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

Female 1

Female 1

Female 2

Female 2

Male 2

Male 3

Male 1

Male Bearded Tit 1

Male Bearded Tit 2

Bearded Tit Male 2

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Gather Ye Violets while you may!


            Bulbous Violets

 07/02/16   Busy week of talks and, in between, weather fit only for masochistic photographers. I have noticed, however, whilst driving around, that Snowdrops have come into their own in the last few days. They have been with us for some time in dribs and drabs but have recently made a full showing. This morning’s weather being almost clement, despite a forecast of rain by three, I thought I’d make the most of it and sallied forth a’snowdropping. I visited a favourite site where the flowers, known in antiquarian literature as “Bulbous Violets”, are in a sloping woodland setting together with some ferns and mossy branches, only to find that, in the conditions prevailing, even a mountain goat would have been pushed to remain upright. Did the best possible but a major problem was that, even under the trees, rain damage had been substantial. It doesn’t take many damaged flower heads in a clump to completely write it off as a suitable subject. Careful searching came up with one or two suitable settings, however, so made the most of the day. I shall be checking out one or two other sites in the next few days to see if anywhere escaped the brunt of the weather.


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Winter Woodland Birds


         Woodland Birds in Winter.

   This is the time of the year when many Woodland bird species, that are normally difficult to see, flock to seed feeders for a “top-up”. If you have feeders in the garden then you will see some species that are probably not around in late Spring and early summer when they are tied up with the time consuming business of rearing a family. For many of them their food requirements change during the breeding season and they are dependent on a ready supply of high protein insects to fuel a fast growing brood. Gardens are not the best of places to supply this kind of a diet especially with our fondness for liberally sprinkling slug pellets and drowning the area with insecticidal spray every time an aphid dares to rear its head. Coupled with this is the fact that many garden flowers, though descended from highly perfumed, nectar providing ancestors so beloved by a whole host of insect species, have, nevertheless, been adapted for cultivation based on a completely different set of criteria  than  would have applied in the wild.                                                                                                                                                      

   Many flowering plants are the results of generations of artificial selection based on factors such as flower size, duration of blooming and ease of management. For some reason when we take species into “captivity” and breed specific individuals together we seem to work on the principle that “big is beautiful”, and select our breeding stock accordingly. Where flowering plants are concerned this often leads to blooms that are substantially larger and far more, dare I say “garish”, than their wild forbears. Along the way many species cease producing nectar and any insect attracting perfume as there is little or no practical need for it in their brave new world. As a consequence the most visually vibrant and attractive garden in the street could be about as sterile as the Sahara from an insect’s point of view.

   If you do feed birds in the garden then make the effort to do so regularly or don’t complain when very little turns up. The birds need food every day come rain or shine and, although food preferences will vary throughout the year, you should be able to adjust to their needs by simple observation of what they are eating most of at any one time. They are perfectly capable of balancing their own diets to best advantage provided that they have a diverse choice of foodstuffs.



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Winter Tits


         Assorted Winter Tits.

    At this time of the year, and with the weather as it is, the inclination for Wildlife photographers is to succumb to a dose of the Winter Weather Blues. Despair, dismay at yet another wet and windy day, and a general malaise and lethargy can force the body to seek shelter somewhere comfortable. Preferably in close proximity to a decent heat source and continuous supply of hot beverages, and with a sign over the door saying “Abandon Hope all ye who enter here!”.

   Mope not, for all is not lost. This is an ideal time of the year for small bird photography. Dependent on weather conditions many wild bird populations will be up against a feeding crisis. This is more so for the insectivorous species as the supply of accessible insects will have been severely curtailed by the onset of winter. Not only that but with the very much shorter hours of daylight in which to source food and the longer, often inclement, nights to fuel, winter can be somewhat fraught.

   As a result many species will become more tolerant of human presence than they normally are, especially if you become accepted as a potential food source. This will be apparent even within your own gardens if you normally provide food garden birds as, once the association with food has been made, you will often find then queuing up as you approach the feeding table.

   Many areas of the country will have one or two local sites where substantial flocks of mixed tits build up in the winter months. These are often in Parks or Reserves where the authorities, or even the public, provide a constant supply of food top-ups. In my area the New Forest is a source of such sites and at a number of locations the Public has taken to providing a veritable banquet. These days many feed mixes, fat blocks and balls, contain animal protein in the form of suet, or other animal fats, and mealworms. These latter can now be purchased in a dried form and, once they are used to them, are avidly sought after especially by species which are normally insectivorous and to which a standard dried seed mix is of little or no value.

   If you can locate one of these sites you will often find that, by placing food in a suitable spot, you may even be able to remain in the car and photograph through the open window. So much more civilised than lying in a muddy puddle!

   Tits in particular become very confiding and generally react favourably to human presence especially if you have a bag of feed in your hand as opposed to a dog on a lead!!


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                     Long Tailed Tit

                         Blue Tit

                            Coal Tit

                               Great Tit

Marsh Tit

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Why are they called Butterflies?


            Butter Coloured Flies

   What photographer can resist the appeal of this group of insects. They seem to be almost omnipresent in that they can be found in a variety of different habitats from the expected countryside settings right up to normal gardens and even busy city centres. We can enjoy the sight of somewhat over 50 different species in the UK. The exact number is somewhat debatable and will depend on where you stand in the world of splitters, lumpers and re-introducers. The first two of these refers to those who, often seemingly pedantically, choose to “split” or “lump” together various species and/or sub-species and the third refers to those who sit in judgement and decide at what point a species,  re-introduced for whatever justifiable reasons, should be declared “native” once again. I have covered this subject more comprehensively in my book “Wildlife Photography on a Budget” and made my sentiments clear!!

   Political bickering apart they make phenomenal photographic subjects. The fact that there are only 50 to 60 species in the UK means that with luck, diligence and a fondness for travel, there is a chance that you could locate and photograph each and every species. There is something of a collector in all of us and whatever form that interest takes for you there will always be an extra incentive if collecting a “full set” is a possibility. Pursuit of this “full set” will force you into undertaking considerable research into characteristics, habitats, seasons of the various life cycle stages and even social contact with fellow enthusiasts. Word of mouth is probably one of the best sources of information, especially in respect of suitable sites to visit, although there are now a significant number of Field Guides available on the subject.

   Whilst the classical mental vision of a butterfly probably involves one of the more highly coloured species displaying with its wings “akimbo”, many species can be as beautiful, or even more so, on their undersides. Devoting time to capturing images depicting various behaviour patterns and from different angles can be quite rewarding and set you apart from the masses who seem to be convinced that the fully spread shot is the only viable option. Whilst not denigrating the incredible beauty of some of these “wings wide” shots the buying, and even viewing public, are increasingly demanding that wildlife images should display the subject “doing something” other than just lying around.

   Amongst the attached images there is one of a male Brimstone Butterfly, said to be the insect that gave rise to the name as, in certain antiquarian literature, it is referred to as “The Butter Coloured Fly”.  


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              Brown Hairstreak

       Silver Studded Blues courting

               Chalkhill Blue male

             Common Blue male

               Small Blue male

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  Comma showing “Comma” marking

                White Admiral

                    Red Admiral

                    Marsh Fritillary

        Silver Washed Fritillary male

               Brimstone female

       Brimstone male – the original

         “Butter Coloured Fly”

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Little Grebes


            Little Grebe.


   These delightful little birds are also commonly referred to as Dabchicks. Although found on a variety of pond, lake and slow moving water habitats they are not the easiest of birds to photograph due to a normally secretive nature sensitive to disturbance. On those waters that they do frequent they are normally to be found around the margins where there is a reasonable density of aquatic vegetation, reeds and rushes, amongst which they hunt their prey. Their diet consists of fish, aquatic insects, molluscs and crustaceans. They have a number of “similar at first glance” cousins – two of the much rarer ones are also featured here for comparison purposes – Slavonian and Black Necked.


   Part of their appeal must be down to their appearance. They are small and “dumpy” and look as though someone has yanked their tails out leaving a fluffy “stump” behind. They are extremely agile in the water and their normal evasive action consists of diving rapidly beneath the surface and virtually disappearing. You can often wait with bated breath for their reappearance until you are convinced they must have drowned. A distinctive cry from the far side of the waterway will highlight the errors of your supposition as they are capable, with the help of their curiously “lobed” feet, of travelling enormous distances without the need to surface, thus frustrating all attempts to train your lens on an anticipated re-emergence point. They fly infrequently but will often attack interlopers or evade perceived threats by seemingly “running” across the water surface.


  One of their more endearing features is to carry their stripy coloured young on their backs for the first few days after leaving the nest and, much to my regret, this is one of the behaviour patterns I have yet to capture. What better “reason to go on” could one wish for?

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               Adult Little Grebe

          Little Grebe stretching

                      And again

           Taking a flying walk

            Mother and young

            Still dependent young

          Just about independent

              Fully independent

          About to take a Damselfly

                  Just surfacing

               Full Adult Little Grebe

  The very similar Black Necked Grebe

          Also similar Slavonian Grebe

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Domestic Stock and Wildlife.


        Domestic Livestock


   Whilst not forming part of the spectrum of “wild” species that lend themselves to the heading “Wildlife”, domestic stock can be an all important factor to take into account when deciding “where to go and what to do for the day’s photography”. Apart from the fact that many Domestics make very photogenic subjects in themselves they are all too often instrumental in determining the nature of the areas in which they live. The grazing of Domestic stock in areas such as the New Forest determines the growth and development of various types of vegetation such as grasses and edible shrubs. The configuration of fields, hedgerows, coppices and set-asides in agricultural areas is often determined by the requirements of the livestock that those fields and surrounds are going to cater for. This, in turn, dictates the variety of Wildlife to which those areas will be suited.

   Other than the grazing and accommodating requirements of resident livestock the agricultural regimes of spraying, harvesting, ploughing etc can all have a direct effect, often deleterious, on the suitability of the habitat for wildlife species. Many quite normal farming practices will seem designed to cheat you of photographic opportunities that would have seen your efforts on the centre page of The National Geographic but you have to accept that farming “is here to stay”, although its nature is always subject to on-going changes, and you need to learn to work with and around it as opposed to railing against it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when an early cut of silage can destroy the breeding efforts of Hares, Lapwings and other meadow nesting birds but photographic opportunity can be found in Domestic Livestock areas by photographing some of the more photogenic species themselves. Even for those photographers of a commercial bent this need not be a waste of time as the picture buying public will always have a soft spot for “cute and cuddlies” and images of the young of most species will always tug at the heartstrings.


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Hide Etiquette


                                   Hide etiquette.

After an unusual amount of time spent in hides, both public and private, this summer, I am appalled by the behaviour of many photographers, bird spotters and general “Let’s go and look at the birds” time wasters that seem attracted to my chosen “hide of the moment” as if to a magnet. Despite suggestions to the contrary I do really love my fellow man but must admit that, as with all relationships, that love has oft been stretched to virtual breaking point.


   Taking some of the actions that can sometimes stir me to a state of near apoplexy in the sequence in which they normally occur, we will start in that frequently over looked place – The Beginning – which, in this case, is often located outside the hide. Many hides, particularly the ones open to the public, are located on Nature Reserves of one sort or another and these places, bounden by a plethora of modern regulations imposed by a variety of no doubt well meaning bodies are obliged to provide reasonable and unfettered access routes for all. This inevitably involves the provision of a gravelled path leading up to the hide, many of which are approached from a “blind side”. This prevents “approachees” from seeing what those in the hide are watching, after a wait of hours sometimes, and it would appear that what the eye doesn’t see the head doesn’t deign to consider and so their approach is heralded by the sound of carelessly scrunched gravel and animated conversation long before their bodies have reached the hide entrance. Before entering the hide bags and backpacks are slung off shoulders and thump up against the side of the building followed by a clumsy throwing open of the door. Seldom is there a cautious door opening and closing. The norm is for the door to be thrown open and then released to noisily close itself due to the self return spring mechanisms that are normally fitted.


    The grand entrance thus effected there then follows a further period of disruption as benches are dragged across the floor and camera gear and lunch noisily distributed on the shelving provided. This is then followed by a period of unhushed conversation as earlier occupants are quizzed as to what there is on view and where it is. If the remaining available seating is such that newcomers are separated then everyone is like to be treated to the balance of the conversation that wasn’t finished off on the approach run. I have spent a great deal of time recently in a hide that is fairly regularly frequented by Kingfishers. This hide is not adjacent to a nest site and so the visits are based on fishing requirements which are of a sporadic and erratic nature being dictated by hunger, the degree of which is, itself, determined by the size and quantity of the fish caught earlier in the day. From a purely selfish point of view I would prefer the early morning fishing expeditions to result in a catch of tiddlers as this means there is a good chance of continuing action. If they manage to catch a whopper early on then the rest of the day is likely to be spent in Siesta, out of sight and round the corner!! Back to the point at issue. Kingfishers are one of those iconic subjects, like Badgers, that virtually anyone and everyone wants to see whether they are photographically inclined or not. A hide therefore, that provides regular sightings of such subjects, quickly attracts attention as the word spreads. The result is a steady stream of visitors many of whom are not regulars and have not acquired any semblance of “Hide etiquette”. I have lost count of the number of times the first words uttered after entering the hide are “Where’s these Kingfishers then?” as if they should be glued to the end of a perch just outside the Hide on permanent view. A further fact that never ceases to amaze me is that the average length of stay in that particular hide was little more than a few minutes if the Kingfishers failed to show on cue, thus negating the whole ethos of a hide which is to wait patiently and watch and observe. Some days the Kingfisher visits, especially in the days prior to dispersal of the young when food demand was high, were seemingly almost constant and on others there may have been only one or two in a whole day, or indeed none at all. Such is the nature of wildlife!


   The next problem is that size actually can make a difference. More and more photographers seem to be finding the resources to invest in long lenses and lens manufacturers are exacerbating the situation by producing cheaper and cheaper, longer and longer “long lens lookalikes”. Some long lenses(and I have two – a 600mm F4 and a 400mm F2.8) together with their lens hoods, when mounted on a body, come up to an overall length often in excess of 2ft. Given that the bulk of the lens’ weight is at the bigger end this means that from the centre of gravity, which is usually the tripod mount, to the outside edge of the lens hood can be up to at least 18inches in length. The combined weight of the assembled unit is such that hand holding is not a very viable option. This leaves a choice between setting up a tripod in hide conditions or resting the unit on its fulcrum on the window ledge which leaves the offending outer 18inches waving around in the breeze outside the window. Due to the unwieldy nature, length and weight of these lenses it is sometimes difficult to “get on” a subject especially if it is off to one side. I have seen photographers shoving their whole lens and camera unit, together with their own head and shoulders, out of the window to circumvent the problem, regardless of the potential effect it may have on the subject and regardless of how it may affect the chances of the other hide occupants. To a subject the end of a lens looks like a big eye and will be something to be avoided at all costs. Most hide windows are designed as slots so that, under normal circumstances, there is little chance of a subject outside correlating what little, if anything, that it can see, with a human being.


   Anything, and this includes those frantically pointing hands and fingers accompanied by a frenzied yelp of “there’s one over there”, that protrudes beyond the window is likely to be taken as a threat and cause a subject, which some hide occupants may have been waiting hours to see, to beat a hasty retreat. The answer is simple. Despite the occasional slight inconvenience use a tripod and set it up with your lens end inside the hide. You can normally reduce its length by removing the lens hood, or part of it, since offending light reflections will be somewhat thin on the ground in the confines of a hide. There will be times when you cannot “get on” the subject as mentioned above but this is just one of the sacrifices you must be prepared to put up with when you opt to operate within those circumstances.   


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Seizing the moment


Grab your chances when you can.


11.11.15   The weather over the last few days has left something to be desired on the suitable light front.  Having decided to use the potential down time to recce areas not visited for sometime we ended up driving around near Shaftesbury. The wind was blowing a hooley and the sky was a mix of sunlit patches, solid white cloud and fog banks, all of which came and went in constant succession and at a varying speed of passage.

   In one of the rare sunlit moments we saw a couple of kites flying( the Red ones with feathers on, not strings!) and pulled over on the chance of a shot or two. As we did so I saw one clinging tenaciously to a treetop and in full view of the vehicle. I didn’t fancy my chances of getting out and setting up the tripod without spooking it although it had, admittedly, sat there and allowed the vehicle to stop without departing at a rate of knots, which they usually do. Waving a 600mm lens out of the window is not my idea of a fun day out but needs must when the devil drives and so I took a number of shots anyway.

   True to expectations, when I tried to ease out of the van in my version of what I call unobtrusively, it launched forth and disappeared behind the trees.

   By the time I had the tripod set up it was long gone but another hove into view and provided a blue sky in-flight shot as it headed into the wind. A further uneventful hour followed except that during the course of it the sky changed completely to a solid white backdrop as a Buzzard hove into view and provided the first of the day’s exposure nightmares with the sky having the effect of strong back lighting. Over exposing by one and a third stops seemed to solve the problem and provided the accompanying shot.

   Possibly spooked by the Buzzard, though they don’t normally seem to mind, a Hare headed straight for us, either seeing us as a potential refuge or, as I prefer to convince myself, not seeing us at all due to our Rambo like camo and just making a beeline for the hedge we were, ourselves, crouching in. A pair of Partridges followed not far behind him and as we left, with a thick fog drifting in, a damp Kestrel had adopted a lookout station further down the hedgerow.

   Not too bad a result for a most off-putting of days and made the effort of braving the elements worthwhile. Like doing the lottery, ” you have to be in it to win it”, and it’s for certain sure we wouldn’t have done much except stare into the eyes of a computer if we hadn’t made the effort to go out!


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‘Twas not a wasted day!


  There they were – gone!


  25.10.15 Not too bad a day weather-wise. Decided to visit Weymouth to see if the Bearded Tits were on show. They weren’t! Not a tweet, not a whisper, nor even an errant feather tumbling slowly to the ground. Waterfowl were on show though including a vagrant/ lost/ escaped or whatever Hooded Merganser in the Car Park Pond amongst its more normal contemporaries.


Walking through Radipole pathways searching for the day’s lost cause we came on a viewpoint offering good views of a variety of Gulls and Waterfowl. Gulls are so commonplace they are often disregarded as suitable subjects for the serious photographer but they assume a new importance when there is a dearth of other species with which to occupy oneself.


Herring and Black Headed of various ages were all bathing and adopting some unusual poses. Gadwall were seemingly oblivious of the human audience, Cormorants were showing off their finer points and Male Mute Swans were showing off their varying testosterone levels with much pugnacious posturing. A very distant Kestrel seemed to be hovering expectantly but with little more success than we had in our target of the day. An even more distant Marsh Harrier seemed to be gracing the vicinity of the distant houses and steadfastly refused to come any closer to what would have been a truly appreciative audience.


You can’t win ’em all but we did the best we could.

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