Sunday, 15 January 2017

Farewell Valentino

Tradition. It's a well known phenomenon. Whether it's reading a book for half-an-hour before bed every night or eating a peanut butter and cheese sandwich every Wednesday at 14:43, everyone has their little habits and routines.  It's a condition even animals buy in to.  Some people will choose to spend their summers in France each year, and some birds, who have the ability to go almost anywhere, will choose to spend their winters in a London park.  Anyone who has these sorts of regular rituals will know that they can be hard to stop. Once it's become ingrained it's almost second nature.  And really, if you've got something good going, why would you want to stop? 
Now, let me ask you this: Is Valentines Park not a good place to spend your winters? Okay, wait... maybe let's not answer that one...  But surely, a sixteen year long tradition of doing so would be hard to break. By that point it's practically ancient lore, and you can't break ancient lore - there's probably a law against it. But the routine has been broken. And alas, it is for these very reasons that I have passed through hope and denial, and been led to fear the worst for our good friend Valentino. Yes, Valentino the Mediterranean Gull; Ilford's biggest celebrity and only interesting bird. After sixteen consecutive winters, he has not returned.

Cue the sad piano solo.

In previous years he would usually arrive in early October, with his latest turn up being on the 26th of that month. But October has passed. As has November, as has December, and still no Valentino. 
Maybe, just maybe, he's still out there. Somewhere. Perhaps after sixteen winters on the Boating Lake he was beginning to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I imagine the thrill of grey weather and mouldy bread wears off after a while. After 80 or so months.... it may become dull and just a little bit repetitive. An endless cycle of competing for scraps which is interspersed only occasionally by some bozo with a telephoto lens.... living the dream?  Perhaps not.

Has he passed on or has he just broken tradition? Which, well I guess we will never know for sure. Perhaps he's decided to settle down in his home country of Belgium - I hear they produce some rather delicious cocoa based confectionery. Maybe Brexit was the final straw....
 Wherever he may be, whatever he may be doing, let us just take a moment of silence to appreciate just how awesome a gull Valentino was - except when he betrayed us for Wanstead Flats... that wasn't cool. You and your lovely white wings will be missed in the park.

Friday, 30 December 2016

A Brief History of Cameras, and Thoughts on the 5D MKiv

Way back in the good ol' days, when I was but a bairn of thirteen, I splashed out my savings and became the proud owner of a Canon EOS 7D. Ahh, the trusty 7D: that camera served me well for the best part of three years (very well actually, considering the affairs set in place by a certain image of a crow this year).  That camera saw me through thick and thin. Together we saw mega rarities, pigeons, whales, ridiculously friendly Grey Phalaropes, and most likely more pigeons.
Then, during the February of this year, after months of struggle and turmoil, I finally came to a decision.  A decision which once again lost me the trust of a good friend... my poor old savings... they just didn't see it coming.  It was, alas, time to say goodbye to the 7D (this is getting pretty emotional, I know) and welcome a new member to the family: the Canon EOS 5D Mark 3 Okay, I'll be honest with you, it was hard to be too sentimental about the 7D when you're now the owner of a 5D3.
What an incredible camera it was.  All of a sudden my images were consistently much sharper, the colours were oh so much richer, and, I could shoot above ISO 800 without being (just slightly) terrified of my images ending up like a rock concert... noisy.
 It was a big investment for me, and one I was happy with. I didn't think I would need, or (more surprisingly) even want to upgrade again for at least several years.
 Fast forward eight months and umm... well I'm not shooting on the 5D3 anymore. Through a fortuitous chain of events (once again involving that aforementioned crow) and with big thanks to Canon, I became the proud, yet considerably gobsmacked owner or the brand new Canon EOS 5D Mark 4. I have already described the Mark 3 as being an incredible camera... and as such it's rather hard to find enough hyperbole to aptly capture the Mark 4's awesomeness.

 I've now been shooting with the Mark 4 for two months, and week by week it still never fails to impress me.  I have read several posts on the World Wide Waste Web, which proffer to opine that there is only marginal improvement over the previous generation (the Mark 3), but, well, I honestly just could not agree.  Perhaps in a set up, studio test shot between the two, the difference would not be all that noticeable, but in the field, where it counts, it is noticeable. And, really, that's what matters.
 I don't claim to be an expert in the technological functions and systems of cameras, but I would like to think I am not completely ignorant as to how to use one. As such, here are my thoughts, after two months of hands on use of this camera.

Let's begin with the auto-focus and image quality.

Now, as to focus speed, I believe that that is largely the same between both the Mark 3 and 4 (the extra fame per second is nice though), the speed is more largely affected by the lens used than the focus system. As to accuracy however, the Mark 4 steps ahead, as it provides incredibly sharp images with more consistency than the 3... with whom's sharpness I never really had an issue. The new system provides incredibly fine detail in both good light, and, more impressively, it retains that level of detail when shooting in low light conditions.
 Between the two generations, there's an eight megapixel difference. Of course, this doesn't hugely effect you, unless you need to blow the images up for large scale printing, but it is nice to be able to crop in a considerable way and still retain some file size.  Your computer might have a different opinion on this increased file size however...
 Below are two images of a Grey Wagtail, one shows the original size, and one shows the quality that retains from a crop. Can you tell which is which?

Recently, I've spent a lot of time working on photographing foxes. Thankfully, in the park, they're not nocturnal (that would make things a little more difficult), they don't however, often come out before dusk. Now here is where, for me, the Mark 4 really comes into its own. With the 7D, photographing in these conditions with an f/5.6 lens would have been more impossible than any of Tom Cruise's missions... provided you wanted the images sharp that is. With the 5D3, it was very possible, but on occasion the images would end up being perhaps slightly noisy as the ISO begins to creep above 5000. At the beginning of this year my mind boggled at the thought of ISO 1000. The 5D4 now? Well, that just excels.

 Bump the ISO up to 5000? No problem, an electric car would probably have more noise. Even when you reach 10,000 the images are usable. This next image was shot at ISO 10k and is cropped in at around 100%.

A camera's ergonomics are very important; you have to be able to change your settings instinctively, without having to really think about what you're doing.  Canon got it right with the Mark 3, and it's largely the same with the 4.  There are a few pretty cool new features though; the new body has improved weather sealing, the quality of the LCD has been updated, so that it now shows better colour and clarity, and it's also been made touch-screen. I was a little wary of this at first, but it's not without its merit.
 Another new technological step up is with the inbuilt Wi-fi. This means you can control the camera from your phone, which, to be fair, is pretty cool.  And really quite useful if you forget to put new batteries in your remote triggers... ahem, not that I ever do that.

This new technology does not come without some small costs - I've noticed that the Mark 4 drains batteries at a more substantial rate than the 3 did. It's not particularly problematic, as each battery can probably last for 1000 or so images, but the charger does get a lot more use than it once did.

It's still early days, but for me, from my experience, although I have found both to be brilliant, the 5D Mark4 has many improvements over its predecessor. Most notably and most importantly, in the low light control and the accuracy of the focus. The Mark 3 is undeniably one of the best and most popular wildlife cameras around, and is certainly not worth forgetting. The Mark 4 just pushes the boundaries of possibility even further.  I feel hugely privileged to be using this camera, and am excited to see what more it can do in the new year!

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Garden Gold... or Yellow.

Yesterday afternoon I was enjoying the remainder of half-term in true educational form by embracing procrastination with open arms - we do get along quite well it seems.  Sure, I still had a little homework to get done, and I did have the best intentions of focussing on that, but well... it could wait for a little bit, couldn't it? Darn you procrastination and your enticing ways.  And so, there I was on the computer, when a repetitive call outside of the window distracted me from doing (forgetting) my oh so important work. Almost instantly after my cognitive functions had kicked in and I had processed what I was hearing, I realised what it was - a Yellow-browed Warbler!  I jumped up, accidentally kicked something, grabbed my camera, ran outside, realised I would get a better view from my bedroom window, went there instead. And there, with eyes strained I waited. It made its presence clearly known with vocals, but - in the true fashion belonging to loud birds - somehow managed to avoid being seen. After a few minutes the calling stopped, and aside from a brief flutter of movement, I'd not seen it.
 Feeling that these views were perhaps a little inadequate, I went back to the garden to search for it. You know how it is, somedays a brief obscured flutter just won't do. Thankfully, it seemed to be of the opinion that my garden isn't all too bad a place to hang around. Some thirty minutes after first hearing it call, I managed to pick it up again; flitting around a holly tree in the corner of the garden. What a little beauty, and that supercilium! Not quite as good an eyebrow as a Pallas's (honestly though, what is?), but better than a Chiffchaff by a long shot.
 Okay, yes, the views were rather poor, but having only ever seen one before, I don't think I was particularly in a position to complain. Indeed, especially not when it was in my garden, and more so when you consider that my garden isn't in Norfolk - the 5,371km square YBW magnet.
 Another stunning and unexpected addition to the garden list, and a nice way to procrastinate from procrastinating.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Having a Butcher's

Ridiculousness. Complete and utter unbelievable ridiculousness. And no, I don't mean the fact that I'm writing a blog again. Again, no, it's not that I've actually been busy with college, and work since last I related a tale to you all. The sheer crazy, is this really happening??ness stems instead from... please sit down for this... birding.  Actual birding. Okay, maybe twitching, but still, birds were, or rather a bird was involved.  And it was this bird that caused, for many people, a state of flabbergasted awe. Which, to be fair, is most certainly the correct state to be in once a Red-backed Shrike has glided down and taken a grasshopper (R.I.P) from right by your feet. Wouldn't you agree?
 Crippling views is a term which is often overused, here though, it's justified. A shrike sitting on a perfect perch, in lovely light... you don't get much better than that.
 In the off chance that you haven't worked it out yet (I mean it's not as if the internet's filled with pictures of this bird), yes, I went for the Tide Mills Red-backed Shrike.
 It had been present for about two or three days before I managed to get over there, and I had heard it said that it was showing rather nicely.... well they got that right.

I arrived at about 1pm and spent a good five hours there, leaving at around dusk. The days really could do with being a bit longer again. The shrike, a first summer male, was on show almost the whole time, and was having his picture taken at a rate of about 40 times a second. Well, what do you expect, it was basically a photographer's dream, if photographers were ever daring enough to have a dream that crazy.
 At a twitch it is usually considered bad etiquette to approach the bird even a little bit, this wasn't one of those times however (although I'm not saying no one complained), as the shrike would let you approach to within ten feet of it and hardly give you a second glance.

Despite the presence of a large number of photographers, the bird managed to feed well throughout the day, catching grasshoppers, cranefly, bees, Devils Coach Horse beetles, lizards and apparently a Pygmy Shrew.  I was, I must admit, rather fascinated to see a lizard, dripping gook and impaled in a rose bush. Shrikes really are very lovely birds.
 As the evening drew in, it stopped feeding so much and started to sit one legged at the top of bushes issuing forth a soft, scratchy sub-song. Not very common behaviour for a shrike in Britain, but then I'm not sure much that this bird did was.
 Such a crazy good bird, quite possibly the best £2.95 I've ever spent; even if it did take me 2 hours to complete a 30 minute journey to get home... Ahh, good ol' public transport. But even the soul crushing abilities of buses and trains were well worth it.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Tigers of the Urban Jungle

It has, I believe, been said that London is an urban jungle. If one is to agree with such a statement, then it must be considered that, in a most un-jungle-like way, London is modest. It doesn't, as it were, exude an exotic exterior. Okay, that is if you choose to ignore the lurid green long-tailed squawkers which go around skiving peanuts and biscuits off innocent park goers. For an average inhabitant of this jungle, most days won't be filled with luscious green trees and parakeets who don't eat your peanuts, but with grey buildings and pigeons of about thirty shades of dull, and perhaps two of blue.
 No monkeys, no toucans, no gorillas. Tigers? Well, that's a different matter entirely.
  This jungle is home to tigers. There's even a choice of three or four species. One of these has only appeared in the city within the last ten or so years, and has now become well established, and before you ask, no, not in a zoo. If you live in the right area you may well find that they're right in your garden. In the off chance you were just about to start panicking and locking your doors, I feel it's worth pointing out that you probably won't be in much danger... these tigers generally choose flowers over flesh. Oh, and they're also only two inches big.  Neither Siberian or Bengal, nor even Sumatran, these are much closer to home: the Jersey Tiger.
  There is some speculation as to how these stunning moths ended up in London, possibly they were released, but they may also have been migrants, or even wanderers from one of the already established colonies along the south coast. By whatever means they got here and now that they've arrived they certainly seem to be doing well.
  My previous experience with Jersey Tigers extended so far as a single spider-wrapped individual on the windowsill last year. So, as I'm sure you may be able to imagine, with the prospect of them in the garden I was moderately looking forward to their approaching flight season. Okay, so maybe I was just a little more than moderately excited when I switched on the actinic trap last night, but come on, it doesn't get much better than this!

By 1am this morning the trap had brought in five of these giant beauties, several of which were flying around and flashing their exotic colours; looking better fitted for a rain forest than a small garden in the Urban Jungle.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Feet Without Stilts

I wouldn't say Red-footed Falcons and I have had the best relationship. I just find it hard to trust their 'realness'. Especially when they're in Essex. It's not as such the fault of the birds themselves, more my previous experience. This distrust, as it were, all started about, hmm, 2 years ago now, when a Red-foot was reported at Lee Valley. With the enthusiasm that comes oh so naturally to a child, I quickly travelled to see it via the delights of the public transport system. The report was unfortunately erroneous, leading to a rather devastating day. I wasn't quite as hardened a 'dipper' back then you see.
Since the fated day I've always glanced at reports of Red-footed Falcons with the shrewd eye of bitter experience.
 Yesterday afternoon the shrewd eye crept back out, with reports of a female Red-footed Falcon at Vange Marsh. Shortly after, all shrewdness made a swift retreat - ah, the magic of photos.
Vange wasn't too far away... maybe it could be worth a trip. I then recollected that there were a pair of Black-winged Stilts there too. Yeah, maybe.
 Okay fine, you're right, there was no way I wasn't going. Except maybe if there were train cancellations - I've never enjoyed replacements bus services. Thankfully there weren't any issues - yes I know it's hard to believe, but I fib not - and so my morning, well, some of my morning and a little of my afternoon, was spent watching this beauty!

What a bird! Cross a Hobby and a Kestrel, add a drop more awesomeness and voilĂ !
 It spent most of the time in flight over the water, or perched off in the distance, but on occasion it did the decent thing and showed off its aerobatic prowess at moderately close range to the awed admirers amassing below.

Please accept my apologies for the repetition, but really, what a bird!
I think I rather trust them now.

There was no sign of the Black-winged Stilts, but I wasn't complaining (much), it was still superb only to see the falcon. Just as long as the Stilts didn't show up again after we left, all would be well.
At 16:45, they did.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

A Pyrausta A Day Keeps The Doctor Away

Five a day and it must be May. Okay, well technically that's not true, but be honest, what would you prefer, facts or rhymes? Surely you'd pick the rhyme.... every time. Alright, alright, I'll cut it out. Without a doubt.
 To those slightly keen with their micro moth latin, I'm sure by now that an inkling of the following (un-rhyming) content has began to form. Yes, it's moths. That time of year is here (well that was  unintentional) again. Oh and of course, I do still live in Britain, so there will naturally be some complaining about the weather.
 A few weeks ago Bob Eade kindly offered to show me around his patch in Seaford to see some of the fantastic and rather specialised lepidoptera species that occurred there. Up until this week, we could never find a good day to go, and I'm sure you can hazard a reasonable guess why - the weather, faithfully awkward as always. I mean come on, frost and snow in mid-April? Where was that in December? Oh and don't get me started on that wind...
 Last week however the climate appeared to have finally noticed the calendar, knocking the temperature up into the mid 20°C's. The wind didn't really relent, but hey, it actually felt like spring - maybe summer even. The point is, it didn't feel like my fingers were going to freeze off. A very promising start.
 Late Monday morning, after the now-to-be-expected train delays (I did however manage to see a Pyrausta aurata in my spare time), I met up with Bob and we headed off to his patch.
 Within just a few minutes of arriving we were greeted with good views of the scarce, delightful little Elachista subocella.

We continued on, seeing: Silver Y, Cinnabar, Burnet Compaion and Pyrausta despicata. A nice surprise was a Pyrausta nigrata, not a moth I'd expected to see.
 Pyrausta ostrinalis was one of the species we were hoping to see, and after about twenty or so minutes Bob found one. An extremely beautiful moth, but, you know the word mean? Well they were, for the most part, the definition of mean. Perhaps so far as invidious? They had the idea so  ever present in wildlife, that moving during the taking of an image is good. Like a sixth sense almost.
Ah well, it certainly made me much more appreciative when one landed and stayed for a while.
They really are superb!

There were plenty of good butterfly species around too, a few Grizzled and a dozen or so Dingy Skippers, as well as a couple of stunning Green Hairstreak.
The fifth species of Pyrausta turned up shortly after, an incredibly fresh - and as such stunning - purpuralis.

 One of the micro moths we saw was unfamiliar to the both of us. When I got home I tentatively ID'd it as Tinagma balteolella, a rare species, and after a couple of days, the county recorder kindly verified this. It was only the second site ever to have knowingly held the species in Sussex, and the first sighting of one in the county for 30 years!

A big thanks to Bob for showing me around, such an incredible array of great species and a superb day out.

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