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A local diary


Autumn 2012

November 29th 2012. Tealham and Tadham Moors are now blocked off by barriers and flood notices at every entry. It is much colder though with no further rain today, but the floods are still rising, as they do for some days when the water works its way down from Mendip. From up above, it is an amazing sight, like living in an estuary, with flood-waters as far as the eye can see. I tried to take the dog for a walk down our usual drove to the Westhay Moor reserve but was defeated when a puddle across the drove rose to near the top of my gumboots.

November 25th 2012. After several days of dreadful and continuous rain, the morning opened up to brilliant sunshine, but it proved impossible to get down to the moors without circling them and coming on them again from the side. The moors usually flood each year, but January and February are the usual times, not the end of November. Jack's Drove, running north and south, proved impossible to venture along without a diesel vehicle with large wheels, but lots of people were out for a look, walking, bicycling as well as driving. It was truly spectacular, but fortunately no-one was suffering from flooded homes, as there are few inhabitants on these open moors.MT_ignore But how terribly sad to hear about other parts of Somerset and Devon where real hardship if being suffered by so many - and with the prospect of more to come. If you have ever had water pouring through your house, and some have had it repeated several times, your thoughts must go out to those unfortunate and despairing souls.

November 21st 2012. Although this morning brought flooded roads and misery all round, brightness gradually spread from the south-west and the sight of the many Starlings flying past the moors and onto their eventual goal, the great reed beds of the Avalon marshes - Westhay Moor, Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath National Nature reserves. Since living memory, they have been carrying out this great trek in winter evenings, to drop down and roost in the reeds in their millions. Though how people can count such numbers defies the senses? The destination always used to be Westhay Moor but, in recent years they move round the different areas as if to confuse the eager watchers. Cynics say that it is the sheer joy of misleading us, ever since that occasion when the BBC turned up with all their cameras and not a bird was to be seen. The photos show an earlier date, with the first few birds turning up out of a wonderful sky, minutes seeming like hours pass, until the final descent when the birds blot everything out and the noise is quite deafening.MT_ignore


November 16th 2012. It brings a jolt when you see something out of context. This was brought home to me when I spent some while watching a Dunnock on Westhay Moor NNR. Thinking back, I realised that I have rarely seen one of these subtly beautiful birds away from our garden. They come to our bird-table regularly but I do not see them out in the open or in the hedgerows round here. Yet here was one and it allowed me to watch it closely for nearly five minutes before flying away.MT_ignoreI went on from there to sit in the Lake hide but there was nothing on the water or flying over. As always though, there was a great sense of peace just looking out over the reeds and water, with no one else in sight while the minutes tick away.

November 13th 2012. Nigel Milbourne and I drove past the entrance to Slimbridge today just as it was starting to darken, but decided on a quick visit. A trio of Bewick's swans were already there on Swan Lake, but no sign of the masses we hope will eventually arrive. The real excitements of the afternoon were the sights and sounds of many Greylag geese circling endlessly and finally landing. There are nothing like grey geese to make the hairs prickle on the back of the neck. Peter Scott summed this up perfectly in his many paintings, some of which were on display in the main building. Slimbridge is a marvellous place to visit at any time but, for me, the best time is in the winter when the wild ducks, geese and swans arrive. The sight of these in flight is an unforgettable experience. With the ever-worsening light, I experimented with different settings on the camera, seeing just how far it is possible to use it wide open and how high an iso setting is acceptable; the perfect opportunity to try out varying combinations. MT_ignore

November 8th 2012. Farmers have had a dreadful time this year, particularly with the continuing extreme wet. Hay making is even later than usual and most machinery is unable to get out onto the sodden fields. This is exacerbated by the size and weight of the huge circular bales which are standard nowadays and it is common to see the hay bales sitting in standing water. My picture was taken a couple of weeks ago but, sadly, these bales are still in the field and are now starting to be covered with a coat of growing grass; surely the middle must be starting to rot also, as is shown by the collapse of some of the ones in deeper water?October 28th 2012. Yesterday was windy but sunny - a great day for a walk across Chilton Moor, though there was little to be seen in terms of wildlife. But it was a great walk, empty of people, across a wide grassy drove, with a sharp wind in our faces. Swans flew and crows called, but otherwise it was silent except for the wind. Turning back, with the wind in our backs, it was quite balmy, though our faces glowed even when we got home.

What a change today. Rain, rain, rain and a strong wind bringing the leaves down at last. It is difficult to be enthusiastic about this time of year, particularly after the clocks have gone back once more, leaving dark late afternoons.

October 26th 2012. I have been busy digitising hundreds of slides recently, mainly of beetles and bugs, and came to realise that in the last few years I have seen few of the species I had photographed so often in the past. In fact, I realised not only had I not photographed any but I had not seen a single bug (Hemiptera) during the past year. Years ago, we would stop by a fine patch of brambles and nettles and spend hours finding, watching and photographing many species of bug (An old picture).MT_ignore Just to emphasise this lack of insects, We drove nearly 300 miles recently, much in daylight but including some hours in the dark, and arrived home with not a single dead insect on the windscreen. The pace of change seems to be speeding up yet, where we live and walk, little appears to have altered over the last thirty or so years. Farming remains much the same, based on grass and cattle, while there is little or no spraying in the locality. The principal differences are the move from milking cattle to beef and the increasing number of cuts for silage. The ditch edges and roadside verges are cut once a year, yet they were bare of insects until late August – when a flood of hoverflies appeared for a couple of weeks. It is all very worrying.

October 22nd 2012. Rather than carry a large, heavy digital SLR on walks with the dog, or in the car when travelling, I followed advice given me by Robert, a friend who takes beautiful insect pictures with minimal equipment, and bought a sub-£100 Fujifilm bridge camera and started experimenting. It zooms out to 500mm but, more important for me, photographs in two macro modes. These are astonishing; the very simply-taken pictures show incredible detail, far beyond what I had expected. I was not just taking pictures for identification but good pictures in their own right, of a high standard – see below. It also turns out to be an excellent family camera, with powerful built-in flash. Of course, it does not have the sheer versatility of the Nikon D300, or the speed of taking or the ability to freeze wings in flight, but it makes a great companion for a country walk and weighs next to nothing. How cameras have developed recently!MT_ignore

October 20th 2012. Westhay Moor was still but lightly overcast this afternoon - and completely peaceful, without anyone in sight or sound.  A couple of years ago, the line of trees to the east was removed, opening up the line of sight to the east, presumably with the thought that water birds prefer an open view round them. Sadly, the opposite seems to have been the case. The numbers of ducks and other waterfowl has been badly reduced. Among the most affected have been the Cormorants, which appearered to have felt the ponds were better protected from unexpected menaces previously. I know that Cormorants have a bad name among fisherman, though I read recently that this may be misdirected, but I cannot but help admire and appreciate them. They dive and fish with enormous grace, disappearing and reappearing without any disturbance, while their flight is powerful and beautifully controlled. I have many photographs of them landing and am always amazed at the attitudes they reach before finally touching down.


October 15th 2012. It is that in-between time of the year; rain on and off and the cold gradually building in over the evening and then, finally, during the day. Why in-between for the wildlife photographer?  It is the time that you suddenly realise that there are few insects around and yet winter birds have not appeared. Visits to the nearby reserves, or walks along the droves, bring little reward. The close-up equipment can be put away and longer lenses make their reappearance on the seat beside the driver. There are glimpses that bring cheer, Buzzards sitting on the fence posts and, today an unusual sighting of a Kestrel on a gate. Unusual for two reasons; they spend most of their time in the air or in the middle of fields, and that during the past few years they have become much more unusual. Numbers dropped to almost nothing but, thank goodness, they seem to be making a comeback. Kestrels are such a part of the countryside.MT_ignore

October 6th 2012. It was such a lovely morning, brilliant sunshine and practically no wind, that it seemed the perfect day to visit Greylake reserve on Sedgemoor, the far side of the Poldens from our house. There were a number of cars in the park but no sign of people – but many park and walk nearby. At the reserve, a board walk has been made through the wetlands, but a notice told people to go via the return leg because of maintenance, though I thought I saw the flash of an anorak down the original route. Astonishingly, the hide was empty – a far from usual state. After a while another person came in and I found out the reason for all this. It seems that a rarity, a Spotted crake, Porzona porzona, was present near the path and all the usual photographers were camped out by it.

As I entered the hide, something scared the resident ducks and dozens of them took off with a roar. Most were Mallard, which is welcom after the scare stories about this species in previous years. I had all but forgotten how exciting a large flight of ducks can be. They flew round and round, often whiffling down to almost settle, before shooting up again. Flights headed right at the hide and over and suddenly they were all gone, leaving two or three paddling on the pond in front. On my way out, I thought of looking for the crake but the crowd of tripods in front of the expected area put me off - and lunch called.



September 26th 2012. One fascinating fact that has emerged recently, is that there are large numbers of the hoverfly, Rhingia campestris, appearing all along our hedgerows and the fringes of foliage edging the ditches on the moors. They concentrate on using the bell-flowers of the Bindweed for their source of nectar. Virtually every flower has at least one and often several of these hoverflies pushing their hard snouts into the centre, with the insects oblivious to anything else going on round them. It seems that no other species of hoverflies are interested in this flower at this time. Clearly R. campestris has a strong emergence tied to this flower, as they have been notable for their absence until recently.MT_ignore

September 15th 2012. The recent introduction of many new English names for insects has the potential for causing chaos and almost certain misidentification. The other day, one of the broadsheets printed an article about the re-introduction of a bumblebee using a recently made-up name, without any reference to its scientific name anywhere. As a result, I had absolutely no idea of which bee they were discussing. Scientific names were introduced hundreds of years ago to give a common name for animals, wherever they are in the world. Scientists give names according to a clearly understood set of rules, which apply wherever you are. Local names inevitably arise over the years and come into general use – examples are dragonflies, moths and butterflies, large and commonly seen in the countryside. Nevertheless, it has always been important to tie these into the international scientific names.

To invent and promote a completely new set of names in one huge batch seems to me to be confusing, wrong and irresponsible. How are people expected to adjust to this immediately? Apart from the quite extraordinary names dreamt up, such as ‘Heineken hoverfly’ for the common Rhingia campestris, why are these names easier to remember than the scientific ones? Children are happy to give the various dinosaurs their correct names; why not those thousands of creatures without a vernacular name? Is a ‘Ruderal bumblebee’ (meaning ‘plants growing where the natural vegetational cover has been disturbed by humans’) easier or more meaningful than Bombus ruderatus? What is important, is to have a recognisable English group name, such as ‘bumblebee’, ‘digger wasp’ or ‘hoverfly’ to set against any long list of scientific names – but these are all already in existence.

Clearly it is important to try and attract more people to be interested in and support our insects but this new enthusiasm has led to articles appearing about particular insects with newly thought-up English names; while ignoring the vital scientific names to actually identify the creatures. A gradual release of new and appropriate names for some of the more obvious insects would follow previous experiences and hopefully lead to a gradual enrichment of our language – but never without tying in the scientific names. If more English names are to be used, then an easily accessed list of these allied against their scientific names needs to be available. In the meantime, confusion is likely to reign.

September 14th 2012. I must comment on the recent receipt of a most marvellous book for those of us interested in bees and plants. I have a slight personal interest, as I supplied a couple of photographs for it, but these are subsumed in the huge numbers of superb pictures throughout the book. Plants for Bees, a guide to the plants that benefit the bees of the British Isles, is written and compiled by W.D.J. Kirk and F.N. Howes, and published by the International Bee Research Association (IBRA). If you have ever wondered if you were planting the right plants in your garden, this is the book to consult. Three main sections provide this information; ‘Plants for honeybees’,Plants for bumblebees’ andPlants for solitary bees’, are written by leading experts and give pictures of the plants and the appropriate bees, as well as a deal of information for each. The book ends with a major chapter on ‘The best plants for bees’.

September 12th 2012. A couple of thoughts arose today, one of which came from a period looking at old slides and transferring the images onto a computer. It became more than clear that recent years have seen a drastic reduction in the number of insect species in the garden. For instance, the last time I saw Colletes daviesanus was in 1997. In the early 90s they had been common. Anthidium manicatum was last seen here in 2005, whereas they had been annual visitors prior to that.MT_ignore The only Lasioglossum now found is L. calceatum, which nests in the lawn, other Lasioglossum species were last found in the mid 90s; while the only Andrena since then has been A. haemorrhoa. Hoverflies show just as alarming a situation; though Eristalis and Helophilus species have large numbers still. It seems clear that the variety of species is in steep decline. It could be argued that the garden flowers are the problem but on looking at the pictures it is clear that those popular flower species are still present, while we have made efforts to introduce new recommended species when possible. It is a worrying situation.MT_ignore

Strangely, the very opposite also seems to have arisen this year. Many years ago, it was common to stop the car after a hundred mile and scrape the gunge off the windscreen – a sticky, yellow mass of squashed insects which took a lot of cleaning off. For many years since, windscreens have been unmarked. Last year. a trip from Skye to Somerset, in fine weather, left a completely clear screen. However this year, in late August, we noticed some squashed insects on the screen, while friends’ cars were seen to have a black mess on the radiator and front of the car.Is this a hopeful change?

September 11th 2012. I managed an hour in the Lake Hide at Westhay Moor NNR this afternoon. Much of the time it was quiet, with a few Gadwall quarrelling on one side, but this was more than made up with unexpected arrivals. Two Great white egrets rose up above the trees to the north and flew over the hide, finding it slow going against some strong gusts of wind. I wondered if these were young birds from the nests on Shapwick Heath, where the egrets bred over the summer – seemingly for the first time in England. They are large birds, looking longer and more gangling than our Grey herons, but elegant and beautiful with their snowy white plumage.MT_ignore

September 4th 2012. After recent pieces in the paper, it was particularly good to report a family of Buzzards has spent much time circling high over and around the house over the past few days. Sometimes the only warning is the faint sound of their mewing, as they are almost invisible overhead. Occasionally, they fly much lower, usually because crows are harassing them, as was the case with the picture below. Watching these peerless gliders circling, I could not but reflect on the sheer idiocy of a government which still appears to be giving in to the shooting lobby and demanding that these birds be trapped and removed from areas – and how long before that means shooting or poisoning them? The record of shooting estates is far from admirable. Look at the position of the Hen harrier and the Golden eagle and their continuing persecution. Many years ago, buzzards became almost extinct through chemical poisoning. It has been such a pleasure to see them return, but also greatly extend their range. Before the war, it would have been unthinkable to see buzzards on the Levels and Moors, but now they are found all over. It seems that carrion, rabbits and earthworms are among their main foods. Surely it is up to the shooting estates to protect their young game-birds, not to try and get rid of one of our finest birds-of-prey?MT_ignore

September 2nd 2012. Hot sun and the presence of some huge yellow daisy-flowers brought a real bonus today. Two different species of leafcutter bees were sipping nectar, nearly asleep, deep in the flower centres. It struck me that Megachile ligniseca and the smaller M. centuncularis were both present very late in the year, compared with previous dates. Normally, both appear at our flats early June to very early August and are long gone by this date. Both species were represented only by females today, so clearly I must keep and eye on the flats to see if they are using any of the holes in the logs.MT_ignore An even bigger surprise was to see a cuckoo bee, a female Coelioxys inermis in perfect condition, sitting in another flower. Presumably she was waiting to search for a suitable M. centuncularis nest in which to lay her egg.MT_ignore

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