Monday, 30 November 2009

All cosy now…

My Gunnera finally has its cosy duvet on to protect it over the winter… all ready for the expected drop in temp overnight. I am also thrilled to report that we have a Blue tit rooster cosy and tucked up in our nestbox that has a camera in it too :-D

The series of photos below show the stages of the winter protection layers. Tonight I was gardening in the dark with the help of outside lighting and my torch which I used to walk around the garden looking for dry material (fern and grasses) to use as layers for this year's Gunnera duvet...

The photo below was taken this evening at 10pm from inside our Camera Nestbox… with the aid of a torch. I was thrilled to spot a visit early last Friday evening (around 3:45pm) which looked like it could be the first visit this blue tit had made to our nestbox. You can see this visit in the video below.

It’s brilliant to see our Nestbox occupied again. I love to think that a bird can be cosy in there over the cold winter nights to come. It does make me smile when I look in and see it. I’m thrilled we can help it :-D I wonder how cold it will get tonight… it was 1.5 deg C at 4.30pm! When I was out gardening tonight I could feel the crisp crunch underfoot as I walked across my lawn. The grass was sparkling when I went indoors at 9pm. Yep… its time for the heating on in the morning for sure :-D All photos above were taken in my garden on November 30th 2009. The video above was taken from our camera Nestbox on November 27th 2009.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The Bookshelf - Wildlife

What does your bookshelf say about you? At a guess it’s a snapshot of your interests with a few randoms in there too. Narrow that down to subjects… and it probably tells a lot more about you. I've avoided saying too much about myself on my blog but, with Christmas Wish Lists in mind too, I thought I’d take you through what books are on my bookshelves and how they got there.

Okay, briefly breaking my bookshelves into subjects and you have (in no order of preference) Wildlife, Birds, Gardening (from practical to themed), Photography, Art (Drawing and Watercolour) and Technical (PhotoShop, video, programming). Mm… just thinking about this further I have a few other books that might be of interest to you too!

Let’s kick off, as per the post title, with Wildlife. I completely appreciate my books may be of no interest to readers from outside the UK but please do read on as this is as much about why these books are on my bookshelf and that doesn’t really change from country to country. So… introducing the wildlife books…

RSPB Wildlife of Britain
is everything you want in a book. Ultimately its breathtaking photography make you go ‘wow’ and inspire you to keep turning pages. This book also inspires you to head outside and see its images for real, for yourself!

The weight and quality of this hardback book makes it feel special to own and an ideal gift (I gave two last Christmas). Its layout is clean with excellent, easy to follow, detailed illustrations and it is written both informatively and in narrative.

In all honesty, I don’t have a single criticism of this book… an absolute treasure. Mm… perhaps the RRP at £30 (around $50) is an issue. However, as with all books/products if you shop around you may well get a discount on this. I was fortunate to get my copy for half price. My gift copies I picked up at a third of the price… now that was a treasure!

The Complete Guide to British Wildlife was the very first wildlife book I bought. In this case, I chose it as it wasn’t a big read! I was looking to use this book primarily as a source for ID’s. I found many books were illustration based but found a photographic reference much better. Initially this book gave me enough info. Searching for a little more info I picked up another copy in this series – Complete British Animals. My interest in wildife was developing now.

Next, the holiday book… Butterflies and Moths (Pocket Nature). Last year, we were in Norfolk and I spotted butterflies I had never seen before. Rather than just taking photographs and finding ID’s when I got home I decided it would be much more fun to find out what we were seeing at the time. On this occasion the wildlife book was scaled down to pocket size.

Pocket sized it may have been but this was a valuable, quick and easy book to use. Photographic references and illustrations were excellent and once again a great layout. I particularly liked the instant size guide (comparison to book size) and the maps showing the regions of the UK the species could be found. The later helped me a lot. However, the best part of this book was that displayed the butterflies by colour and for the newbie like me this worked a treat!

Not all books that say they are pocket sized will actually fit in the average coat pocket. However, the Pocket Nature Wildlife of Britain which covers British animals and plants just begged to be bought!

Yep… this was probably an impulse buy, no way did it fit in my pocket… it was one for the bag. Oh no… with cameras etc already packed there was little space and it would make my bag heavy.

Why did I buy it then? Well, it gave a fantastic snapshot of everything from trees to starfish… great photographs, illustrations, layout and this time extra details like footprints and droppings of mammals! Oh… and I did really like the fungi section. So did it work as a pocket guide? Yep, I just make room for it somewhere… or ask my kind OH to put it in his pocket :-D

This Wildlife section just couldn’t be complete without a reference and connection to wildlife gardening. Fitting in a square pocket (should you want to carry it around) "Gardeners' World": 101 Ideas for a Wildlife-friendly Gardenmay appear a modest addition to my bookshelf. However, there are some fantastic ideas in this project based book.

One particular project really caught my attention… I’ll come back to that when I give it a try. If you do have this book on your bookshelf I wonder if you can guess which project I’m thinking about. Actually, there are quite a few I like. Again, simple is the key here. This book includes plants for wildlife and feeder ideas.

Wildlife books can be found in Garden Centres as well as book sellers. Not all books there are at full price either. Bargains can be had if you have time to browse… even at this time of year with all the extra Christmas stock of trees and decorations. However, in some ways it is quite sad to see a book with a RRP at £12.99 (around $22) being sold for £1.99 (around $3)… less than the cost of a magazine!

A book about wildlife in towns and cities at that price appears to be a no-brainer! Mm… but where’s the catch? Well, for me it wasn’t the print date of 2003… it was the author. I could hear his irritating voice as I read the text. Sorry, Chris! Mm… but I bought the book… why?

Well, living on the edge of a small town (almost in the countryside) I am actually fascinated to hear about the wildlife that makes its way to and actually has a city habitat. Chris Packham's wild side of town is written in a narrative way in a style you’d expect from Chris… with interesting stories I have to admit.

This book has an illustrated field guide towards the end of the book which I liked. It also lists top urban sites with address/location/website details which I thought were very useful too. Chris's passion for wildife is without question and he's pretty knowledgeable too. Okay… I‘ll admit... I’ve found myself warming to him ;-)

So, here we come to the end of the present collection of wildlife books on my bookshelf and I’ve kept the best to last.

Although the images in the books above are absolutely captivating, having unquestionable value in ID’s and the illustrations are accurate there is just something missing. Until I discovered the Secret Lives of Garden Wildlife I didn’t see that either.

The skilled photographer can capture the true character of wildlife but, for me, the illustrator can capture just a little magic. They can bring the page to life.

I absolutely love everything about this book but I especially love the sketch style illustrations. They, for me, just say so much more than the words on the page.

On saying that, I also absolutely love the narrative and informative way this book has been written. It is fact and observation based and follows the months of the year. I have another in this series and… one on my Christmas Wish List. I feel the author is chatting to me... and you can guess I might enjoy that!

Okay, that’s enough bookshelf chat for today. What about the wildlife in my garden that these books have helped me get to know? Well, not many sightings at the moment. I’m guessing the hedgehogs are pretty much in hibernation now with perhaps a few odd night prowls for last minute feeds.

My last sighting (October 28th) I never got the chance to post about and involved lifting and weighing one that I thought might just be slightly on the small side for this time of year at 541g (600g + is much better).

I decided to keep this hedgehog overnight in my shed in a roomy spare guinea pig cage with a space to hide, food and water. I kept an eye ‘live’ that evening through my wildlife camera on a tripod but wasn’t happy watching this wild animal caged. It did move around a bit trying to get out. However, I felt it was the right thing to do to keep it there.

My nearest wildlife rescue centre is a busy SSPCA centre and I left a message with them the next morning. I eventually spoke to them early the next evening and as the hedgehog had been seen at dusk and was still moving about enough to suggest it wasn’t ill I was advised to just let it go where I found it. I was relieved as I was concerned it was getting stressed and I certainly was myself…watching it! This did upset me too.

Let’s take a look back again at another dusk hedgehog visitor back in the summer. This one was happily on safari in my garden and didn’t appeared bothered at all that I was quietly following it with my video camera :-D

Now... I wonder if you are on Christmas Shopping 'safari' this weekend. If so... good luck :-D

You may notice I’ve chosen to link directly to Amazon here so you can their reviews should you be interested in buying any of these books. You might also find the some books have had reprints and don’t have the same cover as the one on my bookshelf. Happy reading!

Monday, 23 November 2009

Good Evening, Mr Reed Bunting

I see now that you were not alone when I filmed you back in Spring! Whilst making a start on a video inventory of suitable video footage to include in my blog (two boxes of mini tapes awaits!!) I’ve discovered something I didn’t realise I had captured until yesterday. I’m guessing many visitors here will know what it was.

Before sharing that piece I’d like to share another. Two weeks ago, just before dusk, I took a couple of trips to the town side of Loch Leven. I was hoping to catch the pink footed geese, who are staying there over the winter, as they came into roost. Alas I wasn’t lucky enough to film them. I did hear them in the distance though.

However, as I stood waiting patiently, the evening sky and swans caught my attention. There was one very large group of swans (not a sound out of them) in the distance.

A few of these Mute swans had serenely floated towards me… my camera turned towards them.

It was like watching the ballerina in a music box… without sound but you could still feel the music. It was an unexpected moment and one of many I have enjoyed in the time I have been 'watching' both in and out of the garden since I began this blog.

It was getting almost too dark to make them out however I could see them rocking their bodies from side to side before dipping their heads in the water to feed. Based on watching the Blue tits nesting in my nestbox that has a camera in it I’d take a guess that they were moving stones below to dislodge any food.

What about Mr Reed Bunting? Well, yesterday morning I decided to return to the other side of Loch Leven to see if he was still around the area I’d first seen him. It was a lovely morning when we arrived. We walked down from the car park to the water’s edge where a number of birds could be seen on the water. I could see swans and coots.

Heading along the straight strip of the River Leven we passed three swans preening. I have 'heard' swans here before. They may be mute but the noise of their flapping wings is quite distinctive… almost eerie. They use this strip almost like an airport runway.

As we walked along the path we could quickly see that recent rains had brought up the level of the water considerably higher than usual. It was along the far side edge that I saw the Reed Bunting back one Spring evening earlier in the year. Nope… no birds were spotted along the water’s edge yesterday….just a Heron standing on the banking above looking on.

Watching for birds in the same places you’ve seen them before is a good guide to seeing them again. I have seen Herons in exactly the same place as the one we saw yesterday and was watching out for it there. I tried to take photos but with foliage on both sides of the river it was tricky. When I moved to a more open spot with my camera the Heron just strolled quite elegantly further up the banking and out of view.

It was the strolling along the water’s edge of a small brown bird last spring that caught my eye then. I had seen Chaffinches along that strip of water, Pied wagtails too. Initially I hadn’t realised that I was seeing a bird I had never seen before until I noticed the black and white at the head.

My first guess at ID, I was delighted to find, was accurate! Clearly photos on other blogs have helped me here. Confirmation came when I referred to books at home where I read about the reed beds, wet pastures and marsh habitat of this bird. I am always thrilled now to discover new birds I have never seen before. I am even more thrilled that I now see them when before I would have most likely missed them completely!

The video below of the male Reed Bunting below isn’t the sharpest as I attempted to follow its progress along the edge of the water although I was thrilled to capture it. However if you look closely you’ll see it eating.

If you listen carefully you’ll hear a few other birds in the back ground too. I wonder how many you recognise. I thought I could hear Great or Coal tits. However, I was completely surprised to hear another resident in the background. I’ll let you listen for yourself…

What do you think? I’m thinking the drumming noise in the background belongs to a Woodpecker. There you go… if it wasn’t for my video I would never have known Woodpeckers were even there. So now…. next visit, I’ll listen out and look out for the Woodpecker too!

What a wider wildlife world is out there than many of us realise. I am just thrilled that now I am seeing (and hearing) more of it now. I also hope that others reading my postings are enjoying it more too. It is great that through our blogs we can all share in bird/wildife sightings especially with visitors from other parts of the world. I enjoy hearing all about them and wonder what you saw over the weekend :-D

Unless otherwise stated the photos above were taken on November 22nd 2009. The first photo was taken on November 8th 2009.

I would like to request that these photos and my text are not re-posted on any other websites. Many bloggers are having a problem with their postings going ‘walkabout’ and I will be considering this more fully for future postings.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Time to say goodbye

It has been great fun! I’d like to say a massive heartfelt thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read my postings, comment on them, added my links and sent emails. When I started this blog back on 19th November 2006, I had absolutely no idea that I would enjoy the social aspect of blogging so much. At that time I wasn’t even reading blogs.

Is it really time to say goodbye then? LOL… the new blog revamp for Year 4 tells you definitely not! If I ever get bored of posting/blogging it will be time to call it a day. I feel a sense of honesty when I post… I make it my rule not to post just for the sake of it. At the moment I am just bursting full of ideas for this next blogging year... watch out I'm going to get a bit more techy this year!

Before moving on I’d like to take a moment to say a quick goodbye to my blog style for Year 3 with the keepsake screen grab photo above. For readers like my parents and their neighbours who read printed copies at the end of each month it shows what it has looked like.

Tissues away, now I’d now like to give you all a tour around my new layout....

We’ll start with my new banner. I wanted it to show an instant snapshot of what you’ll find inside my blog when you arrived. Just like looking into the window of a shop. However each photo has been carefully selected too.

The purple allium flower represents the photo that I have cropped for previous banners and the profile image I use for both Blogger and Blotanical. It has a bit of history. Representing a profile, this image also heads a new menu below that will include more background info about my garden and blog.

The name panel with the wisteria bud that will open into a flower represents a few things. Firstly, this is one of the most popular searches that find their way to my blog. Wisterias can take so long to flower and the expectation of them from the gardener is huge. Like me a few years ago, everyone who has one wants to know if the buds on their plant this year will yield its first flowers. This one is for all gardeners who love and care for plants. This panel also represents a new beginning.

This name panel also caused some deliberation regarding my blog’s name. When I chose shirls gardenwatch I planned for it to be slightly quirky. I didn’t pick it, as often thought, as a copy of BBC Spring or Autumnwatch.

For visual reasons alone I deliberately chose to have no punctuation or capital letters. I like the short, then long word which probably sounds crazy to many. However, pre children I was a graphic designer and the layout of letters on a page is something that I instinctively want to rearrange and control. LOL… it causes me no end of trouble when I try to alter this template and in many cases blogger wins!

The hedgehog image in my banner represents all the wildlife that wanders around our gardens that we don’t know about. This secretive favourite is also one that sends many searches to my blog for information about everything from what it eats to the droppings that it leaves behind!

The partial albino blackbird represents the more unusual and occasional visitors that arrive in our gardens. It represents the searches I, and others, have through books and the internet to ID a new species of bird arriving in the garden. The apple it is feeding from also represents all the different foods birds and wildlife will eat in our gardens and the fun I have had experimenting with them.

Finally to the dotting parents! This represents the privilege it has been to share precious wildlife moments in this blog like blue tits building a nest, laying eggs and feeding their young. Sadly we have yet to see a successful brood fledge through our nestbox that has a camera in it. I am very fortunate to have a selection of cameras that I can use to watch and record what visits my garden. It would be a sin not to share.

Banner introduction over… let’s now take a brief look at a couple of drop down menus. Before I show the newest one let me share you one that I have thoroughly enjoyed using. Yep… I’ll be honest in saying that many of the links are to websites that I enjoy looking at as well as ones that I think will be of interest to any visitors popping by.

You might guess which one of the menus is my favourite. Yep… the NEST & NATURE CAMS! I particularly enjoy sitting in the evening when it’s late and dark outside being able to see what’s going on at a feeder cam at SWT Loch of the Lowes. I have been lucky enough to see pine martens and deer! I find this opportunity to watch wildlife brilliant and absolutely fascinating.

However, this feeding cam is relatively local. It is a bit more mind blowing that I can select a link from this menu to a feeder cam in a rainforest in Ecuador where I am able to watch humming birds at a feeding station… live!! Is that not something?

Last but by no means least, I’d like to introduce my newest menu… the MY GARDEN & BLOG one. This menu has been set up with links to past postings based in my garden and will be updated with future ones. In time I will add further categories too. My plan behind this one is for it to be more info/personal based.

Oops… I forgot to add this. Just one last thing about reading my blog…

The main post column width has always been something I have wanted to widen as I have felt the balance of the page was wrong for my eye. With that balance in mind I have also increased the text size for my posting a little too so it is noticeable larger than the text in my right sidebar. Now, I'd say the two columns don’t compete for attention when you read through them. I do feel the slightly larger text on my postings also makes it an easier read on the eye although not just because it is bigger. I see it more open now with more background colour coming through therefore a cleaner read. I hope it you find that too.

So that’s it… tour over. All that’s left to say now is that if you have joined me today I’d like to say a huge thank-you and invite you to share in my 3rd Blogoversary… without you I wouldn’t be considering another year of blogging :-)

Now, let’s blow out the candles… 3, 2, 1…

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Which cameras?

Quickly summarising… most photos on my blog have been taken with a Canon EOS 400D using a 17-85mm wide-angle lens (Canon Ultrasonic with image stabilizer) or a 55-200mm zoom lens (Tamron).

Occasionally, some photos will be from a Canon PowerShot A520. Other photos come via cameras in nest boxes or as frame grabs from video footage. Photoshop 6 is used for cropping, resizing, enhancing or special effects.

Below, you can see that I also use lens hoods for the Tamron zoom and the Canon wide-angle lenses. I should say here that the deep shaped hood for the Canon lens casts a shadow over images if used with the built-in flash.

I always have to remember at garden shows when it is sunny outside and I am using the hood I should remove it to photograph displays indoors.

I should also remember in conditions of poor light and I am using a tripod that I have a remote control (shown above) to take my photos to prevent the slightest shake and therefore blurring. It is a very handy little device.

As this blog is a gardenwatch I also have a camera in a nestbox. I bought this as a complete unit from CamNest after enjoying reading through Peggy’s Nestbox Diaries.

We exchanged many emails about the excitement and sadness of watching what goes on during nesting. Only two days after my Nestbox went up we had a pair visiting… I immediately mailed Peggy!

It was a wonderful moment. Peggy asked to use this footage on their website home page where it still is yet. The photo above shows the nestbox being cleaned after use. The roof design of the nestbox has been changed since. You can see the technical details of the camera used in my nestbox here.

The camera in my Nestbox gave colour images during the day with black and white in lower levels of light. When it was dark so was the nestbox. Audio still worked and I could hear tapping noises through my computer speakers.

Night vision beckoned now. Could I put a camera in another existing nestbox? I began chatting to Mike Nash at HandyKam who had just the right kit for that. I had plans ready to do this when… along came the hedgehogs again.

Email chat with Mike followed and it was clear he too was as enthusiastic about filming wildlife as I was becoming. Through my blog I have been delighted to e-meet so many enthusiastic people.

My daughter was building a hedgehog house at school… yep the night vision camera had a new location. During the summer we caught some lovely footage of visits to it but alas no winter residents. That’s okay as its nesting next year that I’d love to watch. To see the technical details of the camera in my hedgehog house you will find them here.

Gardenwatching after dark is fascinating. A simple CCTV from Maplin bolted on to an old tripod provided me with an opportunity to sit indoors and watch on my PC screen what was going on outside. It was brilliant to see the hedgehogs pass through or feed from food on the ground or in a simple feeding station. The camera did well outdoors in all conditions for a good time but finally it stopped working.

A Vari-focal outdoor colour camera kit from HandyKam replaced the Maplin camera giving excellent night images. This was a new product from HandyKam and Mike was particularly excited about it and I could see why in the photo below. This camera has an adjustment on the back for focusing to the distance you want to watch.

Although this camera came with a wall/wood fixing I have used it with tripods instead. You can see the technical details of this camera here.

My favourite tripod for night filming can be seen opposite. It gives great flexibility with its strong twisty legs. The Joby gorillapod can grip around things just as easily as simply giving a low viewing/filming position. This product can be seen in shops in various sizes too. You can see details here.

As you can see in the photos the night camera has connections showing. If I use it during a night when it looks like it might rain I protect the connections either in a plastic bag or a plastic kitchen container.

The reality is that even when hedgehogs are around more regularly I’ve seldom seen them in the rain so my camera isn't out then anyway. I have enjoyed using this camera. Clicking on the smaller photos will enlarge them if you want to see any of these cameras in more detail.

Okay… I hear you you’d like a watch wildlife at night but don’t want to use a computer. Well… that really isn’t a problem either as most cameras like the ones above can have their connectors plugged directly into a television and you can watch from there. Recording footage is another matter and I’ll come back to that.

The most well used camera for watching wildlife seen in my blog is probably my fairly basic video camera. Once again during my time blogging my original one finally ended its run. Technology had moved on since we bought it but as I had many mini tapes with footage on them I decided just to get another that used tapes instead of a more techy one. Cheap and cheerful this one was and as a result I often just through it in my bag which is very handy.

One thing I did look for in a new video camera was the ability to film (yep you’ve guessed it) in the dark. The camera I use is a Sony DCR-HC51 Handycam. It enables me to record in black and white using a nightshot plus setting. It has given good results.

It's also been good during the day too although usually it's on my standard tripod shown on the very first image rather than wrapped around an arch. The tripod I usually use both out and in my garden is the very stable Velbon DV-7000 with its gel head.

Although the head is smooth enough I have to say that the arm itself has given me problems. A pin has sheared making it difficult to turn as smoothly even after my OH glued it in place. That is a pity as I have loved this tripod. I will continue using it for some time yet. I also use it for my main night camera and my Canon cameras.

Carrying a tripod can be a bit of a pest when you are out and about and the gorillapod isn’t always the answer either. A halfway house is a monopod and I have found mine very useful indeed. It really does help stabilise the camera when doing more panoramic shots.

Once again my one is pretty basic and although it does the job well I have found one fault with it. I doesn't have a swivel head as you can see in the photo opposite. Therefore when I am sitting at an observation window filming a squirrel or treecreeper go up a tree I run out of space to tip it backwards and miss out in some nice footage. Perhaps you can get monopods with swivel heads but I haven't looked.

This is a posting I have wanted to do for a long time as I do get many emails and questions on what I use. Sorry, it has turned into a lengthy one! I’d like to come back to the cameras that I use to take photos again just in case you are considering buying one. Here goes...

For me, the Canon PowerShot didn’t live up to the Fuji camera I had previously despite the great variety of settings it had. I didn’t find the photos were as sharp when I started using it. Not having completely steady hands, camera shake definitely was a problem there. However there have been occasions recently when it has surprised me so it perhaps is time for me to look at it again. Perhaps I am getting better at holding the camera or I am just warming to it a little.

For me, the basic lens for the Canon EOS 400D definitely disappointed! This wasn’t helped when the salesman told us on purchasing a wide-angle lens (a year later) that the cost in most cameras is in the case and that is why quality is on the lower side with the lens. Sales pitch or not, for me, that seemed to be true as I love my wide angle lens with stabiliser!

When we originally bought this Digital SLR camera there was a half price offer on zoom lens. We chose a Tamron and it fits fine with my Canon 400D case. I love this lens which has enabled me to get much closer shots of the birds in my garden.

Nearing the end now… I must end with some prospective bird shots! Recently we have discovered that a female Tawny Owl visits near or to my garden. Of course we can’t tell which when we can’t see it.

I am now eagerly waiting until we hear it again and plan putting my night camera (not the my video camera as shown) on my gorillapod tripod and wrapping it around a tree branch to see if we can catch it land anywhere near.

The hedgehogs may be out of the picture for a few months now but the nights of the Tawny may just be beginning!!

This is also the beginning of a series of postings giving more background into my garden visitors and how I blog. I do enjoy the creative and techy side to blogging.

All photos above should enlarge when clicked on.