Small British Mammals

 

Small British Mammals.

 

   I have always believed that the chances of photographing even a small range of British mammals, in other than captive conditions, would never prove to be cost effective in terms of time and effort. I have twice proved myself wrong and on both occasions I was intent on photographing something entirely different. The first time was whilst waiting for an Osprey to fly in and the second time was when photographing Barn Owls.

   The second time was more manageable as it was much closer to home. I was lucky enough to know of a site where a pair of Barn Owls could be seen flying at any time from 1-00pm onwards. There was no consistency to their timing nor frequency of flight. The only answer was to hunker down and be prepared to see what, if anything, the day would bring. The site was adjacent to a farm and sometimes their prey was a full grown rat and at other times a succession of voles and mice of various sizes. If the first catch of the day was a rat then that was the only fly-by for that particular owl for the day. If the catch was an immature vole or mouse then digesting time seemed to be about one and a half to two hours, when another flight would take place. This led to a lot of time waiting for the next flight with precious little to do in the meantime.

   The place I had chosen as a hidey-hole was frequented by a friendly Robin and my guilty conscience at wolfing down my lunchtime sandwiches in front of him eventually led me to share some with him. There was a well vegetated bank behind me and I took to placing tidbits on it in anticipation of his joining me. One day I noticed that a Bank Vole had beaten him to it so I increased the menu to include a range of bird seed mix. Over the ensuing days I was treated to a succession of Mammals such as I had never really expected to come within range. They got used to the idea that it was open pantry time at much the same time that they accepted a heavily camouflaged me as a natural part of the landscape. My total “bag” included common rat, bank vole, field vole, wood mouse, yellow collared mouse, shrew and an assortment of hedgerow birds that grew in confidence as the days went by. 

 

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The Site

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Bank Vole

 Bank Vole

Young Bank Voles

Adult Bank Vole

Field or Short Tailed Vole

Common  Rats

Shrew

Wood Mice

Wood Mouse

Yellow Collared Mouse

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Gems found in a Suburban Garden

 

Gems found in a Suburban Garden.

 

   I live in a bungalow with only a small back garden, in the suburbs of Poole in Dorset. Its very location is a severe limiter of the range of wildlife species that, even with the help of wishful thinking, I could reasonably expect to have pay me a visit. Yes, of course, I have the proscribed bird table and seed and nut feeders but their regular visitors, although plentiful in numbers, do not fill many notepad pages when it comes to listing different species. However, there can be the odd exception.

   My office window overlooks the postage stamp sized lawn and said window and its accompanying patio door are double and triple glazed. Mr Nikon and Mr Canon would no doubt turn in their graves if they thought anyone would attempt to take photographs through such a barrier, especially in view of the many millions they must have spent developing the refined glass used in their lenses. I am, however, guilty of such an offence – and on more than one occasion. The number of days on which I can sit here with doors and windows open are few and far between and so it is that when anything out of the ordinary pays a call I cannot open up without frightening it off.

   I have attached a few shots of some of the visitors concerned and, though they may not be legion in number, it just goes to show that in the pursuit of wildlife images “you never know what’s round the corner or just about to show up!!”

   The Stock Dove is, to my mind, our most beautiful native dove. Supposedly fairly common, especially in the South-West, I must confess that in all my years of Wildlife Photography I have only ever seen, at least to notice, one other of these beautiful birds. To have a pair visiting the garden, and that right throughout the summer, was a real pleasure. The Magpie, of course, is no rarity and we have a dozen or so frequenting our Close. What interests me with them is to see just how many peanuts they can stuff in their beaks at one time before running off, squirrel-like, to bury them for later. The Starlings were part of a flock of about 100 that spent a day or so looking for leather-jacket larvae on the grass of the central green in the Close. Small raiding parties occasionally broke off to rampage through the local gardens and these were part of a small group of about 20 that graced me with a visit. The Green Woodpecker visits occasionally looking for ants in the cracks of the garden path. These it either eats or rubs all over itself so that their formic acid discharge can clean him of parasites and, finally, some four footed visitors. It’s easy to shudder and think of poison when you see one of these in your garden but, whether you like it or not, I’ll bet there’s at least one living not far from you if you’re in suburbia. Their antics in figuring out how to access any potential food source never cease to amaze me and their ingenuity knows no bounds. This family who (only for the sake of my neighbours) I hope was just passing through, kept my shutter finger active for a number of hours one afternoon.

  

 

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Pair of Stock Doves

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Stock Dove

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Magpie

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Where does a Magpie keep his nuts?

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Adult Starling Mutation feeding normal coloured young

Green Woodpecker “Anting”

So that’s where all the bird seed went.

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Familiarity Breeds Contempt

 

Familiarity Breeds Contempt.

 

   All too often we pass familiar sights and spare them hardly a glance as they seem so commonplace. Some Wildlife species fall into this category even though, on closer inspection, they may prove to be inordinately beautiful.

   The common Pheasant falls within this group. Pheasant species in general tend to be highly colourful but this is probably more apparent and admired because the normal settings in which one encounters “foreign species” are those of a Zoo or Bird Park where they will be at close quarters. How often though, when driving through the country, do we dismiss those distant birds in a field as “Oh, it’s just some Pheasants”. For sheer natural beauty, and as an example of Nature’s design brilliance, there can be little more striking an image than that of a well exposed close-up shot of a Cock Pheasant in full breeding plumage. The females, too, are equally striking though in a more subdued way. The trick is to get close enough to capture images that show every feather detail.

   Pheasants have a lot in life to put up with. Unfortunately for them, properly prepared, they can be very good to eat. In addition they are of a body size that is not too difficult for a trained eye to spot in a wild setting. These two factors have resulted in their being hunted as a food source for centuries. Their seemingly unhurried gliding flight pattern has also contributed to their appeal to the “sport” shooting fraternity as they have not proved too difficult to hit in mid-flight. To compound their misfortune they, in keeping with many Gallinaceous species, have proved easy to breed in captivity. Some publications have their captive breeding as game birds going back as far as Roman times and some even further.

   Although the natural areas of distribution of the nominate species lie in Asia and the East they have spread through many areas such as North America and Europe as a result of deliberate introduction principally as Game Birds. Along the way much hybridising experimentation has taken place to the extent  that what we now tend to write off as “just a Pheasant” is, in fact, the hybrid result of many generations of intensive cross breeding. I find it hard to believe but Wikipedia quotes the annual UK production at 35 Million birds. I have put the “million” as words lest you think I slipped up with my noughts!!

   Most hybrid species are infertile and unable to reproduce naturally but in the case of the Pheasant family this has proved not to be so. As a result what you see in the fields can have a mixed and very varied ancestry, depending on what species were introduced into the bloodline throughout the generations. Hybrid offspring of any species tend to favour one or more of their, in this case many, forbears in inherited characteristics, and, as a result, can often display a significant variation in appearance. This is the case with our Pheasants and it can prove very photographically rewarding to see how many colour forms you can capture images of. The two principal ancestors of our game pheasants are the Ring-Necked Pheasant and the Japanese Green. Both possess strikingly different features and so the potential variations are almost limitless although, in practice, most colour forms do fall within an accepted range. 

 

 

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Gaudy colours of a Reeves Pheasant

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Slow Gliding Flight

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Pair of Melanistic Pheasants

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Pair of typical colour “Game” Pheasants

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Cock Displaying

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Pale Coloured Cock

Most colour phase hens very similar

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4 Different Phases. Never let them be “Just Pheasants” again

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Barn Owls

 

Barn Owls – Tyto alba

 

   Some Wildlife species seem to possess an almost iconic allure and Owls appear to be one of them. In this country probably the most iconic of our native varieties is the Barn Owl. Its allure is no doubt due, in part, to the fact that it is the species most often seen or, certainly, noticed. It’s ephemeral, almost ghostlike, appearance as it glides silently in the dusk or when caught in the glare of headlights sticks in the mind for ever after.

   As a potential photographic subject it can be elusive and, if encountered at all, only be so in conditions of light and circumstance that completely preclude the possibility of meaningful images to the standards now expected as the norm. It is most likely to be seen quartering fields and hedgerows in the twilight and at a distance such that fairly sophisticated camera equipment will be called for to get anything approaching a decent shot.

   I was lucky this year in finding a spot where a pair of Barn Owls could be seen hunting, either in the early morning, or from about one in the afternoon. A convenient hedgerow, full camouflage and endless patience ultimately produced the “goods”. These birds hearing capabilities are incredible and, from personal experience, it would seem that they react adversely to camera shutter noise but if you are well concealed and can react quickly enough then, provided you have a camera with a decent frame rate, you should be able to get a number of images as it glides silently by. The bulk of its flight will be by gliding slowly and silently (a special wing feather feature assists it in this), so, with a little luck, you will not need to have to work at the shutter speed normally required to obtain sharp images of smaller winged, fast flying species such as ducks.

 

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Bearded Tits

 

Bearded Tits/Parrotbills/Reedlings – Panurus biarmicus

 

   Bearded Tits are one of several species that have successfully eluded me over the years. Their elusive success is probably down to the fact that, whilst the species enjoys an extremely wide distribution through Europe and Asia, in this country it is extremely localised, mainly in Estuaries and Salt Marshes where Phragmites Reeds grow, and favouring Southern and Eastern England. During Spring and Summer they are scattered throughout the reed beds, often rear more than one brood a year, and feed almost exclusively on invertebrates. Foot access to reed beds is often extremely limited and the density of reeds and other estuarine plants at this time of year makes meaningful sightings a matter of chance.

   After breeding, from Autumn on through Winter, and with a shortage of invertebrates at this time of year, their dietary requirements change more towards a seed based diet. In addition to this they tend to form flocks, often of some size, and can be seen clinging to the tops of the Phragmites reeds as well as on Reed mace (which, as a boy, I seem to remember we called Bulrushes). They are not the strongest of fliers and neither do they seem to be of a particularly nervous disposition so if you can locate a feeding flock there is every chance they will carry on feeding even if you are able to approach fairly closely.

   I chose Radipole Lake in Weymouth to attempt to lay this particular ghost to rest in December 2016. I made a number of journeys here up till the end of March and was successful on more than one occasion. Initially the closest I got was to meet endless people who had just seen 30 to 40 “100 yards up the path”, but they had normally found pastures new by the time I got there. Perseverance paid, however, and I eventually managed to add a few shots to my portfolio!

 

Phragmites reeds

Phragmites Reeds

Reed Mace

 Reed Mace

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Female 1

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Female 2

Male 2

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Male Bearded Tit 1

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Bearded Tit Male 2

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