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A local diaryi

Winter 2015/6 - wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

February 25th 2016. A large queen bumblebee and a Honeybee were feeding on early flowers this morning - a welcome sign of better days to come.

Honeybee Apis mellifera                                © robin williams

February 24th 2016. A clear, near windless day took me over the Poldens, through Moorlinch and down to Greylake reserve this morning. There were lots of cars in the park but there was still the odd space in the hide, right at the front. A friendly chap moved over to allow me to slip in. It was perfect light and there were plenty of birds in front, so the camera was soon clicking away. Black-tailed godwits were tucked away behing a great mass of ducks, mainly Wigeon. These waders were well hidden in the rest and only became visible when a predator flushed them up into the sky.

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa                © robin williams

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa              © robin williams

The water levels were perfect for Snipe. They were quite active, unusually, lifting off to join other little groups every so often. Their camouflaged plumage never ceases to fascinate, so beautifully marked, while each movement of their bodies reveals other, new aspects of this, fresh dashes of rich colours.

Common snipe & Wigeon                              © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago              © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago              © robin williams

Although there were plenty of duck, there was a sense that numbers are diminishing as many depart to their summer destinations. This has become evident at other places, such as Catcott Lows, where numbers are now well down, leaving the waters looking curiously depleted, empty.

Wigeon drake Anas penelope                         © robin williams

February 22nd 2016. I had a very quick visit to Catcott Lows, after walking Maddie nearby. It was rather miserable and grey, but brightened sufficiently for me to take a few pictures of which the following were the most interesting. The Shoveler was an obvious choice, feeding deep among the vegetation, using its spoon-shaped beak to the uttmost in efficiency.

Wigeon drake Anas penelope                   © robin williams

Shoveler drake Anas clypeata                  © robin williams

February 21st 2016. I spent a happy afternoon in the Lake hide at Westhay Moor today. The sun was in and out for much of the time but, when it hit the reeds, it was quite beautiful. The quality of light was at its finest, picking out every detail in the landscape, particularly when it lit up a patch, silhouetting the shapes against it.

Westhay moor Typha                          © robin williams

The heron was only there a few minutes but gave some great opportunities, feeding inside a patch of reeds and suddenly leaping with such power into the air . They are such amazing birds, so large, yet so light in their skeleton, such that their acceleration is exceptional.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea                       © robin williams

Grey heron Ardea cinerea                       © robin williams

The final moments were particularly memorable when a pair of Ravens flew over, indulging themselves in a bit of aerobatics as they did so, wheeling and turning as each appeared to try and impress the other. In recent years, Ravens have become more more common. When we first came to live here, they were counted as rarities only living on coastal cliffs, now they come over the house and nest in many inland locations. Indeed, one pair have been nesting in the very heart of our nearby village, while a friend of mine with an industrial unit in south Sonerset has a pair within a hundred yards or so - deafening when in full voice.

Ravens, Corvus corax                                © robin williams

February 18th 2016. Just after breakfast, Romey called me over to the kitchen window, 'Look, there's a fox out there'. Fortunately, I had a camera sitting on the table and managed to take a shot or two though, as so often happens, it vanished up into the orchard almost immediately. Even so, I felt a record of its presence would not go amiss, though it is far from perfect. I know foxes have a bad reputation, but they are a joy to watch, as they visit our garden only occasionally. They are also extremely handsome and colourful.

Fox, Vulpes vulpes                                     © robin williams

Since I was already out there, I spent a while watching the bird feeders and contemplating the past year or so. While the feeders are reasonably busy, there is only a fraction of the bird-life of three or four years ago. The main protagonists are Blue Parus caeruleus, Great P. major and Long-tailed tits Aegithalos caudatus . We have seen three Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis, so far this year, one female Greenfinch C. chloris, and a handful of House sparrows Passer domesticus. Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs, previously the commonest of birds, are there in penny numbers - only one male among them. Blackbirds Turdus merula are starting to come in at last, but again in strictly limited numbers. What has gone wrong? Is it just the weather, or are there more depressing reasons?

Blue tit, Parus caeruleus                           © robin williams

Long-tailed tit, Aegithalos caudatus       © robin williams

February 16th 2016. I have had various problems wih lenses recently and now, while waiting for one particular one to be returned from the makers, I decided to give a thorough trial, in perfect sunny conditions to my Panasonic FZ200 bridge camera, with effective 600mm focal length in 35mm terms. I had always believed the Leica lens to be first-class and this proved to be the case. This relatively tiny camer looked ridiculous poking out of the Greylake hide window alongside Nikon and Canon 500mm lenses, but proved to be quite excellent in these bright conditions. I emphasise this, as it is essential to keep the ISO reading to 100, which does not give much scope for overcast weather. There was ice on part of the pond, which gave some interesting pictures of the complete bird - so often their feet are buried in grass or mud. My first pictures give an idea of the richness of the species and the habitatat in the reserve. It is difficult to think that a few years ago, Greylake was growing potatoes intensively. I certainly never believed it would turn out as well as it has, specially since the first few years produced very few birds. It is a splendid achievement by the RSPB, who operate the reserve.

Greylake                                                        © robin williams

Wigeon, Anas penelope                             © robin williams

Wigeon & other duck, Greylake               © robin williams

Wigeon, Anas penelope                             © robin williams

Wigeon, Anas penelope                             © robin williams

Common teal, Anas crecca                       © robin williams

Common shoveler, Anas clypeata           © robin williams

The next series of photographs are of snipe, one of my very favourite subjects. For the first time, I watched early stages of courtship. Normally, snipe seem to get on really well, sitting for long periods close together among the reeds and grasses - often invisible until they shift position or move along. This lot started to behave agressively, moving in on each other, driving their rivals off, or just being bloody-minded. Notice the spread tail, something rarely seen in normal circumstances. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them for more than an hour, ending up most pleased with the camera, which performed better than expected considering the small size of its sensor.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago       © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago       © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago       © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago       © robin williams

February 10th 2016. A fine day was forecast and I had hoped to visit Slimbridge for some while. This seemed the perfect opportunity, with even the wind behaving. Nigel had been coming with me, but felt ill overnight. so off I went on my own, arriving at just after ten. Sadly, the forecast was only partly correct. The morning had long periods of heavy overcast, only clearing to really bright sun in the afternoon. Nevertheless, it was a highly succesful visit and the shutter never stopped clicking.

Slimbridge                                                     © robin williams

It is difficult to pick out particular highlights but, it was splendid to see a couple of cranes fly across the front of the hide. Most of the time they spent sitting way over on the open ground, almost out of sight and near-invisible. It is surprising how such a large and showy bird fades into the landscape. It is only when one comes up against a Grey heron Ardea cinerea that you realise exactly how big it is. Each year Slimbridge breeds more of these birds and, eventually, sends them down to a site on Segemeoor where they join a large group already settled in to the countryside.

Common crane, Grus grus                         © robin williams

Other highlights were periodic erruptions of  large numbers of waders, as always flying in perfectly synchronised formation, now pale and then dark as they turn. The most spectacular of these were large numbers of Black-tailed godwits, though even larger flocks of Golden plover then appeared, as a passing raptore disturbed them. These birds appear like pale shadows in the sky, virtually invisible until they turn. There is only way to describe it all - seeing wading birds and ducks 'in bulk', exciting beyond belief. Smaller flights of Redshank appeared after the great hordes, and performed beautifully over the wet fields, almost like the precision flying given by the Red Arrows, and as showy, circling back and around in front of us. Further off, beyond the power of my lens but visible to the telescopes of others, Dunlin Calidris alpina were present in considerable numbers, together with Ruffs Philomachus pugnax, and other species. Every so often some unseen but passing predator brought them all into the air, seen as layers in the sky, some closer, some afar. Almost out of sight, a Peregrine falcon Falco pereginus sat on the very top of a tree. Further studies by those with the most powerful telescopes eventually revealed the fact that there were three peregrines in that same tree, one male and two females. They did not appear to cause the major disturbances, sitting unmoving for the time I was there - no doubt digesting an earlier meal. For birds of prey, Slimbridge must be like a giant sweet shop, there for the taking, offering an easy  living, with less effort than needed elsewhere.

Black-tailed godwits, Limosa limosa       © robin williams

Black-tailed godwits, Limosa limosa                © robin williams

Golden plover, Pluvialis apricaria                © robin williams

Redshanks,  Tringa totanus                     © robin williams

For visitors, one of the attractions and memories of a day out here, must be the huge numbers of ducks in the winter, particularly those grazing the wet meadows in front of the Robbie Garnett hide where I spent much of the day. The great majority were Wigeon Anas penelope followed by Shoveler Anas clypeata which were busy displaying to each other by way of little flights of several males flying in a group after a solitary female. Most other duck were represented in among the others. Perhaps the most obvious, though relatively few in total, were the brilliantly-coloured Shelduck Tadorna tadorna. These birds tended to stick by the water's edge or on the water itself. The long pond in front was the gathering point for Tufted duck, feeding and talking to each other, continually flying in and out - really active. What were conspicuously missing were Common pochard Aythya ferina often the most numerous diving ducks in the past. I have noticed elesewhere that there appears to be a considerable diminution of the their numbers. What a shame, for they glow with colour in the winter sun and are strong characters in thei own right, always worth watching.
Tufted drakes, Aythya fuligula                © robin williams

Apart from the many Bewick's swans Cygnus columbianus, so much part of the Slimbridge scene in winter, geese are the other main visual and sonic attraction. The sheer excitement of hearing great flights of Greylag geese approaching and then fanning their way down to the ground, has to be heard and seen to explain this. Some of the greatest pieces of natural history writing describe this excitement, from the pen of wildfowlers, people like Peter Scott and Keith Shackleton, 'BB' and 'a Son of the Marshes', many also talented painters. All of them describe the thrill of sitting out on the marshes in the early morning, and the sheer excitement as the great skeins of geese appeared with the light, in the distance. 

Greylag geese, Anser anser                       © robin williams

The finale of my day lay in the Holden Tower, a three storey hide overlooking the grazing fields and over to the marshes and flats edging the Severn, with further hordes of wildfowl and waders. The top floor gives some extraordinary views of geese and ducks in flight. These often pass alongside the windows or below, views rarely seen otherwise.

Greylag geese, Anser anser                       © robin williams

February 2nd 2016. Candlemas Day. A fairly quick visit to Greylake brought a few interesting pictures. The waters were high throughout the reserve, splashing the grazing with runnels, while the pond in front was brimming, leaving just clumps of reeds  protruding from the water, rather than little islands as they are normally. Snipe were everywhere, treating their normal resting places as usual, but with their legs in water or balancing on horizontal vegetation. Their camouflage is not so good when seen silhouetted against the bright surface. My picture shows a little group of Mallard, Snipe and Wigeon, a typical scene repeated all round the edges of the water..

Common snipe, Mallard, Wigeon            © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago       © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago       © robin williams

February 1st 2016. I took Maddie down to the bottom of Jack's Drove and turned east onto Tadham Moor, walking out past the small wooded section and looking out across the open moors. before turning to come back again. As we did so, movement caught my eye. Out on the next field, right in the open like grazing cattle, a little group of deer looked up and moved across in front of us. What is so extraordinary about that? Sadly, over the past few years, Roe deer have almost disappeared from the moors. Certainly, I have not seen any deer out where we were walking. We believe they have been poached out of existence. It was so good to see them there once more - something that was an everyday occurrence years ago .

Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus                © robin williams

January 29th 2016. Over the past week there have been many sightings of Little egrets on Tealham and Tadham Moors. It seems a tad early for readying themselves for nesting, but they do have this habit of appearing for a few days and then vanishing once more. They are wary of cars and people, though I suspect few if any offer them harm. Their intense whiteness makes them stand out, and renders other white birds such as swans rather grubby-looking. Their fairly recent arrival in the area (a few years only) is a great bonus, making us feel quite tropical at times.

Little egret Egretta garzetta                    © robin williams

January 25th 2106. A visit to Tealham Moor brought a beautifully-marked adult heron feeding on the edge of a rhyne. I have become so used to seeing the intermediate stages of plumage, I had almost forgotten how striking the markings and colouring can be. After a lot of enlargement and examination, I believe the creature in its beak is a newt. So often, the prey is really small that it is difficult to pick out, yet this one wandered around with it in its beak, apparently reluctant to swallow it down. The newt, if that is what it was, clearly was still alive - wriggling every so often.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea                        © robin williams

Grey heron Ardea cinerea                        © robin williams

January 23rd 2016. Our first bumblebee of the year shot past me this morning in the garden, As might have been expected, it was a Bombus terrestris queen, Friends living near Exeter report nests continuing right through the winter, but we expect only hibernating queens to survive overwinter. It is a welcome sign that the season is moving on at last.

Bumblebee Bombus terrestris q              © robin williams

This morning, we took a long walk round Catcott fen but, as usual, saw few ducks. The Tower hide seemed virtually bereft of life with the exception of the deep croaks of Gadwall Anas strepera somewhere in the reeds on the opposite side of the water. Why are there so few ducks in this larely undisturbed area of water of all depths and large reed beds? I suspect it may be that the underlying peat just does not grow the plants needed for grazing ducks and for insect life. It is often forgotten that peat is inert. If a patch is scraped off on the moors, it may take years to grow herbage back. I am sure this place will teem with birds eventually, but it may be some while before this occurs. I did see a couple of harriers rise up in the distance, then engage in what might have been a brief bit of courtship. The male bird dived below the female and turned upside down, similar to food-passing behaviour in the nesting season. I was not quick enough to catch this but did photograph this bird flying over to another patch of reeds where it disturbed a flight of duck.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m      © robin williams

At the Catcott Lows hide I concentrated on attempting some portaits of Wigeon and Teal, such beautiful duck, with subtly pencilled flank feathers (unfortunately the resolution of the web and the enlargement of this picture size only give an indication of this. A4 prints bring out the beauty of this perfectly)

Wigeon Anas penelope m                          © robin williams

Common teal Anas crecca m                    © robin williams

Common teal Anas crecca m                   © robin williams

Common teal Anas crecca m                   © robin williams

January 22nd 2016. On our way to Catcott for a walk, we stopped by a ditch and watched a heron making its way towards us, working its way along the watercourse stopping, head up for long periods, then leaning forward and slowly stretching its neck out before stabbing down like lightning. It seemed quite succesful, but the prey it caught was really small. Quantity must make up for lack of quality. This was an adult bird but lacking the final feather detail that marks a fully adult breeding bird. When the bird is in full glory it has a distinct lavender hue. This one was softest dove-grey, while the bill was pale enough to almost vanish against the surrounds. At the very end, before a car coming up behind drove us on our way, the bird waded right into the water to fish, looking totally different.

Grey heron, Ardea cinerea                       © robin williams
Grey heron, Ardea cinerea                       © robin williams

Grey heron, Ardea cinerea                       © robin williams

In the hide at Catcott Lows, I concentrated on some portrait shots of that most understated duck, the female Shoveler. She is a most elegant bird, her feathers reflecting the waters round her, constantly changing from a beautifully-marked greyish bird to one with palest gold tints as the sun catches. The large, spatulate beak has been described as comic, but in fact the whole Shoveler family has a dignified appearance, coinciding with their normal behaviour while feeding.

Common shoveler Anas clypeata            © robin williams

Common shoveler Anas clypeata f          © robin williams

January 20th 2016. A great piece of entertainment took place right in front of the kitchen window this morning. A family of Long-tailed tits set about the nuts in a really determined manner. These tiny and delightful birds travel round as a family and do everything together. It must be reassuring to the young to be sheltered like this right on into adulthood.

Long-tailed tit, Aegithalos caudatus       © robin williams

January 19th 2016. I am car-less today. It is in for some work, so spent rather more time looking at the feeders outside the kitchen window.  It is a beautiful sunny day, but very cold after a sharp frost, so whatever birds there are sure tol be visiting the free food. But, while there are numbers they are of the same greatly-reduced variety of species that we have noticed this winter. The majority are Great tits and Blue tits, with a single Coal tit joining them periodically.

Blue tit Parus caeruleus                            © robin williams

Coal tit Parus ater                                      © robin williams

Great tit Parus major                                 © robin williams

In the last few days they have been joined by the very occasional House sparrow Passer domesticus and a few Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs, plus a couple of Robins Erithacus rubecula. I am glad to say that occasionally, a family of Long-tailed tits Aegithalos caudatus and a Great-spotted woodpecker Dendrocopus major, have joined in on the nuts or fat-balls. But that is it. There have been no Greenfinches Carduelis chloris or Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis, previously extremely common. And the actual numbers of every bird, except the Blue and Great tits, are far less than in previous years. What is happening? Is it just our little patch of England? Although we have had no Starlings Sturnus vulgaris at the feeders, there are more than usual out on the moors, which must be good news for a species said to be in steep decline.

January 16th 2016. I spent a delightful, if frozen, couple of hours at Greylake reserve this morning. It looked so miserable I almost gave up, but wrapped up well and ventured out. The problems were periods of overcast, then others of sunshine, but with a really ferocious, cutting south-west wind which blew directly onto the face of the hide. It was busy when I reached it, but I managed to squeeze in. However, people made it quite clear they did not want any of the windows open. Eventually this lot left and another person opened his window and so did I. Thereafter I was chilled to the bone, but had absolutley clear views for the lens. The area was more flooded than before (with the exception of the previous total floods when it was impossible to leave the car park). There were plenty of ducks, with many packed together in a mass on the grass in front. More birds arrived continually, including a large flight of Black-tailed godwits, one of my personal favourites. They circled and circled before landing among the ducks where they vanished, hidden by the mass. Those who had not seen them land  had no idea they were there. They are such elegant birds, like ghosts in winter, with pale plumage, long legs and beaks.

Black-tailed godwit, Limosa limosa        © robin williams

There were numbers of Snipe close to the front of the hide, hiding in among the clumps of reeds now surrounded by water. I found myself searching each clump, seeing nothing, then gradually becoming aware I was looking at one, then others - so perfectly are they camouflaged, they are so beautifully marked and camouflaged.

Common snipe, Gallinago gallinago      © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago       © robin williams

A Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus appeared every so often, usually so far in the distance that it disturbed none of the main body of waterfowl but, eventually, flew lazily over the nearby reeds, though without any attempt to hunt. Nevetheless, this brought numbers of duck into the air, Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler, in far larger numbers than appeared likely when they were out on the water. There are large numbers hidden by the vegetation that only make an appearance when a bird of prey appears.

Wigeon & Shoveler                                    © robin williams

Finally, some Shoveler made a series of courtship flights, several males circling round with a female among the group. There is a splendid air of excitement about these flights and sunlight brings out the striking colours of the birds. After these settled down again, the piercing wind won the day and I packed it in, having had a fascinating time.

Common shoveler Anas clypeata           © robin williams

January 14th 2016. Yet another visit, but this time in clear sunshine, brought me back to Catcott Lows. The most noticeable of the ducks were Shoveler, one of my favourites. As someone asked in the hide, 'what are those ducks that look so black and white at a distance? These are the males, whose breast seems to shine out whatever the weather. The chestnut flanks only really become visible when much closer. Shoveler are very active at this time of year, rarely still for more than a few moments before taking off and flying a few yards. My pictures were very much snatched in a short period but I hope show better resolution than previously when I used a rather elaborate process involving 'Publisher'. Trying to see how the pictures in the original TIFF/JPEG forms showed feather detail which simply did not show on the website, I concluded that too many of this system involved ending by saving yet another JPEG, losing resolution each time. Discussions with Nikon suggested I used View NX2 (which I had on the computer) and converted the TIFF to the correct size and sent it direct to the website as a JPEG. The only problem is I have not yet been able to design a similar caption design to that used previously. The new one, using Hostgator tools, does not allow the caption to close up to the bottom of the picture, but leaves a gap.

Common shoveler Anas clypeata           © robin williams

Common shoveler Anas clypeata           © robin williams

Common shoveler Anas clypeata f         © robin williams

January 11th 2016. I slipped over to Catcott Lows to see how things were going. The last visit showed virtually empty waters. This time was different. As soon as the shutters were raised in the hide, the sounds of duck were overwhelming. Wigeon drakes dominated what was a continuous symphony of wonderful whistles, and quiet but high-pitched chattering from Teal Anas crecca. It was glorious to look out over a great many duck on the open waters. What a change. 

January 8th 2016. I visited Westhay Moor NNR this afternoon. Instead of turning left to the Lake hide, off London drove,

Westhay Moor                                              © robin williams

I decided to go on norhwards to have at look at other parts. I was surprised to find that the hide in the reeds, reached by way of a raised boardwalk, was still not open and showed no obvious signs of it being re-opened. This seems a shame, as it has been closed for years rather than months and previously had a good reputation for interesting birds. I met up with a previous acquaintance, Paul, and a friend of his, both from Taunton, and walked on to the blind on the left, which overlooks the big lake. This large expanse of water appeared empty at first, then distant black and white dots revealed numbers of Goosanders, both displaying males and attendant females. It was quite late in the day and the light was not as good as it looks, nevertheless I managed to scrape up a few pictures.

Goosander Mergus merganser                © robin williams

For much of the time they remained distant, then something drove them into the air and some females passed quite close. 

They are magnificent-looking birds, though in flight they appear at times to appear a little awkward, like a Great-crested grebe with an odd reverse curve in the body, when seen from a particular angle, though my picture does not really capture this.

January 6th 2016. Reports had been coming in about the huge numbers of ducks at Greylake reserve on Sedgemoor. When I reached the hide in early afternoon there was little sign of this bounty. There were ducks and plover in greater numbers than at first appeared, but nothing like the hordes described by others. This seems a characteristic of this season - wildfowl here on one day and gone the next. Nevertheless, it was a most enjoyable couple of hours, warm at first but, as I realised by the end, cold underneath as the weak sun changed to overcast. The resultant light was singularly delicate in nature and produced some pleasingly delicate images. Nearby, I concentrated on studies of Mallard, a bird not usually photographed, perhaps because it is so much part of the background, always around in parks and ponds. The colouring is rich and strong in bright sun, but surprisingly muted in today's light - a  successful experiment I feel.

Snipe are a feature of this reserve, often sleeping quite close to the hide but exremely well camouflaged. No creature can melt into the background like this bird, not moving a muscle for long periods. Sure enough, one was spotted asleep just behind a dozing duck and, eventually, walked into the open, before sleeping once again. Although it was right in the open, it was quite difficult to spot, once you took your eye off it. 

The light was failing fast as I walked back to the car, and the dense reeds darkened and looked impenetrable, as well as rather sinister, right alongside the path.

January 4th 2016. Again, walking Maddie round the Catcott reserves, most enjoyable, empty of other people. Afterwards, I spent a while looking at what appeared to be almost empty waters from the hide at Catcott Lows. How wrong I was. Something disturbed a hoard of duck at the far side and they proved to be in an aerobatic mood. They swooped and turned from dark to light, in the distance looking like a flock of waders, in perfect synchonisation. They circled, dropped and rose again for some considerable time, though there was no sign of anything causing it. It was a perfect example of a completely unexpected sight paying off after an apparently empty visit.

Common teal Anas crecca m                  © robin williams

The weather turned gloomier but that also had its bonuses. Mute swans flew against story clouds and gave an unusual view of dark and light.

Earlier, crossing between Tealham and Tadham moors, a Short-eared owl made a welcome appearance. It seems at least one may have set up residence locally.

January 3rd 2016. Now that Christmas is over, with all its over-indulgance and sitting inside, it seems appropriate to try and get out as much as possible, though foul weather has made that a difficult decision. Westhay Moor, and the Lake hide in partucular, has always been one of my favourite places. This afternoon, it proved to be particularly beautiful. with the low sun catching the reeds, livened further by a splendid rainbow.

It is strange to go to a bird reserve and find it virtually empty of wildlife, but it has been a feature of this autumn and early winter, though Greylake is reported to be bursting with birds, seemingly attracting all the duck in the area. Here, there were few birds in sight and the calls of ducks notably absent. However, I was glad to see a number of Mallard flighting in and out. A few years ago, there were reports that their numbers had diminished severely. They certainly appear to have recovered. We are inclined to dismiss them as 'part of the furniture' but, were they rare we would be delighted to see them. The drakes are among the most colourful of our ducks.

Finally, I must show one of the most typical sights of winter - Starlings gathering on the telephone wires before flying into one of their huge roosts out among the reedbeds. There are much smaller numbers than in earlier years, but the hordes are still impressive. The other day I saw a tree so laden with the birds I thought its branches would break.

January 1st 2016. Greetings from Somerset, and a Happy New Year to our readers and watchers everywhere.

The old year is finished and the new year upon us, bringing a distinctly more wintery feel to it, with a great deal of rain and very high winds. However, none of us can but help thinking of the dreadful times being experienced in Cumbria and the north of England, with so many people flooded out of their homes, facing months before they can move back in. It hardly bears thinking about.

A completely new series of covers has been designed for all our book publications and these will be phased in as future books are produced, as they all are, individually. To view these, click on Vanellus publications.

December 29th 2015. I took my sister over to Ham Wall reserve this morning. Sadly there were few birds present on this huge area but it did look very spectacular in the winter sunlight and I concentrated on a few landscape shots.

As we were leaving, a large floclk of Lapwings headed into the far side of the reeds from the main viewing platform and then streamed overhead; a welcome sight, as they are far from common nowadays.

On the way home, a most strange event was seen in a wayside field. This had a standing crop of what appeared to be maize and was covered in Rooks Corvus frugilegus clinging onto the stalks but quite inactive, bodies upright, all looking in the same direction. A nearby tree was also heavily populated with the same birds. It gave the same impression as Starlings Sturnus vulgaris, in one of their evening roosting sites. There must have been hundreds of birds in a relatively small area. Unfortunately the lane was narrow and we were followed by another car, so there was no chance of a photograph. Very strange, perhaps a Rooks' parliament, though I have never seen one of those.

December 27th 2015. The morning was grey and overcast but rays of sunshine then followed, showing up streaks of the most delicate greens in the wet moors below. A strange chattering was heard outside the back door. On the telephone wire, a beautifully-coloured male kestrel kept up this chatter for some while, starting again immediately after a dive into the grass below and back up again. A second bird, female, joined him on the wire before they both flew off - a fine post Christmas bonus.

Maddie and Iwalked up into the orchard and the lovely mewing of a buzzard drew the eye to the bird itself, circling overhead. We are so lucky to see these fine birds regularly, circling above the house and garden.

December 22nd 2015. After much dark, wet weather, today turned out perfect with brilliant sunshine and little wind. It seemed the time to take my visiting sister to look at a couple of local reserves. Graylake, down on Sedgemoor, was busy with a great many birds, though most were happily dozing. The main hide was packed with clicking lenses and no spare seats, so we made our way along the boardwalk to the newer shelter where there was room. This gives a wider view over the wetlands. Wigeon were present in large numbers; the red and yellow heads of the males catching the sun. The other main species was Shoveler, much more active, lifting off and flying from one part to another. In flight, they have a solid appearance looking like heavy bombers rather than the other 'fighter' ducks.

There were some waders around, which was good, for they have been absent recently. A considerable number of Black-tailed godwits provided some excitement, while large numbers of Lapwings gave their aerial performances every so often. A Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus was spotted in the far background, but did not appear seriously active. Even the ducks nearby by did not pay much attention. 

It was good to see a few Common snipe sleeping in the waterside reeds, where they are so often found. Take your eye off them for a moment and it proves difficult to pick them up again, they are so well camouflaged. If you can see a few, it is a certain bet there are many more hidden from sight.

As the sun crept round and started to spoil the light on the birds, we decided to leave and have a look at Catcott Lows. Earlier remarks about how this was filling with duck were in heavy reverse today. There were far fewer Wigeon and Shoveler, though when something scared them into flight, there were more than you thought, and of more species - as always happens.

No less than four Marsh harriers appeared in the sky at once, just above the silhouette of distant Glastonbury Tor, but failed to come closer. The usual flock of Lapwings Vanellus vanellus decorated the view in front, while a Great white egret Egretta alba was busy feeding in the extreme bakcground. Altogether a splendid day out, ending with lunch at Sweet's splendid cafe near Westhay.

December 16th 2015. Catcott Lows is filling up at last. Although the areas of water are shallow and few in extent, there were plenty of ducks on them, together with numbers of Lapwings, which always stand out so well against either the dark winter water.

Wigeon were by far the largest contingent, with a few Shoveler amongst them. While I was watching, there were two eruptions of duck as something disturbed them, possibly gulls flying overhead and fooling them into thinking they were hawks. These were the very rapid explosions where the birds rise ten or twenty feet and almost immediately touch down, without circling. These are exciting events; through the viewfinder you becomepart of the flight, wings beating all round, totally exhilarating but over so quickly.

Later we watched two seperate Marsh harriers, one male and one female, fly over without any obvious effect on the ducks near them, though one did make a most spectacular vertical dive to the ground and up again, showing just how wide is the wing span. A Peregrine Falco peregrinus sat a long way off on a pile of vegetation (the former line of posts have been removed by the Trust). Earlier, Maddie and I circled round Catcott Fen, but saw nothing. The view from the tower hide is marvellous but absolutely nothing moved on the water.

December 13th 2015. The last few days have brought one of the most attractive and characterful birds back into the garden. Romey noticed a flash of white on a bigger bird one gloomy morning and realised it must have been a Jay. She saw it once or twice later, but at a distance. This morning, I had a good, close view. Early last summer we realised we had a pair of these birds, so are delighted to see them back once more. Before that we had never had a single visit, while sightings in the surrounding countryside were also absent. I have the impression there are more of them around now. I see them, if not regularly, then at least from time to time.

December 9th 2015. Nigel took me for a drive round Blagdon Lake today. The remains of the morning sunshine rapidly vanished, though the sky was largely clear. The most impressive sight was a large number of Canada geese on the northern side, keeping stubbornly to the water, not in flight. They were a fine sight but were largely silent, unlike those that visit us on the peat moors. Among them were a few Barnacle geese, long-term and most welcome residents of the lake.


We drove on to one of the feeding stations set up by Nigel, where there should be Nuthatches; birds I have not seen for many years. Unfortunately, by now it was heavily overcast and the light far from suitable, but eventually they started to appear, at first on the track and then on the nuts but the light was very poor. They are elegant little birds. A Great-spotted woodpecker Dendracopus major also made a brief appearance.

Another feeding station saw a Jay Garrulus glandarius coming in almost as soon as we drove in. The final event was the arrival over the dam of large numbers of Jackdaws circling overhead, before vanishing into the trees. Nigel told me that, some years back, estimates were for up to 10,000 birds roosted here. He is hoping to find out if such figures are still possible.

December 7th 2015. Back to normality with a walk round Catcott. Rather an iffy day, with some sun and some strange, dark skies. Crossing Tealham Moor, a bunch of three Little egrets followed me round looking strangely ghostlike, caught in the sun against a rather sinister dark background. Unusually for these birds, the normal dead-white plumage appeared stained by the peaty waters as well as catching the low sun, showing distinct yellow tinges, especially under the 'armpits'.

We had a quick look at Catcott Lows hide but found that the ducks were still a long way off, so decided to make the circuit round Catcott Fen. As appears normal, there was nothing to be seen from the fine tower hide. When it was all being excavated, a year or so back, there were many more ducks. I suppose that it will take some while before the winter duck hordes decide it has the right food for them. That certainly happened at Greylake and look at how successful that reserve is now. The reeds looked magnificent when the sun caughr them in late afternoon.

Walking back, the late afternoon sun caught a Gadwall as it took off from a rather muddy pool.

December 3rd 2015. It promised to be one of the few better days of the week and, as planned, Nigel and I drove southwest to Topsham on the east bank of the River Exe. Our destination was the superb new hide at Bowling Green Marsh overlooking the River Clyst. We caught the high tide at just after 12 in the morning although it was not a really high tide. we expected large numbers of waders to be driven up river as the waters covered the mud-banks further down stream. But that Avocets Avocetta recurvirostra might not be part of this, and so it proved. These splendid birds remained out on the much-reduced feeding grounds on the Exe. However, there were others that more than fulfilled our hopes. We reached the hide more than an hour before the high tide and found this bright, roomy, new hide, with really clear views of the river and surrounding wet fields. Far off, on the river bank, a huddle of wader heads was visible. These were the vanguards of squads of Black-tailed godwits, some still with traces of summer- cinnamon on their breasts. As the morning wore on, more of these elegant waders appeared. Numbers on the ground were deceptive, as shown when they errupted into the air to circle above for a few minutes; there were far more than it had appeared earlier. Wader flocks are always exciting, turning from dark backs to near white undersides in a flash, all in perfect synchronisation.

Their reflexes are far quicker than ours, think of the delays found taking off from traffic lights. Their reactions are simultaneous and virtually instantaneous. Gradually the godwits flew closer to us in ones and twos, settling on the ground in front, giving some fine views as they fed, squabbled and moved around. Their feeding is frenetic, heads moving up and down at speed like a road drill, cramming in as much as possible in as short a time.

The day was not quite as we had hoped, clouding over between periods of sunshine, but quick changes of ISO readings saved the photographic day and many images were obtained. After high-tide, we wandered down the road to look at the rest of the reserve. En route, there were one or two useful gaps in the hedge and we managed to get even closer to the godwits and the many Wigeon Anas penelope present with them. However, the vantage point over the river was empty of birds, as was the Goat Walk along the edge of the Exe, though we spotted some of the errant Avocets as white dots way over the other side.

We decided to drive back towards Exeter and move over to the west bank of the river on the Dawlish road, then down into Exminster marshes to eat our lunch. The very narrow lane into the reserve wanders between screens of reeds and, to our joy, we spotted a large flock of Dark-bellied brent geese. As we ate our sandwiches, several flights of these fine little geese flew overhead and dropped down into the same location.

We ended up having a most exciting afternoon watching them feeding behind the reeds. Among them were three Pale-bodied brent geese Branta bernicla hrota while there was said to be a single Black brant Branta bernicla nigricans somewhere in the local flocks. Nigel searched those we were watching but could not say for certain that he had spotted it. The reserve lies on either side of the entry lane, which starts by the local railway station. From there, a footpath leads along the the western side with it's extensive open flooding, full of waders and ducks, difficult to examine properly against the low, bright sun. The other way in is by the lane, leading to a parking area next to the bank on the ship-canal. Wandering down the lane, views are through the fringing reedsThe birds did not seem to be disturbed by this or people walking by - they must get used to it all. We had our moments as waves of Brent geese came in, circled several times and then dropped in to joint the others.

Eventually, the whole lot took off, circled several times, and landed on the other side of the lane, chatting loudly to each other as they landed. There was a brief pause and an even louder clangour as a large number of Canada geese repeated these manouvres and landed with the others, with great crescendo of sound.

It was really exciting, reminding me of books by old wildfowlers, telling of the excitement of nights out on the marshes. I could imagine Peter Scott part hidden in a pit dug in the feld, ater describing the sights and the sounds. More Black-tailed godwits flew over, giving some fine views. Looking at the pictures later, it became clear that one bird had only one leg, though it did not seem to have inconvenienced it.  Another flock was of Lapwings Vanellus vanellus with an even larger number of Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria accompanying them. There were many other waders out on the marshy areas on the other side of the lane but it was difficult to see which against the sun but, eventually many were revealed to be more Black-tailed godwits as they took off and circled overhead, giving some fine views in flight.

December 2nd 2015. Westhay Moor was today's destination in the morning. It was sunny and was well sheltered from quite a strong wind, still very warm. I had expected numbers of duck but the Lake hide and the opposite private reserve were both empty. The light was wonderful, making the most of still-strong colours, particularly in the reeds.

In spite of over an hour spent looking at a completely empty lake, eventually my patience was rewarded by two of the more unusual inhabitants. First, a Great white egret flew over the far reeds and eventually settled at the edge, then a Bittern flew across much the same part before vanishing into the middle of the reed-bed - so, never give up! Neither are the greatest of pictures, but capture memorable moments.

December 1st 2015. The day was marginally better, less wind with some breaks in the cloud, warm for the time of year. It seemed worth another visit to Catcott Lows to see how the flooding was spreading. I found Allan in the hide and heard that the previous day he had seen a Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus sitting right at the back - where the first of any remaining posts were still left. In front of the hide, a flash of water was fairly solidly packed with duck, a most welcome sight. As we watched there were two seperate frights when they all took off at once, though landing again quite rapidly. We could see no sign of a predator but one could have been really high overhead.

It does not need much more than a few inches of height in the water-table to see the waters spreading across. With any luck, the next few days ought to bring this.



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