Thursday, 23 February 2017

Waxwings Again

One of my friends arrived at work, having walked up from the bus station, showed me a picture on her phone and said "are these the birds everyone is interested in?" Four Waxings, including one drinking in a puddle on the cycle path. Needless to say I sent her down to see Sam, who rushed out and returned a little while later having failed to see them.

They have not been seen at all over the last few days, despite many searching on Monday,  and we presumed they had moved on.

Lunchtime, and I was sitting in the car when 8 birds flew into the other big tree in the car park. I knew what to expect when I got the bins out and onto them. Rushed back in and dragged Sam out and we had superb views of the birds for several minutes clinging onto the tree for dear life in the gale force winds. Unfortunately they flew off shortly afterwards, and despite keeping an eye out we never saw them again.

Only other notable event was that one of the big Poplars between us and the leisure park came down in the high winds in the afternoon.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Norfolk and a Bluethroat

On Saturday Colin and I went out with a view to catching up on the large number of seabirds off the North Norfolk coast and picking off one or two things on the way back.
The drive up was rather uneventful and a stop off at Choseley was rather brief due to work around the barns. We had a flock of Corn Buntings on the lane north of the houses, and there seemed to be an awful lot of partridges around. The hedges appeared to be very quiet as well, and about the only other birds of note were a distant flock of Golden Plover.
Titchwell was rather busy when we arrived. There has been a bit of work and some of the more mature trees have been removed producing a few more open areas between the centre and the car park. There wasn't much on any of the feeders-there are supposed to be a few Mealy Redpolls and Bramblings around so we headed up to the sea.
One of the Water Pipits was rather elusive on the Thornham pool. It was pretty close but tended to hide in the sedge and reed clumps. Another at the back of the pool was very flighty and never settled down to give good views. The fresh marsh held large flocks of Avocets and Golden Plovers with a few Black Tailed Godwits and Knot. Lapwing, Curlew Redshank and Grey Plover were present in small numbers in various spots and I picked up a couple of Spotted Redshanks on the tidal lagoon.
As expected most of the birders were on the beach sea watching. There were two big flocks of Common Scoter with maybe a dozen Velvets among them. Only a few Eider this time-numbers seem to have been low to non-existent for several years now, but I don't know why. After some time four Scaup dropped in-a nice bonus, and a single drake Long Tailed Duck flew in briefly saving us a trip to Holme where most of the birds are currently. There were a lot of divers and grebes, though most were very distant, and tough to identify. One or two Red Throated Divers were a bit closer in one of the scoter flocks, and some saw a Great Northern there as well. We saw four Slavonian Grebes fairly easily, but the Red Necked Grebes weren't reported, though I did see a slightly smaller grebe a long way out with a couple of Great Crested Grebes.
No Bearded Tits, Cetti's Warblers, and more surprisingly no herons, egrets, Dunlin Ruff or Snipe either. The only raptors were a pair of Marsh Harriers, so a bit of an odd morning with a lot of missed year ticks.

We left after an early lunch and headed off to Willow Tree Fen near Spalding and its over wintering Bluethroat that had been found the previous week. We arrived just as many were leaving and the news that we would have to wait 40 minutes for its next appearance. While waiting, the occasional scan of the pools and reeds produced a few duck species, one Marsh Harrier and a pair of Kestrels. Skylarks were singing over the sheep grazed fields.
Sure enough, after about 40 minutes the Bluethroat popped out and put on a good show.

  Our final stop was Deeping Lakes. There had apparently been a Cattle Egret somewhere on the reserve though information was vague, but more importantly there is a Long Eared Owl roost viewable from the main hide. We picked up a few Goosander and met a couple outside the hide with an owl sort of showing. It raised its ear tufted and opened its eyes occasionally but remained rather obscured. My first proper digiscoped attempt with the GX8 was not a great success though using the phone app as a remote control did help.

Its is a Long Eared Owl. Honest.
I think I will need to put in a bit more work-the Zeiss 35mm is big and heavy and only covers about 60% of the sensor. Might actually get better results with the 500mm lens and stacked converters, but I might even try the Questar as well.

We stopped off in the industrial area in Stevenage but there were no sign of the Waxwings. They were reported again on Sunday in several locations but no-one appears to have seen them today although there seemed to be a few birders searching.
I did however see the Peregrine briefly at lunchtime low over the Leisure Park. We assumed that the refurbishment of Southgate House most of last year had driven the bird off, but it has been seen a few times over the last few weeks.

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.