2016 diary - Q2 (April - June)

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The general format of my previous and first ‘quarterly diary’ seems to have worked, so I’ve maintained a similar approach here, dividing this period’s summary of events again into three sections - local days out and UK jaunts, overseas trips and then any other photographically related topics.


Local days out and UK jaunts

In April we drove out to Martin Down a couple of times specifically to look for yellowhammers - there were a few around, but nowhere near as many as in previous years. We also looked for corn buntings on farmland near Tarrant Rushton with similar results although, in checking back to last year’s records, I think we were a bit early for them.

Yellowhammer - Martin Down, Wiltshire
Yellowhammer - Martin Down, Wiltshire
 

We had a morning session down at Lymington mid month, which was pleasant as always, although not overly productive as the tide was out. The day also started with a low sea mist, which was rather challenging particularly when we were trying to photograph a pair of mating avocets. Focusing and exposure were difficult, but with some careful post-processing I managed to salvage a few quite nice atmospheric shots like the one below. The sun did break through a bit later on, just in time for some black-tailed godwits in breeding plumage.

Pied Avocets - Normandy Lagoon, Lymington
Pied Avocets - Normandy Lagoon, Lymington
Black-tailed Godwit - Pennington Marsh, Lymington
Black-tailed Godwit - Pennington Marsh, Lymington

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Later in the month we had a couple of drives out to Portland with the usual stop-offs in Weymouth at Radipole Lake and Lodmoor Nature Reserve. The primary reason for going to Portland was to try to photograph a hoopoe that had been in one of the quarries for a few days. Despite hoopoes being rare visitors to the UK, one seems to turn up on Portland most years. This particular bird had been reasonably confiding and had been seen and photographed by most of our local friends and Flickr contacts. It was also getting a lot of attention from ‘birders’ and photographers outside of the area, so we decided that rather than go at the weekend we’d arrive early on the Monday morning when it would be a bit quieter. It was a beautiful morning and there were only two other people there when we arrived but, despite it definitely being there the previous evening, we were unlucky, as that just happened to be it’s last reported sighting!

Our walks round Radipole Lake and Lodmoor produced nothing out of the ordinary, although I actually managed to get a nice shot of a Cetti’s warbler out in the open, which was a first.

Cetti's Warbler - Radipole Lake, Weymouth
Cetti's Warbler - Radipole Lake, Weymouth
 

We made a couple of further trips down to Weymouth in May, but in terms of local days out that was about it as we concentrated much of our time in May and June on two overseas trips. However, either side of those we did have two extended UK jaunts; the first being a couple of days on Dartmoor at the end of May, and the other a five-day seabird photography trip up in the north east in late June.

Our trip down to Dartmoor came about from an arrangement we’d made with our safari guide back in March when we were in Ruaha. He wanted a camera, but realistically could only afford a secondhand one. We agreed to help him source one from the UK but, after finding one that suited his needs, discovered that the cost of getting it safely air-freighted over to Tanzania was going to be more than the lens we’d bought. Fortunately the English camp owner was in the UK at the time and was happy to take it over with him when he went back in June for the start of this year’s season. His home is in Tavistock on the edge of Dartmoor, so we thought it would be a good idea to drive down, drop off the camera and stay overnight locally for a couple of days so that we could explore a bit. Although we can drive to this part of Devon in under three hours we haven’t been to Dartmoor for years, so it was really nice to be able to drive across the moors enjoying the splendid scenery. As usual, the weather could have been better, but on the full day we had, after dropping off the camera, it did brighten up enough late morning to allow us plenty of time to have a good stroll up and down the River Dart. I really wanted to see dippers, which is a bird we don’t have locally, and this particular river is supposed to be one of the best in the area for seeing them. Unfortunately though, after a good number of hours and despite carefully looking along two known stretches of the river both upstream and downstream of Dartmeet, we had to give up as we hadn’t even had a glimpse of one. In fact we saw surprisingly little along the river - the most interesting encounters being a couple of pairs of grey wagtails.

Grey Wagtail - River Dart, Dartmoor
Grey Wagtail - River Dart, Dartmoor
 

Our second UK trip at the end of June was far more rewarding though from not only a photography perspective, but also having the opportunity of being able to see such large numbers of seabirds in close proximity. The timing and arrangements for this trip were centred around two specially organised photography days. The first was a boat trip out to Bass Rock with a permit to land that, subject to the weather, would give us a chance of spending time at the second largest northern gannet colony in the world. The second, a couple of days later, was another boat trip to the Farne Islands in Northumberland. And then to complete the trip we planned to stop off for a few hours at Bempton Cliffs in East Yorkshire on the way back home.

Our boat to Bass Rock left Dunbar Harbour just before 8am. We’d made the long drive up to Scotland the day before on the Wednesday and stayed overnight locally so we were at the harbour for the allotted 7.20am meeting time. The weather was clear and sunny, the sea remarkably calm, and we were ready to go.

'The Bass', as it's more formally called, is a large, 350ft high, sheer-faced rock in the Firth of Forth, just over a mile offshore. Most visitors simply take a boat trip around the rock but, if weather and sea conditions allow and the necessary arrangements have been made, you can actually land and spend time there. Our trip combined 'chumming' with a 4hr visit. Years ago there was a tiny settlement on the rock and then a prison, which is now derelict, but that area is accessible via 160+ steps up from the 'docking’ area. This was our first visit to the rock and we were extremely lucky with the sunny and calm conditions. I don’t know how many times a year they allow visitors, but I do know that probably less than 50% of those trips actually result in a successful landing, let alone time there in such lovely weather. Many planned trips are cancelled due to the weather conditions and, consequently, many visitors are left disappointed. I read one photographer’s blog where he said that he’d booked a trip every year for the past four years and every one had been either cancelled or aborted. Anyway, we had a great day, although I have to say that trying to get decent photographs of gannets diving and feeding amongst all the melee with the gulls, and from a rocking fishing boat, is far from easy!

Bass Rock - Firth of Forth, East Lothian
Bass Rock - Firth of Forth, East Lothian
 

Northern Gannets - Bass Rock
Northern Gannets - Bass Rock
 

We had a spare day on the Friday after the trip to Bass Rock before going to the Farne Islands, so before setting off back down the A1 we had a couple of hours on the harbour wall in Dunbar where there’s a black-legged kittiwake colony. I’ve photographed this species before on a couple of occasions including on the Farne Islands but, apart from one particular site in Iceland, this is only the second time I’ve got close to them other than from a boat. Kittiwakes only nest on cliff faces so I doubt whether there are many colonies on the UK mainland where you have a chance of getting this close to them.

Black-legged Kittiwakes - Dunbar Harbour
Black-legged Kittiwakes - Dunbar Harbour
 

As with Bass Rock, we’d arranged to stay locally, so that we were at the harbour in Seahouses ready for the first boat out to the Farne Islands. This was our second trip. The first was in early June 2013 when we had great weather and got some nice shots, but that visit turned out to be too early for seeing the puffins bringing in sandeels as it was a late breeding season due to poor weather during the preceding months. There’s a short ‘travel section’ write-up for that visit, which I’ve extended to cover this trip so I won’t repeat the details here.

Atlantic Puffin - Farne Islands, Northumberland
Atlantic Puffin - Farne Islands, Northumberland
Atlantic Puffin - Farne Islands, Northumberland
Atlantic Puffin - Farne Islands, Northumberland

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On the Sunday morning we were back on the road travelling south in pretty poor weather so we decided that although we would still detour over to Bempton Cliffs on the East Yorkshire coast as we’d already booked accommodation for the night, we’d probably just have a couple of hours there if the weather improved and then head off home first thing on the Monday morning. I think luck was again on our side because although it was raining a bit when we finally got there it did brighten up a bit late afternoon. It was our first time there so it took a little while to work out where to go. The main target species are the puffins and the gannets, but given that we’d photographed so many puffins on the Farne Islands the previous day our only specific interest was the gannets as we were hopeful of getting some flight shots that we weren’t able to get on Bass Rock. This is what the cliffs are famous for being the largest mainland gannet colony in England. I knew that the photography here could be really good or really poor depending on the wind and general conditions, so appreciated that we’d probably only have a 50/50 chance of getting the shots we wanted. After trying a couple of the viewing platforms without success we found one where a few gannets were flying high up at cliff top level and occasionally landing on a grassy bank. The distance, angle of view and light were all good, and with both adult and immature birds flying in close it didn’t take long to put a couple of hundred shots on the memory card.

All in all, it turned out to be a very successful and enjoyable few days away, with many good photos of northern gannet, black-legged kittiwake, atlantic puffin, arctic tern, common guillemot and razorbill - plenty of shots for my growing 'seabirds collections' gallery.

Northern Gannet - Bempton Cliffs, East Yorkshire
Northern Gannet - Bempton Cliffs, East Yorkshire
 


Overseas trips

At the beginning of May we had a week in Romania at the Ultima Frontiera private nature reserve, which is located close to the Ukraine border on the northern Chilia arm of the Danube. The reserve is owned and operated by the Italian company SKUA Nature who have turned what was a former fish farm into a unique centre dedicated to nature photography. I first became aware of the site after reading a trip report by another wildlife photographer at the end of last year. A few Google searches later and I’d read enough to know that it was somewhere special and a location that we had to try. At that time I assumed we’d be able to arrange a private trip but, after some further investigation, I found that the lodge generally gets booked out by specialist tour companies. Having been there I can now see why, as the centre has its own comfortable lodge, which limits occupancy such that a group of twelve, plus tour leader and guides, have sole use of the facilities. The large 1000 hectare complex is beautifully situated in the northern sector of the Danube Delta, bordered to the north by the river and surrounded by lakes and channels. To the south of Ultima Frontiera there are extensive meadows and flood plains that separates the site, by an hour or so’s drive, from Sulina and the Black Sea. It’s also very close to the Letea Forest, which was the initial foundation of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve - now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex has twenty-plus, strategically positioned, specially constructed photography hides each dedicated to a particular species - the two main attractions being golden jackal and white-tailed eagles. I’ve given some additional information on my Danube Delta travel section write-up, together with a list of all the different species that we saw. That write-up also mentions two trips that we went on outside the reserve - the first being a small ‘photography boat’ ride and full morning’s trip into the inner lakes system off the main river primarily to photograph pelicans, grebes and marsh terns, and the second, which was a boat trip on the Black Sea in Musura Bay specifically to photograph Pallas’s gulls. Our stay at Ultima Frontiera was organised by Wildlife Worldwide and led by wildlife and nature photographer Nick Garbutt in the company of macro specialist Alex Hyde.

Golden Jackal - Ultima Frontiera, Danube Delta
Golden Jackal - Ultima Frontiera, Danube Delta
White-tailed Eagle - Ultima Frontiera, Danube Delta
White-tailed Eagle - Ultima Frontiera, Danube Delta

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In June we flew to the Spanish island of Mallorca for a week’s stay in a beautiful, traditional Spannish-style villa, which was nicely situated in the Ternelles Valley at the northeastern end of the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range close to Pollensa. It was a good base for the north of the island, being around half an hour’s driving time from the main places we wanted to visit. Whilst this was our fourth trip to Mallorca, it was the first time we’d gone with the specific intention of doing some bird photography. The plan was to go out early for a good walk with the cameras before it got too hot and busy, then back to town for a spot of lunch, and with the rest of the afternoon relaxing back at the house. And that was exactly what we did. It was a very enjoyable week, although on reflection I think that we were probably a few weeks too late for the best of the ‘birding’. Mallorca and the Balearic islands in general are located within, what is often called, the western European migratory flyway between Africa and Europe and, consequently, provides a convenient stop-over for migratory species. Certainly in reading the guide books it seems that Spring, from March through to May, is by far the best time to visit. However, I still thought there would be far more to see and photograph than there was. Apart from a few avocets and black-winged stilts outside a couple of the hides at S’Albufera everything else we managed to photograph was a real challenge. Whilst we enjoyed some lovely early morning walks in beautiful surroundings at such destinations as the Bóquer Valley, Cúber Reservoir and Son Real, we saw very little and even less that was close enough to photograph. Unless we were simply in the wrong places at the wrong time, I think this is just another example showing the difference between a bird watcher’s view and the expectations of a bird photographer! When a guide book says that you can see certain species, the emphasis is certainly on the 'can see’ bit, with ‘can’ meaning ‘on a good day you stand a reasonable chance of seeing’, and ’see’ probably meaning that you’d need binoculars or a scope. Obviously, photographers need birds that are positioned nicely at reasonable distance and preferably in good light! Notwithstanding those previous comments, I still managed to add six new species to my 'World Bird List', which I was really pleased with so, all in all, we had absolutely no complaints and will definitely be returning at some time in the future, albeit slightly earlier in the year. An extended report together with notes of the species seen and photographed can be found here.

Western Swamphen - S'Albufera, Mallorca
Western Swamphen - S'Albufera, Mallorca
 


Other events and news

Peru 2017
I made a note in the previous journal saying that we’d booked a safari for next year and that it would be our ‘main’ trip for 2017. Well that isn’t actually the case now, as we’ll also be making a trip down to Peru in November. It’s a long 19-night, four centre, tour that will take us from highland Andean cloud forest to lowland Amazonian rainforest in the Manu National Park, and then to the Tambopata reserve in the Amazon basin. As with last year’s trip to Galapagos this is almost certainly a once in a lifetime adventure that if we leave any longer we probably won’t end up doing. Some of the itinerary and arrangements are a bit outside our normal comfort zone, but it’s an opportunity too good to miss. It’s another photography trip organised by Wildlife Worldwide and, as long as everything goes to plan, will be led again by Nick Garbutt and Alex Hyde.


200-500mm zoom lens
The only other bit of news worthy of a mention is that I took the plunge in June and purchased the new Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens that I briefly talked about in the "my gear - cameras and lenses (part 2)" section. This is essentially a travel lens when I need to be mindful of weight restrictions and/or want the flexibility of a zoom. It’s primarily for animals on safari rather than birds although, if it performs as well as some of the reports I’ve read, I may well end up taking it to Peru or similar destinations. I certainly intend to use it on our forthcoming Zambia safari in October so will analyse the situation further after I’ve put it to proper use. My theory is that by taking two identically set-up D810’s, one fitted with the 200-500mm and the other with the 70-200mm, I will have a relatively light and compact kit bag with two cameras that will cover the main focal lengths that I would use on a safari. I would then, subject again to the overall weight allowance, add my 24-120mm f/4 for wide angle shots. Alternatively, although not an option I’d really want to be faced with, is to take the 24-120mm instead of the 70-200mm. It would leave an annoying gap in the focal lengths I’d have from 120mm to 200mm, but would give me the wide angle options I’d lose if I couldn’t take it. I certainly don’t intend to use a teleconverter with the 200-500mm so that will save a bit of weight, but until I do a dummy pack and weigh exercise I won’t know for sure what can be included. I don’t expect a problem with Zambia as the internal flight weight restrictions are more than those in Tanzania and some other destinations. Time will tell, but at least by purchasing this lens I have all the options I could possibly want.

PS. whilst the new D500 camera remains an interesting and tempting proposition with all the features and benefits that I listed at the bottom of my previous journal 'quarterly diary' entry, I’m resisting making an impulsive decision. I don’t really want to go back to the DX (crop-frame) format so, at the moment, I’m not going to do anything rash, as I hope that some of the key features may be incorporated into either the next upgrade of the excellent D750 or possibly with introduction of another model between the D750 and D5. The high megapixel design of the D810 doesn’t lend itself to incorporating the missing features that I really want, so I envisage that Nikon’s FX (full-frame) range in the future will essentially, with periodic upgrades, either stay much as it is now with the D610, D750, D810 and D5 or, hopefully, ditch the unspectacular D610 and have the D750 as the base model, the D810/D800E as the high-megapixel options, and then have a new higher end body below that and the D5, similar in size to the D810, but say with a 24MP sensor. Now that would be good.