Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Simple Pleasures . . .

A bright start to the day (literally) with a handsome male Reed Bunt in the garden (complementing the female that was in a couple of days ago) but like his female counterpart, he didn't hang around long enough for a photo.

In need to get out before I go 'stir crazy', Far Pasture beckoned, and despite on arrival being told there was nowt about, I had a pleasant little session there.
Granted there wasn't much variety on the pond though a low flying snipe was a bonus, but a singing Reed Bunting out in the open was a glorious sight, and this one did stick around for a photo, though I found it difficult to get him in focus.

Reed Bunt in between songs

Mallards synchronised farting team
A moorhen chase, a squealing but invisible Water Rail and a posing though too distant sparrowhawk all added to the late winter scene, and five soaring buzzards and three red kites were a calming watch in the bright blue skies.
A kingfisher eventually appeared, like an Irn Bru can suspended from a string it hovered on the spot for a lengthy period mid-pond, before zipping off to the right.

In the car park it was a lot warmer than in the hide, and tits galore fed at the Flat Rock bird café. I set my camera up and tried to snap a few, with better results than last time though still far from perfect.

Great Tit, poor photo

Best of the Blue tits

At the gate I tried my best to catch an elusive wren but he was far too flighty for my elderly reflexes, and most of the action now took place in the skies, in quick succession a sparrowhawk, 2 red kites and a buzzard came overhead, so time to practice another setting on the X-S1.

Peek-a-boo Wren

High-flying Sprawk 

Displaying kites

Out of focus Buzzard
Soon after, it clouded over, and as I walked along the road a silhouette caught my eye on the dead tree, a kestrel, excellent. Would have been a fine stroke of luck had the sun been out but I snapped away and got a couple of canny pics (after they'd been brightened up in Photoshop.)

Having a scratch

Had enough, I'm off . . .

After he flew off the sun (typically) came out again, and a woodpecker could be heard drumming opposite the sawmill, just as it had last time I was down. He seemed to be testing out his 'drum kit' as he flitted from branch to branch of varying degrees of thickness to change the pitch of his hammering, before settling on a thick trunk to emit a deep far-travelling machinegun-like rattle.

Quite pleased how I managed to get him through all
the branches, right at the top of the tree as well.
Now it might not sound much but this little scene was the highlight of many a day. As I stood at the gate listening to the heavy metal drumming of the woodpecker, on the next tree a treecreeper was scampering up the trunk, at the same time the soft wittering hoot of a tawny Owl could be heard coming from the woods to the right, as a gang of chacking Magpies came in one by one. Just ahead of me a pair of long-tailed tits flitted through the brambles in the bright sunshine, possibly looking for a suitable nesting place. A different pair of GS Woodpeckers  bounded over from the woods, and a red kite glided slowly over the tops of the trees, continually appearing and disappearing from view through the bare branches. Idyllic.

Nowt about? open your eyes man!

Saturday, 21 February 2015

A Nice Pair . . .

Far Pasture today didn't hold much to get excited about with the water level well up. Not a snipe to be seen and England's cricketers have had more ducks lately than were on show today. A few teal and mallard, a pair of displaying Moorhen looked splendid in the sunshine and a coot and a dabchick made up the numbers.
The kingfisher was ever present, mainly at the back of the pond, but did make one foray to the front for the benefit of the massed ranks of photographers, but typically flitted off to the back again when I finally decided to get my camera out.

Along the path by the pans one tree was alive with pied wagtails, I counted 15 from distance but there were probably more.

I only got my camera out for the car-park feeding station but coincided with a lot of coming and goings so I moved on to the gate where I was entertained by goldcrests and a small flock of long-tailed tits, which despite my efforts, managed to evade photographic capture for the most part, I certainly need to speed up my reflexes. here's the best of a sorry bunch :

unusual view but cracking little bird

the buggers wouldn't keep still

liked this one as it was taken from 50 feet away
I'd been committing all the best settings for different situations on the new X-S1 to memory but out in the field forgot them all in the panic, there's obviously more to this photography lark than I thought. Respect. 

I didn't take the camera out yesterday when highlight of the week occurred at Washington Wildfowl Centre.We had crippling views of a foraging goldcrest in the Hollowood, only three feet away at eye level, certainly the best unaided view of one of these little beauties I've ever had. There were three in all but one in particular was totally unfazed by our presence and just kept coming closer, even the kids didn't scare it. Superb. 

Saturday, 14 February 2015

That was the Summer, that was . . . In Pictures

As I never got round to penning a summary of 2014 dragon sightings last year I thought I'd do one now just to get the mood started for the summer :

After a mild winter and early spring I started looking for the first emergers in early May rather than the usual last week in May and was rewarded with first ever photographs of teneral large red damselflies at Thornley Woods Pond, first a female on the 8th, then a male on the 13th.
Finding the exuvia too this was the first time I'd obtained proof of breeding at the site, having only seen mature adults here in the past, so a good start to the season.

Teneral Large Red damsel female

The exuvia from which she emerged

Teneral male Large Red damsel, complete
with photo-bombing fly
My first trip to Stargate for Broad-bodied Chasers (June 6th) produced the technical low point of the season as my lovely Panasonic camera ended up in the pond and frazzled the electrics, leaving me with only a Krappy Kodak to record the rest of the summer's goings on. Gutted !

4-Spotted Chaser, just before the camera ended up in the water

Azure damsels in sentinel position, ready for ovipositing,
even closer to the time my camera ended up in the water. 

Common Blues in tandem
The last decent photo taken with my soon to be
deceased Panasonic

I  returned a week later with the Kodak and found a perching post where no less than four female Bb Chasers were alighting regularly, (a best count here) but my camera wasn't up to the task and the opportunity was missed, this really set the tone, and as one of the main points of the blog is to improve on my photos year on year and knowing it was going to be a hard slog with the Kodak it affected my enthusiasm for a while.

Two of the four female Broad-bodied Chasers
at rest on the gorse

Best Bb-C photo I could manage that day with the Kodak
It was a good year for Broad-bodied Chasers, as well as another four (this time males) at Far Pasture forbidden pond, there were first ever sightings at both Gibside (female, though the Rangers there also netted a male) and more surprisingly, at Thornley Woods Pond, where both a male and female made brief sorties on separate occasions. 

Thornley Woods pond was in fact very good early season, especially for damsels, with a record count of 50 Azures and 30 Large Reds on 22nd June, same day as 5 Southern hawker exuviae were found.

My first visit to Kibblesworth BWP was a bit disappointing, no sign of Black-tailed Skimmer the day I was there, and very few reports overall, hope for better his year as no two seasons are the same with this species, though the areas of bare earth around the pond (which attracts them here) are becoming more and more overgrown as the years go by.
An excellent count of Emperors the same day (at least 9) was the highlight, though getting a photograph was a lowlight.

Emperor at Kibblesworth
Shite but the best I could get
The school holidays slowed things down a bit but our trip to the Lake District brought my one and only sighting of  Golden-ringed Dragonfly of the year, and a first ever photograph of a lone female Black Darter, which made up for the disappointment of dipping on Beautiful Demoiselles at the site.

Two views of the female Black Darter not far from
Coniston Water
 Banded Demoiselles had been pretty hard going as well, Haghill as usual came up trumps, though proved impossible to get a decent photo with the Kodak, and casual sightings along other parts of the river were non-existent even at previously good sites.

Best shot I could get of a Banded Demoiselle
at HaggHill. The lack of versatility of the Kodak
was really getting on my tits by now 

Later in the holidays our annual visit to Slipper Tarn at Cragside produced a fantastic count of 10 Common Hawkers and umpteen Black Darters, including many teneral females for another photographic first.

Black Darter male
One of three resting on our picnic bench

Black Darter teneral female
note the white pterostigma on milky wings

Black Darter female
Even younger specimen

Male Black Darter in his prime
A cracking little dragonfly

And this Emerald damselfly was showing aggression towards the camera
as I closed in. First time I'd noted such behaviour
The second half of August was a complete washout, and it wasn't until September that things started to pick up again. Thornley Woods Pond produced a very late Large Red damselfly record on the 2nd, but otherwise late season here was a major disappointment. Hardly any Southern Hawker emergence was recorded, and despite many visits, the usual activity I love to watch here (skirmishing males, pairing up and ovipositing females) was almost non-existent, and for the first time a visit on a suitable day produced no sightings whatsoever. Again something to keep an eye on this year. After a brilliant summer two years ago the last two have seen numbers plummet.
In photographic terms, Far Pasture produced an excellent opportunity of a female perched up on the roadside fence, and at last the Krappy Kodak delivered the goods with a best ever photo.

Female Southern Hawker (tilted 90 degrees)
She was actually hanging vertical on the fence but a superb photo
even if I say so myself.

And a close-up
Well done Krappy Kodak

A much better year for Ruddy Darters though, Far Pasture especially productive with sightings most days at the roadside ditch, though not in great numbers. Ovipositing pairs were noted on a couple of occasions too, my first female sightings for a couple of years. Males also seen at Gibside Walled Garden Pond.

Ruddy Darter male at Far Pasture
Another decent effort by the Kodak

In close-up the colouring is sublime
One of my favourite dragons 
The other big success was also late season with Migrant Hawkers. These were seen in decent numbers at a number of sites, and even with the Krappy Kodak I got very pleasing photographs of immature male at Far Pasture, and mature male and first ever photos of a female at Shibdon Pond.

Immature male Migrant Hawker at Far Pasture
perched up for a long while he made a great subject

Superb colouring of the abdominal markings and grey/brown eyes
A treat seeing him in so much detail

And in close-up even the Kodak did a decent job 

At Shibdon this mature male Migrant Hawker posed well,
note the much brighter colouring and blue eyes

But the 'piece de resistance' was this female (also at Shibdon)
First one I've ever had the good fortune to  photograph 

Happily the Kodak didn't let me down
Look at those big brown eyes

Incredibly pleased with myself on getting this one, my number one
target for the last couple of years, many thanks to Shibdon George
for alerting me to their presence.
Those late Migrant Hawker photos were the undoubted photographic highlight of the season, followed by the variety of Black Darter females, the best ever female Southern Hawker photo and the teneral Large Red damsels, all much sought after targets.
Disappointments, obviously the demise of my camera so early in the season left a huge gap to fill, and though the Kodak eventually came good, it was only decent in those situations when I could get close enough and long enough to rattle off many shots, otherwise due to the lack of image stabiliser and terrible focussing mechanism it was very limited in its range. I missed a bucketfull of great opportunities, especially with the Broad-bodied Chasers, and many of the others at any sort of distance were very poorly focussed, as the camera seemed to focus on anything but the subject.

Other disappointments were not getting the planned Golden-ringed photos due to unforeseen circumstances, but I'll do my utmost to put that right this year as they really are special dragonflies. Missing out on Black-tailed Skimmer, lack of Southern Hawkers at Thornley Woods Pond and lack of Black Darters in Gateshead full stop (only saw one at Kibblesworth) were also on the downside.

Plenty to look forward to this summer though, as well as the usual round-up of local sites I'll be exploring a couple of new ones, also hope to add Golden-ringed and Brown Hawker to my photo collection, and aiming to get a trip away for a new lifer or two.
Already looking forward to seeing what results I can get with the new X-S1
The DragonHunter is back. Just depends on the weather now. Can't wait :-)

Monday, 9 February 2015

New Toy

Finally decided on a new camera and took delivery of a Fujifilm X-S1 superzoom bridge camera late last week :

I'd been pondering over which camera to purchase for months, initially wanting the Canon SX-50 which has proved very popular among folks I know. But as my main interest is taking pictures of dragonflies, closer scrutiny revealed the macro isn't as good as I hoped it would be, so I ended up searching the specs and reviews of about 50 different bridge cameras.
I wanted a superzoom with a better than average macro and after a lot of studious eliminations (though almost tripped up on another Panasonic 'til I realised it didn't have a viewfinder, not much use for photographing outside in the sunshine) and eventually settled for the X-S1 which ticked just about every box; 26x Zoom, Macro and SuperMacro function, viewfinder, Manual zoom, a better than average focus sensor and both auto and manual settings (for when I learn a bit more about it). Only downer seemed to be the bulk and weight, but now I have it that's no big deal.

Couldn't wait to get started but having been victim of a severe lurgy for three days I could only manage a few shots of the back garden over the weekend, testing out the superzoom potential.
And considering the overcast conditions, distance and being taken through double-glazing they didn't turn out too bad.

Blackbird at 26x on the side hedge (about 25 feet away) 

Carrion Crow at 26x about 50 yards away

Blue tit at 26x at bottom of garden 30ft away
Had the day been a bit brighter I'm sure they would have turned out better, but I was pleased with the sharpness in the conditions considering they were hand-held..
Feeling better today and nice and bright conditions I managed an hour or so at Far Pasture to give it its first field test, but as I bumped in to Roly who I hadn't seen since last October I spent more time chatting than snapping. Plenty of birds around though so I did get a few opportunities.

Black-headed gulls at far end of pond

Moorhen caught on the move

Coal tit eyeing up lunch

Treecreeper, not bad for the only shot of him I managed to get

Willow Tit
Dunnock in Close-up
These were all taken at full zoom hand-held so not too much camera shake considering, the light was very good and the colours are really natural, so well pleased with the potential. Obviously a monopod or some kind of support would be an advantage, but early signs are good, and I didn't really notice the bulk or weight of the camera.

Last test back at home when I decided to test the supermacro on some damselfly exuviae I collected last year :

Can't remember which species these were, one of the blues I'm sure, but must say I'm more than happy with these test results all taken on auto, so a bit of fine tuning and I'll be like David Bailey :-)

Roll on summer, but this time I'll make sure the camera stays around my neck at all times while I'm around water, don't want another Stargategate :-O