility at Graffham was about 100 yards when we got there, it seemed to improve a bit and then gradually deteriorated.
Parking at the Plummer car park we soon reached the dam seeing little apart from a few Robins and Blackbirds. One Redshank, several Pied Wagtails and a Meadow Pipit were the only birds on the dam, with a small flock of Tufted Duck and three Goldeneyes on the water.
A long cold spell on the centre of the dam produced a few Great Crested Grebes. Staring out into the murk I eventually found a Great Northern Diver. The problem was how to get Colin on it. A nearby orange buoy was a good marker and slightly more visible than the diver but was also very hard to find in the fog but reasonably easy during the brief clear spells. I got the scope on it an it proved to be a rather well marked juvenile with a broad dark neck band. A second bird was later found-this one with a far less prominent neck band. At one point I suspected that the third Great Northern was also in the area as three large birds were seen together far out in the murk. Not surprisingly  failed completely to find the Red Necked Grebe.
The plan after leaving Graffham was to go to Paxton and Diddington pits for the Ring Necked Duck and then head off to Burwell for the Owls, but with no sign of the fog lifting it would have been pointless.
However the very elusive Little Bunting at Great Barford was on the way home and had been reported in the morning. Didn't know it had only been seen briefly by a single observer. Met a few familiar (and rather despondent) faces when we got to the footbridge where it had been seen. There were a lot of Reed Buntings flitting around as well as Linnets and Yellowhammers, but the viewing conditions were not good with the birds flying up from the ground into thick bushes and distant trees. I was later told that the game crops on the field edge ran for a considerable distance and birds were ranging a long way up and down. We stuck out for a bit and then decided to call it a day. On the way back I picked up a drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker and a calling Chiffchaff.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Bittern at Amwell

I woke on Sunday morning feeling rather better than expected after the Northumberland trip. It was rather dull, and a bit colder than expected but i decided to go down to Amwell sit has been over two months since my last visit.
The Stevenage murk was left behind as I drove south and as I reached Ware the Sun was starting to pop out from time to time. I was a bit worried as I pulled into Amwell lane and pulled over to park-the car started to slide. The lane was coated with ice and as I gingerly got out I saw Bill Last in the distance getting out of his car, and a passing cyclist hit the deck.
 Despite a couple of warmish days, the Navigation was pretty well sold and ice floes had trapped the boats. Hardmead lake was also largely frozen with only about 20% free, most of that being in front of the view point. Watching Pheasants wandering about on the ice 30 yards for land was a bit different.
Wildfowl numbers were a bit reduced as expected, with a few Goldeneye, normal numbers of Pochard and Tufties but few Mallard and Gadwall. No Teal at all, but big flocks of Wigeon were coming and going. A few Canada and Greylag Geese  were joined by two Egyptians. The Sunday regulars had seen a Water Rail, but none appeared while I was there but one nice did fly out of the reeds. There have been a few Golden Plovers dropping in (rather unusual an they tend to be distant flyovers) but none joined the small Lapwing flock on the ice.
John Bartlett appeared some time after Trevor and the gang had gone for a walk so we had the usual chat, showed him the images on the back of my camera and discussed the other rarities. Some time later Bill got a call from Trevor and we all headed down to the Bittern pool where they had found a Bittern perched up on the reeds. Not the typical views, it was often obscured but occasionally clambered up to the top, did a bit of preening, and sky pointing with the bill, and performed pretty well. Moments after another group arrived it  decided to fly off over to Hollycross.
 I decided to call it a day then, and had a quick still through the woods where the only birds were a fairly small flock of Siskins and a couple of Robins. Luckily the ice had cleared from the road and I had a pleasant drive home picking up a few roadside Buzzards on the way.

Pacific Diver

Finally a full weekend birding and one and a half lifers to boot.
 For the last ten years I've had a bit of an embarrasing hole in my list (one of many) with Pacific Diver despite it being a regular winter visitor-well one returning bird anyway . The identification criteria and separation from the very similar Black Throated Diver took a while to establish and the UK's first (confirmed) bird was inland in Yorkshire ten years ago. Unfortunately that was half way through six months of on-off surgery and I wasn't able to get out and about. Another inland bird in west Wales was a dead cert, so it was frustrating that Colin and I got there a day late. The only other one has been the one in and around Penzance every winter, a long way to go and with no guarantees that the bird would be visible. It has been close to shore but many sightings have been distant and perhaps a bit suspect so we have never even attempted it.
 A Black Throated Diver on the lake at Druridge Bay Country Park was re-identified as a Pacific and many went up for it last weekend but I wasn't up for the journey but luckily it lingered through the working week. So it was off at 5am and a 270 mile journey north up the A1 and A19 through the scenic delights of Middlesborough and Newcastle, and misty murky drizzle, arriving at 10am and steady light rain.
 Expecting it to be some way out I had packed my 500mm lens and the converters, but it spent most of it's time fishing close in to the bridge on the eastern end. Could have got cracking images with the phone at times. I had also taken my new camera, a Lumix GX8 in order to get video footage and hit a big snag. Mounted on the Nikkor  and its effective 1000mm focal length I struggled to get the diver in the viewfinder as it was constantly diving. It was also far too close so I ended up with five second close ups of it's head. Would have been far better with the 300mm lens, and maybe the 135mm would have worked well.

There wasn't much else on the lake though I got a few ducks and gulls to add to my earliest, and a big flock of Siskins in the alders behind us. Bumped into@Beachy71 and had a quick chat-he had failed with the Penzance bird last weekend so was rather happy to see this one so close.
 We had a quick wander round the park and up to the sea, but being rather murky only a few Oystercatchers, Eiders and Kittiwakes could be seen.
 Beachy went off for the Black Scoter further north while Colin and I headed off south and some gulls on the quay at North Shields. Rather surprised to see so many Eiders on the Tyne so close to shore-certainly better than the normal views off Norfolk and there were plenty of gulls milling around over the fish market and the river. Colin went back to the car to get his camera and moments later a brute of a first winter Glaucous Gull flew past at close range and then spent the next twenty minutes playing cat and mouse behind the market popping up from time to time. The first winter Iceland Gull then appeared in the same area but was rather elusive. A second Glaucous Gull,  a slightly smaller individual was also showing from time to time, and occasionally two white wingers could be seen together in the air-not bad considering that some years we don't see any.
 Our final destination was the small coastal village of Skinnigrove where a male Eastern Black Redstart had been wintering since November. Most of the people I know went up soon after it arrived and had I been feeling better I would have tried for it as well. Its been faithful to a small section of rocks on the north side of the quay and since it was sort of on the way home we had to see it. Currently a race of Black Redstart the orange belly and lack of white wing panel make it a very distinctive bird and maybe be one day it will merit full species status.
 It proved to be rather easy to see, fairly approachable and singing from time to time. Also on the rocks were Rock Pipits-no surprise there and Fulmars were on the cliffs (interesting geology as well with some really contorted strata). The harbour was full of Black Headed Gulls and a scan failed to produce anything of note apart from a couple of Grey Seals.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Slow Start Continues

Fourth weekend of the 2017 and finally I've gone out birding albeit a local walk rather than a big trip.

Went back to work last week, still not over the nasty cold and spent much of the time with a hacking wheezy cough that just won't go away-thats why I didn't feel like doing anything much yesterday. The really severe frost and cold were a bit of a put off as well, but with the clear skies it isn't too bad locally once the Sun has come up, so I went round Aston End this morning.
I wasn't expecting to see much in the way of wildlife, with the recent cold nights so I took some new camera equipment out to get a feel for it and do some landscapes.

The walk through the plantation produced a few tits and magpies but not much else. Bit too cold for the Goldcrests. The lack of birds continued through Aston End, with some sections of Long Lane thick with ice courtesy of an overflowing lane, but two singing Greenfinches and some House Sparrows was good.
Turning off and heading down to the ford, I found a single Buzzard, a few crows and several Blackbirds foraging in the hedge bottoms. The fields were completely frozen, hence no larks, buntings pipits or finches. Also frozen was the river, though some water was still flowing at the ford, and a Robin was doing a very nice Dipper impersonation hopping around on the ice floes.
I followed the river upstream with very few birds still, and it wasn't until I reached the paddocks that I encountered a few Fieldfares, Blackbirds, Robins and Dunnocks. No sign of the Little Owls again but three Stock Doves in their old tree was a bit different as they aren't regular. Another oddity was a flyover Grey Wagtail.
I finally found the (rather small) thrush flock up near the radio mast, feeding under the trees in one of the fields. Seemed to consist primarily of Redwings-maybe 15,  five or six Blackbirds, a couple of Song Thrushes and a single Mistle Thrush. I guess most of the birds have dispersed due to the weather.
Not a massive bird list, though its bright the year up to 32 (!) but at least I got out for a bit.


Sunday, 8 January 2017

Bad Start to the New Year

I managed to get through Christmas without falling prey to an illness for the second year running, but unfortunately I have started the New Year with a heavy cold. I had a bit of a tickle cough and a sore throat New Years eve, so called Colin and let him know I didn't fancy going out for the traditional birding blitz. I had hoped that the Bank Holiday Monday would be a bit better but the weather put me off.
Things improved somewhat during the week, back at work but the cough persisted and then Friday morning the really virulent cold virus that has gone round half the family struck and I have spent the last couple of days in a really bad state. Things have improved a bit today, in that I briefly get a bit of energy in me enabling me to get up and move around, but I suspect based on what the others in the family have gone through that it will take at least a week to get over it and the hacking cough is likely to be with me for some time.

Had a potter round the garden this morning once the sun came out but there isn't much happening. A few marigolds and the Mexican fleabane have a few flowers that have survived the recent frosts and there are shoots of t Snowdrops Cyclamen Iris and early Narcissi emerging.

In the mini greenhouse, a few bulbs are doing well. Here is a pot of Narcissus Cantabricus that I purchased in the autumn. The first one was flowering ten days before Christmas and has only just started going over.