Furry great tits

The cats are shedding at the moment — at times recently Dolly has seemed like a walking cloud of hair with a cat faintly discernible somewhere in the middle.

So I got a Furminator to help collect some of the excess, and that means great big clumps of cat hair to dispose of, so I put it out for the birds to use as nesting material. And it has been gratifyingly popular.

Incidentally, it is amazing how much you can rescue a picture taken in RAW format. I didn’t have the right camera settings when I took these pictures and they were all overexposed; especially that last one. This is what it looked like when I downloaded it from the camera:

And basically all I did was turn down the ‘Exposure’ setting in iPhoto, and a little bit of fiddling with the sharpness and the white balance. The adjusted version is hardly perfect, but when I saw it I assumed it would be completely unusable, so I’m pretty happy with the result.

Redwings

There’s a berry-covered tree over the road from the house—some kind of cotoneaster?—and at the moment there’s an almost constant stream of redwings going back and forth from it.

redwing with berry

The redwing is a smallish thrush with a marked white eyebrow stripe and a brick-red underwing. I’m always pleased to see them, not least because they’re one of the few true winter visitors we get here. I mainly see the same species in this bit of South London all year round. The only two species that regularly turn up in winter are redwings and siskins, and even the siskins are breeders in other parts of southern England. The redwings, though, have come from Iceland or Finland or somewhere.

redwing with berry

In fact, quite a lot of the birds in the garden in winter have probably come from the Arctic, it’s just that they’re the same species that breed here, so it’s not obvious. Millions of blackbird, blue tits, starlings and other common species come here for the winter while our summer visitors are soaking up the sun in Africa. It feels pretty cold here to me at the moment, but I guess it’s all relative.

» the photos can be found in my Flickr stream where you can see them bigger if you want. I’m not sure I recommend it, though: my digiscoping set-up was struggling with the miserable winter light and they don’t bear close inspection.

Digiscoping parakeets

The parakeets only reached this part of London about three years ago, but now we have flocks of them every day; there are often seven or eight on the feeders and more in the surrounding trees. They’re attractive and full of character, but as ever with foreign species you worry about their impact on the native birds; they must be competing for nest-sites if nothing else.

Digiscoping woodpeckers

I was having a go at photographing the juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker that comes to the birdfeeder, but it’s kind of tricky. My success rate when digiscoping is never that high at the best of times; and as you can see, it’s not temperamentally inclined to stay still:

Still, the motion blur can be a fun effect:

And it makes it all the more gratifying when one of the pictures comes out just right.

Video digiscoping experiment

It just occurred to me a couple of days ago that since my digital camera has a video mode, I could try digiscoping some video. I thought it came out fairly well, considering. I just hold the camera up to the telescope, so it’s a bit wobbly, and the audio is dominated by aeroplane noise, and the YouTube conversion hasn’t improved it, but I’ll certainly consider doing it again next time I’m doing proper birding. This is a greenfinch, btw.

I wish I’d thought of it when I was in Crete, when there was a Little Crake walking backwards and forwards past the same spot over and over again but because of the difficulty of timing the shot, I mainly got lots of pictures like this:

Little Crake walking out of shot

And while I’m on garden wildlife, look what was in the basement light well. His price for being rescued was having his photograph taken with flash. There are lots of frogs and newts, but it’s a very long time since I’ve seen a toad here.

little toad

Blogger Bio-blitz #1: Ayia Lake

blogger bioblitz

On April 21st, I went birding to a reservoir near the village of Αγια, written as either Agia or Ayia in Roman characters. Ayia is about 9 km SW of Chania, the capital of the westernmost province of Crete, and the reservoir is a good spot for migrating waterbirds. The reservoir is surrounded by reedbeds and then agricultural land; the walk down to the lake goes past orange groves.

To quote the post I wrote on the day, now with some pictures: “The guide to birdwatching in Crete listed, among the possible birds for the site, Little Crake, Spotted Crake and Baillon’s Crake. I’ve never seen any of those before, but I didn’t get my hopes up because all the crakes are notoriously difficult to see; they skulk.

So I arrived and pretty much the first thing I saw? A crake! In full view! And I had one of those panicky moments of trying to put down the telescope in a controlled fashion and get a proper look at the bird and check the field guide, all at the same time, thinking I had to make use of my lucky moment, while the crake just kept pottering about at the edge of the reeds. After I’d had a long look at it and decided it was Little Crake (plain blue underside and no barring on the flanks, since you ask) I had a quick check in the other direction along the lake, and there was another one! And it became apparent that not only were they not bothering to skulk, they were extremely approachable.

male Little Crake

I can only assume that they are so tame because they’re on migration and their priority is eating furiously to get their strength up. From Africa to, say, Poland is a long way to fly for a little bird with stubby wings. I also got incredibly good views of a Little Bittern that just sat and looked at me as I approached instead of ducking into the reeds. Again, it was probably knackered from all the flying.”

female Little Bittern

All that black around the edge of the picture is vignetting from the scope. Normally I’d zoom the camera to cut it off, but the bird was so close that I’d have to cut off its feet.

Here’s the rest of the list for the day, with a few comments:

Linnet
European Goldfinch
European Greenfinch
Chaffinch
European Serin

These finches are all residents on Crete, and may well have raised one brood already, even though the passage migrants are still heading north.

Spotted Flycatcher
European Pied Flycatcher
European Stonechat
Whinchat (below)

Whinchat

Nightingale (only heard)
Great Tit
Yellow Wagtail (the black-headed subspecies, Motacilla flava feldegg)
Sardinian Warbler
Cetti’s Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Common Blackbird

Barn Swallow
House Martin
Sand Martin

sand martins and swallow
Barn Swallow and some Sand Martins resting in the reeds. Most Barn Swallows in Europe have pure white underparts; the reddish breast of the one here is typical of the eastern Mediterranean. And I’ve just learnt that what I call a Sand Martin is known as a Bank Swallow in the US, so if you were thinking they looked familiar, that might be why.

House Sparrow – the subspecies known as ‘Italian Sparrow’, Passer domesticus italiae.

Hooded Crow

Common Swift
Alpine Swift

Eurasian Coot
Common Moorhen
Little Crake

Little Bittern
Black-crowned Night Heron
Grey Heron
Little Egret (below)

Little Egret

Little Stint
Common Sandpiper
Black-winged Stilt
Yellow-legged Gull

Common Kingfisher (below)

kingfisher

Common Cuckoo (below; another surprisingly tame bird)

cuckoo

Little Grebe
Ferruginous Duck
My second lifetime tick for the day, after Little Crake. I was just settling down to a coffee (Greek, medium sugar) and saw a couple of birders intently peering through a scope at something which, when I wandered over, turned out to be a distant but definite Ferruginous Duck. It obviously pays to be nosy.

European Marsh Harrier
Common Buzzard
Peregrine Falcon

And one non-bird:

European Tree Frog

tree frog

That barn owl bio blitz button is derived from a photo on Flickr by Nick Lawes used under a by-nc-sa licence; the button is therefore available under the same licence. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Jennifer’s BBB buttons, but I wanted something to match my colour scheme.

Digiscoping and Lomography

I was looking back at some of my old digiscoped pictures yesterday.

‘Digiscoping’ is the trick of using your birding telescope as very high-powered telephoto lens. At the simplest level, you just hold the camera up to the eyepiece and shoot through the scope; to get the best results you need more sophisticated equipment. You could do this with a film camera, of course, but it makes it a lot easier to have a screen so you can see what you’re doing, and to know that you can just delete the ones that don’t come out.

Anyway, I was vaguely wondering what they reminded me of, other than themselves.

I realised that it was ‘toy camera’ pictures. You may not have encountered this trend, but there’s a [recent?] fashion for taking pictures with very basic old mass-market compact cameras, like the Soviet Lomo, or the Chinese Holga. The poor construction of these cameras, including plastic lenses and light leaks, produce distinctive pictures with lurid colours, dodgy focus, vignetting and other technical flaws. Which sounds crap, but actually the pictures have a rough-edged immediacy which can be very attractive.

My telescope doesn’t have plastic lenses, of course. But it wasn’t designed for taking pictures, either. And my adaptor consists of the bottom of a film canister glued into the lid of a pill bottle, with a hole cut through them. It serves to keep the camera roughly in the centre of the eyepiece, but it doesn’t keep it properly lined up along the axis of the telescope or keep it steady.

When I took them, I was doing my damnedest to take the best possible pictures despite the technical limitations of my equipment. The results aren’t going to win any wildlife photography prizes, but some of them do have something of that same weird vividness that I find attractive in toy camera pictures.

This kind of lo-fi aesthetic probably doesn’t appeal to everyone. But I might as well enjoy it in my own pictures. Not that I feel defensive about them; I enjoyed the challenge of taking them and never expected them to be anything other than holiday snaps. I’d never really tried bird photography before — they don’t make an easy subject and it’s difficult enough trying to see them normally — but if birding is the main point of a trip, it’s a treat to have a record of birds instead of just places.

I liked these pictures anyway. Does a spiffy aesthetic context make me like them any more? Should it?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I just wanted to note the comparison.

» All pictures are from Flickr and are links so you can click through to the relevant pages. The birdy ones are by me; the child was taken with a Holga by john.makarewicz and the Peruvian valley was taken with a LOMO by phoosh.

Sparrowhawk

I was absently looking out the window and realised that a bit of a kerfuffle was a sparrowhawk taking one of the pigeons. Female this time, so she’s bigger and browner than the last s/hawk in the garden. By the time I had my scope and camera ready, she dragged the pigeon behind a bush, so she was obcured and the light wasn’t great. But at least the photo is good enough to show she was there.

The cat scared her away before she’d finished, and the pigeon flew away too, so there’s a partially plucked pigeon out there somewhere. A pigeon is quite large prey for a sparrowhawk, which is presumably why she didn’t take it very far.

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