2016 diary - Q4 (October - December)

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Local days out

With the primary focus in October being centred around our Zambia trip (as noted below) and the associated work involved in subsequently sorting and developing the 4000+ images that I took, the month simply flew by without having time to get out locally. We were also away for much of November, but during the time we were at home I did have a day down at Portland and at Lodmoor in Weymouth, and another along the River Stour at Blandford. I didn’t see or photograph anything really noteworthy or unusual on either day, although in saying that it’s always good to spend time on the river watching the otters. Whilst we’re quite used to seeing them at Blandford, it really is a privilege as there aren’t that many places in the south where they’re present. In fact that whole morning on the river was an enjoyable one because, as well as seeing the otters and a few kingfishers, I bumped into a local wildlife photographer friend who I haven’t seen for a while - it was good to catch up and swap news.

Otters - River Stour, Blandford
Otters - River Stour, Blandford
 

December started slow, but with some pleasant weather towards the end of the month it turned out to be a rewarding time. In addition to adding two new species to my ‘bird list’, which was a surprise in itself, I finally managed to get a few half-decent shots of goosanders; a bird that I’ve photographed only once before in Scotland at great distance. And, then right at the end of the month I had a very memorable morning down at Radipole Lake where, together with a couple of other lucky photographers including my wife Tris, spent well over an hour close to a large flock of feeding bearded tits.

Just before Christmas someone mentioned that a pair of wood ducks had taken up temporary residency on Eyeworth Pond at Fritham in the New Forest. I thought it might make a change to go there, because as well as the wood ducks there are often a few mandarin on the pond at this time of year. I’ve photographed mandarin ducks there before, but never wood ducks. The mandarins are now breeding in some areas of the country and it looks as though wood ducks could be following them. They’ve been seen on this pond before and, therefore, unless they’re ringed it’s impossible to know whether the pair that were there at Christmas are the same birds, escapees or possible vagrants from North America. Being a pair I tend to think that they are now genuine wild birds whatever their origin. Anyway they were in the wild so for me it was a new species.

But, it was when I was told that there were also some goosanders there that Tris and I decided to take a drive out. The problem was that it was Boxing Day and it was sunny so, not surprisingly, quite a few other people had the same idea of getting out into the forest. Unfortunately Eyeworth Pond is a rather pleasant spot that’s popular with dog walkers and families and, consequently, not long after we arrived the small car park started to fill up. The people didn’t make any difference though as neither the goosanders or wood ducks were present. It was disappointing and, to make matters worse, we were talking with a local chap who said that just a few days earlier there had been 30+ goosanders there but, presumably because it’s only a small pond with limited fish stocks, they’d moved on. So, instead we turned our attentions away from the pond and spent our time photographing some woodland birds, such as robin, blue tit, coal tit, nuthatch and treecreeper, but also my first marsh tits.

That was going to be it until another Flickr contact went there the following morning and managed to get photos of the wood ducks and a couple of mandarins, and some shots of a male goosander that flew in later on. Back we went the following morning, being the first vehicle in the car park, but again there was nothing on the pond other than mallards. And this time the cars and dog walkers, and joggers and families, and bird watchers and other photographers, descended earlier and in greater numbers than before. The situation was not one I would have chosen for a day out photographing wildlife and with nothing on the pond we were about to head off somewhere quieter when suddenly out of nowhere three goosanders flew overhead circling before two came in to land on the far side. An hour or so later the other joined it - they were all females birds.

Goosanders - Eyeworth Pond, Fritham, New Forest
Goosanders - Eyeworth Pond, Fritham, New Forest
 

Great to see, but frustrating to photograph as they spent virtually all the time fishing in the margins along the far bank of the pond, which is some distance away. This particular pond is only accessible from two sides with the far side and right hand end being very boggy and very overgrown thereby providing a safe haven with little disturbance for the various waterfowl that are attracted there. I spent an enjoyable couple of hours watching and trying to photograph the gossanders, but at the end of the morning gave up with just a few useable long-distant shots for my efforts. At that point we hadn’t seen any sign of the wood ducks or indeed the mandarins, but literally as we started to make our way back to the car they appeared from behind the small island. The mandarins disappeared again almost straight away, but the pair of wood ducks came out in the open a bit, but always very close to the island. They really are beautiful birds and a delight to see, but I just wish they’d been closer. Obviously the sound of the busy car park that’s right alongside the pond, together with all the people milling about didn’t help the situation. However, it was a nice morning out in the winter sunshine and we did get a few photos of the two species we’d gone there for, so all in all I shouldn’t complain. Plus, Fritham is only a 45 minute drive away so I can always return at a quieter time.

Goosander (female) - Eyeworth Pond, Fritham, New Forest
Goosander (female) - Eyeworth Pond, Fritham, New Forest
 

Wood Duck (male) - Eyeworth Pond
Wood Duck (male) - Eyeworth Pond
Wood Duck (female) - Eyeworth Pond
Wood Duck (female) - Eyeworth Pond
 

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We are very fortunate locally in that the extensive reedbeds at Radipole Lake are prime habitat for the highly sought-after beaded reedling, which we more commonly know as the bearded tit. This is a pretty scarce species across the country so it’s good to have a location reasonably close to home that provides opportunities for watching and photographing small flocks of these beautiful little birds. Winter is definitely the best time with, from my experience, December and January being the most likely months to see them. However, they are certainly not guaranteed by any means as last year I don’t recall photographing any at all, whereas the previous year they were being regularly seen right across the reserve. I remember having one particularly good day there with a small, but confiding flock that was feeding on seed heads just a couple of metres off the path. Coincidently it was almost exactly the same day as we saw them this year. The only difference being that this year it was a large flock of probably forty birds. Once again they were feeding close to the path where they stayed for well over an hour seemingly without any concern that there were half a dozen photographers just a few feet away. It was a real treat with the only disappointment being that they were mostly the wrong side of the light. I think I'll be lucky to have another encounter that good, but despite taking over 400 shots I struggled to find more than 30 or so that were really worth saving. There was not much wind, but enough to have many photos spoilt by a reed head blowing across in front of a bird just as you’re taking the shot. The other problem you encounter is that the top of the reeds are quite thin and pliable and bend right over with the weight of a bird on them. It’s very challenging photography, but very enjoyable and an experience that you don’t forget. It was a good way to end the year.

Bearded Tit (female) - Radipole Lake
Bearded Tit (female) - Radipole Lake
Bearded Tit (male) - Radipole Lake
Bearded Tit (male) - Radipole Lake
 

Bearded Tit (male) - Radipole Lake
Bearded Tit (male) - Radipole Lake
Bearded Tit (female) - Radipole Lake
Bearded Tit (female) - Radipole Lake
 

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Overseas trips

At the beginning of October we made our long-awaited and first ever trip to Zambia, staying ten nights in total at the two Shenton safari photography camps of Kaingo and Mwamba in South Luangwa. On return I compiled a reasonably comprehensive introduction to the area as a prelude to my travel section write-up, which can be found here, so I’ll keep this journal entry brief to avoid repetition. I think the two most important points to note here are that we deliberately choose to go at this time of year as it’s the end of the dry season when animals are congregating and having to stay closer to the river and, secondly, that we very purposely wanted to stay in these two well respected camps. Planning a trip like this takes time and effort if you have not been to the area before, so it’s always a relief to find that you made the right decisions. That was certainly the case with this trip as, apart from a couple of travel arrangements that could possibly be improved, our time at the camps was just perfect. However, I think, particularly following a few questions I’ve been asked since our return, that it’s only fair to mention that paying extra to ensure sole use of a private vehicle is essential if you want to maximise both your time and opportunities. This is something you can control and organise before you go. What you can’t control are the condition and the animals you’ll see. But, as with having your own vehicle, your opportunities for both sightings and good photographs will be greatly increased if you have a knowledgable guide. Fortunately if you’ve done your research properly and have chosen the right camp you should hopefully find that the guides are of similar calibre. All I do is to stress in advance that we are very keen photographers as well as nature lovers and, as such, would like to be allocated a guide who can relate to our requirements. Certainly our success on this trip was largely down to us having an extremely knowledgeable and likable guide come driver called Yorum, who not only knew virtually everything there was to know about the area and the wildlife, but also understood photography in terms of light, angles and vehicle positioning in order to make the most of any situation. I’d like to think that the previously mentioned write-up and the associated photo gallery prove testament to just how good this trip was.

Leopard - South Luangwa, Zambia
Leopard - South Luangwa, Zambia
 

There are various references on this website about our annual trips to Bird Island in the Seychelles - a remote and relatively basic, desert island nature reserve destination that we’ve been regularly visiting for the past fifteen years or so. Every year throughout that time it has been pretty much of a given that we'd make the trip, almost to a point where it had become a permanent fixture on our holiday calendar. It’s a place where you can truly relax (see travel section write-up) and somewhere that I really enjoyed and could escape to for a couple of weeks when I was working. We’d always go at much the same time of year so that we were away during mid October, but back in the UK before the end of the month. However, after I retired I wasn’t tied to this arrangement, so in 2015 we pushed our arrival back to the beginning of November. This year, we were a little later still, primarily because of our trip to Zambia at the beginning of October. We stayed the last two weeks of November and, notwithstanding other changes that we noticed, were both surprised and somewhat disappointed to find that there were nowhere near the number of birds there that we usually see. I knew that the vast colony of sooty terns would have bred, raised their young and in the main departed before our arrival, but I didn’t expect to see far fewer migratory shorebirds. There also appeared to be less noddies, fairy terns and tropic birds. Remarkable really how just a few weeks later in the year can make so much difference. However, by going in November we did get to see a few vagrant and/or brief visiting species, such as a small number of blue-cheeked bee-eaters, plus a solitary european roller, hobby and great white egret. Also an immature little bittern, which as far as I understand was the first ever seen on the island. But, all in all, it was a bit of a let down, so if - although I should really be saying when - we return we’ll ensure that we revert back to going in October. It won’t be in either 2017 or 2018 though as we already have trips booked around that time of year, so I can’t realistically see us going back now for another three years at least, unless we ignore what I’ve just said and try a completely different time of the year. Whilst a few images from this trip will undoubtedly find their way into appropriate ‘collections’ sets, I will probably only add a couple to the original Bird Island ‘selections’ photo gallery.

Seychelles Blue Pigeon - Bird Island, Seychelles
Seychelles Blue Pigeon - Bird Island, Seychelles
Crab Plovers - Bird Island, Seychelles
Crab Plovers - Bird Island, Seychelles
 

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Other events and news

Rare herons in Seychelles
I noted above that I’d seen a little bittern on Bird Island this year. In fact I was lucky enough to both see it and photograph it on two separate occasions. Whilst the first time was just a quick sighting as it was making its way through long grass towards thick vegetation, I still managed to get a couple of reasonably decent shots of it. Given that it was a chance encounter I was quite happy with those photos, but the next day I decided to wait in the same area to see whether it would show again. It did, but this time right in amongst dense undergrowth and fallen palm fronds with only partial views through resulting in just a handful of ‘record shots’. But, then after watching it for quite a while I got lucky as it was suddenly spooked by something, which caused it to fly up and land momentarily on a large palm leaf in full sight for probably twenty seconds or so before flying off never to be seen again. I think that during our stay only two other people saw it, and that I was the only one who managed to get some photos. It was only when back home though, and after liaising with the Seychelles Birds Records Committee, that I realised the significance of the sighting, as it turned out to be only the second ever in Seychelles.

That communication led to subsequent discussions about some of the other rarely sighted species I’d photographed including the great white egret which, although unusual, I assumed was a reasonably common annual visitor as I’d photographed one there before a few years back. It wasn’t regarded as a rarity, but was only the twentieth ever recorded. That led to me being asked about other vagrant species I’d seen over the years. There were a few of interest, but the exciting find was that back in 2012 I saw what I thought at the time was a squacco heron (an uncommon vagrant if it had of been that species), but after looking again at those photos I started to doubt the identity, because although it looked very similar to a squacco it was darker and more heavily streaked. I wasn’t sure, but I had a suspicion that it could possibly be a Malagasy (or Madagascar) pond-heron. This is quite a rare bird with a pretty restrictive range and, as such, is classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Anyway, after submitting photos, my identification was confirmed together with notification that only seven have ever been recorded in Seychelles west of Aldabra where they breed.

So, another two new heron/egret family species for my ‘bird list’ - the Little Bittern [Ixobrychus minutus] and the Malagasy Pond-Heron [Ardeola idae], which now takes my tally in Ardeidae to 25 species.

Malagasy Pond Heron - Bird Island (2012)
Malagasy Pond Heron - Bird Island (2012)
Little Bittern - Bird Island (2016)
Little Bittern - Bird Island (2016)
 

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Great Bear Forest - British Columbia, Canada
I’d made a brief mention in my previous journal that we were hopeful of getting on a trip to photograph grizzly (brown) bears, coupled with a possibility of seeing the kermode bear also known as the ‘spirit bear’ (a rare white or cream coloured American black bear subspecies) in September 2018. Well, I’m now really pleased to confirm that we managed to secure the last two places, so we’re now booked to go. The trip starts with a long international flight to Vancouver and then, the next day, an onward internal flight up to Bella Bella on Campbell Island. From there our group will board a small ketch, which will be our home for seven nights. During this time we’ll sail up the spectacular wilderness coastline of British Columbia, making our way into the bays and estuaries of the Great Bear Rain Forest. Apart from the bears, which are the main focus of the trip, we also hope to see humpback whales and possibly orcas, Steller’s sealions, and along the shoreline if we’re really lucky maritime wolves. After our week on the ketch, we head inland by chartered floatplane to stay three nights on a secluded fjord right in the middle of the forest where we will be staying on a floating lodge that's geared totally to bear photography. It’s then back to Vancouver, via Port Hardy this time rather than Bella Bella, where will stay overnight again before taking the overnight flight back to London the following evening. It will be another Wildlife Worldwide special photography trip led by Nick Garbutt. Although I’ve been wanting to do a trip like this for a long time I never thought I actually would, so it should go without saying that I’m really excited about adding this particular adventure onto our future trip schedule.