Tree Climbing Rails

April 18, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

On my way home from work one evening in March, at dusk, I was making my way across the Luas bridge over the Grand Canal. As per usual, I was plugged in to my mobile device listening to choons at the end of a stressful day at the salt mine. As I glanced over to the west, admiring the sunset, I noticed a large dark bird about 10 metres up a tree along the edge of the Canal. I thought that it looked too big for a Blackbird, too rotund for a Pigeon and not a Moorhen because it was in a tree. I paused on the bridge, took a closer look. Lo and behold, it was a Moorhen! A Swamp Hen up a tree. I couldn't believe it. I can only imagine that the bird was there to avoid being predated on by foxes, rats, cats, dogs, mink or other predators along the Canal. It certainly made me smile and I plodded on home with a bit more pep in my step having witnessed that. 

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Over the next couple of weeks, I had the same experience every evening I was walking home. However, the single Moorhen became a pair of Moorhen in the same tree. Judging by the amount of bird dropping stains on the branches of the tree, they had been roosting there for quite some time. I brought my camera down to the Canal on Saturday evening when the light was reasonably good. Sure enough, there were the pair, setting up shop for the night. There was some jostling for position and a bit of "walk the plank" antics caused one of the birds to fall off the branch and into the Canal. Trying to get a decent angle for the birds was tough given the height they were at and the level I was at, either on the canal bank or on the Luas bridge. I used the 100-400mm Canon lens, which allowed me to (a) travel light and (b) use the the versatility of the zoom lens in trying to capture the image I wanted. The tricky aspect of this kind of scenario (time of day and tree branches) is that the shadows of the branches are quite long and broad and difficult to see smaller twigs, thus making for a clear shot very difficult to come by. 

MC7D2570 MoorhenMC7D2570 Moorhen For example, in this shot I wanted to make sure that I got some catchlight from the setting sun in the eye of the Moorhen. I was at the other side of the canal so it was difficult to gauge where the shadows were and whether there were any small branches going across the face/head of the Moorhen. The dark plumage of the bird against the background also made it difficult to judge whether there were nuisance branches or shadows in the way. This was the best of the images I managed that evening. 

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Another image I wanted to capture was that of the encroachment of man in our natural world, but also how wildlife has adapted to fill the niches that are being created by man's building and encroachment. In this shot, after a long day foraging along the man-made canal, the Moorhen is preening in a tree that is growing on the roadside while a car passes by and a LUAS arrives into the stop on the bridge. It was sort of what I was looking for, but not quite what I wanted. MC7D2631 MoorhenMC7D2631 Moorhen MC7D2634 Moorhen climbMC7D2634 Moorhen climb What I was very surprised at was seeing one of the Moorhen actually climbing up the branches of the tree rather than flying up to their branch of choice. A mixture of grappling feet and flapping wings propelled the Moorhen up the branches in no time whatsoever! It was a strange sight to see but it certainly brought thoughts to the fore of how their ancestors must have also climbed trees using their additional claws on their "elbows". 

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I finished off the little photoshoot with some silhouette images of the Moorhens in the tree, with some city centre/urban backgrounds. I was careful to frame the Moorhen within the branches but to leave enough space around the bird to give it some room. A bit of climbing on some railings and using the aching knees as anchors, I was able to achieve that. I will have to head back again before the leaves escape from their buds and close off all views of the roosting Swamp Hens and try to get some more perspectives and action images. 

Irish Ring-billed Gulls

April 14, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

A recent brief trip to Cobh to visit the folks, one of the siblings and her progeny (my adorable nieces and nephew), resulted in an even quicker scoot over to my old local patch, Cuskinny Marsh Nature Reserve. The usual suspects of the duck variety were present, as well as Dabchicks, Moorhens and gulls. The gulls are always worth checking out on the marsh as the turnover of gulls is quite high. The gulls come in for a snooze and a wash, and so there is a constant change of the guard. The Reserve has produced the usual species (Herring, Greater Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Black-headed, Common, Glaucous, Iceland, Mediterranean), but has also turned up Thayer's Gull, Kumlien's Gull, Bonaparte's Gull, Sabine's Gull, Franklin's Gull and Laughing Gull. One regularly gets Ring-billed Gull, and on this occasion, there was a nice adult Ring-billed Gull on one of the pontoons, beginning to come out of winter plumage and enter breeding plumage. The light was nice for a change. The best time to view the marsh for photography in terms of light is the afternoon/evening, as the light is behind the viewer and shines out on to the lake there.

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I saw my first Ring-billed Gull in Cobh in the late-1980s, back when the species was a real rarity. We have seen up to 8(!) Ring-billed Gulls on the Reserve at one time in the past! Always a treat to see.

However, I didn't have to travel too far to see a Ring-billed Gull. Within a 20 minute walk of my apartment in Dublin, a near-adult Ring-billed Gull has been hanging out around the Grand Canal Dock and within striking distance of the Grand Canal Theatre (or the Bord Gais Theatre, or whatever they are calling it these days). With a few hours to spare one Sunday morning in March, I headed down for a gander to see if the beast was about. I brought my Canon 7DII and Canon 100-400mm II lens for ease of transport when heading down to the area on Dublin Bikes. The light was not too shabby, despite the overcast conditions. The cloud was high and light, so enough light was getting through to work with. Shortly after getting there, I was checking some of the gulls on the deck and on the water, but I just could not see it. Thinking I might be in for a bit of a wait, I happened to glance upwards, over where I was standing, and lo-and-behold, there was the target...sitting on one of the red posts on the quay edge.

  MC7D2374 RBGMC7D2374 RBG The bird stayed there for quite a while, making some forays out for a wash and then returning to the posts again to rest. I guessed that maybe the gulls had been fed earlier that morning and were not too interested in foraging for a while. As it was Mother's Day, I gave my Mum a call for a chat (it being after 10am on a Sunday, a dignified hour) and kept an eye on the Ringer. When I got off the phone from Mother, I didn't have to wait long before a few kids started feeding the gulls some popcorn (better than white bread!) and the Ringer came down from its lofty perch and started to feed voraciously. Buoyed by the birds hunger, I made may over to the feeding frenzy and managed to get a few shots. It was so tame!! It came within a foot of where I was standing. It was a fantastic opportunity to see the species up close and it was also calling and was quite vocal when feeding in amongst the pigeons and other gulls.

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Having had my fill of the Ringer, or more accurately, after the Ringer flew off out into Dublin Bay, I finished the morning off with a shot I had been planning for ages but never managed to strike lucky with...Brent Geese flying over the rooftops of Dublin with the Poolbeg chimneys in the background...that'll do (for now). MC7D2512 Poolbeg BrentMC7D2512 Poolbeg Brent

Always be prepared!

Snow Buntings

April 11, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

The Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis; Gealóg shneachta) is an enigmatic member of the bunting family that occurs in Ireland in small numbers during the winter months, predominantly along the west, north and east coasts. Since moving to Dublin in 2008, I have had the pleasure and privilege to see Snow Buntings every winter in and around Dun Laoghaire harbour. This year, there was a very tame first winter male Snow Bunting along the seafront of Greystones in Co. Wicklow. Having not been out much with my camera this winter, I ventured down one dreary grey morning in late February to see if I could find the bird. After parking my car, I proceeded to walk from north to south along the seafront. A short time later, in the dark and misty dawn, I could see the bird feeding no more than 50 metres away from me. I crept up on the bird and found a position that gave me some shelter, so I just sat down and waited. A short while later, the bird just started feeding on the grass seeds to my left and purposefully made its way towards me. And it kept walking towards to me until it was no more than 2 metres away. I took down the camera and spent time just watching it feed on the seeds, all the while keeping one on me and one eye to the sky, looking out for predators. It was quite a thrill to be so close to such a beautiful bird.

MC7D1352 SnowMC7D1352 Snow MC7D1152 SnowMC7D1152 Snow MC7D1210 SnowMC7D1210 Snow MC7D1122 SnowMC7D1122 Snow MC7D1242 Bunt TurnstoneMC7D1242 Bunt Turnstone The Snow Bunting kept company with the odd Ruddy Turnstone or two. This is a really good area to get some very close views of Turnstone during the winter months. A strange sight seeing these species together on a typical Irish landscaped grassy verge!! MC7D1437 SnowMC7D1437 Snow MC7D1492 SnowMC7D1492 Snow The light was pretty poor and the rain kept falling, albeit lightly. The conditions meant I could really test the ISO capabilities of the Canon 7DII to see how it fared. It handled the conditions much better than I thought it would, but the images still lack a bit of punch and are quite flat. However, I couldn't really complain. It was a fantastic few hours spent in the company of the Snow Bunting. MC7D1481 SnowMC7D1481 Snow MC7D1558 SnowMC7D1558 Snow MC7D1674 SnowMC7D1674 Snow MC7D1604 SnowMC7D1604 Snow

Another species literally made my heart stop...a fly-by juvenile White-tailed Eagle came up along the coast before it made its way over the Wicklow hills! Amazing to see such a magnificent species flying freely in our country. A couple of Purple Sandpipers were also milling around on the rocks, giving the area a real Nordic feel! Once the area started becoming busy with Sunday morning walkers, joggers and dog walkers, I decided to head back to Dublin and into the office for a few hours after a relaxing morning. 

There was also a Snow Bunting staying in and around the piers of Dun Laoghaire all winter. I had tried (and failed) to see the bird on a two previous occasions but struck lucky on the third attempt. I also bumped into my good friend Shay Connolly down on Trader's Wharf that Sunday morning and both of us enjoyed photographing the confiding Snow Bunting there for a few hours. Mind you, we spent more time chatting and catching up than photographing the bird! 

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The Trader's Wharf is also a great place to get photographs of Ruddy Turnstones. They are quite approachable and are also fantastic characters. Seems that Snow Buntings and Turnstones inhabit the same environment in Ireland during the winter! And I am sure they are close neighbours in Iceland and the Arctic region during the breeding season. I never tire of seeing Snow Buntings. They are just brilliant! 

A Rosy Kind of Day

December 13, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

It has been quite some time since I found the time, energy and urgency to get out and about with my binoculars and camera. Too long, in fact. I was trying to figure out the last time I took out the camera with any anger at all. It has been that kind of year really. Full of activity, full of tasks, jobs, and duties. Not much time for hobbies or such. Not much time for sitting still for a few hours, with only the bite of winter's cold for company. No time for the purpose of numbing one's toes being to photograph a chosen subject. It had been quite a while since I had done that and I looked forward to the cold, cramps, numbness and chilled bones. I like the wait. I like the quiet. I like the calmness that it brings. People often ask whether or not I get bored sitting in one spot for hours. I generally don't. I find it cathartic to be honest. And I needed to find some catharsis. 

The subject of this first outing in quite some time was a juvenile Rosy Starling in Howth, Co. Dublin, which was a great find by Dublin-based birdwatcher, Mark Stewart. Rosy Starlings breed in easternmost Europe and migrate westwards towards Asia. Ireland gets one or two stragglers  of this species every year, but typically on the south coasts. It would be my fourth time seeing one in Ireland. It was a good bird for Dublin. 

The bird was there when I arrived, just on the southern side of the harbour on the water front. It was feeding voraciously in amongst the rotting seaweed, accompanied by our resident Eurasian Starlings (or Eurasian Starlings having arrived here for the winter from mainland Europe). The juvenile birds are generally tatty and in moult when they arrive here. They stand out from the Eurasian Starlings in that they are very pale, have dark wings and have very pale and long legs. The adults are much more striking, with vivid pink and black plumage. While sitting there, along with Rob Vaughan (one of the best wildlife illustrator's I know), a few of the local Eurasian Starlings and Pied Wagtails came to visit and walk around our feet. They were obviously used to the local humans feeding them. Always nice to see up close. The colours on the winter plumaged Eurasian Starlings are quite something and often overlooked, I feel. 

The Rosy Starling stayed with us for about 20 minutes and then flew off. It came back after about 45 minutes, stayed for another 10 minutes then flew off again back in the same direction. I got a call from Rob, who had moved on to look for the bird, to say he had found it a couple of hundred meters away in the neighbouring cove. The bird was showing down to a few metres in front of the gathering birdwatchers, showing no fear at all. With that news, I got back up from my cramped sitting position and made my way to the cove. And I was glad I did. The Rosy Starling was indeed showing down to a few metres, as it busily fed on invertebrates and insects under the foliage along the edge of a concrete stand. It was a cracking bird. The only problem here was that there was no light at all. The light was stopped by the high cliffs and the eastern facing vista and absorbed by the dark clouds. The downside to the dark and dreary Irish winter weather is that it makes for slow shutter speeds despite using a high ISO. However, it was great just watching the Rosy Starling go about its business. It did look a bit ill, with drooping open wings and constant retching-like actions.

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What was quite a lovely surprise on this particular day was a pair of extremely tame Stonechats that fed around our feet as we watched the Rosy Starling. The tamest Stonechats I have ever experienced. Stunning little birds. 

So it was a good few hours spent out in the cold grip of a winter's morning. The Rosy Starling was seen again the following day but it has not been seen since, as far as I know. I just hope the bird decided to move on to a different location rather than moved on to the lunch menu for the local critters of Howth. 

Day 19 and 20 - The Drake Passage to Buenos Aires

November 15, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

After getting out of the waterproof and thermal gear following our final landing on Antarctica (and the trip), we headed to the bar for a pre-dinner drink. The sun was being quickly hidden by low cloud as we ventured out over a choppy Bransfield Strait. A small flock of about a dozen Pintados had come alongside, effortlessly gliding in the stiff breeze. Peter, Jim and I were enjoying a cold bottle of beer when Jim shouted "Antarctic Petrel!" and pointed over my shoulder and out the window. I was in mid-swig and nearly choked on the beer, carelessly placed the bottle on the counter, which was caught by Johnson (best barman on the Southern Oceans), and ran out the door in just a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. This was probably the last new bird species of the trip for me and it was one I really wanted to see. My panicked reaction to Jim's shout had piqued the interest of fellow passengers. A few arrived out on deck all wrapped up, asking had I spotted more whales. When I explained that it was an Antarctic Petrel, they grumbled and just went back inside. None too impressed. I stood outside in the freezing cold and watched the Pintado flock circle the boat a dozen times, but no sign of the Antarctic Petrel. I went back inside to continue supping on my beer. No sooner had I had my first sup when Jim shouted again! Repeat the procedure. Repeat the failure. There was always tomorrow. 

The species that were coming close to the ship in the murky conditions that evening were Southern Fulmar, Pintados, Grey-headed Albatross, Wilson's Storm Petrels and Southern Giant Petrels. Nothing to turn one's nose up to. It's always a good day when one sees Albatrosses!  

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The following morning I was up early again on Deck 5-Aft, coffee and biscuits in hand as per usual, in search of the Antarctic Petrel. This day would be my last chance to see the bird. The Drake was not behaving itself all that well during those first 6-7 hours of the day on the deck. The seas were rolling nicely and the wind was strong and head on. While it was "interesting" to experience the Drake a little bit angry, it was only a 5-6 metre swell. Nothing like the 8-10 metre swell Jim experienced on the previous crossing of the Drake he did. I was thankful when the Drake calmed down such that it took on the appearance of the mythical "Drake Lake" for the remainder of the journey. The light improved during the day and it remained dry. It was quite a surreal journey back. A touch of melancholy mixed with bewilderment and disbelief. I did not want this to end. 

The birds were starting to change as well, noticeably so from the Antarctic. The constants were Black-browed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrel, Pintado, Southern Fulmar and Wilson's Storm Petrel. Brown Skuas went past every now and then, while White-chinned Petrels and Southern Royal Albatrosses put in an appearance from time to time. One Southern Giant Petrel in particular became very interested in the ship, and flew literally inches over our heads at the stern of the boat on numerous occasions - it was an amazing thing to behold. One could hear the wind ruffle the feathers on the bird. The only disappointment was not seeing any Antarctic Petrels at all that day. Despite scouring the seas and every flock of Pintados that went by or hung about the ship, no Antarctic Petrel materialised. I was gutted. What was even worse, Johnson told me he saw one from the bar window that afternoon. I thought he was taking the piss but when he described the bird he saw to me, it was definitely an Antarctic Petrel. I was gutted. 

MC006421 SGP juveMC006421 SGP juve MC006438 PintadoMC006438 Pintado MC006443 SGP closeMC006443 SGP close MC006691 SGP portraitMC006691 SGP portrait MC006709 Antarctic Prion headonMC006709 Antarctic Prion headon Antarctic Prion was flying high over the ship...fantastic to see these small birds in total control in the strong winds. 

The other highlights of sailing back across the Drake towards South America were very close encounters with Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Southern Fulmar, Southern Royal Albatross, Northern Royal Albatross, Wandering Albatross, Black-browed Albatross and Antarctic Prions. It was still exciting to see these giant albatrosses coming in from distance and heading up and along the wake of the ship, looking for food and scraps. Even thinking of it now, almost a year later, I still get an adrenaline rush. 

MC006468 LMSA sideMC006468 LMSA side MC006487 LMSA head oneMC006487 LMSA head one MC006644 Southern FulmarMC006644 Southern Fulmar MC006857 SRAMC006857 SRA MC006922 SRA bowMC006922 SRA bow We made good time, too good in my opinion, getting back to Ushuaia. So much so that we had to anchor up outside the Beagle Channel overnight. What struck me most about this was that when were still about an hour or more away from sighting land, one could catch the spicy scent of the Patagonian forests. It was the first time in over a week or 10 days that one caught a scent of foliage or earth or plant matter. It was quite surreal on the senses to breath that scent in, to get a first whiff of land without seeing it. In fact, it was quite overwhelming. It gave one a real sense of what the early explorers must have felt like after weeks at sea to finally get a sniff of land. To be honest, I was not sure I was looking forward to getting back to civilisation, unlike the explorers who probably couldn't wait to get to land. 

As we contemplated the trip we just experienced and were looking out on Cape Horn to the port side, we had an amazing close encounter with at least 3 Sperm Whales off the stern and we within touching distance of Tierra del Fuego. They were logging on the surface, breathing and just acting like typical Sperm Whales. I was delighted as it was the first time I had seen Sperm Whales alive and it was totally unexpected. The only other experience I had with Sperm Whales was of a beached and dead Sperm Whale in Dungarvan Co. Waterford, Ireland a few years back. To see them in all their glory alive and breathing was a great moment for me. Chilean Skuas were flying overhead that evening and gave everyone (well, me at least) a sense that we had definitely left the magical world of South Georgia and Antartica far, far behind. 

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The final night on board consisted of a farewell dinner, the Captain's speech and swapping of email addresses and contact details. During the farewell speech from Cheli Larsen, the Expedition Leader, the total piss was taken out of me for not seeing Antarctic Petrel on the trip, despite spending a minimum of 18 hours a day staring at the sea! A lovely image of the species was put up for all to see so that everyone could show me what it looks like when it flies by! Antarctic Petrel has now become my ultimate bogey bird, my arch nemesis of the Antarctic seas. 

It was sad saying good bye to some great people I met on board, and to the fantastic staff who worked on the trip. The slideshow from the DVD we received at the end of the trip was also shown in the lounge that evening, with some great images of the Polar Plunge crew as they, including me, jumped in (proof I did it is below!).

CGM_QUARK_2014_4116CGM_QUARK_2014_4116 The passengers and field staff from our trip...can you spot where I am?

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To say it was cold is an understatement! My cousin Peter and I doing the Polar Plunge. It was Peter's second time doing it!

After packing my bag in a solemn mood the night before, and after a deep sleep, I woke at dawn to find that we were pulling in and docking at Ushuaia. It was sad having to leave the ship. I had had a wonderful time and made some friends along the way. It was also brilliant, and fitting, to share the experience with my uncle and cousin, Jim and Peter. After all, it was Jim who started me birdwatching as a kid and it was in one of his seabird books I had first seen a depiction of the Cape Pigeon (Pintado) that I had dreamt of seeing all my life. It made the trip for me very special indeed. 

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Not a happy camper having to leave the ship and go back to Buenos Aires, before heading home to Dublin.

We departed the ship after a hearty breakfast in the morning, and headed to a cafe in Ushuaia to get a coffee and some WIFI. I had not checked my email, turned on my phone or tuned into the outside world for 3 weeks. It was bliss being totally unplugged. I got a bit of a fright to see how many personal emails I had to trawl through and I was getting the Glenroes thinking about how many work emails I would have to go through when I was back in the office! I had a final coffee and bite to eat with Jim and Peter, said my goodbyes and went to the local airport for the 3 hour flight to Buenos Aires. Being back in Buenos Aires was horrible (going from sub-zero to +35C was a shock to the system). So, once I got to the hotel room, showered and refreshed, I went out for a quiet stroll and a coffee down the side streets near the hotel. It was very strange sitting down, having a coffee and watching the world go by. The noises, smells, sounds, sights, the frantic pace, the constant delivery of information...the senses were being attacked from all angles and I really didn't want it! Hence, I returned to my room, ordered a steak and some Malbec (when in Rome...), a local beer and slept like a baby in a bed that did not move. The following day, it was back to London and Dublin...back to reality. Back to the stresses and strains of 21st Century life. 

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And so has ended a trip of a lifetime and a journey I will never forget. Thank you all for sticking through the blog posts and images. I hope that you have enjoyed reading them as much as I have enjoyed writing them. I have priceless memories and thousands of images to remind me of how lucky I was to travel to these magical lands. I just hope that the Antarctic Treaty is signed by all (including my own country, Ireland!) and that this wondrous place is never touched by man's hands again. I hope that I can get back down there again to finally see my Antarctic nemesis, the Antarctic Petrel, before it is too late. 


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