Saturday, 20 April 2013

Arctic Tern video

Thursday's first-ever Arctic Tern on my Alexandra Park patch provided an impromptu opportunity to test video mode on Canon's SX40 HS camera. I don't shoot video often but when I do it is usually with a tripod-mounted Canon EOS 7D and prime telephoto lens. Although the SX40 HS boasts 1080p HD video, clearly the results from a handheld bridge camera will be different - though, in the event, I think acceptable. I edited three segments together for this sequence using YouTube's basic online video editor, which as far as I can see unfortunately doesn't allow any frame-cropping; to compensate for the small image of the tern, play it back in full-screen mode, and at high resolution. By way of more sample footage, the Green Woodpecker footage below was shot with the same camera at the same location the following day, and also edited online.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Another week, another patch first

Arctic Tern at Alexandra Park this morning: the first-ever site record.
Spring finally uncorked itself in London this week, a flood of migrants pouring in since the weekend and - initially at least - in unprecedented numbers. The closest of my two London patches, Alexandra Park, benefited big time in the form of a fall of Northern Wheatears four days ago, anything between 10 and 30 birds moving through during the day. I wasn't able to get there then, but I resolved this morning to put in an hour and a half before heading into the Birdwatch office. I'm glad I did.

Note the pattern and translucence of the primaries on the upperwing (above) and underwing (below).
Initially unpromising, with just the current crop of migrant Common Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps barely audible over the clatter of building work and a freshening south-westerly wind, I gave up the scrub as a lost cause and headed for the reservoir on the east side. A quick scan  revealed a tern among a few Black-headed Gulls towards the far bank, and I expected it to be our first Common Tern of the year - they are regular in spring and again from late summer. But immediately this individual rang alarm bells.

The jizz of the bird felt wrong for Common, its shape with relatively compact head and bill, 'forward-placed' wings and long rear all pointing to Arctic Tern, as did its buoyant, graceful flight. A closer look at the wing pattern was the only other evidence I needed, a long, narrow dark trailing edge to the often translucently white primaries confirming the identification.

On London's large, deep-water reservoirs in the main river valleys, Arctic Tern is more expected in spring. But here in suburban north London, on this relatively tiny water body, it is exceptional - there are no previous records. So I immediately rang around the park regulars, left voicemails and sent texts, and before too long the bird was also seen by David Callahan, Gareth Richards, Gabriel Jaime and Alan Gibson. I found it at 08:03 and it must have just arrived, as Bob Watts checked the reservoir on his normal early circuit some 30 minutes or so previously. It stayed until 09:21, when Gaz and Gabriel watched it head off east. It was the 177th bird species recorded in Alexandra Park and the third new addition to the list this year, after my Great White Egret in February and Bob's Slavonian Grebe last week. No new species were added in 2012, so we are well ahead of target!

The Arctic Tern with a second-calendar-year Black-headed Gull for direct comparison.
My Canon EOS 7D is currently in for service, so for these record shots I experimented with a Canon SX40 HS, a superzoom that I reviewed for Birdwatch last year. A dip-feeding tern in strong winds against variably glaring water, dark banks and bright sky was a good test for this model, flagging up the differences between a high-spec DSLR and a bridge camera. As record shots they are acceptable in confirming the identification, the camera just about coping with fast-changing lighting situations and the rapid, erratic movement of the bird - in normal field conditions, it performs much better. I've cropped these images and adjusted the levels a little in Photoshop, but left them unsharpened to avoid introducing more 'noise' (texture might actually be a better description). I also shot some short video sequences, and will aim to post one tomorrow to see how good the HD output from this camera looks.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

London, 24 years ago today ...

This superb male Desert Wheatear in London back in April 1989 was one of the first rarities I got really close to with a camera - or rather, it got close to me, flying directly towards me and landing too close for the camera to focus.
While a big arrival of Northern Wheatears is taking place in London at the moment, it's worth remembering that it was this time 24 years ago that the capital's first-ever Desert Wheatear turned up. A male, it was found in Barnes at what was then Barn Elms Reservoirs - now the London Wetlands Centre WWT - by Ben Aris on Thursday 13 April 1989 and remained until the following day. Like so many major rarities, however, it departed before the weekend crowds. I got there on the morning of the second day and was delighted to see the bird really well, coming away with a good series of close-up shots. Here's a couple of images, scanned from the original colour prints.

Although Desert Wheatears breed in north-west Africa, it is believed that the vagrants that reach western Europe actually originate from Central Asia.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Patch first!

Hot news from Alexandra Park in grey and rainy north London this morning - the site's first Slavonian Grebe, a well-deserved find for dedicated patcher Bob Watts on his daily visit. I was on the scene within about 20 minutes and took a series of images of the moulting bird as it swam and dived within range of the west bank of Wood Green Reservoir. More to follow shortly ...

Monday, 1 April 2013

April phal

First-winter Grey Phalarope flying east inshore at Kelling, Norfolk, this morning.
Typically, the weather for the long Easter weekend has been dire. A bitingly cold easterly wind meant that a few days in Norfolk were very unlikely to deliver migrants at what should be an exciting time of year. So on the second morning out on my 'away patch' at Kelling, I wasn't hopeful of much turning up. After a brief Woodcock flying over the water meadows, I put in a session on the beach counting Red-throated Divers moving east into the wind (more than 40 over half an hour) and photographing gulls. While scanning a distant group of Common and Black-headed Gulls over the sea several hundred metres to the west, off Salthouse, I glimpsed a small wader fly among them. It was only there for a second and I got no detail on it, but my suspicions were immediately aroused. I walked down to the tideline and scoped carefully, but could see nothing. Then, 15 minutes later, while photographing more gulls at closer range, a small shape whizzed past below them: Grey Phalarope! I shouted it out immediately to local birder Chris who had just arrived on the beach, and fired off a series of shots as the bird flew past. It paused briefly on the water, allowing me enough time to run up the beach to call over Marcus who had also just arrived. Thankfully, the phalarope lingered briefly for him to see it, before flying on east towards Weybourne.

The bird was on show for no more than five minutes before moving on towards Weybourne.
It seemed extraordinary for a Grey Phalarope to turn up in such conditions at this time of year. April phalaropes of any description are pretty much like gold dust in Britain; perhaps it had wintered in the North Sea, rather than being a new arrival? It appeared to be fully in non-breeding plumage still - I've yet to see a 'red' bird in summer attire, surely the Holy Grail for phalarope watchers everywhere and a truly rare sight in Britain.


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