Good weather may not be as forthcoming during winter, but I’d argue that winter light is the best of the year, if you can find a break in the clouds.
I checked the forecast and saw a long line of sun symbols, so I donned my thermals and headed out to see what wildlife I could photograph. First I tried for hares at sunrise, but they were otherwise engaged. Frustratingly, golden hour was flaring bright and I was itching to get photos of something, anything, in those syrupy hues.
After several hours with a numb bum, looking at diddly squat, I visited the library to return a book and warm up. When I came out, a flock of tufted ducks were bobbing in the city pond. The light was still fantastic, so I lay on the ground and got snapping. Like mallards, tufties have stunning iridescence if you catch them in direct light. I hadn’t set out for ducks, but it was a happy accident and I loved photographing something so closely for a change.
Rejuvenated by my unexpected success with the ducks, I moved on to one of my local lochs, where there’s always some sort of activity. As usual, the feeders were swept up in a feather storm: chaffinches, dunnocks, robins, great tits, long-tailed tits, blackbirds, woodpeckers and song thrushes all muscled in in for a mid-morning snack.
As my eyes snagged on each passing bird, I realised I couldn’t remember the last time I photographed a blue tit. I’m always looking for rarities and don’t appreciate common birds as much as I should. When I actually paid attention to the blue tits that were zinging in the bright sunshine, I appreciated just how multi-coloured they are. A British bird of paradise!
The sunlight may look warm in my photos but it didn’t feel it, and after a while I was ready to retreat for tea. Before I headed home, a small gaggle of greylag geese swept over the loch, dipping in flight until they skidded to a halt on the surface. Luckily for me they were facing the sun, so I caught some high-contrast shots of their smooth landing.
After an uncertain start, my trip became a common bird appreciation day, which I probably needed. I get blinkered looking for the rare and exotic, but with winter light as special as this, every bird looks superb.
After watching Chris and Michaela hunt for great grey shrikes on Winterwatch, I realised what stunning birds they were and that I’d quite like to find one for myself. I asked Cain if he knew of any recent sightings and of course, he did. There was one of these beautiful shrikes in a patch of rural Newcastle that had remained in the area all winter. So, early on Friday morning, Zahrah and I set off to try and track the bird down.
As we made our way east towards Newcastle, the combination of pouring rain and sleet filled me with dread. As usual, the weather forecast had gone awry, and I hoped the grisly sleet would clear up by the time we arrived. Luckily it did, and once parked and heading down the track with eyes peeled, we stayed dry. We were looking for a patch of stark white at the tops of the bare trees. Every so often we would stop and peer across the field, binoculars meticulously scanning each tree. Unfortunately, great grey shrikes are not vocal birds, so there was no telltale call we could listen out for. This would be a case of sharp eyes.
We came across a group of bullfinches – a handsome male and two females – as they foraged in the bushes. I have a soft spot for these vibrantly coloured birds, so stopped to take photos, trying to manoeuvre myself to sneak a clear glimpse of the male through a break in the tangle of twigs. This was only partially successful.
As we trudged up the track, the only sound to be heard was the mud as it sucked on our boots. I found it a challenge to survey the trees for signs of movement while keeping an eye on where my feet were landing. After no sign of the shrike, we decided to try the other stretch of track that hugged the same field. At the crossroads we encountered a vast flooded patch of grass. At first glance it seemed empty, but a look through the binoculars revealed a large gathering of lapwing and golden plover huddled together. Further up the track, a hubbub of activity surrounded the bird feeders hanging from a tree. Great tits, blue tits, robins, a ground-foraging blackbird and a special sighting: a willow tit. I’d never seen one so close – a bird that I find indistinguishable from the marsh tit. According to the BTO, the most reliable way of telling these two species apart is by listening to them, as the birds’ most common calls are quite distinctive from each other. While marsh tits make a sneeze-like “pitchu” call, willow tits have a nasal “chay chay” sound.
We had come to the joint decision that our shrike would sadly not be making an appearance today. The needle was well hidden in the haystack, and we made our way back to the car. A little way further out was another reserve that we decided to visit. By this time, unexpected sunlight was filtering through the dissolving clouds, and gleamed on the pond, illuminating a flock of wigeon. They chatted to each other but were otherwise motionless. High up in the trees was a buzz of excitement, and yet more beautiful bullfinches! These ones were silhouetted against the sky, so their smart plumage was diluted in the sun. Accompanying them were great tits, siskin and a few goldfinches. A magpie was perched in the topmost branches, feathers ruffling as the wind caught him.
Before long it was golden hour, where the sun began to vanish behind the pond. The trees took on a shimmering glow, every hue heightened. A group of blue tits fluttered around, barely perching for a moment before swooping in another direction. I thought I saw the fluffy brush of a red squirrel’s tail disappearing between two boughs, but after waiting stock-still for it to emerge, I thought perhaps it was just a trick of the golden light.