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2018 in full flight

There may be a hundred ways to summarize a year of bird watching and photography. When I went through my photo’s, I noticed I’ve been out birding for over 150 times last year. That’s a lot of birds, and a lot of pictures, and a lot of stories. How am I going to make a shortlist from all of that? What is my best birding experience from 2018?

In this post I look back to some of the most memorable wildlife encounters for me personally. Some of these stories are about finding and photographing a bird after a lot of time and effort. By looking at these pictures, I instantly get excited to go out and photograph. These pictures inspire me to take on new challenges, to spend time in the field, to battle the weather. Some of these stories I have already published, like this amazing buzzard stare down, or seeing a humpback whale near Texel. But 2018 had a lot of moments that made it a special year. So, in semi chronological order, here are nine special bird sightings in 2018 that taught me a valuable lesson.

1. Spring bittern

One of my favorite all time species is the great bittern. And the winter of 2017-2018 was a good one when it came to bittern sightings. Notoriously shy and well camouflaged, seeing a bittern is usually a rare occurrence. I’ve spent hours and hours in a local hide, trying to get a glimpse of a bittern, more often than not without any result. Some days, when it showed, it was still only for a short moment, other days it was busy preening in relative plain sight. One day however, it truly showed itself. Slowly but surely it came walking out of the reeds and started hunting in an open patch. It only happened a few times that I’ve seen a bittern with so little obstructions like reeds or branches. All those long, cold days without a sighting instantly became worth it. So lesson number one, perseverance pays off.

2. Winter guest

In the winter season a lot of wigeons migrate to the Netherlands. They group together in polders and on lakes, with numbers something exceeding a thousand birds. Between all those wigeons, sometimes, a much rarer, different kind of wigeon can be found. Every year a small number of American wigeons join groups of European wigeons and end up spending their winter in Europe instead of Nothern America. A male American wigeon spent well over a month on the border of Katwijk and Wassenaar in a polder in February and March. The green head pattern of the male was in stark contrast with the red and orange markings of European wigeons. When I saw and filmed this bird, I was reminded of the fact that it’s a good thing to check every single bird in an area when you’re out in the field. Who knows what sort of rare visitor you might find…

3. Woodlark

This story is as much about the image as about what happened behind the camera. This year I stepped my game up when it came to seeing and photographic birds on migration. I’ve spend a considerable amount of hours in the dunes looking at migrating birds and trying to get familiar with their sounds, flight patterns and so on. That area also holds a lot of woodlark, a bird more heard than seen usually. On this particular morning a woodlark landed on a branch close by, and by hiding in some bushes, I was able to get a decent shot of it. After a minute or two, I hear a loud snort in my left ear, scaring the bejesus out of me. I slowly turn my head, to be greeted by the snout of a konik next to my face. It looks and sniffs at me, and then proceeds to graze on the nearby grass. Lesson learned: check your surroundings.

4. Vagrant bunting

I’ve said it before: The Netherlands has a lot of birds. Some migratory, some resident, and some vagrant. Every now and then, a vagrant bird shows up, far away from its normal habitat range. Some birds loose their sense of direction when migrating, or get carried away by wind or tow, and end up it weird places. This probably happened to this Pine bunting, that showed up in March. Pine buntings are birds that usually live in North-America, so this one was a long way from home!

The pictures I got from it were far from perfect. There are branches in the frame, including one slightly blocking its tail, and there is a large shadow on its head. This, however, was pretty much the best shot I could get under the circumstances. The bunting was deep inside the branches most of the time, so there was little room to work with. It resulted in a picture that isn’t perfect, but it is the most usable show; a concept I’ve also blogged about earlier this year.

5. King eider

Perhaps one of the most spectacular looking birds of 2018 in the Netherlands: a male King eider. This duck species very rarely comes this far south; its natural feeding grounds are way more north. The distinctly colored head pattern and small wings on its back make it a remarkable bird. Truly a once in a lifetime moment. Trying to find a specific bird near a coast in the waves isn’t all that easy. Luckily, a combination of apps, internet and some sound judgment usually does the trick. When I arrived on the beach, it was pretty clear where this bird was hanging out, because every spotting scope and camera was pointing in that direction. Even though the sea was very calm, the waves did complicate things a bit. The king eider appeared and disappeared every couple of seconds, so planning your shots was essential. Using the waves to get a good shot turned out to be a great lesson. When a wave pushed the duck up, all the feathers and colors were well visible, so timing was vital.

6. Lesser spotted woodpecker

This could have had the subtitle ‘the search’. There are number of woodpeckers native to the Netherlands, such as the very common Great spotted woodpecker. A lesser known and seen type of woodpecker is the aptly titled Lesser spotted woodpecker. Resembling a smaller version of the greater spotted, everything about the lesser spotted is more subtle. The sounds it makes, its size. Finding a lesser spotted woodpecker was a goal for 2018, but it was a struggle. In a nearby forest, I heard them from time to time, but seeing and photographing one turned out to be even more difficult. I’ve spent hours slowly walking through the woods, trying to find this elusive bird. After a number of days, it finally happened. I was on my way home(!) when I saw it flying from tree to tree. I stopped my bike, grabbed my camera and tried to get it in the frame. It was foraging on the trees, and in a small gap I managed to get a quick shot of it. It only sat there for a second or two!

A lot comes to mind when I look at the resulting photographs. The seemingly endless search, finally seeing one, the satisfaction of getting the shot. But there were also two photography lessons I took from it. The first one is: composition is everything, even it the situation is chaotic. I had a split second to get this composition, but I made sure the spacing between the bird and the branches was balanced. The other lesson was incorporating the surroundings, instead of trying to fight it. This bird’s habitat is in those branches, so those branches tell their part of that story.

7. Reed dwellers

Reed birds continue to fascinate me. I’ve been out photographing these creatures a lot, and had a lot of fun doing so. A particular morning in April comes to mind when I think about photographing birds in the reeds. On this day, it was pretty much windless, and that means these birds are higher up in the reed helms than usual. This gave me the change to get some shots of a Savi’s warbler, and a grasshopper warbler. Both these birds have a unique song; a long monotone rattling sound, that carries a long way.

The lesson I took from this morning is a bit more subtle, and has to do with lighting. The direction of light plays a big part in any photograph. Direct light on a subject brightens the subject and brings out colors and details; a backlit shot is more likely to turn out dark and contrasty. When photographing birds, the rule of thumb is to have the light in your back, so that your subject is hit with direct light. This can be done by planning your photography on a certain time of the day, or by moving yourself around a certain subject. On this day however, I had to shoot into the light most of the time. Warblers tend to be actively singing in the morning, and I was on the only path near these reeds. So I just had to deal with a backlit situation. It turned out, my assumptions about direct light and backlight were wrong when it came to birds in reed beds. Direct light made the reeds very harsh and bright yellow, backlight gave it a warm orange, almost ethereal glow, which softened the scene. I ended up shooting partly into the sun for most of the morning, and learned not to get stuck in assumptions about light directions. Every scenario is different, so it is a matter of finding a composition that works within that scene.

8. Reed warblers

Number eight isn’t a particular encounter, but a project I did over the course of several months. As I mentioned before, I really enjoy photographing birds in reed beds. Most of these birds are more heard than seen, and a classic example of that is the reed warbler. This small brown bird, without any clear feather patterns, has a distinctive call, but lives deep in the reeds. I wanted to learn more about their behavior and decided to spend some time on photographing and watching them. It puts a smile on my face every time when I look at the resulting pictures. Not only did I manage to get very close to some of these birds without disturbing them, but when I look at those pictures, I just want to go out and search for reed warblers again! The pictures shown are part of that project, but were also an experiment in high key photography; a style that purposely blows out the highlights in photo’s to get bright pictures and white backgrounds. Experimenting with new styles of photography is always useful, so trying something new like this was a good lesson.

9. Swift

Last but not least on this list, is the story of a big surprise. It started on a weekend in October, when a humpback whale was seen near Texel. That by itself was one of the highlights of 2018, seeing it blow and jump out of the water. Some of the pictures I took that day ended up on national news, which was a surreal experience. The humpback whale seemed to enjoy itself, because it stayed around the Dutch coastline for a long time, and might even still be out there somewhere.

The (other) big surprise was a quite brief encounter. When searching for the humpback whale, I spotted a Swift. Swifts are summer birds here, and migrate to the south early autumn, so seeing a Swift halfway October is a bit unusual. Just to be sure, I got some shots of the bird, and continue my search for the humpback whale. I knew that, during this period, it has happened that Pallid Swifts migrate near the Dutch coastline, but they are a very rare sighting, and hard to distinguish from commons Swifts. After the weekend I take a closer look at the Swift shots, and try to determine what kind of Swift it was. The differences between these two species are very subtle, and my experience with Pallid Swifts is very limited. So, I upload the picture to the Dutch version of Observations.org, in the hope that I can get a definitive answer. After a couple of days I receive an email: ‘this looks a lot like a Pallid Swift!’, and the ball starts rolling. The lesson here: when in doubt, take photo’s! Pallid Swift sightings in the Netherlands are very rare, so a special committee, the Commissie Dwaalgasten Nederlandse Avifauna (CDNA), is looking into it now. One thing is for certain, that weekend on Texel was truly amazing!

And another thing…

If you’ve gotten this far reading, all I can say is: thank you! I would also like to thank everyone that read my other blogs, bought cards, visited my market stand, or helped Bosvogelt in any other way the last year. It is very much appreciated!

So for now, all I can do is, wish you the very best for the rest of 2018, and a happy 2019! Be sure to check out all the new projects form 2019, like the 100 species project, and other new stuff!