Monday, 23 March 2015

Field lens photography fun at Flatpack Festival

Not much bloggage from me recently - the two Open University modules I'm currently studying have deadlines that are very close together, I had one last week and have another this Wednesday so I've been hard at work on assignments! However over the weekend I did also spend a quite substantial amount of time at various events as part of Flatpack Festival, Birmingham's annual and most excellent film festival. As well as seeing four films I also went to a slime mould experiment (I now have my own slime mould exploring a petri dish at home!) and a guided walk/photography workshop which entailed using a field lens in conjunction with a smartphone camera to take macro photographs of mosses, lichens, fungi, plants and other things, whatever took our fancy really. It was great fun, walking round Eastside searching out our subjects on walls, rusty railings, grass verges and in cracks between paving stones. Because there was a fair-sized group of us doing it, you didn't worry at all about looking weird - I'm not sure I would do the same thing on my own in a similarly busy urban setting (we finished up at St Martin's Church at the back of the Bullring), but I am definitely going to take my field lens out on trips from now on, using it for photography is very easy and quite addictive!

Here are my favourites from the photos I took on the guided walk.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Sandwell Valley - March 2015

Yesterday I was volunteering once again at RSPB Sandwell Valley. Despite some signs of spring, there was still a rather powerful chill in the air and I wrapped up warm before heading out! When we arrived, there were plenty of volunteers to staff the hide, so Alf and I went for a wander around the reserve. 

The chilly temperatures weren't putting off many of the birds, and very soon we heard singing from Chaffinch, Dunnock, Bullfinch, Robin, Wren and Greenfinch among others. We had a fruitful stop at Kingfisher Corner, spotting pairs of Teal and Little Grebe along the River Tame, and hearing a Green Woodpecker. Onwards we proceeded, with flocks of Goldfinches twittering around above, following the river where we encountered seven Wigeon grazing on the opposite bank.

Can you spot the Wigeons? I couldn't achieve a decent close-up in the terrible light!
Up on the windswept path between the river and Forge Mill Lake we bumped into a couple of regulars and stopped for a chat. During said chat we saw a pair of Grey Wagtails on the River Tame, a Chiffchaff skulking through the willows on the lake bank - calling but not singing - and heard a Water Rail screeching in the reeds. Across the lake we could see the new visitor centre which is taking shape very quickly, and now has the beginnings of a roof!

View of the new visitor centre across Forge Mill Lake.
We continued along the path and one of the volunteers in the hide phoned to say they were watching a Ringed Plover! Alas we couldn't find it from the other side of the lake; as the viewers in the hide said it was foraging around the shoreline of the islands closest to them, it was likely obscured from our view by the rise of the islands. We decided to head back up to the centre to warm up and have lunch, and hoped that the Ringed Plover would stick around for a bit!

After lunch we went down to the hide; although I was on the look out for wildflowers en route we hardly saw any - far fewer than I've been seeing on my canalside commute through south Birmingham lately. Perhaps temperatures at Sandwell are lagging behind those in my local area somewhat, which may experience a bit of an urban heat island effect and I think is probably a little more sheltered. All I could find was some Blackthorn blossom and Willow catkins:

Who doesn't love FUZZY Willow (Salix sp.) catkins!

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) blossoms.
In the trees at the top of the path to the hide Alf tracked down a singing Song Thrush. Alas, when we reached the hide the Ringed Plover had already departed! But a Little Ringed Plover was still about, as were the Oystercatcher pair who were mainly having a snooze for most of the afternoon. Lapwing numbers were quite low, but there were loooads of Black-headed Gulls, and most of them seemed to be actively feeding on something in the surface waters - they kept picking stuff (we couldn't see what - presumably very small) out of the water. Maybe they were exploiting some kind of spawning event - perhaps it was tiny eggs or larvae they were feeding on?

Feeding Black-headed Gulls.
We also enjoyed watching a pair of Great Crested Grebes nest-building and doing a bit of courtship - mirroring each other's head-shakes, although no full-on dancing or weedy gifts. They did copulate on the nest at one point though, hopefully they will continue with their nest and settle there as it was eminently viewable from the hide - would be grand to watch them raise their chicks in plain view! There were still a few wintery ducks about - Shovelers, Goosanders and one Pochard, although that may well be the one Pochard that stays in the Valley all year round. We also had a brief Kingfisher fly-by. I attempted some drawings but the Grey Heron flew off just as I'd started; the grazing Wigeon is a little more complete at least, if a bit on the chunky side!

Drawings of Grey Heron and Wigeon.

200. Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

Black-winged Stilts are super-elegant leggy waders, which normally breed in southern Europe but have very infrequently bred in the UK. Most recently they successfully bred here last year, and as the climate continues to warm it's possible they will breed here more frequently in future. They are pretty unmistakeable, with their pied plumage and slightly ridiculously long legs; males have a uniformly glossy black back and females' and juveniles' backs are browner. The head pattern can vary in both sexes with males generally having more black markings than females, and some individuals having completely white heads. Their preferred habitat is shallow fresh, brackish or saline water with mud/sand/clay in places like estuaries, lagoons, saltpans, with maybe some short vegetation. They are very widely distributed, being found throughout much of Africa and across central Asia as far as Taiwan. Generally they are migratory in the northern part of their range, and resident in the more southerly parts.

Black-winged Stilt, ©Wayne Butterworth, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Black-winged Stilt painting.
My 200th painting! A bit chunky, but not too bad. I would love to see a Black-winged Stilt, hopefully I will someday soon!

Friday, 13 March 2015

199. Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocets, or just plain Avocets as they are known to us here in the UK, are an immediately recognisable bird and are familiar to many as the symbol of the RSPB. They are a conservation success story here - they went extinct in 1840, but recolonised in the 1940s and numbers have been increasing ever since. They like saline or brackish water with plenty of mud for foraging, so are found on open seashores, saltmarshes, lagoons and lakes; also estuaries and mudflats outside of the breeding season. The sexes appear fairly similar, but males have a slightly longer, less sharply upturned bill, and females may have slightly less sharply-defined black/brown head markings. Juveniles look similar but with generally duller brown markings which are more extensive. Avocets have webbed feet so can swim through deeper water as well as wading in shallower water. In the UK they are found around English coasts and also at localised inland sites with suitable habitat (my nearest Avocet colony is at Upton Warren); they are patchily distributed around the coast of Europe and north Africa, with northernmost breeders generally wintering further south, central and southern breeders generally being resident, and wintering populations generally only found in southermost Europe and north Africa. Although there is a bit of overlap between all of those! Further afield, their distribution spreads all the way across to China.

Pied Avocet, ©Åsa Berndtsson, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Pied Avocet painting.
Haven't had as much time as I would've liked this week for painting, as I've been hard at work practicing for my driving theory test, which I passed this afternoon - hurrah. Now I'm heading off to a Wildlife Trust talk about badgers! Woo Friday night, I know how to party!

Monday, 9 March 2015

Sexism in birding

A bit of a change from my usual blog posts now, for some thoughts about something I've never written about here previously, but which is rarely far from my mind. I'd like to preface it with three qualifying statements.

Firstly, when I read about instances of sexism experienced by other women and men (e.g. as documented by the Everyday Sexism Project) I feel pretty fortunate in that throughout my adult life I've experienced relatively little in the way of sexism, with just the odd isolated minor incident now and then. It's rare that I am directly on the receiving end of sexist behaviour, but all the same, I remain moderately aware of the systemic gender equalities that persist in the world today, and as a result am fairly hyper-aware of sexism in my everyday life, directed at me or otherwise.

Secondly, I've been birding with the West Midland Bird Club on their monthly coach trips for six years now and overwhelmingly I've found them a very welcoming and lovely bunch. They are for the most part a fair bit older than me (I'm 30) and for the most part male. It's not a criticism, but I would say that sexism isn't even on the radar for many of them - I don't think it would occur to many of them to behave in a sexist manner, nor to challenge sexist behaviour if they see it. Perhaps a generational thing for some, but I don't really mind either way. I think there is greater awareness among my closer birding buddies, both in the WMBC and elsewhere - perhaps that is partly why I gravitated towards them when I first started birding. I've known them to point out or challenge sexist behaviour on occasion. As mentioned above, I've been on the receiving end of relatively little sexist behaviour in my life, and this is even more so the case in birding - both because many birders are generally a fairly enlightened bunch, and because for many others I don't think it's something that even crosses their mind much at all. Only twice in six years have I experienced sexist comments on a WMBC coach trip, once unrelated to birding, and the other related - to be relayed in its full glory below! On both occasions the comments came from people who weren't regulars on the trips, and I'd like to make very clear that I in no way hold the WMBC responsible, I really enjoy their trips and will continue attending them as long as I'm able! :o)

Finally, I am no fountain of knowledge when it comes to birding - I know a few bits and bobs, and will never stop learning! I certainly don't expect everyone to drop what they're doing and give me their undivided attention while I dispense pearls of wisdom - that is just a situation that would never occur. I generally don't pipe up unless I am fairly certain of what I'm saying, so like most people, appreciate it when others take note. However, once or twice, it's been the case that while birding (not with the WMBC) I've spotted a bird, called it, and been completely ignored, only for a man to call the same bird a few seconds later and everyone to take notice, giving the bloke the credit for picking it up. Lovely.

Anyway, to the incident which prompted me to write this. Yesterday I was out with the WMBC again, on a most excellent trip to the Forest of Dean. While we were watching the Mandarins and other waterfowl on Cannop Ponds, a particular birder, not a regular on the trips, who shall remain nameless (because I literally can't remember his name and have consequently given him a slightly unflattering nickname) was pontificating about various aspects of natural history. At one point he marvelled that 'there's so much we don't know about the natural world.....there's more that we don't know than we do'. No disagreement from those present with that. He then went on to state, categorically, that 'there are only 2 bird species whose offspring assist them with raising subsequent broods'. I exclaimed incredulously, 'what, in the WORLD?!' and he clarified that no, he meant the UK. Seeing as there's so much we don't know about the natural world, I thought it possible that this behaviour could potentially occur in other species but had just not as yet been observed. I suggested that this could be the case, and tried to think of species in which I had heard of this happening, coming up with Long-tailed Tit and Carrion Crow - I wasn't sure if it's been observed in the UK, but was fairly certain I'd read something somewhere about cooperative breeding in Carrion Crows. He huffed and declared in a rather condescending tone, 'I think you'll find that Long-tailed Tits are single-brooded, love'. TEXTBOOK MANSPLAINING!!! I didn't know whether they were or not (as stated above, I am not a fount of knowledge, and it turns out they are single-brooded) but either way, I'm not sure how that would preclude offspring from previous broods from assisting their parents with raising chicks in subsequent years, apparently altruistic behaviour that is explained by the concept of kin selection and which has been well-documented. He then turned to another, male, member of our group and said 'I'm right aren't I, Long-tailed Tits are single-brooded?'. Luckily it was Ray, our group leader, to whom he had addressed this query, and ever the diplomat Ray shrugged and said 'I'm not sure - I wouldn't like to say'.

I don't believe that this nameless birder would have spoken to a male counterpart in the same patronising way - he certainly wouldn't have addressed them as 'love'. Andy M was certainly in agreement, as we exchanged a knowing look and a wry grin directly after the incident, and had a bit of a chuckle about it afterwards. It was ironic that the same morning, I'd had a brief chat with Gary Prescott, the Biking Birder, who was so enthusiastic about encouraging more people of my gender and age into birding, due to our current relative paucity. And it was doubly ironic given that yesterday was also International Women's Day!

As I've written above, I experience sexist behaviour directed at me relatively infrequently, and it is generally pretty low-level stuff, as the incident described above also is. However, although it may seem trivial, an experience like this does nothing for the image of birding in the UK that many people have, of a 'men's club' that is not always particularly welcoming to younger women. It's easy enough for me to roll my eyes and laugh it off with my mates, but I think if I had been younger, if that had been my first trip and I didn't know anyone on the coach, I would probably have found it a bit intimidating. When I told my (non-birder) partner what I was thinking, he suggested that maybe there are lots of young female birders out there, but that they're somewhat put off by organised group trips that are attended mainly by older men, and that they don't see it as something for someone like them. He could be right, and it would be a shame if this was the case as both parties could learn a lot from one another. For these reasons, I will continue to document any instances of sexism I experience whilst birding, and also because, hey - I don't like being belittled on account of my gender. Controversial I know.

Another cracking day in the Forest of Dean!

Once again I was off with the West Midland Bird Club yesterday for our monthly trip, this time to the lovely Forest of Dean. I always look forward to this one, it's one of my favorite destinations!

As the weather forecast was not great for the morning, we decided to start off near Parkend to look for Hawfinches. Despite the drizzle, within a few minutes of arriving I had located 2 chunky finches in the top of some tall trees, scope views soon confirmed they were Hawfinches - the first of many seen by our group in this spot.
Parkend Hawfinches spot.
Very gloomy digiscoped record shot of Hawfinch!
We walked down to the Fountain Inn to look for Dipper which had been reported on the stream there. While I waited for them to put in an appearance, a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers bounced around in the trees above. Also in the vicinity was the Biking Birder Gary Prescott on his latest travels around every RSPB reserve in the UK, hoping to see birds aplenty and raise money for several charities while doing so. He was very pleased to meet a bunch of fellow West Midlanders! I also had a quick chat with him as he was interested to meet a young(ish) female birder, and enthusiastic about encouraging more young people and especially young women into birding, seeing as there relatively few of us.

Gary Prescott, a.k.a. the Biking Birder!
A pair of Dippers eventually showed too, carrying nesting material to a spot on the stream bank. We set off to our next stop, Cannop Ponds, feeling pretty pleased with our strong start!

We had a great walk around Cannop Ponds despite the continuing gloom and drizzle - Little Grebe, Tufted Duck and Mute Swan were around, and there were plenty of lovely Mandarins - although a man was feeding them bread (disapprove) it certainly brought them close in. 
Mallards and Mandarins on Cannop Ponds.

About the best photo I could manage in the terrible light!
On the feeders, as well as the usual tits and Chaffinches, Nuthatch and a pair of Marsh Tits were super. Also on the walk round we had Song Thrush, Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Siskin doing a song flight. And in the stream by the picnic area, as well as the usual Grey Wagtail which is always nice, we saw a hunting Kingfisher - smashing!
Nice spot for Grey Wagtails and Kingfisher.
After a quick lunch stop at the Beechenhurst visitor Centre, our next stop was New Fancy View. Fortunately by this point the drizzle had stopped and it wasn't long at all after we reached the top of the hill that we spotted the first of several Goshawks, and we had great views of them both flying around and perching in distant conifers. Also to be seen were plenty of Siskins, Ravens and a Buzzard or two.

From the top of New Fancy View.
Our final stop for the day was the awesome Crabtree Hill, where we had been last year for the overwintering Great Grey Shrike. We were hoping to replicate last year's success, and indeed we did, watching the shrike fly around to various perches and at one point, catch and cache a lizard!

Crabtree Hill.
Digiscoped record shot of the mighty shrike!
Also up on the hill we saw a herd of Fallow Deer, a pair of Stonechats and a Wren, and in the trees on the walk up were Coal Tits aplenty and yet more Siskins. We headed back to Birmingham feeling pleased as punch with our packed day of birding delights! 

Saturday, 7 March 2015

198. Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Time now for the waders, a dauntingly large group containing many streaky brown guys who will no doubt have me impatiently splodging various shades of brown everywhere to make a right mess. However I'm excited to start painting waders as it's also the group that contains some of my favourites such as Little Ringed and Ringed Plover and the phalaropes, and one of my most wanted birds, Dotterel. Plus I will get a nice gentle start with Oystercatcher today! 

Oystercatchers are among the UK's best-known waders, being noisy residents year-round of our coasts, and also breeding inland - where I volunteer at RSPB Sandwell Valley, we have the same pair returning every year to breed. They're easily recognisable, or at least the female is, because she only has one foot - it doesn't seem to hinder her too much though! From watching their antics over the past few years, it's apparent that they invest a high level of parental care in their offspring, and this pays off, with them successfully raising many young'uns. Oystercatchers are unmistakeable with their black and white plumage, bright orange bills, pink legs and noisy calls. In winter they also develop a white stripe along their chin. They like open areas including a wide range of coastal habitats - tidal mudflats, sandy beaches, saltmarshes, sand dunes and grassy clifftops - also lake, reservoir and river shores, and fields in upland areas. Eurasian Oystercatchers are also resident around the coasts of other European countries at similar latitudes to the UK; they also breed inland and at higher latitudes in many northern European countries. They are found in winter only around more southerly coasts (Atlantic coasts of the Iberian peninsula and France; north Africa; Greece). Further afield, their distribution stretches right across central Asia to coastal China and Russia.

Eurasian Oystercatcher, ©Knut Nilsen, via Flickr Creative Commons
Oystercatcher painting.
Hmm quite like this one :o) a bit cartoonish but that's Oystercatchers for you.

197. Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax)

As the name suggests, Little Bustard is the smallest of the bustards considered here, and like many of its cousins it too is in decline, being classifed as Near Threatened due to habitat loss and degradation and hunting. Like the Great Bustard, adult male Little Bustards in the breeding season have an impressive chunky neck (attained through puffing out their neck feathers) with striking plumage; females and juveniles are slimmer and mottled sandy brown with white underparts. In flight they show extensive white on their wings, making them easily identifiable. They are resident in some parts of southern Europe (Spain, southern France, Sardinia and southern Italy; also northern Morocco) and some also breed in central France but winter further south. Further afield they are also found in parts of Turkey, the Middle East and central Asia. Their preferred habitat is open countryside with low vegetation for cover, such as dry grassland and low-intensity arable fields.

Little Bustard, ©Blake Matheson, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Little Bustard painting.
That is one fat bustard. I spent a bit longer on the wing feathers this time to try and get the details looking slightly more convincing, I like it better than the last few I've done but it's still not great. There are no shortcuts I guess!

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

196. Macqueen's Bustard (Chlamydotis macqueenii)

Macqueen's Bustard looks very similar to the Houbara Bustard, but has some black in its crest (not visible in the photo below!) where the Houbara Bustard's is all white; Macqueen's Bustard also appears less densely barred on its back. It also likes similar habitats - arid desert, semi-desert and dry steppe with sparse vegetation - but has a more easterly distribution, being resident in parts of the Middle East, and migratory further east in its range. Again, like the Houbara Bustard, it is also classed as Vulnerable, due to similar pressures - hunting and habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Slightly more bizarrely, they apparently also risk being 'misidentified' as suicide bombers - I recently read in the BTO magazine that 'a Macqueen's Bustard was 'shot down' in Afghanistan as it was believed to be a suicide bomber! The ringed bird was carrying a satellite tag as part of a project, but was mistakenly claimed to be equipped by the Taliban with an explosive pouch, GPS tracker and detonator and wearing a specially designed 'suicide vest''. Poor old Bustard!

Macqueen's Bustard, ©Kannan AS, via Wikimedia Commons.
Macqueen's Bustard painting.
Hmm, a bit too chunky and that shade of brown is way too red!

Sunday, 1 March 2015

195. Houbara Bustard (Chlamydotis undulata)

Houbara Bustards are quite large, being around the size of a medium sized duck, but obviously with much longer legs and neck. Like the Great Bustard, they are classified as Vulnerable, due again to hunting pressure, habitat loss and disturbance. They are resident across north Africa in arid areas such as semi-desert, steppe and desert, with sparse scrub and bushes to provide cover. There is also another race found in the Canary Islands, and that is the one illustrated in the photo below - despite the rarity of this race it was actually somewhat easier to find nice photos of it! The nominate north African race is slightly larger, having upperparts of a warmer lighter brown colour with less extensive vermiculation than the Canary Islands fuertaventurae race. Like Great Bustards, they perform a similarly extravagant feathery courtship display, and the male in the image below looks like he's just starting or finishing one. Females are smaller and slightly greyer, with a less strongly-defined black neck-band.

Houbara Bustard, ©Andrej Chudý, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Houbara Bustard painting.
Hmm I might try and find some better scanner software than crummy Windows Fax & Scan which is not picking up all the detail in my paintings. To be fair in this one, it's a combination of subtleties which the scanner has missed out, and subtleties which are just absent because I didn't paint them!

Edit: have now installed better scanner software and rescanned my most recent paintings.

194. Great Bustard (Otis tarda)

Great Bustards are famously the world's heaviest flying birds, but their hefty proportions have meant they are a favoured target for hunters in some parts of the world, which has in part led to their classification as Vulnerable by the IUCN. They have also suffered habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation. In the UK, they went extinct in the early 1800s, but have very recently been reintroduced on Salisbury Plain - exciting times! They are resident in various other parts of Europe, including the Iberian peninsula (a particular stronghold for the species), and bits of central and eastern Europe. Further east in their range, they are migratory, with populations breeding in parts of eastern Europe, southern Russia, central and east Asia, and wintering further south. They display marked sexual dimorphism, with males being much larger than females. The image below is of a male; females look similar but apart from the smaller size, are slimmer with less chestnut colouring at the base of the neck, and generally slightly duller colouring than males. The males perform spectacular displays in which they fluff out all their white feathers, shaking them around with their head withdrawn onto their back.Their preferred habitat is open plains e.g. grassland, steppe and cereal crops.

Great Bustard, ©Andrej Chudý, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Great Bustard painting.

Took quite a while over this, but still haven't really been able to do justice to the amazingly patterned plumage. I haven't got the neck chunky enough either! Yet again I've also gone off the edge of the page, when I get to the end of this (A5) sketchbook I'll try and get a square one again to prevent this happening so much! In my defence, the last time I went to buy a sketchbook they didn't have any square ones in.....