Sunday, 31 January 2016

I do like to be beside the ....

... Seaside of course!

Despairing of taking any new pictures during this unusually quiet period for inland birds, I visited the coast recently. I had previously noticed a small group of Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) taking up positions on the cliff ledges. Presumably these will become their nest sites.

Most casual observers would mistake them for Gulls but to me Fulmars are so much more interesting. They belong to the same family as Petrels and Albatrosses and are much more wedded to the open sea than most Gulls. Pelagic is the term. They do however have to come to the cliffs to breed.

After parking in the beach car park at Budleigh Salterton I struggled up the cliff path to try to re-locate the birds. Initially there was no sign of them. The wind was blowing along the cliffs rather than at them so there was not much of an updraught. Eventually I spotted one on a ledge and over the next twenty minutes or so witnessed them start to take to the air. Tricky wind conditions are no problem to a Fulmar.

If you have never seen them, here is what to watch out for. They look like medium sized Gulls, but are nearly always seen gliding on stiff, grey wings with hardly a wing beat. If they do beat their wings, it is most likely to be a short series of very shallow beats - more like a shiver than a wing beat.

A distinguishing feature are the two lighter patches about two thirds of the way along the wings. This sometimes does not show very well but you can usually make it out. Here are a couple of typical views of a Fulmar seen from the cliff tops.

The photography was not as easy as you might think. Although the birds were obliging and frequently wheeled and soared close to the cliff, even the Canon 7D Mk2 had trouble locking the autofocus on to them. The background of the ocean seemed to exert a powerful influence on the system and very often won out, leaving me with out-of-focus blobs where the bird should have been. For most of the time I was using the AF procedure previously outlined in my blog:

This worked quite well, but I experimented with using just the expanded centre point rather than all 65 AF points. I felt that this locked on to the birds better under these circumstances, but I cannot prove it. The additional difficulty was the extreme mobility of these birds as the South Westerly wind steadily freshened as the afternoon progressed. It was difficult to get them in the view finder - especially when they came very close. Eventually I decided to abandone my 1.4x teleconverter and just use the bare 400mm lens to get a wider field of view.

In the closer photos you can just make out a very characteristic feature, the peculiar tube-like nostrils of these birds. They actually belong to a group of birds called "tube noses" - this is the same group mentioned above and includes Albatrosses and Petrels. Here is a close up of the arrangement.

So that was an exhilerating afternoon. After taking almost 400 shots over a period of nearly three hours I was getting cold! The first few spots of rain had me packing up and making my way back to the lowlands. Here are a few more shots to finish.

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