Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Surprise Visitor

I had a bit of a shock down the Vale yesterday after spotting a very unusual visitor happily swimming around on the main Mill Pond...

After parking the car and taking the very short walk to the Ponds, I had to double take when amongst the usual collection of fairly common wildfowl I spotted a very rare sight and a bird you don't see very often in the wild in Europe...The Ringed Teal.

Ringed Teal are native to South America and breed mainly in north west Argentina and Paraguay.
They can also be found in Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Stockport of course!
The Ringed Teal is a very small and shy Duck that favours forests and swampy marshes...The more secluded the better.
This male bird of course must be an escapee, but I count myself very lucky to have had a chance to see his kind at such close quarters.

It was another lovely sunny day yesterday and it was nice to see another species of duck enjoying some quality time in the water...
The Indian Runner Duck is a domesticated breed and like the name suggests, it spends most of it's time running around on dry land looking for food...Mainly worms!
There are around a dozen or so of these large Ducks at the Vale and their comical antics make them very popular.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Think once, think twice, think wildlife!

The Derbyshire Peak District is one of the most beautiful places on earth and as well as providing some breathtakingly stunning scenery it is also home to some globally important Eco systems and wildlife.

Every year the Peaks attract thousands of visitors from all over the world with the vast majority of people arriving in the spring and summer months.
Today I briefly stopped at Nether North Grain which is one of my favourite locations in the area and was disgusted at the spectacle that greeted me...
Now this area is often overlooked by tourists because of the harsh nature of it's steep rugged hills and ravines, but there is a layby here which is a popular stopping point for drivers on the Snake Pass.

I actually only stopped myself today at the layby to see if I could spot the Red Kite I had seen earlier and when I got out of the car I was more than a little unhappy to see the amount of litter that had been left there.
An elderly gentleman from London got out of his camper van and assessed the scene with me. "Makes you ashamed to be British" he said...An old cliche, but non the less very true.

When are people in this country going to learn?
Here we were in the Peak District, a place renowned all over the world for it's beauty...Imagine if a American or French or German tourist had stopped their car here and this was their first point of call?
Not that unlikely, because this layby is the first decent sized one if travelling from Manchester along the Snake.
I think they would have been rather disappointed.

Litter of course is a major threat to wildlife and the environment, but it isn't the only problem on the Snake Pass route...Speed is another.
At the height of the tourist season the road is a magnet for sports cars and motorcycles with boy racers testing their 'skills' on the Snakes infamously dangerous windy bends...

For Gods sake THINK!!!
Especially at this time of the year, when wildlife is more active.
On my way back home and just outside Glossop, there was a rather distressed looking lady standing by her vehicle, hazard lights flashing and a dead Sheep in front of her bonnet.

OK accidents happen and sheep are not the best advocates of the Green Cross Code, but when driving in the countryside too many people just don't seem to take into account the prospect of cattle and wildlife in the road and believe me, there were plenty of jaywalking sheep today...

The Mountain Hare is a species I've been trying to get near to recently and sadly I don't think I'll ever get a closer view than this...

One of half a dozen of the little beauties I saw that had succumb to road traffic in the last few days.
This is the most active time of the year for these Hares and they spend a lot of time on the lower slopes searching for mates...Unfortunately the road passes straight through.
Sorry for the rant!
I expect that almost everyone that takes the time to read this blog is a nature lover and doesn't deserve to be preached to...I don't want to teach your Grandmother to suck eggs!
I just hope that by writing this, that maybe somebody who perhaps does drive a little too fast in the countryside or just as bad leaves litter chances upon this post and THINKS...

Blackfaced Sheep, Alport Moor, Derbyshire Peak District...Just how I like them...ALIVE!

Red Grouse Study (4)

It was one of those typical early spring mornings today in the Dark Peak...
Mist clearing, leaving a dull overcast light, then rain, then bright sunshine and a cold breeze too!
I was hoping to capture the first of the spring arrivals today, but unusually there wasn't a great many Grouse about...Further leading me to believe that there is some egg sitting behaviour going on and the young must be due anytime now.
Of the 5 Red Grouse I did encounter in the hour and a half I chanced the changeable weather conditions in my poorly considered light weight jacket, only one was a female and she appeared to be still courting a male bird that seldom left her side.

It was very pleasing to be able to get some exceptionally close views of this loving couple and at times the two birds were only a matter of a few feet away as I quietly observed them.

The birds were getting so close I considering switching to a 300mm lens, but then the pair exploded into the air in blind panic and flew in opposite directions into thick heather.
I thought we were all getting along so well...What had I done to cause this distress to these beautiful birds?
I certainly didn't make any sudden movements or anything else that would alarm them.
I looked around and into the sky where a beautiful and rare visitor to this part of the world was making light work of 'lifting' every bird in a mile radius...A Red Kite!

I watched in wonder as this magnificent raptor scoured the landscape before flying off in a south easterly direction.

A minute or so later, the male Grouse returned, shortly followed by the female and both birds settled a matter of feet away from me again.
I was actually quite touched to think that these birds seemed to trust me so much especially after the fright they had just experienced or maybe they knew that the Kite would not return for them as long as they were in my company...

Friday, 23 April 2010

Beauty and the Beast

An early evening trip to the Vale tonight and some very rowdy behaviour by the recently arrived Mute Swan Cob...
After seeing off the offspring of the murdered former resident Cob a few weeks back, the new Swan seems intent on ridding the reserve of every other bird that resides there!

First to be shown the door tonight was the entire flock of Canada Geese, followed by most the Mallards and all but two of the Coots.

The Cob was strutting around the two Mill Ponds, chasing away any bird he thought would be a threat to his courtship with the Pen Swan that arrived at the Vale at the same time as him...Very natural behaviour at this time of year as it happens.

However, his reign of terror didn't last long and he was soon put in his place when he tried to confront a normally placid Muscovy Duck.

The unlikely hero stubbornly stood his ground and pretty soon the Cob retreated and normal service resumed as the exiled Geese and Ducks slowly returned.

Quite a entertaining evening watching the antics of the Mute Swan, but on the downside, the recent spell of fine weather brought out the first real big swarm of Midges of the year.
I left the Vale well bitten and very itchy after not taking any insect repellent with me...To be truthful, I really wasn't expecting to encounter so many, so early in the year!
Midges can be a big problem for nature lovers in the warmer months, especially in northern Britain.
Although we get our fair share in the north of England, the problem isn't anywhere near as bad as it is in Scotland.
Which reminds me of something that made me laugh recently...
A lady from Essex (in the south of England where there isn't really much Midge trouble) posted on a Internet forum, about her plans to visit the Isle of Mull and the Scottish mainland in August.
She said that she had heard that Midges were a real problem at this time of year and was asking for advice about what insect repellent to use and what else she could do to avoid being bittern.
The first response to her questions was by Hugh from Inverness..."Just try not to look English and they won't bother you!"

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Fire in the Sky

Yesterday, the recent beautiful silence in the Sky's was broken for the first time in nearly a week as UK commercial air traffic resumed operations after the chaos caused by the Icelandic volcano.
"So that's that then" many would assume and we can all get back to normal...
But can we? Should we?

A volcano nearly a thousand miles north of us erupts and throws Britain and most of Europe into near madness!
So today after a second day of near normal air traffic, I've listened smiling inwardly as people started to talk about their holiday plans as if the events of the last 6 days never happened.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this still a very active volcano that could gush out plumes of ash and other toxins at just about anytime in the near future?
OK, I'm not saying we should all just put our lives on hold and not travel anywhere...that's not what I'm getting at.
What concerns me is, that some people and this very much includes the media, just don't get it...Or to put it another way, they just don't seem to care.

How many news stories have we seen this week featuring stranded passengers and heartbroken holidaymakers?
Answer...Too Many!

I feel a great opportunity has been lost in the past week to educate and perhaps turn people on to the power and wonder of nature and perhaps even install a new respect for the natural world in some.
In this tacky age of junk TV, it would have been very refreshing to see.

Last night, I watched the sunset at Lyme Park in Cheshire and the effects of the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano were still very apparent...

Monday, 19 April 2010

Up, Up and Away!

Something a little bit different from me now and a very enjoyable evening I had yesterday at Bakewell in the Derbyshire Peak District...

About a year or so ago, my Mother in law Jackie booked a hot air balloon ride for herself and husband Dave and after being very unlucky with 3 postponements due to severe weather, the day finally arrived to take to the air and with UK air traffic still suspended due to the Icelandic Volcanic eruption, they might of been the highest flying people in Britain for an hour or so!

Although, I must admit that I don't have any real interest in photographing anything other than wildlife and the odd landscape these days, I relished the challenge of trying to capture the events and I must admit despite very difficult light and being outside my comfort zone, I really did enjoy the experience.

We arrived early at the Showground in Bakewell and had a short wait until the Range Rover and trailer carrying the balloon arrived.

First job after a short introductory talk was for the 3 man crew and 16 (yes sixteen!) passengers to assemble the aircraft.

First job after hitching all the chains and ropes to the basket and securing the guide rope is to fill the balloon with air using two very modest sized fans...

Keeping hold of the balloon while it inflated proved hard work and a great effort was put in by all including Dave pictured on the left with one of the crew members.

Alright, maybe I felt just a tiny bit guilty running around taking pictures while everyone else was putting in the graft, but I was given a fantastic licence to roam by the boys from Virgin and I wanted to take full advantage.

Here is a shot of the inside of the balloon while it was inflating...

Now all the time the air is going into the balloon, the basket is on it's side and after a while the first of the passengers are invited to climb aboard while the vessel is in this position.

This is a hot air balloon after all, and the next job is heat all that cold air generated by the fans.

Fans off, burners on...

After a few minutes, the basket is flipped over into it's correct position and the rest of the passengers quickly jump on board.

Guide ropes are released and up she rises...

Sailing away into the evening sky...

It was off to the Red Lion Pub for a meal and a couple of pints of the excellent Black Sheep Bitter for myself and wife Emma courtesy of Jackie and Dave while the flight was in progress and we later received a call from Jackie to say they had landed safely in a farmers field some place or another.

While Emma and I were sampling the fine local offerings, Dave and Jackie were busy packing the balloon away with the crew and the rest of the passengers. It wasn't all hard work for them and as soon everything was packed safely on the trailer, the champagne corks popped.

All in all a great evening and despite saying "you would never get me up in one of those things", I must admit that I did feel slightly envious of the lucky adventurers and after seeing things first hand and at such close quarters, I might be persuaded in the future! I must admit, that it would be nice to get some pictures from a birds eye view and a balloon certainly is a better vessel for this than any other way of flight.

I'd just like to say a special thanks to all the crew on the Virgin Balloon team for giving me this special access and for making everybody including us land lovers feel very welcome and part of the experience.

Red Grouse Study (3)

Another trip to Bleaklow last Friday to see if there had been any developments with the resident Red Grouse and the most obvious thing I noticed was the distinct lack of female birds.
I counted 12 different males and just the one solitary hen.

After all the recent courtship behaviour, I can only assume that the lack of the females is due to one factor and hopefully this is very good news...
I'm hoping that the females are hid away on the moors sitting on eggs and if this is indeed the case, we should have some new arrivals to report anytime soon and hopefully in time for my next planned visit on Sunday.

This was the morning after the volcanic eruption in Iceland that grounded air traffic all over Europe and I arrived at the location intending to capture the sunrise, but unfortunately I was a few minutes late.
Even so the sky was still spectacular, casting a strange but beautiful red glow across the moors.

The male Grouse seem to be getting use to me and I seem to be able to get a little bit closer every time I visit the location...In fact sometimes I can be even too close to get a nicely composed photograph and I find myself having to back off a little.
This male was very cooperative and happily posed for this portrait...

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Butterflies and Moody Skies.

Early yesterday evening, I had a quick walk down the Vale and after quite a warm day there was very little activity on the Mill Ponds, so I decided to have a walk around to see if I could spot anything of interest.

Highlight of the evening was a beautiful Peacock Butterfly that was doing it's very best to evade me for 5 or so minutes.
I'm by no means an expert on Butterflies or insects in general for that matter, but I do love to see them and if the chance arises, I will always do my best to get a shot of them...Even if it does mean trying to capture it with a 500mm lens like in this instance!

Eventually the beauty landed on some very 'scrubby' grass by the edge of the river which made getting a clean shot almost impossible and this was my best effort...

Away from the river and on the edge of the woods, there seemed to be a little bit of house-hunting going on with a pair of Blue Tits taking turns to survey a potential new property...

Finally, I had a walk to a different stretch of the river behind the railway viaduct and noticed a dark cloud was just about to pass over the sun, so I quickly grabbed my spare camera complete with wide lens and captured the moment.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

At Long Last...Mountain Hare!

After several failed attempts I'm overjoyed to finally photograph an English Mountain Hare.
The Peak District is the only place in England where these very elusive creatures inhabit and finding them has been no mean feat, I can tell you!
I couldn't believe my luck after trying a different location and spotting one within minutes of arrival.
Like buses, no sooner had I seen one, I saw another one and then another!

Now that I have found what looks to be a very good location, I hope to spend some time next winter photographing these Hares...I want to get a lot closer than I managed today also, although I must say I'm really chuffed just to get a few shots.

Red Grouse Study (2)

It was one of those typical mornings on Bleaklow with the bright spring sunshine I left behind at the bottom of the Snake Pass replaced by a thin mist and cold chill on my arrival...
I was greeted almost as soon as I arrived by a pair of Grouse who seemed to take as much interest in me as I had in them, allowing some very close shots without too much effort on my part.

A good start then...Well yes and no!
Yes it was great to start the morning off with such lovely close views, but it did come at a price after deciding to wear my soft trainer-like (and not very waterproof) walking boots and finding myself ankle deep in a watery peak bog!
So with cold feet and ringing wet socks I continued on the crude rocky path through the moorland in search of more Grouse and it wasn't long before I encountered several other pairs.

I noticed that the male and female Grouse were staying very close to each other in all the pairs I saw, which is a sure sign that courtship is well and truly underway.
Hopefully in the coming weeks, we might have some young to photograph!
There was certainly a noticeable change in atmosphere on the moors today and the familiar sound of the Red Grouse was matched by spring arrivals including Curlew, Skylark and the very beautiful Golden Plover.

There were also some dramatic changes to the environment as well with the sight of dozens of bulk bags that were scattered across the moors due to some essential conservation work on the delicate peat landscape.

Because most of this project will take place in this area of the Peak District, I thought I should explain a little more about this harsh environment...
Bleaklow is a high area of peat covered gritstone moorland accessible from the A57 Snake Pass and a few miles from the nearest town of Glossop.
The area is the most easterly point in the British Isles over 2000 ft.
Much of the main plateau is boggy moorland seamed by water-eroded channels in the peat known as 'Groughs' and it's traverse is regarded to be the most navigationaly challenging in the Peak District.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Common Toad

A short visit down the Vale on another amphibian hunt proved successful early this evening, thanks mainly to a couple of sharp eyed kids and their rather embarrassed mother...

After a quick look around the small 'Kingfisher Pond' proved fruitless, I decided to have a walk around the main Mill Ponds and see what birdlife was about and to be perfectly honest, I had all but given up on seeing anything else as I approached the young family.

As I passed the family, the two young boys were looking at something in the grass and called their mother over to investigate.
I heard the words 'frog' and 'piggyback' and I quickly turned around to have a look myself.
Meanwhile the young lady was quickly ushering the youngsters away before they started to ask those awkward questions that children are so very good at.

As it happens, it wasn't frogs that had stirred all the excitement in the kids but a pair of Common Toad and like so many other species do at this time of year, they were...well, errrr, ok, playing piggyback!

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Grey Day

Yesterday, I took a walk through the woods at Brabyns Park in Marple, Stockport.
The River Goyt runs through the woods which leads to a nice varied collection of wildlife.
The area is renowned for hosting all three species of British Woodpecker as well as Tawny Owls and Woodcock.

On the river I got fleeting glimpses of a male Kingfisher, as well as a Dipper and a pair of Grey Wagtail...Unfortunately non of the above were in range of my lens.
In the woods there were the usual common woodland birds, but for some reason my attention was grabbed by a rather curious Grey Squirrel...

Now, I'm not quite sure what to think of the Grey Squirrel aka The Tree Rat anymore...
I'm a strong supporter of the native British Red Squirrel and I used to have a lot of ill feeling towards the imported American Grey for carrying the pox which has led to the decline of our little Reds.
Sadly, barring a miracle I feel that we may be fighting a losing battle when it comes to saving the Reds in England at least and sooner or later we may have to accept the Grey as our only resident Squirrel...It's a crying shame but I now think it is inevitable.
I spent about 15 minutes watching at close quarters the Squirrel yesterday and as I watched, my feelings towards the species dramatically mellowed in that short time...
After I first spotted him, I put some bird food down on the ground and watched as he curiously peeped around a large oak at the bounty.
After a while, slowly and surely he crept down the tree occasionally stopping to have a quick peep at me.

Within a few minutes, he was on the ground only a few feet away, feasting without a care in the world and not the slightest bit worried about me pointing the camera at him.

His initial nervousness and mannerisms were identical to that I have observed with Red Squirrels in the past, although the thing that struck me most and perhaps even saddens me a little is how much more trusting this Grey seemed to be compared to his Red cousins...I'm slightly saddened at this because considering both UK species of Squirrel, the Grey is the one that really should be most fearful of man.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Egg Snatcher!

A quick trip to a small local pond that I hadn't visited for some time provided some interesting bird behaviour today.
I had planned to visit the pond to photograph Frogs, but on arrival I knew my chances would be slim because I wasn't the only visitor...

Grey Herons are notorious Frog eaters, but on this occasion at least, his luck was also out and he settled for a few Sticklebacks before making his exit...

The Heron actually missed out on a bit of a treat, because lying in the reeds only a few yards away was the egg of a Moorhen.
The egg wasn't going to survive the morning intact though and a short time later it was punctured...

Exhibit A

So who or what committed this terrible crime against the Moorhen egg?
Did the Grey Heron return?
Well no actually, the guilty party was non other than...
A Moorhen!
Strange goings on you may say and yes not something you see everyday, but not altogether unheard of.

I might be wrong but my theory is...The Moorhen in question was a male and with it being the breeding season, he destroyed the egg so he could have a (or another) go at mating with the female.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Good Friday?

I can't believe it's been over a month since my last visit to the Vale and after a lot of driving recently it was nice to spend a relaxing morning close to home...
There was definitely a very nice feeling of spring on my arrival, with bright sunshine and bird song all around.

It was relatively quiet as well early on, which came as a little bit of a surprise because I was half expecting to be endlessly avoiding the bane of nature photographers the world over...The dog walker!

Don't get me wrong, I love dogs and I'm rather fond of people too...It's just that over the years I've lost count of the times that a good photo opportunity has been lost because of a dog jumping into a river, barking very loudly or simply chasing my target away.

Actually, I'm being slightly unfair...The dog owners can be far worse!
To me, a man carrying a camera on a tripod with a very large lens in the countryside can in most cases be safely regarded as a wildlife photographer...It's hardly rocket science.
So why is it that so many dog walkers feel the need to noisily stride up to the prime location you've just spent 20 minutes quietly and stealthily securing and ask you what you're doing?
"Well actually mate I was just about to photograph that beautiful (insert species) over there...See it? Oh no it's gone!"

Anyway, where was I?
Oh yes I was at the Vale ...
Pretty nice light early on as well and although not quite as close as I'd like to be, I managed to fire a few frames of a female Goosander before she decided that the water at the very camera unfriendly far side of the Mill Pond was much better for swimming in.

You do have to get down to the Vale early to catch the more desirable species and a early start always means good numbers of Cormorant...

Elsewhere on the water, it was business as usual with the normal array of common birds including this rather boisterous Mallard...

Away from the water and a little bit of spring colour was starting to show around the woodland and the hedgerows were very lively with plentiful House Sparrows...

Finally, it is Easter and a time when we should be reflecting on the life of a man that could walk on water, so I thought it was only apt to end with this shot of a Coot...