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