The natural world has so much to offer during the spring months that it can often be hard to know where to look. Migrant birds arrive from afar after a lengthy and exhausting journey to begin their quest to pair up and rear their next generation, whilst the first butterflies of the year begin to emerge. My local patch, Cleeve Hill, is no exception to this and I've often gone out to look for something specific in mind only to be distracted by something else. During a recent morning walk to look for Small Blues and Duke of Burgundy, this very thing happened, when I was lucky to see a few singing Redstarts (Phoenicurus phoenicurus). These stunning migratory birds have always excited me and until now proved quite tough to photograph so I was immediately wondering if this might change with breeding birds close to home. I spent a good 15 minutes watching one particular bird before losing sight of it so carried on with my walk. Just a few minutes later I emerged from some woodland only to see another Redstart ahead of me on the fencing adjacent to the footpath I was following. I noticed it had a beak full of food so decided to sit down on the bank next to the path and watch from a distance. It flew into a crack in a nearby tree, giving away the location of its nest. A female then flew in and I enjoyed at least 30 minutes observing the pair as they made continual forays for food for their chicks. I left them to it but noticed a good spot that would provide plenty of cover and decided to return with my baghide the following day. To cut a long story short, I has some amazing views of the Redstarts (both oblivious to my presence as they carried on bringing in food), but none of the photos came out well so I gave up rather than risking anything that would potentially disturb them. What might've been. Or so I thought...
About 10 days later I was back on the hill and could hear the call of the Redstarts but was very much in 'butterfly mode'. I found a very fresh Common Blue and set up to photograph this and was sat down with it for a good 40 minutes waiting for the light to improve. A movement in my peripheral vision caught my attention and I looked up to see a male Redstart on top of a small bush no more than 20 feet away. I had my macro lens etc all set up so no chance for decent photos but had a real burst of excitement when a female flew in. Both birds were pretty close and they dropped into the grass before flitting back up onto nearby bushes. They then disappeared into the trees to my left but were both back within a minute or two. This became routine so once I'd got my Common Blue shots (post to follow), I switched over to my 500mm lens. The next couple of hours were very special indeed. Both birds were incredibly confiding and I had an incredible time watching the pair catch insects, at times only a few feet away. Here are some of my favourite images from this magical encounter.
I sadly had to head home which curtailed my session but I left in a bouyant mood, elated by these wonderful birds. I was already thinking about when I could get back for more and only had to wait a few days.
I arrived nice and early before the heat picked up and immediately saw the male Redstart, though it didn't hang around and over the next hour I only saw it once more, with the female nowhere to be seen. I was wondering what was going on when the male returned and landed stupidly close to me on a bare branch, with a perfectly clear background. Unfortunately, this bold bird wasn't willing to show its face and it simply sat in front of me for a good 30 seconds but refused to give me that crucial head turn for a decent image. It was then off and it was at least another hour before I saw it again, albeit from a distance. My heart sank as I realised the previous session was a one off and a case of right place, right time. I decided to call it quits and made my way back up towards the car. I hadn't gone too far when I saw the female preening on a dead tree before then noticing the male catching insects from a blackthorn sapling. I watched it do this a few times and it dawned on me that perhaps the chicks from the nest had fledged and were slowly moving up the hill, with the parents continuing to feed them as they did so. I set myself up from a distance to observe initially but gradually made my way closer to the seemingly favoured perch. Everything was right - the position of the sun (at my back) combined with a nice clean background consisting of parched grasses. After a patient approach I was no more than 15 feet from the bush, and was ecstatic that the Redstart continued to use it as a perch. At one point it dropped down to no more than a foot away from my tripod leg!
I decided to see if a different perch would work so found a nearby branch on the ground and propped it up in the bush. I'd barely got back to my camera before the Redstart was sat on it watching me! I moved slightly closer once it had moved into the undergrowth to feed the fledglings before settling down and enjoying a few more visits. Quite simply an unforgettable moment. It made several more visits to the bush, sometimes before picking up prey and sometimes after, as shown below.
Again, my time was up but what an absolutely incredible morning. The initial high of finding the male and the subsequent low when I realised they weren't around as they had been was eclipsed by the eventual views I had of the male. A brilliant bird that was very confiding indeed. I hope it sticks around as it provided some superb moments which I will struggle to better.
Keywords: bird photography, birds, cleeve hill, dave collins, dave collins photography, gloucestershire, nature, photography, redstart, wildlife
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