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A local diaryi


Winter 2014-15

February 28th 2015. A short visit to Catcott Lows brought what may well be the last sight of Pintails in their courtship flights this year. I remarked previously on how these delightful ducks seem to be here in larger numbers than usual, which has pleased a great many visitors. There are few birds that make such an impression, neat, well-groomed and colourful.

On the way back I came across this heron feeding in a ditch on the moors. What may be of interest is that this was taken with a Panasonic bridge camera with  a small sensor, but the picture could well have been taken by a full-sized DSLR.

The last picture is of what may be the final stages of winter, though that may be a rash statement. A thin sheet of ice covers shallow surface water on Tadham Moor, with the bluer open water catching the late sun. Brent Knoll is a well-known landmark on the M5 motorway, breaking up through the flat lands of the Levels.

Brent Knoll from Tadham Moor

February 26th 2015. The car had problems and was in the garage, so took the opportunity for inserting the last pictures into the galleries this year. They are best dealt with on an annual basis, as they take such an amount of work. Please click on Waterbirds 2 to take you to the appropriate Birds in Flight galleries, where the final batch has now been added. Up to now, pictures have been inserted at 70% rating jpeg. In future these will be at 100%, giving a clearer picture for readers, but I would remind everyone that all rights are reserved, © Robin Williams. Do please contact me if you want to know more.

February 21st 2015. A call told me that the grebe was back at Blagdon Lake, so off to visit Nigel in the afternoon. Once more we spent ages searching the rather stormy waters. We moved several times, then Nigel spotted it where were we had been only a few minutes previously. However it was a long way off, as my picture shows. Eventually the Black-necked grebe swam a little closer, but it was straining the capabilities of lens and pixels. It was great to see it through the telescope and I was able to compare it with shots of the bird in winter plumage, taken some years ago at Cheddar Reservoir.

I have put in one of these shots to show how handsome it is in either plumage. The brilliant red eye seems to penetrate gloom in even the worst weather.

February 18th 2015. I spent the morning with Nigel Milbourne, who is also a voluntary warden at Blagdon Lake, perhaps even better known for his photography and as archiver of wildlife matters on the lake, by way of his website Blagdon lake birds. We were looking for a near summer-plumaged Black-necked grebe Podiceps nigricollis which has been present for some while. To my disappointment, it was not to be found, though Nigel phoned to say it re-appeared later in the afternoon. I have long wanted to see it in that fantastic plumage - perhaps when the next fine weather arrives. However, the day was not wasted. Driving along a hedge, Nige noticed a small bird appearing briefly on top. We pulled over and waited and, eventually, took some interesting pictures of a male Stonechat. Indeed there were two of them, almost certainly on migration.

From there we drove round to the dam spillway, where an early Common sandpiper was feeding in the shallows on top. We spent some while photographing this tiny wader before I had to get home to walk the dog. The day had been superb, light winds and brilliant sunshine, while the lake and its surrounds looked quite perfect.

February 17th 2015. Nigel and I took advantage of a wonderful weather forecast and drove up to Slimbridge, the Wildlife and Wetland Trust grounds. We arrived in brilliant sunshine and almost turned back. We had forgotten that the schools were on half term holidays. There were so many people that there were guides helping to find parking spaces and a long queue to get into the reception desks. But the place absorbed all its visitors and a great many children thoroughly enjoyed their time there, judging by the noise and excitement everywhere. All this went on in the main collection, with its huge play area and special visitor attractions. Some of these seem to me to be rather against the original aims and make it more akin to a zoo. But, no doubt this helps pay for the scientific aims still being pursued behind the laboratory doors.

We started our wanderings by sitting in the second of the major hides overlooking the New Grounds and its wonderful river-like lake. We were lucky to find a stool each, though mine wobbled somewhat, and had a great morning. At first, everything seemed to be asleep but then it hotted up. Ducks and geese started flying back and forth. I particularly enjoyed watching the many Shoveler engaging in preliminary courtship flights; just one female pursued by up to a dozen drakes. At this time they are restless, settling for a few monents, then off again, a riot of bright colours. 

Another one of my favourites is the Shelduck, visible from far-off with its brilliant contrasts. There are plenty of these wild birds living on the Severn and they fly in and out regularly, usually just one or two birds at a time.

One noticable feature was the superb purple sheen on many male Tufted ducks, of which there were many this day. I do not think I have ever seen such a display before. The angle of the sun must have been just right to pick it up.

The geese were mainly Greylags Anser anser but a good-sized flight of White-fronts Anser albifrons passed over the hide briefly, while a few Canada geese Branta canadensis fed opposite. At first we thought there were no cranes to be seen, but then two appeared and eventually seven cranes were standing in a line on the far edge. They must be the ones being released down on the Somerset Levels. They seem to be undertaking a migration back to the place where they were originally reared.

Leaving the hide, we had a quick look at the feeding station just opposite. Imagine our surprise to see a Water rail busily feeding under one of the feeders. They are such shy creatures normally but here they were paying no attenion to numbers of people sticking their lenses out to follow its movements - a great opportunity.

The main attraction at this time of year has always been the large herd of Bewick's swans and this time we were not disappointed. At first, they seemed but a few, far out on the fields to the east. Then more started to appear in groups of two or three, spectacular as always. It seems there were more than a hundred in the area today, according to a notice board, far fewer than used to visit, but very welcome for all that. The adult colouring is so pure against a dark sky while they are neater and smaller than other swan species. Sadly, they were not calling very much, a sound that is one of the most evocative of waterbirds.

February 12th 2015. Another interesting day with small birds visiting the feeders in the back garden. There is no doubt both the number and variety of small birds visiting the feeders is less this winter, some have not been seen at all, like the once-common Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis. However, there are always some and today brought a rich crop. Long-tailed tits are among the most welcome, always in large family parties, so cheerful and energetic. It seems strange to put on a portrait of a House sparrow, but these once very common birds vanished completely for some years and are now making a welcome come-back. The Reed bunting has always visited but only in small numbers. How odd when their normal habitat is probably a half a mile away? This winter only the female has been seen, but hopefully he will put in an appearance soon. The last bird, a Song thrush, now only appears during Spring and has become a real rarity - such a pretty bird, which used to be a regular part of the garden scene.

The picture below is of part of a quite large flock of Starlings that went over the house in the afternoon. It made me realise how unusual this was during this winter. Starlings have always been part of the winter scene here. Many years ago enormous flocks could be seen dropping down into the reedbeds of Westhay Moor as the sun went down. Before they did so, dense flocks performed the most fantastic swirls and shapes - and could be seen every evening. At that time, little flights of Starlings would be seen dashing across the moors to join with the throngs, sometimes coming within feet of us, the sound of their wings like ripping calico. Nowadays, these small flights have virtually vanished from memory. Even our garden feeders are no longer denuded by hordes of these birds taking over from all the others. This ties up with the worries about total Starling numbers dropping everywhere. The second picture is one taken many years ago on a frosty evening at Westhay, as is the third.

February 9th 2015. The feeders outside the kitchen windows were particularly busy this morning. We were specially pleased to see a fine male Great spotted woodpecker stuffing himself with nuts. He must have been there for ten minutes of so, keeping the smaller birds away, although he just sat there for some of the time. What an incredible-looking bird!

At Catcott Lows, the pair of Barnacle geese that have been in the area for the past week or so, gave everyone a splendid fly-past round lunchtime. They are superb creatures but unexpected round here.

February 8th 2015. I had a most extraordinary morning at home. I had been in the study trying to sort out the problems faced by changing from Windows XP to Windows 7, when I saw the broken outline of a deer almost outside my field of vision. No camera of course! So I slipped inside and upstairs, just in time to see it emerge in the back garden to stand right out in the open for some considerable time, unworried. After a while, it slipped up into the orchard and started feeding there before lying down and vanishing. We used to have Roe deer in the garden regularly some ten years or more ago but this was the first time since. There is a much reduced population out on the moors now; we suspect extensive commercial poaching. Back when they first appeared, we might see up to twelve at a time feeding as a group. Since then, they have gradually disappeared, sadly, for they are such delicately attractive creatures.

While watching this animal, a flash of white and bright blue caught my eye as a Jay briefly appeared, captured in the picture below. Why comment on this? Up to last year, we had never seen a Jay in the area, let alone the garden - an unexpected bonus.

February 6th 2015. A quick journey to Catcott Lows brought two sets of pictures. A particularly well-marked and beautiful heron allowed me to come quite close. I was able to watch it for several minutes before it flew off. I assume this comparative tameness is because the herons are just starting to fish for their mates who are choosing just the right nest sites.

At Catcott Lows, there was a considerable amount of ice, with the ducks keeping a smallish area clear crowding along the edges in dense crowds, though restless and continually lifting off and settling again.

February 3rd 2015. I have just loaded a further twenty five flight pictures of birds of prey, click on this phrase, Birds in Flight.

Coming back over the moors, a juvenile heron allowed a closer approach and I managed a few shots. At this time of year they lack the bright colours of the adults, although they are just as effective as fishers.

February 2nd 2014. Spent the afternoon at the Lake Hide on Westhay Moor NNR. On the way up the drove there was a deal of small bird activity in the hedgerow scrub and trees. Families of Long-tailed tits fluttered ahead, hanging upside down, twisting their tails to balance their almost impossible acrobatics; such beautiful little birds. There was a glimpse of movement lower down in the scrubby edges, a Goldcrest, a bird I have not seen for many years, tiny, colourful and always busy.

The lake was disappointing, perhaps because so much of it was frozen over. Gadwall Anas strepera and other ducks had kept the far side open but not much was going on. It was sunny and bright and you kept on feeling that there ought to be much more action, however it was calm and peaceful and just looking over the water towards the distant reeds felt perfect.

January 31st 2014. Two separate events ocurred today that are worth recording. In the earlier morning I was walking across the garden when I heard an unfamiliar woodpecker-drumming in a decent-sized Ash tree Fraxinus excelsior. I spent ages trying to spot the bird, then it moved and flew off into the orchard. There was no doubt, it was a Lesser-spotted woodpecker Dendrocopus minor, nearly as small as a sparrow Passer spp. and exremely rare. The drumming was distinctly different to our native Great-spotted woodpeckers Dendrocopus major, which breed in the garden and regularly come to the nuts in the feeder, more measured, slower and quieter. 

Later, I drove across Tealham Moor on a vile, windy, freezing afternoon, with one field a shallow lake with grasses poking up through the edges. As I stopped in a gateway, a large number of birds lifted off and sped off round the edge. At first sight, they might have been starlings, then they all turned over as one, revealing white undersides, and gave a splendid display of synchronised flight. These were Golden plover, birds which used to be seen with the larger Lapwing Vanellus vanellus flocks of of which but have not been seen here for many years - marvellous.

January 30th 2015. After a rather wild start, it turned out a splendid sunny day, though distinctly chilly. After walking Maddie round the edge of Catcott Fen, I spent an enjoyable half an hour in the Lows hide with people I have known for some while. Apparently the two Barnacle geese Branta leucopsis are still around, though I did not see them this time, while duck were on the sparse side. A Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus was seen on the very edge of the reserve but refused to come any closer. The ducks were restless, particularly when the wind got up a bit, giving some opportunities for photographing three species in flight.

January 26th 2015. This is not a scientific document, rather a record of events. As such, I feel it assumes too much importance if every mention of every occurance of a species is given the full scientific nomenclature. As a diary, it becomes over-heavy, detracting from the fun of what is being seen, the exuberance of the moment. Therefore I have decided to drop this aspect from the diary where it has been well covered previously or where something particularly unusual is spotted. In most cases a photograph is shown and this always has a scientific name in the caption. For those unfamiliar with the English names, I have a section, Photo index, which lists the full name for any mention in a particular section of the website - an index with a search facility.

The hide at Catcott Lows was rather full, making photograpy less easy, but the highlight was the appearance of a couple of Barnacle geese - most unusual in these parts. I managed to swing the lens on its mini-tripod sufficiently to capture a few shots.

On the way back, I could not but notice a phenomenon of the past few days, Little egrets appearing on the moors again after a long period when they have been absent. Presumably they are starting to prepare for early courtship.

January 24th 2015. Looked in at the Lake Hide on Westhay Moor NNR this afternoon. It was very peaceful but equally there was not a great deal moving either. The colouring in low sunshine was superb, bright and golden, contrasting with the blue waters.

I sat in peace for much of the afternoon, mostly without sound or sight of birds, but there were two periods with some activity. A Cormorant circled several times before settling then, almost immediately, took off again right across the front of the hide, giving me a perfect view. I know these birds are disliked by many people but I find them most attractive and interesting. They show wonderful colours in their dark plumage, are consumate fliers and divers, and are one of life's great survivors. I never tire of photographing them, although they are good at spotting you, then flying off in the another direction.

Finally, duck did appear, flying very fast towards and over my position. Most were Gadwall, ducks which seem to find Westhay Moor the perfect habitat. Presumably it something to do with having exactly the right depth of water. So often it is possible to see or hear these ducks somewhere in the vicinity.

 January 19th 2015. We woke to a very cold but brilliantly sunny day. It seemed the perfect time to visit Slimbridge, to see how the wildflowl and waders were treating this winter. As I walked across the carpark a cacaphony of goose-calls drew attention to the amazing sight of hundreds of Greylag geese leaving the central area in waves, heading for the New Grounds.

Goose calls are among the most exciting of all. The expression, 'making the hairs on the back of the neck stand up', sums up this effect perfectly. For a lengthy period of time, groups of geese flew over, chattering to each other. When finished, the silence almost hurt.

I had a marvellous day, especially in the hides set into the banking on the eastern side of the grounds. The best looks over the water winding out to the Dumbles. On the far bank, three Cranes Grus grus fed busily the whole time I was there; while Greylags Anser anser covered much of the same foreground, every so often errupting upwards and flying to another part, usually in groups of around a dozen birds. It was encouraging to see that Pintails seem to be having an active and succesful year - as with our Somerset reserves. They are such elegant birds, always immaculate.

With these there were many Wigeon Anas penelope, most prefering to feed far away on the wetter fringes. As always, Shelduck flew in and out for much of the day, showing up as if spotlit, though rarely more than two or three at a time.

In the distance, great flocks of waders were seen as vague shadows in their pale winter plumage. At one stage, something disturbed them, together with a large gathering of Lapwings Vanellus vanellus, and the whole became much more visible. Amongst them were Dunlin Calidris alpina, Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa, Redshanks Tringa totanus, the occasional Curlew Numenius arquata and, no doubt, others among the number.

Later, I wandered round the inner parts of the collection and cannot but remark on how few wild ducks were to be seen. I used to sit on a bench by the European pen and photograph ducks flying in and over. Today, there were few. Is it because of the sheer numbers of us visitors? The carpark seemed almost full again. A somewhat unexpected visitor was a Grey heron Ardea cinerea perched high in a tree. I have never seen one here before and do not associate them with the centre.

January 15th 2015. This time of year can be both wild and spectacular here on the moorsAs usual, it has been fascinating to watch the waters creeping across the gullies and lower parts as the rains have continued relentlessly, fortunately often at night, leaving clearer days. My pictures show a wilder, darker period showing just how unfriendly they can look and the glory of a recent sunset, with streaks of water catching the dying light.

I spent a cold morning in the hide at Greylake, some of it in the new tower blind. Although there was bright sunshine for much of the time, the wind was biting and it was virtually impossible to avoid whichever windows were open. For all that, I had a great time as is shown by the pictures. There were masses of duck and they were active, stirred up by the wind and visiting birds of prey.

The duck were constantly in flight, usually in small parties, moving across the front of the hide from one feeding ground to another. The raised blind provides a very different aspect, because of its higher viewpoint, and is well worth a visit.

The most surprising event of the morning was truly unexpected. Indeed I did not discover it until I got home and started processing my pictures. A Marsh harrier had been appearing every so often but usually far off, disturbing clouds of birds but always at the edge of the reserve, until a closer sweep brought it in reasonable range of my lens. I noticed her diving and clicked the shutter a couple of times. The picture shows her clearly, but a Peregrine soars overhead.

January 11th 2015. Driving across Tealham Moor, I saw a buzzard on a gatepost. Stopped and watched as it turned its head this way and that, without really showing its face. Then came that magic moment when it lifted its wings and sailed off. The camera managed to catch just the right moment on this occasion.

January 9th 2015. I spent a most enjoyable morning at Greylake today. It started heavily overcast but became bright and sunny later, though with a strong wind. Fortunately, where I was sitting we were comparatively sheltered. Surrounding the hide in every direction were vast numbers of duck. In front, a great swathe of them spent much of the morning sleeping, packed together as if for mutual comfort. To the north, an area of splashy runnels and channels of open water, the hosts of duck were in constant motion. The gusts of wind appeared to excite them into orgies of circling, wing-stretching and submarining with flurries of foam. Every so often, little groups would take off and fly over to another part of the concourse and, sometimes quite large erruptions would take place, but for no special reason anyone could see. But the main 'frights' came from birds of prey, as might be expected. A Peregrine Falco peregrinus spent much of the time sitting on a fence post in the extreme background, but a couple of times it rose up into the sky before circling without any obvious purpose, then landing in the same spot. Each time, waves of duck took off, crossing and re-crossing in seeming panic, circling, near-settling then up again before gradually, a few at a time, peeling off to land. The maijor mass take-offs came by courtesy of a Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus. This bird seemed to have a greater effect than our distant Peregrine, perhaps because the harrier quarters the marsh slowly and is readily visible even when far distant. On a couple of occasions, the harrier came closer to the edge of the pond, when whole world seemed to errupt. It was difficult to see anything in any direction other than fanning wings and streamlined bodies - engendering the most enormous sense of excitement.

It was great to see so many Common teal amongst all the many Wigeon Anas penelope. They have so much personality and energy, as well as being so beautiful. It is good to see the males close-up, preening and showing off their colours, but they are at their most remarkable when disturbed, leaping straight up into the air as if shot from a cannon; difficult to photograph at that moment.

This is the time of year when so many ducks are starting to display. This takes the form of several drakes chasing one or two females. Shoveler Anas clypeata are particularly spectacular because of the strong, vivid colouring of the drakes. This morning, the most noticeable were flights of Pintail taking off and landing every few moments. These must be the most elegant of duck, always immaculate. This winter has seen a considerable change in the fortunes of this duck. Numbers are being seen in many places; here, Catcott and elsewhere. Flights of well over two dozen were seen this morning, though most courtship displays are of six or seven.

January 4th 21015. Romey and I were invited by daughter Fiona and her family to share a short-break cottage in Brechfa Forest, Carmarthenshire. This morning, three of us took ourselves off to the feeding station at Llanddeusant to see the Red kites. The cloud surrounding  the cottage lifted as we dropped down into the valley and it became a pleasant day after all. Because of a slight error in navigation, we arrived just after the main feed, but there were still dozens of kites swirling around the field where the owners put out meat each day, summer and winter. I had a wonderful time clicking away and was amazed at how the 70-300mm Nikon lens locked onto the fast-moving and erratic birds as they dived and swooped on the food. It is surprising how light levels drop at this time of the year, even by 2-o-clock in the afternoon, and I found myself notching up the ISO settings continually, but results were not too bad. Best of all, everyone greatly enjoyed the spectacle, in spite of an icy wind blowing into out faces. It is an amazing experience.

The last picture shows how small the feet of the kite are compared with other birds of prey, reflecting their way of life, largely feeding on carrion.

January 2nd 2015. I had hoped to walk Maddie round Catcott Fen, but there were people everywhere, so decided to look in at Catcott Lows hide and walk later on Chilton Moor. Was I glad I chose that moment! Seconds after settling the camera, a Peregrine swooped down and made the first of several passes over the Wigeon Anas penelope and Teal Anas crecca out on the water. This was followed by two Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus females working their way down towards us from the reeds at the far side. One of these birds had a green wing-tag. Just as one harrier looked as though it would come really close, the Peregrine reappeared and shot across the area, all the ducks lifting up in waves as it did so. Clearly, it was having fun at the expense of the ducks, making no move to attack anything. This was repeated two or three times while I was there - a fantastic experience. After the initial Peregrine fly-past, there was no further sighting of the harriers. Surely, though, this presages well for the rest of winter?

January 1st 2015. A very happy New Year to all our friends and viewers.

December 31st 2014. Catcott Lows was bathed in sunshine this morning, throwing the most wonderful light on the many ducks sitting out in the middle of the water. While saying 'many' ducks, there are still not the usual numbers for the time of year. Greylake is proving a greater attraction to them. Number one interest to the watchers was surely the Great white egret half way across the water. Every so often it would fly across the front and resume fishing somewhere else, giving a perfect view of its magnificent plumage. Eventually, it landed among the ducks, providing a brilliant foil to their many colours.

 When it landed among the ducks it showed just how huge it was compared to even the fairly bulky Wigeon - a most impressive sight to which we are becoming quite accustomed since they started breeding in the area.

December 30th 2014. Greylake again today, but this time with far kinder weather, sunshine and warmth. The place was heaving with ducks, mainly Wigeon Anas penelope, Shoveler Anas clypeata and Teal Anas crecca.

Earlier, people had seen a Peregrine Falco peregrinus catch a Teal Anas crecca and eat it, but I was not to see that. Marsh harriers Circus aeruginosus had also been seen hunting the reeded edges of the main pond but again, not for me. Half the pond was still frozen and all the ducks crammed into the open area. I watched a Water-rail Rallus aquaticus run across the ice between two bunches of rushes but was not quick enough for the action. Snipe were in and out of the rushes on the damp ground to the north of the hide, vanishing as soon as they hunkered down - only movement gave them away.

December 26th 2014. It was cold, with a sharp wind from the southwest, blowing right into the open windows at the front of the Greylake hide. My family stayed for a while until the cold drove them away. Megan borrowed one of my cameras with a 300mm lens and snapped away at a variety of ducks but, more particularly, at some snipe hiding in a sliver of water between reeds. She did really well and I am producing a print of the best for her. Perhaps it might lead her on for the future?

The grey winter-reserve, looked over from the newer, raised hide.

December 24th 2014. I visited Greylake reserve for an hour this morning. It was a beautiful sunny day but with a freezing wind blowing in through the open hide windows. The place was alive with ducks, Wigeon Anas penelope, Shoveler A. clypeata, Teal A. crecca and Mallard A. platyrhynchos.

There were so many to the north of the hide they seemed to be almost touching, while the open field was dotted with a great many dabbling in the shallow flashes.

Every so often they would errupt into the sky in sections, showing the presence of one of two female Marsh harriers working their way across and towards us from the distant reeds at the back. We had some wonderful views of them, often criss-crossed by flights of duck, so the viewfinder was filled with dark bodies, giving a tremendous sense of excitement, as if you were in the middle of the flight yourself. It was an appropriate prelude to Christmas.

December 19th 2014. This curious, variable weather gave us a boost today, with day-long sunshine. It was too good an opportunity to miss, so drove down to Catcott Lows, this time on my own without Maddie. The water had not risen further, unlike the flushes out on the moors which are definitely on the increase. There were far more duck, though still not up to expected numbers for the normal winter residency. Wigeon Anas penelope were the majority, but there were numbers of Shoveler Anas clypeata and a good few Pintail. There may have been some Teal Anas crecca, but I did not see any - perhaps they were hidden among the reeds. A dozen or so Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa and a few Common snipe Gallinago gallinago were the only waders at first, then a few dozen Lapwings Vanellus vanellus dropped in later, though they did not stay long. Pintail were the mostl restless, six or seven drakes lifting off at a time and chasing each other round before landing again, only to resume the flight every few minutes - no doubt early signs of courtship.

A Great white egret was feeding some way off but later flew across in front of the hide then made a real hash of trying to land, nearly touching down then taking off again, giving splendid opportunities for photography.

A female Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus flew along the back reeds and along the woods but not close enough for a proper view, while four Common buzzards Buteo buteo soared in circles against the distant Tor. All in all, it was a most enjoyable session in the hide.

December 14th 2014. I have now completed loading the last of the 2014 insect flight shots, see Insects in flight gallery. The final sections that have been added are leafcutter-bees, mason bees, parasitic wasps, cuckoo  and digger wasps; a further thirty images.

In recent days I learned a lesson the hard way, but have now resolved the problem by actually reading the instructions given with the product! Some while back, I bought an old Nikon 80-400mm lens to go with my outfit. I have long used a 70-300 Nikon lens on a tripod with excellent results. The 400mm produced consistently poor results on the little macro tripod I use in hides. I thought I had bought a dud and was thinking of getting rid of it, then decided to re-read the small handbook. There it was! 'Switch off the VR stabilisation when using a tripod'. I tried this and the results have been superb. The lens is really sharp and locks onto the target in flight quite well. The smaller lens has the same instructions, so I must see if the same will improve further the already excellent sharpness - though I expect not. But it is a lesson I will not forget in a hurry.

Recently, I read about some bird photographers using ‘back-button’ technique and decided to try it out. It took time getting used to the new orientation, but I gave it a good trial both on bird and insect photography. The technique involves separating the focussing function from the taking button and transferring this to the ‘AF-ON’ button on the camera back, where it is operated by the thumb. (This works with Nikon DSLR cameras and, I suspect, Canon also) The two functions are then independent. It becomes possible to leave focus static between shots, rather than the normal focus+shutter act which often leads to the focus shooting into the background when trying to catch a jinking insect in the centre of the viewfinder.

I found the technique invaluable when photographing flies or bees coming back and forth to a nest hole. It is much more controllable and ensures more successful results. However, I did not find it a help in bird photography. I cannot explain why, but the combined system is more instinctive with the larger bulk of a bird. I suspect that the exception to this might be when small birds are flying back and forth to feeding stations or nest holes, which is a similar situation to that of insects in flight. Like so many things, it is a question of trying it out. I feel it is worth exploring for tricky shots but short term use may not work very well, as it takes time to co-ordinate finger and thumb instinctively. I am posting an extended copy of this discussion in the Photography section.

December 13th 2014. Maddie and I walked down to the end of Chilton Moor drove and stood by the gate on the other side of the wide north/south drove. The sun was harsh in the winter sky and the three deer standing by the reeds were full of shadow in parts, but almost unaturally pale in their winter garb. They must have spotted us and ran and jumped across the reed fringe in a fine display, before stopping and feeding on the other side of the field.

In the afternoon, on the way home from a rather empty visit to the Lake Hide at Westhay Moor, I spotted a buzzard silhouetted against the sun and managed a couple of shots before it flew past me. Although a silhouette, the dying sun has just caught the lat hand side of its back. It is interesting to see the other shots which show how a low winter sun can completely alter colours and render identification much more difficult. This bird was actually quite dull and dark when seen at a normal angle in more open light.

December 12th 2014. A quick visit to the Catcott Lows main hide brought a bonus, in spite of being heavily overcast at the time. In front of the hide a Great white egret was feeding in the shallows, close enough to enjoy the experience fully. The bird had very strong bill colour - usually it is a much paler yellow with a small dark tip.

December 10th 2014. Our daily walk took us along the drove running down from Catcott Fen into the woods. This first part is usually fairly empty of small birds, but this time there was a Treecreeper flitting up and down one of the larger trees, not very close, but enough to see how camouflaged it was. I know other places that have residents, but we have never seen one at home. It was good to spend time watching this delightful little bird.

December 8th 2014. Today promised to be the only fine one for a while. In fact it was sunny for the whole morning, though with a bitter west wind, which blew straight into the hide at Greylake. I lasted a couple of hours before giving up - at that stage I could no longer feel the finger tips on the camera release. The reseve was alive with birds. As I came up to the door, hundeds of Wigeon errupted from the fields on the other side of the screens (nothing to do with me!),  a good omen for the rest of the morning.

The reason for periodic erruptions soon became apparent, a male Marsh harrier was quartering the reedbeds, dropping out of sight for periods before again reappearing. Its presence was indicated for much the time by a couple of crows diving and teasing it. It must drive larger birds of prey mad to always be submitted to this behaviour. It certainly looks as if the crows do it just for the devil, rather than any particular purpose. I had not realised before how remarkably camouflaged the male is, the plumage matching autumnal reeds perfectly

The great majority of the duck were Wigeon, but there were numbers of the much smaller Teal Anas crecca among them, as well as Shoveler Anas clypeata. The colours looked marvellous in the winter sun. I was pleased to see plenty of Mallard, as it has been said that their numbers have dropped drastically in recent years.

On my way back home, I dropped into Catcott Lows hide. The car park was an awful mess, covered with mud from the machinery used for the recent construction work round the new sluice. Perhaps it has all finished? Clearly the birds still thought it was ongoing - there were none to be seen. I was only there for a few minutes but had two exciting events during this. I spotted a tiny Sparrowhawk coming towards me flying close to the water and in and out of the reeds, and followed it with the lens until it vanished round the corner. They are such beautul little birds and so clever at approaching prey without frightening them until the last moment.

Then, a blur of movement caught my eye and I watched a Stoat sprinting along the nearby fence, stopping for a quick look round every so often. This a creature I have not seen for years, a real bonus. Sadly, it moved so fast and so unpredictably my pictures were not very succesful but I felt one result would be of some interest to those, who like me, have not seen one of these pretty little creatures in recent years.

December 6th 2014. Went down to Catcott Lows hide to find it completely empty. It was a wonderful morning with a cold wind, but wall-to-wall sunshine. The numbers of ducks are still low, but this must largely be explained by no less than three diggers being present round the perimeter, though not working today. The majority of ducks were Wigeon but Shoveler Anas clypeatus and Pintail, Anas acuta, were present in small numbers.

There was plenty of small bird activity, including numbers of Meadow pipits picking their way through the grasses and herbs, showing above a thin film of ice. Starlings are starting to increase in numbers at last, the picture below showing one pair cosying up right in front of the hide. If they were not so common, much more would be made of their startling colouring and beauty.

December 5th 2014. Greylake reserve is one of my favourite places, though the last two visits found it rather empty. Today was the very opposite. The place is teeming with ducks at last. The car park is some distance from the main part of the reserve and the hides, but the sound of the birds could be heard from there. The very moment I reached the main hide, before the camera had been stuck through the window, a Peregrine Falco peregrinus tore across the sky, taking large numbers of duck with it - a fine start to the day.

There were distant sightings of a female Marsh harrier quartering the far scrub and reeds. Eventually it came up to the edge of the pond and raised cain with the Wigeon, hundreds errupting into the air with a bedlam of noise - highly exciting. The upper picture shows the harrier to the extreme right of the duck. The next picture illustrates what it is like to be in the middle of this bird traffic jam, calculated to make it difficult for any bird of prey to select a single target.

December 3rd 2014. Rather late, with no pre-planning, I drove off to Slimbridge, arriving just after midday. The reason for the visit was the amazing sunny weather, a completely clear blue sky after rather a mixed bag recently. At first, there was only a slight breeze but this strengthened over the day and numbed the fingers. I had a great day, but it was also in some ways rather disappointing. In recent years we have noticed that the population of wild waterfowl inside the pens, as opposed to those outside the fences, has grown much smaller. At the same time, Slimbridge has come closer to a theme park - beautifully done, but more related to a zoo than the earlier days as a wildfowl refuge, which I still remember. This is how it all keeps going and contributes so much money and effort to international conservation, but I cannot help but regret the vanished past. Peter Scott founded the original Wildfowl Trust and used to be seen wandering round among the visitors. His is an amazing legacy.

There were fewer wild birds to be seen by the hides, but I suspect this may be part of our rather strange year, for today is the first really cold day we have had so far. The wild fowl do not appear to have made their way here in their usual hordes. The first I spotted were a dozen or so Bewick's swans (I cannot bring myself to rename our old friends as Tundra swans) going over the car-park, before the camera was set up. Inevitably, it was to be the best sighting of these splendid birds during the day. Their wild calling must be the signature of any winter visit to Slimbridge.

The best part of the day was spent sitting freezing in the various hides lining the eastern boundary, on the way to the Holden tower. The first sighting was of two wild Common cranes feeding among the grasses across the water.

What a story this represents. These birds were reared at Slimbridge from eggs obtained abroad then, when fledged, were transferred to a pen out on the southern part of the Somerset Levels and eventually released into the wild. More released birds have been added each year and it was expected they would remain as a group on the moors, gradually spreading out to breed somewhere nearby. Instead, some of their number flew back and forth to Slimbridge (seen going over our house one day) and, this year, a pair bred there and reared young. It appears that, instead of their traditional migration instincts, they seem to be developing a new route. It was fascinating to watch these huge birds mingling with others, feeding, flying and behaving as any wild bird. When separated from other wildfowl, they seem perfectly normal, scaled for the landscape. When they move, stand next to other birds, their size becomes apparent, dwarfing even the bulky Greylag geese.

Opposite one of the hides, the Trust has installed a small bird feeding station, with several feeders suspended over a shallow puddle of water. These are heavily used by a wide variety of species, watched by many fascinated families. I was particularly surprised to see a Water rail emerge from the scrub and peck away near the edge of the water. Normally, they are such shy creatures.

December 2nd 2014. I have uploaded (or is it downloaded?) around 50 new images of 'bumblebees and 'cuckoo bumblebees in flight, by way of Insects in flight gallery. All these pictures have been taken this year.

Spent an hour in the hide at Catcott Lows, but there was little to be seen, apart from a brief glimpse of a few Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa, which looked in but did not find the water levels to their liking. It appeared there were few duck around but then a Buzzard Buteo buteo flew overhead and a suprisingly dense flight of duck errupted and vanished out of sight.

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