Wednesday, 29 December 2010

To The Lighthouse

The calm period between Christmas and New Year is usually a good time for reflection. Plus January and February are looking very busy. So the three BirdGuides directors have just held a summit meeting to hatch plans for the coming year. Travelling variously from West London, Dumfries & Galloway and Donegal... we decided to meet in the middle.

This is the very fine Corsewall Lighthouse just down the road from Stranraer.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Sad end for the booby

After we ran an article on sad fate of the Spanish Red-footed Booby, even sadder news has come to light that the bird has since died. After surviving an operation to remove fishing hooks from its stomach, it finally died on 23rd December.

For more details, see the facebook page of Rarebirdspain. Photo courtesy of CRFS PNAE/Generalitat de Catalunya.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Chiswick In Winter

Not the mice this time. We have taken an executive decision to sacrifice part of Stephen's mince pie to a good cause: feeding our local Pied Wagtails which are hungrily chis-wick-ing around the Mews in the snow.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

It's a hard life being a Greenfinch

It's a hard life being a bird at the best of times, without the perils of cats and disease adding to your problems. This afternoon I received a couple of Greenfinch ring recoveries from Norfolk, one of which I'd ringed and one ringed by BTO Research Ecologist Stuart Newson.

'Mine' (if you can ever own a bird) was ringed at Ketteringham, just outside Norwich, in October 2009 and died of Trichomonosis at Halesworth, Suffolk, on 17th September (32km distant). We'll be running a webzine article on the devastating effects of Trichomonosis in the New Year, so keep an eye out for this.

The other bird was ringed by Stuart at Hapton, near Norwich, in December 2009 and was killed by a cat at Ludham, Norfolk, on 30 August (29km distant). This urban form of predation accounts for over 40% of 'known-cause mortality' in Greenfinches.

Who'd be a Greenfinch?!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The world's most unfortunate woodpecker?

We recently received this photo via a long chain of emails, but just had to share it. Apparently, the photographer had come home (in Hertfordshire) in the middle of the day at the beginning of November to find this Green Woodpecker embedded in the barge board above his garage. The beak appeared to have gone about 15mm into the wood.

Unfortunately the bird was quickly disposed of, as it would have been interesting to have seen it! Answers on a postcard please as to whether it was in mid-flight when it hit, or was pecking a bit too vigorously...

Thanks to Jonathan Smith for sending this round originally and for letting us use the photos.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Extreme mothing

You'd be forgiven for thinking that after the recent spell of freezing weather moths would be all but non-existent in the UK right now. Surprisingly, though, there are some moths that are quite at home in this winter weather. With temperatures this evening reaching the tropical heights of +2 °C, armed with torches and nets, our hardy band of west London moth-ers managed to locate over a dozen individuals of three species. Poor-quality photos taken with an iPhone.

First catch your moth, then find it in the net:

Male Winter Moth:

The commonest moth this evening, comprising 11/13 of the individuals seen.

Pair of Winter Moths with female above and male below:

The female is wingless.

Scarce Umber:

Another species where the female is wingless, so this one must be a male.

And the third species, in case you were wondering, was an Acleris sp. - probably A. ferrugana.

Mince Pie Outrage

The Warple Mews Mice have no shame. My Yemini Matari coffee was prepared to perfection. I slid out the perfect accompaniment: the last remaining Waitrose mince pie:

This is getting personal.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Off to Swanwick

Barring any snow-related disasters, BirdGuides will be at the BTO's annual conference at Swanwick, Derbyshire, this weekend. We'll be running the traditional Friday night quiz and also be on hand all weekend to talk about software, bird news, apps, data-sharing and much more. So if you're braving the weather to come along then do say hello (though we can't guarantee the conference centre will look quite so summery).

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Winter warmer

With the freezing weather really kicking in now, we had a great suggestion today on providing water for your garden birds. Fish tank heaters can be bought for under a tenner and are ideal for keeping your water ice-free over the winter. They're readily found at tropical fish shops or can be bought online, so have a look and think about investing.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Getting to the Bottom of the Mice Problem

For those of you following the Warple Mews mice infestation debacle... the latest news is that the little blighters have discovered a "fresh" source of nourishment. Following a recent trip to Iceland, everyone in the office was showered with delicious gifts of dried salt cod. For some reason this did not go down so well as the more traditional chocolates. One member of staff, who shall remain nameless Andrew, clearly felt the best plan was to discretely file the said tasty fish treat under "Z". Guess who has now discovered this rich feast? Yes our furry friends have moved on from the bumper crop of sunflower seeds to banquet messily on the cod, leaving a generous scattering of fishy flakes around the office.

Here we can see a fetching view of BirdGuides' Managing Director manfully addressing the problem by blocking the door to mice's dining room using a spot of silicone bath sealant.

Friday, 19 November 2010

BirdGuides at the Bird Fair

OK, so not THE bird fair (the Rutland one), but the North West Bird Watching Festival at Martin Mere this weekend.

BirdGuides will be there in the guise of Stephen Menzie, so do pop along and say hello. You'll find Stephen in the Greenwood building.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

My best find in years!

It's always nice to find a good rarity, but sadly mine wasn't anything as nice as a Parula in a Cornish valley - no such luck! But an email this morning confirmed that I'd found only the third Long-tailed Skua for Costa Rica - also only the eighth for the Caribbean!

This was a skull and foot I found on the beach at Tortuguero back in March 2009, now published in the Journal of Marine Ornithology - the full article can be found online now.

Monday, 15 November 2010

There's a moose loose aboot this hoose.

Oh dear. We have office mice. One of which had the temerity to get caught during our weekly teleconference earlier this afternoon causing much disruption. We took the humane trap over to Acton Park for liberation into the wild.

Bait of the day was a Penguin (the biscuit not the bird). We're not convinced that it'll find the pastoral delights of Acton Park a more comfortable home than our store cupboard. Now who was it left a bag of (now vanished) sunflower seeds in there?

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Extreme vis-mig

I've flogged Bird Observatories for many an autumn and seen some pretty impressive falls of birds, but NOTHING has ever even come close to this!

Higbee Dike morning flight 10/29/2010 from Steven Bauer on Vimeo.

The video was shot at Higbee Beach, in Cape May, New Jersey this autumn. Now I've also birded Higbee beach and I assure you it isn't always quite so good. This really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the birders there.

But we've yet to see a big fall of Goldcrest or Blackbird on the east coast, so maybe it's not too late to pop along to Spurn, Gib or Flamborough...

Friday, 5 November 2010

Continental visitor to Staines

I know it doesn't sound very likely, but an office twitch for a Lapland Bunting at Staines Reservoir last month produced an interesting aside. A female Tufted Duck there was sporting a blue 'nasal saddle'.

We've just got the details back from the scheme and the bird was ringed way back in July 2005 at Jubilan in western France. It had only been seen locally up to 12 January 2007 and then disappeared.

View Staines' Tuftie in a larger map

It's a bit surprising a bird with a big obvious saddle on its beak could go missing, but there we go! I also wonder how many of the others Lap Bunt twitchers saw and reported the bird...

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Waxwings everywhere!

If you live anywhere in the north or east you may have already realised, but we're in the middle of a big Waxwing invasion. This is a very early arrival and some really big flocks have already been seen. The biggest we've heard of were 480 at Pitlochry and 320 in Aberfeldy this morning, and there were at least 622 around Lewis in the Outer Hebrides yesterday.

Our BirdMap for Waxwing sightings in the last week clearly shows the arrival, with virtually no birds southwest of a line between the Isle of Man and London.

So if you've not seen one of these delightful birds before then perhaps this winter will be your best chance. Generally found in supermarket car parks and town centre ornamental trees, they're usually very confiding allowing a great view. Listen out for their very distinctive trilling call as well, sounding oddly reminiscent of "sid-little".

Monday, 18 October 2010

Another colour-ringed bird evades me!

I've just heard details of yet another colour-ringed bird on the Hayle estuary that I've managed to miss. This was a Greylag Goose, which admittedly doesn't sound like the most exciting of sightings, but this one was sporting a neck collar. It had been originally ringed in southern Sweden in June 2000 and had previously been seen in The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.

It then popped up in Northumberland in February 2010, before wandering to North Yorkshire, Bedfordshire, Essex four days later, Aberdeenshire four days later and then Kent. It was then an unusual addition to the seawatching tally at Porthgwarra, Cornwall, on 9th October before gracing the Hayle four days later.

So next time you see a lowly Greylag Goose, stop and think where it might be from. And if you're lucky enough to see one with a neck collar or colour ring then report it online via

Friday, 15 October 2010

Breeding Red Kites are a first in Ireland

Since 2007 a programme to reintroduce the Red Kite into Ireland has been happening. In total 81 birds have now been released in Wicklow, with another 53 in Down since 2008. Last year the first two pairs bred, but weren't successful.

But this year was far more successful, with seven pairs raising 12 chicks in Wicklow and four pairs raising five chicks in Down. This is great news for the species, and more details of the project can be found in this extract from Wingers, the kids section of BirdWatch Ireland's magazine.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Escape to Wormwood Scrubs

I was in the office early this morning when the telephone rang. It was David Lindo on the Azores with news of a Great Grey Shrike gracing Wormwood Scrubs. Ah don't you just love the 21st Century. Needless to say David was not a happy bunny. Fancy being over 2000 miles from your local patch when a cracking bird like that turns up.

Anyway I scooted over to "the long grass" at the Scrubs where the bird was rumoured to be lurking. Sure enough, it did not take long to spot a distant white splodge atop a bush, surrounded by a posse of West London's finest. An exhausing couple of hours ensured, during which time the skrike led me a merry dance around this surprisingly large "park". Rolling Prairies more like.

Eventually I realised that the best plan was to stake out a random bush and wait with my heavy camera for the bird to come to me. With good grace it did so just before my parking ticket ran out. A very handsome creature and what a treat to escape from the office for the last few hours of our Indian Summer sun.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Tits and finches on the move

Just today I was reading some amazing ringing totals, with Lista Bird Obseravtory in southern Norway ringing 528 Blue Tits yesterday! But browsing round I also found that Falsterbo Bird Observatory in southern Sweden had ringed 574 on 4th October!

All this seems quite amazing, but then consider Falsterbo ringed 633 Siskin yesterday (385 in one net round!) and seen migration counts of 83,000 Siskin then it's not surprising! Even this pales into insignificance compared to 20th September though, when a massive 240,300 Chaffinch/Brambling passed overhead.

With news of a big movement of birds from the Continent over the last couple of nights as well (from radar studies) it could be quite a weekend...

Leucistic Wheatears and other oddities

We've seen a few odd photos of leucistic birds recently, but this one uploaded to Iris yesterday is a cracker! This Wheatear was photographed in Turkey and must have been a surprise for the finder.

Other odd photos can be found in the aberrant birds album on Iris.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Spanish Glossy Ibis

While we wait for full details of the origins of most of the flock of Glossy Ibis that toured Hants and Kent, here's one we do know. R9T was one of the original 18 on the Otter estuary, then moving to Avonmouth, where it's been very obliging.

So much so that a couple of people have managed to read the bird's metal ring (7113171), proving it to be a Spanish bird. It's a bit hard to read, but you can make out part of what actually says "MINIST. MEDIO AMBIENTE, ICONA MADRID". Most of the birds in last year's influx were also Spanish, ringed in the nest at Doñana in the south of the country. One was from Camargue, France, though (flying round with two Spanish birds) so you can't just assume...

Thanks to Mick Colquhoun for sending on the photos of the ring.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Dancing Leach's Petrels

If you've not seen it already, check out the latest BirdGuides video offering - Leach's Petrels (or Leach's Storm-petrels if you want to be very correct) on the north Wirral coast.

Good effort on Stephen for getting this in such poor conditions.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Rarities from the sofa

When this image was uploaded to Iris earlier, we didn't think much of it. But it was soon apparent that this wasn't quite the "Common" Sandpiper it had been uploaded as, but the much rarer Spotted Sandpiper.

It wasn't in the UK though, but had been photographed in Vilamoura harbour, Algarve, Portugal, on 15th September. We've sent the details off to the Portuguese rarities committee so will update you when we know just how rare it is.

It's not often we get to 'find' and identify something like this, so it does brighten the day! Thanks to Ivan Ellison for posting this and to the News Team for spotting its true identity.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Norwegian wanderer on my patch

I must have spent far too many hours looking for colour-ringed birds (mostly gulls) on the Hayle estuary, Cornwall, but was gazumped the other week.

This juvenile Common Sandpiper was on the estuary on 28 August, sporting a red colour ring and a yellow 'flag', inscribed with AEE. It turns out 8A56124 had been ringed at Makkevika, Møre & Romsdal, in Norway just 16 days earlier. It was presumably well on its way when ringed and in those 16 days had covered an impressive 1,535 km.

It looks like this is only the fifth Norwegian-ringed Common Sand to be found in the UK, so is truly a decent record! Well done to Nick Tomalin for finding it and thanks for the photo.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Shetland Season?

My good friend Brydon Thomason tells me he has two spaces left on his "Shetland Autumn Birding" trip. I didn't believe him at first - it should surely be booked solid already? If you want to experience the very finest birding in Britain in the hands of the best birders then get booking!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

We're back from the Birdfair

It's been a busy weekend for everyone here, but a very enjoyable one. Great to meet up with friends, old and new, who came to visit the team at the BirdGuides stand.
Judging by the number of people we overheard talking about our video coverage of Birdfair online, it seems that our collection of short clips showing off the very best of the Birdfair over the long weekend has been well received. For those of you who haven't yet seen the videos, you can find them all on our webzine.

See you all again next year at Birdfair 2011!

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Boys from the Birdstuff

Hopefully you are following the video reports we are posting from Birdfair 2010. Anyone familiar with the process of shooting and editing will know that creating these sequences in a live environment such as the three-day event here at Rutland Water, can be a hairy process. Or in fact not so hairy as your can see below.

The one on the right is ace editor Sam Woolf, the as yet relatively hairy one in the middle is assistant producer Stephen Menzie and the one sensibly cleaning his lens on the left (check out David Lindo's introductory report) is director/cameraperson Richard Chambers.

Here is Richard with his prosthetic XL-H1a hob-nobbing with distinguished literary gentleman Dominic Couzens. In fact Richard has had a long association with BirdGuides. Back in the days when he had long flowing hair, he produced an early version of our CD-ROM Guide to All The Birds of Europe... long since metamorphosed into BWPi 2.0. Today Richard is a widely-experienced natural history producer, having made numerous films for international broadcasters including the BBC Natural History Unit. We are very honoured to have him lead our Birdfair video team.

Come and see us at the Rutland BirdFair

In case anyone has missed it, this weekend is the annual British BirdWatching Fair at Rutland Water. A massive event attracting over 20,000 people every year, there's plenty to see and do, from optics, foreign holidays, frogs and much more (even bagpipes right now!).

You can keep up with happenings on, presented by David Lindo, where we'll be putting out news every evening.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Commuting Norfolk Spoonbill

Norfolk birders have been treated to a regular group of Spoonbills all summer, with news reported just this week of the successful breeding of a small colony at Holkham NNR (see main article here). Cley Marshes has seen a group of up to 17 birds, though number do fluctuate and it's interesting to think where these birds might be going.

Luckily several of these are colour-ringed, allowing their movements to be tracked - assuming, of course, that birders report them. One such bird was LAYF,L,Y;RAB,M,B or NLA-8049223 as it's known to the Dutch Ringing Scheme. The coding just describes the bird's combination of colours rings and a flag, allowing it to be identified as an individual - one with ring number 8049223.

This bird was ringed as a nestling on 16th June 2007 at Bomenland, Vlieland, Netherlands (in blue below). It was seen in Vlieland until 8th September 2007 then moving to Bahia de Santona, Cantabria, Spain, on 6th-16th October 2007 (in red blow). It wasn't seen again until it arrived at Cley (also in red below) on 18th June 2010, then seen on various dates until the morning of 2nd August. Amazingly, it was then seen back in The Netherlands that very evening, but deciding it actually preferred Norfolk, it was back at Cley again on the morning of 5th August!

View Spoonbill in a larger map

This really goes to show the fascinating stories that come out of colour-ringing programmes, all of which rely on reports from birders. So if you do come across a colour-ringed bird, do report it and maybe its story will be equally interesting.

Thanks to Dave and Pat Wileman for the photo of the bird at Cley and to Otto Overdijk for the details of the bird.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Poorly Cornish gull comes home

I just popped into Hayle estuary, Cornwall, the other week after ringing at Marazion Marsh (standard monitoring for Aquatic Warblers, but all we caught were Sedge and Reed). Since moving down to the southwest a few weeks ago, this is the first time I'd really grilled the gulls here, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a colour-ringed Herring Gull, with a combination (A3WY) that looked a bit familiar.

It turns out this was a bird rehabilitated by RSPCA and colour-ringed on release. I'm more used to seeing these on the beach at Hastings begging for chips! It had been picked up unable to walk back in June 2009 and after a few weeks R&R was released at West Hatch, near Taunton, Somerset. So it was good to see it back in its native Cornwall, looking healthy and happy again!

Thanks to RSPCA for the quick return of details of this bird, and it just goes to show that even the commonest birds can have interesting stories. So do keep an eye out for colour-ringed birds, and report them to the BTO.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Kiss of death for W-t Lapwing?

After one of the rarest birds of the year spent weeks touring Lancashire, London, Gloucestershire and Kent (and even The Netherlands), some of the BirdGuides office finally managed to catch up with the recent White-tailed Lapwing at Dungeness (somewhere in the pic below).

Talk about leaving it to the last minute, a spur of the moment decision saw us abandoning the office to head to Dungeness a couple of days ago. Good job we did, as the day after we were there was the last day the bird was seen! And just to embarrass Stephen Menzie, check out his wonderful iPhone-digiscoped photo below... Rather more impressive photos of the bird are on the BirdGuides website.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Southern (Red) Wood Ant nest

As promised, here's the video from yesterday:

Click on the video to view it in glorious full-screen YouTube HD.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Ants In Their Pants

Yes it's the two Stephens (Rutt and Menzie). They have been released from their logging hutch for the day to accompany BirdGuides senior cameraman Max Whitby on an exciting filming trip to photograph Small Red Damselfly. Unfortunately the great master (ie Max): 1) forgot to bring the CF cards; 2) the tripod; 3) and failed to find out in advance that the private reserve that was the mission's objective requires advance permission and was closed anyway.

But we did find a splendid Wood Ant nest. Here you can see the boys up close and personal with several tens of thousands of the little beasts about to crawl up their trousers. Rumour has it a video will shortly be available on YouTube.

All your eggs in two baskets?

It was with some surprise that Phil Littler, a BTO ringer in Norfolk, had a call from a local gamekeeper telling him of a "close nesting" pair of Spotted Flycatchers. What he found were two nests right next to each other, both of which had been occupied.

The left-hand nest had been built and eggs laid, with the adjoining nest built soon after, later occupied by a second female. By the time Phil had got to the nests, chicks from the first had already fledged, but the second nest was occupied by large young. Unfortunately the keeper hadn't realised how interesting this was and noted whether both nests were being serviced by the male at the same time.

What is presumably the first female is now sat on a another nest just a few feet away, and this does beg the question as to whether Spot Flys can be polygamous.

Thanks to Phil for letting us know about this and for the photo.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Summer Migration

Moving a big website to new servers has to be up there with moving house, changing school, or buying pricey new binoculars, on the scale of high-stress, high-adrenaline, never-to-be-forgotten life events. While all you wonderful fans were enjoying the tennis or watching the World Cup with a cold beer and a vuvuzela, there was I busily carting all your precious photos and sightings by the barrow-load from our creaky old servers to the shiny new ones.

Just gorgeous!

Yes, they're bigger, they're faster, they've got multiple cores, they're 64-bit and they come with enough technical specs to warm the heart of the geekiest geek. But any affection that I might have had for these technological marvels at the start of the week has long since worn off and I really don't care if I never see their pretty desktops or sweet little system consoles ever again.

Most of us only have one birthday a year: well, on Tuesday mine was spent in a marathon operation, all scrubbed up, with the old and new servers suitably anaesthetised and laid out side-by-side, chests clamped open. Rooting around on my tray of instruments, I came across the SQL Server Database Migration Wizard. It sounded like it might do just what it said on the tin, so I set it to work and left it churning happily while I went off to watch Spain v. Portugal. But by half-time it had choked on all those dubious rarities in the Sightings table and fallen over, with the helpful message: 'Execution Failed'. It was back to the tedious, but effective, Detach and Attach technique beloved of surgeons the world over, complete with that eventual overwhelming feeling of relief as the patient's vitals kick in again following the Attach phase. Around 4am, with application pools all set up, blood vessels tied off and virtual directories configured, I closed up and stepped out of theatre to bring the good news to the BirdGuides next of kin, waiting anxiously outside.

By late Wednesday the servers were starting to come around, enjoying a light meal and sipping green tea. The drips were removed and the DNS records were switched bringing the new servers live to all you patient devotees. The tough decision was made to withdraw life support from the old servers: after one final gasp they breathed out their last HTML. May they Rest in Pieces.

Complications are inevitable, and so it was to be. Some of you were deeply offended that we had suddenly, and without notice, imposed a meagre 200k limit on your photo uploads. The Internet Information Services Manager is a thing of wonder, within whose impenetrable screens I have squandered many hours of my life. It was in here that I set out on a quest for the setting that must control the maximum upload size. An hour and much frantic googling later, I found it: Maximum Requesting Entity Body Limit - how could I have missed it?

In case you ever need to know...

Wednesday, 30 June 2010


It's been a hectic weekend and start to the week for me, full of a variety of BTO surveys! On the weekend I managed five Timed Tetrad Visits in East Lincolnshire for the Bird Atlas - the highlight being Hobby, new to TF45.

This was followed by football (OK, so not a BTO survey) on Sunday and sulking on Monday. We then ran our CES (Constant Effort Site ringing) on Tuesday at a great site in the Norfolk Broads. Amongst our catch was a French-ringed Reed Warbler which was a pleasant surprise, only the seventh to be found in Norfolk.

Very characteristic of the site are some of the reedbed birds, and on two net rounds we had Grasshopper Warbler and Bearded Tit in the hand together!

We did have to close nets at one point as the mother of rain storms came over, but thankfully we had a handy BBQ, both to cook breakfast and dry soaked hoodies.

In the evening we just about managed to squeeze in some nest recording at one of our sites near Thetford. We managed to ring six broods of Reed Warblers, check on a further 12 nests, and I even managed to find a Reed Bunting nest, with three 2-day-old chicks and an unhatched egg - the fourth at this site so far in 2010.

Last up was my BBS square this morning at Weybread, Suffolk. The highlight here was a very obliging pair of Spotted Flycatchers, but there were also plenty of family parties buzzing round.

So if you've never got involved in survey work, do give it a go! For more info, visit the BTO website.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Woody Woodpecker on CES

Just about managed to drag myself out of bed at 4:15 this morning to tag along on the BTO's Constant Effort Site ringing session.

It wasn't the busiest, but I was surprised at still how little growth there's been on the site. The reeds are still only a few feet high (below), there are no nettles (much to the relief of BirdTrack organiser Nick Moran, wearing shorts when we were putting up nets) and it just seems rather sparse...

We caught around 40 birds by 9am, many of which were retraps - excellent for survival studies! Highlight though, was this Green Woodpecker, caught in one of our least productive nets! The lack of red in the moustaches shows it's a female, and the pink eye, general colouration and broad primary coverts show it was a 'full' adult.

Seems it also has shape-shifting properties as well, looking strangely like Woody Woodpecker himself!

Friday, 4 June 2010

Fame at last!

OK, so not exactly fame, but you may have caught me with Martin Hughes-Games on the BBC's Springwatch programme last night. This is really in a previous existence, talking about ringing for the BTO, but it's still fun to watch.

It'll be on iPlayer for a week or so, so catch up with it here at about 41 minutes in.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Swift Focus

Ever wonder where our swifts used to hang out before they had our towns and cities? Well, every time I walk in the Blue Stack mountains in mid-summer on a (rare) good day, there they are, hawking for insects right up on the exposed heights at over 2000 feet.

I hadn't thought of photographing swifts before, but then I'd never seen them quite so close as they skimmed around me with ground-hugging dashes that would make a Tornado pilot weep. My first efforts were predictably rather dire: autofocus in 'sport' mode might be adept at tracking my son sprinting up the left wing or even our dog chasing the cat, but it failed miserably when confronted with a swift, transforming these streamlined flying machines into shapeless UFOs.

Switching to manual focus at least ensured that about one in ten shots was in focus. But there was still the problem of keeping the swift in the viewfinder while staying upright on the rough ground, and all the while ensuring that the fun didn't come to a swift and untimely end over the nearby cliff.

Having bagged a satisfying number of shots, I paused in my singleminded antics only to find another walker observing me rather quizzically from the nearby summit. I waved cheerily, but instead of coming over for a chat, he promptly turned and headed down the other side. I guess he hadn't seen the swifts...