December 2017 - winter: notes from the Somerset Levels

December 19th 2017. I spent a hour or so at Greylake in the morning. Although the sun shone for much of the time, the hide stood up to local claims that it is one of the coldest around. Even though the wind was not too strong, it still managed to whip round the corners and in on legs, hands and eyes. My time became limited by my clothing - which I had thought perfectly adequate for the day - rather than by my interest.I knew it was the right time - the duck had arrived - when the first magical calls of Wigeon drakes, 'wheeouu' were heard in the distance followed a little closer by the low chatter of a great many Teal Anas crecca.

mixed duck, mainly Wigeon Anas penelope & Teal A. crecca

There was not much movement at first. The ducks were largely on the grass meadow-strip in front, not interested in much more than chatting and sleeping. A Marsh harrier, then a second one, stirred in the distance, flew up and down one side and then over the ducks.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

This brought a flurry of erruptions from mainly Teal and Wigeon, though there were Shoveler and Mallard among them. The harriers drove up numbers of Snipe as well as duck but there was no sign of the other waders we had been told should be there.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

It was fascinating to see that when one of the harriers landed it was not too long before flights of duck landed within a few yards - neither party paying any attention to each other.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Eventually the chill drove me out and I waked along the return route from the hide.The much larger area of flooding to the north of the path had quite a large collection of duck sleeping away from the reeds but I had a wonderful view of s Shoveler drake caught in a gap in the redds, close-by, a splash of pure colour.

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m

A patch of thick reeds was full of movement and I stopped for a look. Several Blue tits were feeding up and down the reeds, giving a real show of acrobatic ability. They made fine pictures. Among them were a couple of Long-tailed tits behaving equally well.

Blue tit Parus caeruleus

Long-tailed tit Aegithalos caudatus

Going home, I stopped off a Catcott Lows for a short while and was very glad I had. Several experienced birdwatchers were there and pointed out that a pipit which landed in front was not a Meadow pipit, but a Water pipit, a bird I had never seen before. A look through the viewfinder confirmed the quite different striping on the head - indeed it resembled a wagtail as much as a pipit.

Water pipit Anthus spinoletta

The last thing seen before the weather closed in and it was time to leave was a Marsh harrier settling down on the top of an old telegraph pole used by so many other birds-of-prey. Apart from nearby trees, it is the only real vantage point with a clear view allo round. I never thought a harrier would use it. Normally they either survey their patch from the ground or the air. Not a brilliant picture, but interesting to see the plumage displayed in this manner.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

December 15th 2017. The Rooks have started appearing in the garden again. From what we have seen they are starting to look at potential nesting sites, including those left over from the Sping. Several of these are extraordinarily durable in spite of the extreme winds we have suffered recently, seemingly remaining exactly as they were vacated. As part of this ritual, one or two old Rooks have started landing by the small bird feeding stations. Are they looking for spilt seeds or the worms and larvae that may be attracted to these? They are such bright, intelligent creatures. A marvellous addition to any garden.

Rook Corvus frugilegus

In the late afternoon I found myself driving back across the moors in the most amazing light - a most remakable susnset. I had the camera with me, set at a high ISO, but was not really hoping for any pictures in such difficult circumstances. However, chance was on my side. A Kestrel settled on the railings of a small bridge over a rhyne and I only managed to pull up almost on top of it but, miracle of miracles, the little bird stayed put in time for a number of shots.

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

Then she flew off and settled on a thornbush further down. I was allowed to approach and had a number of shots of the bird showing the most exraordinary colouring, bathed in the red of the sunset. But the show was not finished yet, she took off and hovered, still bathed in that unreal light.

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

December 9th 2017. I have just finished the jumbo task of completely re-processing my bumblebee gallery, currently 170+ images, using the modern Pixillion system for optimising jpg resolution in the sizes in use. For older pictures in particular, this has had considerable impact, showing detail not clearly visible previously - so, worth the effort I feel. Please click on Insects in flight gallery, selecting BUMBLEBEES, to see the results. I hope to carry on with this process for other groups later, but need a breather for a while - it is a lengthy and somewhat boring task. 

December 8th 2017. Coming back across the moors this late afternoon I caught a shape on a thorn-bush and found myself looking at this pretty little Kestrel, almost certainly an immature from this year because of the vagueness of its markings, particularly round the head. It is good to see increasing numbers of  these delightful little birds again.

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

December 5th 2017. I was only out for a fairly short time, but it proved one of my best photographc periods of recent times. After a blustery dog-walk I dropped into Catcott Lows, hoping to see the Hen harrier Circus aeruginosus again, but no such luck. However, from the moment of my arrival, I heard other peoples' lenses clicking away. A fine female Marsh harrier was hunting the edge of the reeds towards the back. Though distant, they produced some rapid and interesting images as I found when I looked at them on the computer.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Then some kind soul pointed out a Sparrowhawk sitting on a patch of weeds. I focussed on her and took a number of shots before she took off. Luckily I was perfectly focussed when this happened and I caught her in full flight, producing a striking picture. These birds depend on catching their prey unawares, so are most unusual to catch in the open. Their method of attack is to fly low down, then roll over a hedge to catch small birds feeding peacefully on the other side. It is virtually impossible to pre-empt this moment, it happens so fast and by its very nature without a pattern, so pictures are unusual.

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus f

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus f

On my way back home across the moors, I managed to spot a buzzard well ahead - so often I am past before I realise - sitting on a post by the side of a ditch. I stopped the car, switched off the engine, all without disturbing the bird. This beautifully-marked bird stayed for a couple of minutes, allowing me to take many close-up portraits, before flying off. The afternoon was growing dark and I was using the camera at 2500 ISO, the lens wide-open, so did not expect perfect results, but later examination confounded this. Modern cameras are amazing (Nikon D7100) 

An amazing, if short-lived, time of unexpected luck.

 

 

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo


December 3rd 2017. Driving through Tealham on a rather nasty afternoon, I came across a couple of Kestrels hovering over the open fields. One was too far off for serious work but the other came much closer when I stopped the car. Unfortunately, the camera setting was for even, mid-tones, whereas the sky was actually bright and contrasty. There was no time to dial in compensation, so the pictures looked like silhouettes on the monitor. The magic of NX2 managed to extract the best from the images, shown below - not the best of quality but fine records of that moment for which we all hope.

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

December 1st 2017. Walking and driving through the moors today lacked the sheer excitement of some of the days where ducks play the main part - their sheer numbers dominating. No, this was more a checking out of our native, permanent species and enjoying the cold, bright countryside. Recently there has been an increase in sightings of kestrels; they had been absent from the moors for much of the rest of the year. Today, I came across four different birds in a matter of minutes, three of them in the air at the same time. It reminds me of a time many years ago when they were much more common, seeing four hovering at the different corners of the moor and remarking that they looked as if they were holding up the corners of the sky, like some gigantic tablecloth.

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

Buzzards have always been my favourite birds, from my youngest days when we lived among the hills of Devon - then one of the few places where these fine birds were to be found. In Britain, we have become used to seeing them spread throughout much of the country. They are common here on the great wetlands of the Levels, yet fifty years ago they were only found in steep valleys, rolling hils and near mountains. What an extraordinary change of habitatat for a species! I was lucky enough to come across one today, on Tealham Moor, sitting quietly on a gate-post, not even moving when I drew up and stopped the car. I suspect it was this year's local bird, not yet used to too much disturbance. I have photographed immature buzzards before on similar posts. It is marvellous to just sit and watch the bird as it rests. It was moving its head for much of the time, looking round at the moorland surrounds, but stayed for several minutes before flying off. It is a real privilege to be so close to as wild a creature as this. No need to hold one's breath or keep from moving around. It all seemed so natural.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo


Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

As a complete contrast to the sizeable buzzard, this little wren sat on a fence-post, tiny and perky, apparently completely unworried by its damp, wild surrounds.

Wren Troglodytes troglodytes

It has been particularly good to see small groups of Little egrets appearing out on the moors again. They vanish for much of the summer, then reappear as the weather becomes colder. Until the banks of the ditches are cut, it is often dificult to spot them, but now they group along the shallower edges and inside the edge of the fields. They are nervous creatures, flushing off as people approach or cars stop but if you just stay where they were, sometimes they return, coming back to the shallow ditches and allowing much closer views. They appear so dead-white compared with a Great white egret Egretta garzetta. Side-by-side, the latter appears quite heavily tinted.

Little egret Egretta garzetta

 

 

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