Monday, 1 September 2014

Broadstairs Water Gala 2014



Once again Broadstairs was blessed with sunshine and blue skies for the 2014 Water Gala, although the crowds seemed slightly down on the previous year. The good visibility and light breeze meant that all three planned air displays could go ahead, beginning with the Extra 300, which looked like it was pulling quite a few g's as it looped and soared:


This was followed by the Trig Aerobatic display team with their precision formation flying:


And finally, what I - and just about every other photographer there - had really come to see, the Grace Spitfire:


Pictures only tell half the story. It was a real privilege to hear that Merlin engine roaring over Viking Bay.

The Gala was rounded off by a fireworks display in the evening. It seems mandatory these days for every display to be accompanied by a hovering drone shooting footage from a bird's-eye perspective (not that any bird would fly near a firework). Was it wrong of me to feel disappointed that the drone survived the display without getting hit? The organisers must have been in a hurry to get home, as the last thirty or so fireworks all seemed to go off at once, much to the delight of the watching crowds. Intentional or not, it provided a suitably window-rattling finale to what had been a highly entertaining day.

See also:
More of my photos of the 2014 Water Gala
Broadstairs Water Gala (official page)
Trig Aerobatic Team
The Grace Spitfire ML407


Sunday, 23 February 2014

Birds of East Kent: Ring-necked Parakeet

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent and how easy (or not) it is to get a decent picture of them.



This series isn't intended to cover every species of bird that lives in or visits East Kent - I haven't seen them all for one thing (let alone photographed them) - but there's one particular bird that can't be ignored ... mainly because it's so damn noisy.

It seems few birds divide opinion more in this country than the Ring-necked Parakeet. And, as with any divisive species, several urban myths have sprung up around them - in particular the subject of where they came from. Two stories crop up with predictable regularity; one being a mass escape from the set of the 1951 film The African Queen; the other being a deliberate attempt to liven up the British skyline by none other than Jimi Hendrix (though don't you think the Scarlet Macaw would have been more Jimi's style?). The somewhat more prosaic truth is that parakeets have been escaping into the wild since Victorian times, and any releases by Hendrix (or indeed Bogart and Hepburn) would have served only to enrich an already growing population.

Thanet holds possibly the largest concentration of parakeets outside London. They've colonised all the major parks, and the trees at Ramsgate train station form a prominent roost site. I've seen them as far west as Grove Ferry, but - as far as I'm aware - they haven't made any significant incursions into the woodlands surrounding Canterbury. (Correct me in the Comments if you know better.)

Photography-wise, the biggest challenge may be finding a way to get the whole bird in your camera's viewfinder without cropping the end off its extremely long tail. King George VI Park is a reliable place to get close to them (they're largely indifferent to passers-by so you can generally walk right up to them) or, if you've got bird feeders or apple trees in your garden, you can wait for them to find you.



For me at least, the novelty of seeing a bright green parrot balancing on a feeder that plainly wasn't designed for it (while another one hangs upside down from a washing line) has yet to wear off. I admit it: I'm a fan of the parakeets, but then again I don't own an orchard. They're intelligent and resourceful birds with lots of character, and if you close your eyes when you hear them you can at least imagine you're in a more exotic part of the world than Planet Thanet.

So what does the future hold for the parakeets? Will they spread across the country like a plague of green locusts, eating everything in their path? Will they gather on the rooftops like a green-tinted Hitchcockian nightmare, squawking so loudly that everyone goes deaf or mad (or both)? In centuries to come will alien explorers wander through the ruined cities to find the last humans huddling in mute subservience to their parakeet overlords? With their fast flight and powerful beaks, are there even any natural predators capable of taking them on? After witnessing a beleaguered kestrel being seen off by a green mob I had my doubts, but recently I saw four panic-stricken parakeets being pursued across the skies of Broadstairs by a Peregrine Falcon (putting the old advice to "eat more greens" in an entirely new light). So perhaps the proliferation of the parakeet is good news for at least one of our native species.

See also:
More of my parakeet photos on Flickr
Ring-necked Parakeet (RSPB)
Ring-necked Parakeet (Birdforum)
Ring-necked Parakeet (Birdguides)

Ring-necked Parakeet (Non Native Species Secretariat)

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Birds of East Kent: Rock Pipit

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent and how easy (or not) it is to get a decent picture of them.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)
Dumpton Gap, November 2010

Many, many centuries ago, before the invention of paper and scissors, our ancestors used to settle disputes by playing a game of Rock Pipit, Tree Pipit, Meadow Pipit. The rules have long been lost in the mists of time (as there was nothing to write them down on), but they were believed to go something like this:

  • Rock Pipit chops down tree containing Tree Pipit
  • Tree Pipit craps on Meadow Pipit from overhanging branch
  • Meadow Pipit lures Rock Pipit into the long grass and kills it in a surprise attack

This already over-elaborate game was further complicated when some players tried to gain an unfair advantage by adding Water Pipits and Tawny Pipits to the line-up. In this expanded version, the Water Pipit drowns both the Rock Pipit and the Meadow Pipit, and as for a Tawny Pipit ... well no one could agree what the hell a Tawny Pipit does (although, at time of writing, it is the only member of the Pipit family to have a feature film named after it). At this point the game was usually abandoned and the dispute settled by actual fighting.

Of course, these days few people are aware of this unusual chapter in the Rock Pipit's history, and the bird itself is often overlooked as a small brown thing that frequents rocky coastlines. However, what it lacks in appearance it makes up for in character, and it can sometimes be surprisingly approachable, particularly along the undercliff promenade between Viking Bay and Dumpton Gap. This stretch is popular with dogwalkers, and so the birds are used to people walking by.

In some places (Foreness springs to mind) Rock Pipits can be found in close proximity to Meadow Pipits, though the latter tend to keep to the top of the cliff and the former at the bottom. Visually, Rock Pipits are distinguished from Meadow Pipits by their darker legs, slightly stockier build, and generally more smudged streaking in the breast. You may also notice a slight olive tint to the feathers.

If you're really observant (and you've got nothing better to do) you may be able to spot some foreign interlopers in the shape of the Scandinavian Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus littoralis), a subspecies of the regular Rock Pipit. The differences are subtle, particularly outside of the breeding season, but are generally told by a blue-grey tint to the back and a more prominent supercilium (eye-stripe). The photo at the top of this post may indeed be an example of the Scandinavian variety.


A Bug's Death
Broadstairs, September 2013

See also:
More of my Rock Pipit photos on Flickr
Rock Pipit (RSPB)
Rock Pipit (Birdforum)
Rock Pipit (Birdguides)

Monday, 26 August 2013

Broadstairs Water Gala 2013

A packed Viking Bay played host to Broadstairs' annual Water Gala last week, featuring jet skis and flyboarding, and a visit from the Ramsgate lifeboat. A three-part air display was also scheduled, and perfect conditions meant that all three planes could take to the skies as planned.

First up was the Catalina seaplane G-PBYA, visiting Broadstairs on day one of its Circuit of Britain challenge:

Catalina Seaplane (detail)

This 70-year-old plane is the only airworthy Catalina in the UK, and it made several passes of the bay before continuing on its tour, making sure everyone got to see it from all sides.


The Catalina was followed by the Yak 50 G-CBPM, one of the Aerostars display team that performed here last year:

Yak-50 G-CBPM

Finally, Manston's very own trusty old Boeing Stearman biplane, a plane I've seen several times over the years, but never had the opportunity to photograph against blue skies until now:

Boeing Stearman Biplane

The festivities were rounded off by a fireworks display in the evening. I left my camera at home for that, figuring I'd already taken quite enough photos for one day.

See also:
More of my photos of the Water Gala
Broadstairs Water Gala (official page)
Project Hawker 2013


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Heath Fritillaries of Blean Woods

Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia) 

To see anything truly rare in the UK usually requires a long journey to some remote corner of Scotland. Not so for the Heath Fritillary, one of Britain's rarest butterflies, which makes its home in Exmoor and in select parts of the woodland surrounding Canterbury. The best sites for seeing them are East Blean Wood NNR and Blean Woods NNR, and it was the latter I visited on a hot clear day in early July, hoping to get some photos.

In a normal year numbers are expected to peak towards the end of June, but the wet spring seems to have pushed everything back, butterflies included. I'd remembered from previous visits that Heath Fritillaries favour the open drove-ways or "rides" that transect the woods, and it was on one of these rides (where the black trail splits from the red trail) that I encountered a cluster of about a dozen - all in pristine condition.

Not having visited Blean Woods for a while, I'd forgotten how tricky these little butterflies are to photograph, but - with a great deal of patience - I managed to get a few shots worth keeping.

Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia)

I didn't quite succeed in nailing the wings-wide-open photo I was looking for, but the pictures I did get were an improvement on previous efforts. An incentive perhaps - if incentives are needed to seek out this lovely little butterfly - to try again next year.


See also:
More of my Heath Fritillary photos on Flickr
Heath Fritillary (UK Butterflies)
Status of the Heath Fritillary - Kent Biodiversity Action Plan (PDF)

Blean Woods (RSPB)
The Big Blean Walk (PDF)

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Birds of East Kent: Marsh Harrier

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent and how easy (or not) it is to get a decent picture of them.

Marsh Harrier

This bird of prey (the largest of the harriers) is one of the showpiece species of East Kent (maybe even of the whole county) and the RSPB website rightly lists Stodmarsh (where it can be found all year round) as one of its strongholds. Indeed, a visit to Grove Ferry / Stodmarsh doesn't feel complete without a sighting of one of these majestic birds gliding over the reedbeds in search of prey. And yet, for all the times I've seen them, I've still to acquire what I consider a really good picture. You'd think, for their size and languid flight, it would be easy to see them approaching, but they have a knack for suddenly appearing out of nowhere and then either plunging into the reeds or spiralling up on a thermal. You may not know where they are, but they always seem to know where you are.

Marsh Harrier comparison

Male and female Marsh Harriers are fairly easy to tell apart; males (above left) are lighter, with characteristic dark wing-tips. Females (above right) are bulkier and darker, with cream-coloured crowns. Juveniles appear similar to the adult females, but are distinguished by their golden crowns.

During the breeding season, male Marsh Harriers show off to the females with spectacular displays of sky-dancing (and if the wind's blowing the right way you can hear them calling to each other). This aerial prowess serves a valuable purpose later on as the male will be required to pass food to the female in mid-air rather than bring it directly to the nest. These food items are usually small birds as far as I've been able to tell, but I imagine the ubiquitous Marsh Frog must make up a large part of their diet.

Marsh Harrier (+ food pass)

My most memorable sighting of a Marsh Harrier came - ironically enough - not at Grove Ferry, but at Minster a few years ago. I set off on what I thought was going to be a clear sunny morning, but arrived on the marshes to find the whole area shrouded in a thick bank of fog. As I walked alongside the river waiting for the sun to break through, a large shape rose out of the mist just twenty feet away and I found myself face to face with a Marsh Harrier. It flew gracefully in front of me and disappeared into the fog on the other side of the river. I didn't take any pictures (they wouldn't have come out anyway), but on that occasion it was just a privilege to get that close to one of Britain's most captivating birds of prey.

See also:
More of my Marsh Harrier photos on Flickr
Marsh Harrier (RSPB)
Marsh Harrier (Birdforum)


Friday, 31 May 2013

Have I Got Newts For You

This time last year I'd never knowingly seen a newt outside of a book or a TV programme. Then, in a pond not far from where I work, I spotted several of these:

Great Crested Newt larva

This, I subsequently found out, is the larval form of the Great Crested Newt, the largest - and most endangered - of the three species of newt native to Britain. With its rough, granular skin, scythe-like tail and impressive jagged crest, the adult male Great Crested Newt is the closest you'll come to seeing a dragon in the English countryside, so - as you can imagine - I was rather keen to get a photo of one.

Like a lot of creatures, Great Crested Newts look at their best during the breeding season (i.e. now), but trying to photograph them is easier said than done. I quickly found out that they rarely come up to the surface, and when they do they typically dive straight back down again before you can get the camera anywhere near them. In the meantime, I had to console myself with getting pictures of the smaller Smooth (Common) Newt:

Smooth Newt

...and the equally diminutive Palmate Newt, with its distinctive webbed hind feet and tail filament:

Palmate Newt (Lissotriton helveticus)

But still no photos of a Great Crested Newt.

Then, just when it seemed that the pond would be covered with lily-pads before I even got so much as a single shot, my Great Crested Nemeses finally decided to cooperate:

Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus)

Okay, so they're not the cleanest photos I've ever taken, but shooting subjects in a pond (as opposed to a brightly-lit aquarium) is never easy at the best of times, and you can only do your best with what you've got. If you're trying it yourself I recommend a fast, close-focusing lens in the 100 - 300 mm range ... and a great deal of patience.

P.S. I apologise for the terrible pun headlining this post, but it was either that or the even more lame "Goodness Gracious, Great Crested Newts!"


See also:
More of my newt photos on Flickr
Great Crested Newt Conservation Handbook (froglife.org)