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 (

Monday, 1 April 2013

PanSTARRS and Other Comets

It was David H. Levy who said: "Comets are like cats; they have tails and they do precisely what they want," but in many ways Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) did precisely what was expected of it, in managing (just about) to reach naked-eye visibility, while never coming close to attaining the prominence of mid-nineties wonders, Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp.

Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS)
Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS), Broadstairs, March 2013

After two failed attempts to see it, I first caught a glimpse of Comet PanSTARRS through a gap in the clouds on Wednesday 13 March, but it wasn't until the following Tuesday that the sky stayed clear long enough for me to get some images. As this is only the third comet I've photographed - after McNaught (arguably the first Great Comet of the digital age - for the Southern hemisphere at least) and Holmes (arguably the weirdest astronomical object of the digital age) - I was just pleased to get anything at all, but a potentially great comet could be waiting in the wings in the shape of C/2012 S1 (ISON), which will swing through the inner solar system later this year. I must stress the word "potentially" though because ISON might not even survive its close passage to the sun, leaving us with the ghost of what might have been. If comets are indeed like cats, then ISON may yet turn out to be of the Cheshire variety.

Comet PanSTARRS (stacked)
Comet PanSTARRS, 13 images stacked in RegiStax

And as if that wasn't enough, make a note in your diary for October 19, 2014, because that's when Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) is due to make a very close approach to Mars - so close in fact, that the possibility of an impact cannot yet be ruled out. If (and that's a very big "if") it did happen, it would be the most destructive event in the solar system since Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 carpet-bombed Jupiter in 1994 and could have profound effects on the Martian climate. Either way - direct hit or near-miss - it promises to be quite a show.

See also:
Planetary Society: Comet to whiz past Mars in October 2014
Planetary Society: Will comet Siding Spring make a meteor shower on Mars?

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Birds of East Kent: Wheatear

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.

North Foreland, Broadstairs, September 2012

Supposedly named for the white rump it shows during flight (Wheatear = "white arse", geddit?), the Northern Wheatear (to give it its full title) is perhaps East Kent's best example of a passage migrant. We see them twice a year: once in springtime when they stop off on their way to their breeding grounds, and again in autumn as they prepare to make the long journey back to sub-Saharan Africa.

Appearance-wise, they're hard to confuse with any other bird. The spring male in its full breeding plumage is a particularly impressive sight with its dark chocolate-brown wings, blue-grey back, black eye-mask and peach-coloured flush on its breast and throat.

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)
Bishopstone, Reculver, April 2010

Wheatears are fairly easy birds to locate, as they can be seen just about anywhere along the coast during the peak of the spring and autumn migrations. The rocks at Bishopstone are usually a reliable place to look, as are the scrubby cliff-tops and strips of grass between North Foreland and Foreness.

In some years, if the weather keeps them grounded, they can build up to impressive numbers as they gather along the coast. I remember one autumn afternoon when they were literally popping up out of every bush I passed as I walked from King George VI park to Broadstairs. (I suppose this was the Wheatear equivalent of Operation Stack.)

However, getting close enough to acquire a decent photo requires a little forethought. Although Wheatears spend a lot of their time on the ground, they frequently fly up to the nearest available perch to see what's going on around them. One method (a trick I learned from observing similar behaviour in Stonechats) is to advance quickly while they're feeding and immediately freeze as soon as they fly to their perch. It may take a while, but with practice and persistence you should be able to get very close indeed. Another method is to observe if they're moving in a particular direction and surreptitiously get ahead of them. Then it's a matter of keeping still as they work their way towards you. (And of course not making making the schoolboy error of suddenly raising your camera.)

Wheatear at Viking Bay
Viking Bay, Broadstairs, October 2011

Wikipedia lists 21 other species of Wheatear, a couple of which occasionally make it to British shores. But considering how far these birds travel, it's a privilege to see even the regular ones.

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

Saturday, 2 March 2013

The Birds of Bossenden Wood

If Wikipedia is to be believed (and if Millwall vs West Ham doesn't count), Bossenden Wood is the site of the last battle fought on English soil, which supposedly lasted for just a few violent minutes in May 1838. These days the only battles you're likely to see here are between the different species of birds as they fight over the various nuts and seeds that the photographers have laid out for them. Purists might regard this as cheating, but I know from experience (having spent many hours wandering around the larger Blean complex hearing lots and seeing little) how challenging it is to photograph woodland birds, so in this instance I have no qualms in resorting to "bribery".

This is the best time of year to photograph woodland birds, as there is less foliage to block the light. I'd been planning to visit Bossenden all winter but it wasn't until earlier last month that a window of opportunity (and blue sky) arrived. I brought plenty of bird food with me, but I needn't have bothered as the conveniently-situated log had already been well baited. So, all I had to do was take my place alongside the other photographers and snap away. My target species were Coal Tit, Marsh Tit and Nuthatch, and I'm pleased to say I got all three of them - with varying degrees of success.

The Nuthatches were the hardest to shoot, staying only long enough to grab a nut and then fly off with it in their characteristic commando style.

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Coal Tits were present in good number and were much more obliging (except when they were chasing each other through the trees).

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Marsh Tits were less numerous, and I only really got two or three usable shots.

Marsh Tit (Poecile palustris)

This smart male Chaffinch also got in on the act, and posed so nicely it would have been rude not to take its picture.

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

And as if that wasn't enough, I also saw Blue Tits, Great Tits, a noisy Blackbird and a group of Long-tailed Tits.

Bossenden Wood also plays host to the red-listed Lesser-spotted Woodpecker. I didn't see one on this occasion (not that was I expecting to on my very first visit), but the show put on by the other birds more than made up for it.

See also:
More of my photos from Bossenden Wood (Flickr slideshow)
Kingsdowner: Bossenden Wood

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Birds of East Kent: Snow Bunting

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.

Snow Bunting
Palm Bay, Margate, March 2012

The Snow Bunting is a regular winter visitor to Kentish shores, albeit never in huge numbers. They can pop up just about anywhere along the East Kent coastline, but the most reliable place to find them is along the shingle beaches at Reculver, foraging amongst the pebbles.

I like to think of this smart little bird as the "photographer's friend" because not only is it very photogenic, it can also be very approachable. But of course, a flock of birds is only as brave as its least brave member, and so the closest you get to a larger group of Snow Buntings (known collectively as a "drift") may be when they fly over your head to the other end of the beach - half an hour's walk in the direction you just came from. However, if you're fortunate enough to find a Snow Bunting by itself (no easy task, since they usually blend in very well with the pebbles) and don't make any sudden movements, it may allow you to get within a few feet. The bird pictured below was so confiding I had to back away just to keep it in focus.

Portrait of a Snow Bunting
Kingsgate Bay, Broadstairs, April 2011

In summer, when they return to their breeding grounds in the high Arctic, the Snow Buntings undergo a dramatic change, with the males turning almost completely white. Here in Kent, they're invariably gone before we see them reach this phase, but if you're lucky enough to catch a straggler you might see the white plumage starting to come through. Compare the difference between the one above (photographed in early spring) with the one below (taken in late autumn).

Snow Bunting
Reculver, November 2009

So the next time you go for a walk along the coast on a bracing winter's day, keep your eyes open for these charming little birds. They may be closer than you think.

See also:
More of my Snow Bunting photos on Flickr
Snow Bunting (RSPB)
Snow Bunting (Birdforum)

Monday, 7 January 2013

Sir Patrick Moore - A Belated Tribute

The final edition of The Sky at Night to feature Sir Patrick Moore aired last night on BBC 1 (and will be showing again as an extended episode on BBC 4 later in the week), so this seems like a timely moment to share a few thoughts I originally posted on the Sky at Night Flickr group a few weeks ago.

Many moons ago, my mum wrote to Sir Patrick, asking him for advice on what telescope to buy her astronomy-obsessed son, and he very kindly sent one of his famous hand-typed letters in reply, offering his usual brand of no-nonsense wisdom.

Years later, after going on to study astronomy at university, I was fortunate enough to attend one of Sir Patrick's BAA lectures at the University of Kent, in which he spoke about Mars for an hour (without notes). It was the period straight after lunch (a tough time to give a lecture), but he kept the whole audience captivated with his energy and boundless enthusiasm.

And just last month, I was watching The Sky at Night on BBC 4 when I was pleasantly surprised to see one of my photos featured in an item about the planet Mercury.

RIP Sir Patrick, and thanks for everything. You will be missed.

See also:
The Sky at Night on BBC iPlayer (available until Sunday 13 January)
The Sky at Night programme page
BBC Stargazing LIVE (starts Tuesday 7 January)
BBC Sky at Night and Stargazing LIVE Flickr page