Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Early April Sunrises

I've been watching the sun rise this week. There have been some cracking mornings: 

And this morning, there was even a migrant bird perched out in front of a boiling red dawn: the first Wheatear of the year: 

One morning I found two Muntjac Deer foraging in the pre-dawn light:

Once the sun got going, the local wildlife began to respond. Singing Corn Bunting

Friday was Peacock Butterfly day, they were everywhere, basking on every patch of open ground:

67 species for the year 

Monday, 6 April 2015


It has been a good year for for Common Toads in our garden. We now have at least 5 by our back door, spending the day hiding in damp corners. This morning two pairs were in amplexus (latin for "embrace") the male claiming his female by grasping her back: 

 The face of sexual ecstasy. In Toad terms: 

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Some Arctic Circle Wildlife: a video

You've seen the pictures, now here is some video. Best to watch at 720p: 

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Norway: Ptarmigan

Having spent a pleasant morning in the intimate company of several hundred Eiders of three different species, I decided to spend the afternoon in the hills above Båtsfjord looking for Ptarmigan. There were a number of potential problems with this plan. Firstly, in winter Ptarmigan are nearly completely white. Despite the unseasonable warmth of the last two weeks, it had snowed in the night and the tops were blanketed in fresh snow. It was not always easy to differentiate the land from the sky:

Picking out a white bird in that white habitat was not going to be easy. Secondly, shortly after arriving on top of Båtsfjordfjellet, the weather closed in, an unpleasant combination of high winds, thick fog and blizzards. I didn't get out of the car, but turned around and descended back towards Båtsfjord. At lower levels, the weather was calmer, but I kept nervously looking behind me at the weather. Getting caught alone on the hills by that weather had all the hallmarks of a good mountain rescue story. 

Fortunately I knew that the Ptarmigan would not be on the very top during the winter. I was looking for small lower valleys, ideally with dwarf birch trees that they could feed upon. I choose a random bend in the road, parked my car and set out alone into the snow, reassuring myself with Oates's last words: "I am just going outside, I may be some time". 

I climbed the ridge above the road, took the picture below back towards my car and used the digital compass in the GPS settings in my camera. I decided I would walk east. Providing the battery lasted in my camera I felt I should be able to navigate back, even in a white-out. Probably. 

Me on the ridge in full view-master mode. I then headed into the hills behind me in this picture: 

After at least 45 minutes walking, having seen nothing but Reindeer, I dropped down into a small valley. This looked more promising. Unfortunately, a little snow blindness was creeping in. I was in an effectively overexposed habitat, without any eye protection. I noticed that I was missing my footing more often, as I failed to make out dips and crests in the snow. As I entered the valley, the snow was quite deep. Everything was acutely white. Everything that was except a strange, small black line some ten meters in front of me. What was that? I stopped, squinted and then threw myself down into the snow. A Ptarmigan was stationary in the snow, just in front of me! But the only thing I could make out was the black line joining the eye and the bill. The rest of the bird was pretty much invisible: 

Looking through my camera, I realised I could see much more. I had found a male Ptarmigan, a white bird in a white-out! I cranked the exposure down, took some pictures, but the autofocus struggled with the lack of anything other than white to lock onto. I even tried a little video, hand held with a telephoto lens, so it is wobbly. But you can still see that everytime the bird turns it's head away from the camera, so that the black line between eye and bill is hidden, the autofocus goes hunting. Should have switched to manual focus, I know, I know:

I have edited the following photos significantly, in the moment, everything was blindingly white. If I bring the exposure up to normal levels the results resemble the picture above. Only by reducing the white can I bring out the detail in the pictures. I never thought I would get views such as these of Ptarmigan in winter:

Then, perhaps sensing my inadequacies in this environment, this fabulous male Ptarmigan, walked slowly behind a ridge... 

... which cunningly hid the lower half of his body and tail and then took flight.  As he wheeled away I caught a glimpse of the all black tail and then he was gone. What a moment. I was ecstatic. Mission accomplished, I followed my tracks back to the car and was back in civilisation within two hours, just before the weather closed in. 

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Norway: Eiders. Lots of Eiders.

Eiders: the beautiful sea ducks of the north. And being northern sea ducks they have to have world class insulation. You don't survive the winter in the Barents Sea without it. For most people without direct experience of seeing these birds they are forever associated with the contents of your bedding: eiderdown. Indeed, the French name for Common Eider is Eider á duvet. But if you have seen one of the three species of Eider that are regularly found in northern Europe, then you will have a different association. For these are beautiful birds, usually found in beautiful places. Common Eiders are special birds. But they have two stunningly attractive cousins: King Eiders and Steller's Eiders. In Båtsfjord, on the extreme northern tip of mainland Europe, you can see all three species together.

My previous experience of seeing King Eider was limited and distant. A first winter male in, but mostly behind the waves, off Holkham, Norfolk some ten years ago.  Then there was a small flock of males off Longyearbayen in Svalbard in 2011.  They were perhaps 2km away, just pale blobs of colour, virtually unidentifiable even in the 'scope. Today was going to be the day that all changed, as I was booked in to use Ørjan Hansen's floating Eider hide in Båtsfjord harbour. 

The setting: the red building on the right of the photo below is the fish processing plant in Båtsfjord. Fish waste is discarded into the water under the jetty that it stands on. The three species of Eider that winter in the fjord and the adjacent Barents Sea have discovered this easy source of food and come into the harbour to feed. The floating photography hide is the long dark object, moored to the left of the factory. Photographers are brought into the hide at first light and then picked up at lunchtime as feeding activity reduces. 

I was picked up at 05:25, I met up with my companions for the day, a friendly Dutch couple and we were in the hide by 06:00, well before sunrise: 

The hide takes up to eight people, so having the entire thing to share between three of us made for a relaxed experience. As soon as the boat that had brought us over departed, Eiders began flying in from the fjord. Initially Common Eiders...

.. but soon lines of Queen Eiders began streaming in:
(Yeah, I just noticed the mustard yellow bill and frontal lobes on the male Common Eider in the middle of the picture too. I can't make out any scapular sails, though the angle is unhelpful, so I'm assuming that this is a variant Common Eider rather than a Northern Eider, borealis? If you think differently: tell me!). 

And then royalty arrived. King Eiders, regal in yellow, orange and blue, steaming in, getting closer all the time: 

These are truly stunning birds:

Many drakes began displaying as soon as they arrived:

The King Eiders were not only completely relaxed by the hide, they were almost inquisitive as to what was going on inside. Many were close enough to touch. It was not difficult to photograph them. The reflections from the fish factory painted the water a lovely red colour. Next year they are repainting the building blue, so expect to see lots of King Eider photographs bathed in deep Mediterranean blue. 

To lie in the hide in such close proximity to these fabulous arctic sea duck was a real thrill. Getting close to these species outside of the hide would be impossible. Here some birds almost entered the hide they were so close. Both sexes of King Eider would regularly swim within 2 meters of me, giving incredible, intimate views:

The floating hide is clearly reflected in the eye of this drake King Eider:

 Queen Eiders:

 ♂ Common Eider, or if you are French, Eider á duvet: 

♀ Common Eider: 

♀ King Eider for comparison:

Sure, there are differences in the feather pattern around the bill in female Common and King Eiders. But the smaller size, more rounded head and darker bill stood out much more for me. Plus the Queen smiles more: 

 Stellers's Eider: the smallest, rarest and most duck-like of the Eiders present in Båtsfjord harbour: 

These birds take on a completely different appearance when viewed head on. The dark spots on their flanks mirror the dark eyes on the pale head, set off by the darkest of green neck collar and throat patch: 

The green tuft on the back of the head is an unusual feature:

Below, a ♀ Steller's Eider, just out of arm's reach. There can be no confusing this female Eider with the other two Eider species present. If it looks like a duck, it's a Steller's! 

♀ Steller's Eider, with Queen Eider in background. 

♂ Long-tailed Ducks provided the soundtrack to the experience, a constant evocative yelping. The males were very smart in winter plumage:

♀ Long-tailed Duck. Cute. 

I got lucky with my companions in the photo hide. I shared it with this friendly Dutch couple. We are not obese, despite our appearances in the photo, below. The red survival suits are seriously bulky. Honest. We also shared an aversion to the suggestion that we should spend some time getting some "escape shots" of the eiders in the fjord. These resting eiders are chased by the photo-boat daily at this time of year. Surely this will discourage birds from gathering eventually? We passed one flock of King Eiders, saw them take off, then we asked to head back to Båtsfjord. 

1st winter Glaucous Gull, checking out the boat on the way back. 

What an experience. Now I can say that I have seen King Eiders. Highly recommended.