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A local diaryi


March 2017 - wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

March 26th 2017. The last visit was so good that another Greylake outing seemed appropriate, the sun out but  the bitterly cold wind continuing. Indeed, in spite of us being well into spring, few bees and other insects have appeared in the garden - at a time when they should be at their peak. Walking along the track in the morning a Bittern was spotted feeding along one of the newly opened up ditches, with the Typha cut back for a yard or so on either side. But how wary these birds are, it slunk off into the body of the deep reed-beds immediately. I took a glancing picture, not good but a reminder of a special moment. If nothing else, it shows how this bird vanishes so quickly, the camouflage is matchless.

Bittern Botaurus stellaris                                                                                                 © robin williams

Overhead, a burst of call called attention to a couple of Curlew flying over. It is astonishing to think that these once very common birds are now counted as rarities.

Curlew Numenius arquata                                                                                                © robin williams

At the hide, my attention was drwn to a Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus perched on one of the perimeter fence-posts, too far off for my 300mm lens. It was a most beautiful birds as Chris showed me on his camera's rear screen (600mm + 2X converter). It was extraordinarily white on the neck and upper chest, muscled and in perfect condition. It passed over once or twice but mainly out of my posion. Lovely to see it though, a speciality of this place. Apart from many duck still there, the final sighting was of Black-tailed godwits, frequent visitors at this time of year.

Black-tailed godwit Limosa limosa                       © robin williams

Snipe Gallinago gallinago and Redshank Tringa totanus were notable for their near absence on this occasion. My final picture was a Cormorant which circled a couple of times and then headed off again. Although fishermen have a natural dislike of these fish-eating competitors, I find them fascinating creatures, some of the longest birds in existence since prehistoric times.

Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo                          © robin williams

March 25th 2017. A full and interesting visit to Greylake this morning. Sunny with cold wind, fortunately from the east, not blowing into the front of the hide, comfortable and enjoyable. With prevailing south-west winds, it can be one of the coldest spots I know. The most exciting moments came with a juvenile Merlin passing across the front. It is such a small bird it always appears further off. What really struck was the sheer speed of the bird, shooting over the mass of ducks, but looking minute in comparison. For the while it sat on a post over to the side, then made two or three passes over the ducks, though apparently without any action.

Merlin Falco columbarius                                      © robin williams

Merlin Falco columbarius                                      © robin williams

Numbers of Black-tailed godwits flew over periodically, some showing much of the beautiful red breeding plumage - such handsome birds.

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa                    © robin williams 

Lapwings were courting just in front, the male manoevres really close to the apparently disinterested female, the twisting and turning flight marked by the roar of tortured feathers. None of the birds were quite yet in the clear-cut colours of breeding plumage, so present moves were only the start of more elaborate flights later on.

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus                                     © robin williams

 Lapwing Vanellus vanellus                                    © robin williams

Though ducks appear to have vanished from Catcott and Westhay Moor, there was no shortage here. Wigeon, in particular, were present in large numbers, packed tightly together after the predator passed over, showing a sea of red heads as most were males.

Wigeon Anas penelope                                                                                                       © robin williams

Wigeon Anas penelope                                           © robin williams

Wigeon Anas penelope                                                                                                       © robin williams 

 Wigeon Anas penelope                                            © robin williams

March23rd 2017. Passing Westhay Moor reserve, on the road to Fenny Castle and Wells, it was impossible to ignore a sea of white on a field to the right. It has always been popular as a grazing area for Mute swans Cygnus olor, but there were more than I hever seen there before, I reckon well over 300 birds  and it could well have been more, as the white blended back into the distance. Scatterd among them were Greylag geese Anser anser partaking of the same free food. Strangely, though the geese were widely scattered, each individual fed in its own space rather than staying together as a flock.

March 21st 2017. The good forecast proved correct, apart from a fierce south-westerly wind. I had been planning a visit to Greylake and this was the opportunity at last. I reached there by 10-o-clock but even so plenty of others were already in the hide. I managed to find a good place to set up the camera and sat back to enjoy the moment. The first excitement came immediately - two cranes flew over head and pitched for a few minutes on the far side of the reserve, far-off, but towering over any ducks. They really are huge birds, dwarfing everything near them, even herons and egrets.

Common cranes Grus grus                                                                                              © robin williams

A Marsh harrier flew over the water and set everything up, including a small flight of Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa, while the excited calls of Redshanks Tringa totanus were clear among the other birds, wildly excited by it all. 

Marsh harrier f Circus aeruginosus                      © robin williams

Catcott and the moors have greatly reduced their duck numbers. They apppear to have moved over to Greylake, particularly Wigeon, still present in large numbers.

mainly Wigeon Anas penelope                              © robin williams

There were some sharp eyes in the hide. A lady called out that a Peregine was moving across in front of us, at first rather high up. These predators are a major attractions at Greylake, often around during winter and early spring, but it is always a memorable occasion when they do appear; they have an almost tangible strength of character.

Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus                       © robin williams

Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus                       © robin williams

Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus                       © robin williams

Once again, small numbers of snipe, as a well as a solitary Redshank, were feeding in front on the closest muddy bank over the rhyne.

Redshank Tringa totanus                                      © robin williams

Snipe are extraordinary birds; watching an individual feeding in the open, it only takes a moment looking aside to lose it, even though later it appears that it has not moved. The cryptic plumage and an ability to stand absolutely still, as well as using the least stem of grass as camouflage, makes them the most easily missed of all birds.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                   © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                   © robin williams

It is par for the present situation that several Great white egrets Egretta alba were also present, with numbers of Little egrets Egretta garzetta, standing out in their pure white against the carpet of darker ducks. It had indeed been a very worthwhile visit. 

March 16th 2017. Walking up the top drove on Chilton Moor, I could not but reflect on the state of our countryside - this is a rural, farming area based mainly on permanent grass, hardly somewhere where chemicals and rapacious farming practices are prevalent. Yet the only birds were a few crows, with no small birds in the hedges or on the fields. No bird-song was heard, the place was dead. On reflection, this is true for nearly everywhere. What have we done to our surrounds? When I was young, places like this teemed with life, fields were full of colour and insects smeared the windscreens of cars driving much more slowly along the roads than now. In those days, outside lights attracted clouds of moths, as could not be imagined nowadays. This is an area of traditional farming, largely without chemicals, What hope is there for our wildliife if we are affected so badly? Locally, the main changes in farming practice have been from numerous small herds of miling cows to very limited numbers of large herds, the main visual change being from milk to meat production - with loads of young bullocks in summer. The other big change has been the introduction of sheep. Many years ago, this was not possible on wetlands, because of a snail-based disease. Newly-developed chemicals removed this, now sheep are a major part of and main user of the grasslands, most of which are still permanent. None of this adds up to an explanation of why there is such a dearth of wildlife. The wealth of pictures in this diary appears to contradict this, but there there are circumstances to explain it. The pictures represent a great deal of searching on the open moors, or visits to 'hot-pot' reserves where wildfowl and others are attracted. We are better equipped now to find birds, mammals and insects, with many fine new guides and keys. Previously, resources were much less available. So we ought to find more. But everyone reports falling numbers continuing for most creatures. (Since writing this, John e-mailed me about concerning these remarks: 'One answer to the question you raised in your blog about loss of diversity in the countryside might be nitrogenation of the natural environment. This is blamed by a recent study by Plantlife which was reported in the media this week.  Although their study is concerned with botanical biodiversity it must have wider implications for animal life as well. I have certainly been shocked to find how scarce butterflies have been on my recent trips to European mountain areas where in the past I have been overwhelmed by the numbers of individuals'. It is a fact that nitrogen has long been a mainstay of farming practice all over the country - though again, much less round here.

March 13th 2017. The fine weather continues and it really feels as if spring is in the air. Sadly, this brings with it reducing numbers of ducks, as they move out for the coming summer. Catcott Lows certainly fitted this state. As the road beside it leads on eventully to Greylake, usually the jewel of all Levels locations, I decided to see whether that was also affected. Fortunately not. The place was alive with duck, a wild and delightful spectacle. Although the prevailing south-west wind was blowing, it was warm even with the hide shutters open - Greylake has the reputatation of being one of the coldest spots when winter blizzards arrive. There was something up with the ducks. They were out of control, even though there was no sign of any major predators. Every few minutes great bunches of duck, followed seconds later by others, leapt into the air and circled round and round before settling.

mainly Wigeon Anas penelope                                                                                          © robin williams

Wigeon Anas penelope                                           © robin williams

Shoveler Anas clypeata                                                                                                     © robin williams

Minutes later, or at times seconds apart, up they would go again, high into the sky. It was wildly exciting, similar to those moments on the coast, as dawn breaks, when the old marsh gunners told of their experiences. It was truly exhilarating. And my trusty 300mm flight lens proved its worth, sharp, rapid-focussing and lightweight. Someone who had been there for some hours told me that the ducks had been behaving like this for much of the time. But, eventually, they did calm down and settle on the water. My attention was then concentrated much closer. The fringe of new and old reeds on the far side of the ditch looked dead, then a slight movement caught the eye and suddenly we were looking at a few snipe moving and feeding amongst the stems.

 Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                                                                               © robin williams

 Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                    © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                                                                               © robin williams

it was fascinating seeing these cryptically-marked birds come to life, appearing in the open for a change, a golden opportunity for photography. I changed from the 300mm to the 500mm mirror lens and had a wonderful session. The feather detail was superb and the viewfinder bright in the sunlight, perfect conditions.

 Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                    © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                    © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                   © robin williams

More generally, the first of the Spring Redshank could be heard and one flew past at high speed, but did not settle. Their beautiful piping is a certain sound of Spring. It was good to see a couple of Great white egrets Egretta alba, already with the yellow bill changing to black, sign of the breeding season, towering over the duck but still lost in the vast landscape in front.

Redshank Tringa totanus                                       © robin williams

Walking back down the track to the car-park, I saw someone with lens pointed up into the sky. Above us a slow-flying pair of huge birds made their way westwards over the reserve. it was a pair of cranes, possibly moving from a visit to Slimbridge back to their rearing grounds near Burrowbridge. 

Common cranes Grus grus                                    © robin williams

March 12th 2017. A warm, sunny morning found the bumblebees emerging at last, feeding on Lungwort Pulmonaria officianalis, a totally reliable plant for early insects, with red and blue flowers. As far as I could see, they were all Bombus hortorum, one of the most colourful of bumblebees.

Bumblebee Bombus hortorum                              © robin williams

March 11th 2017. Another bright morning, though it did not last the whole day. It was remarkable for the sheer numbers of Little egrets  out on Tealham Moor. It is always difficult to estimate numbers when they are scattered round both near and far, many just dots in the distance, but there must have been more than a couple of dozen. Later in the afternoon, they had all vanished. Earlier, it was interesting to see our resident Great white egret feeding on one of the splashy fields by Rattling Bow bridge, with several Little egrets close-by, showing the difference in size. The part-wet state of this particular field seems the perfect feeding ground got these beautiful birds.

Great white  Egretta alba & Little egret E. garzetta © robin williams

Great white egret  Egretta alba                                                                                      © robin williams

March 10th 2017. The morning walk was supposed to be quick and unexciting, we were going out later, but Maddie needed the exercise. Howevr, it turned out otherwise. Sunny, but windy down at the bottom of Jack's drove, it was a good quick walk, but a look at a small herd of Mute swans brought me up with a start. Among the various shades of white, a dark shape merited a closer look. Slightly smaller than the mutes, the Australian Black swan looked totally foreign in our green field. A friend of mine had seen a Black swan on Catcott Moor, while I watched one on Mark Moor a few years ago. Presumably all sightings are of the same bird, almost certainly a captive escapee. It looked quite comfortable among its fellows. It would be good to see others of its kind round here, though unlikely.

Black & Mute swans Cygnus atratus & olor        © robin williams

On the way back, a finely-marked buzzard posed on a gate-post and I had time for three pictures before a car sent me on my way. It is some while since I have seen one of these splendid birds close-by.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo                             © robin williams

Common buzzard Buteo buteo                             © robin williams

Later, driving across the moors on the way to Weston, there was a brief glimpse of a heavily-built female Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus flying over the road and another quick view of what might well be the same bird on our way back from the afternoon out.

March 9th 2017. The Rook population is building in the garden. Two trees are occupied now, two nests to each tree. Each nest seems to be attended by a hord of relatives calling loudly and clearly offering advice. Unexpectedly, today is remarakably warm, 15°. Two or three days ago the thermometer dropped to 4° - difficult to keep up with the appropriate clothing and heating. Little wind, masses of sunshine, Ham Wall seemed the ideal destination in the afternoon, when the light direction is favourable for photography. I made my way out to the island hide, expecting to see numbers of birds, but the waters were largely empty except for a few Tufted ducks Aythya fuligula and Coots. A solitary Bittern Botaurus stellaris boomed a few times but that was it, none were seen during the visit, which was surprising considering the fine weather and season. Colours were marvellous, the reeds brilliant against the blue sky and reflected blue on the water. The church on top of Glastonbury Tor was framed in the distance, a focal point for the whole reserve. Walking back from the hide, I sat down on a bench oppposite a gap in the screening reeds edging the path. A solitary Coot came close and started diving right in front. It brought up a bunch of weed from below and started picking at it, dropping it back in and bringing it up again and again. It was difficult to see whether it was picking out food particles, small creatures or simply readying the vegetation for nest building.

Coot Fulica atra                                                       © robin williams

Coot Fulica atra                                                       © robin williams

A couple of Ravens Corvus corax called and called high above, which drew the eye to a couple of dots moving in and out of a patch of cloud even further up. they were Common buzzards Buteo buteo, one dark and the other with an almost white head, circling on an invisible thermal. Back at the first pair of blinds, there was a terrible racket going on. It turned out to be an incredibly tame Magpie flitting in and out of some low trees. Why it tolerated me a few yards away I cannot imagine. There was no sign of a mate nearby, or anything else that might have affected it. It is so unusual to get anywhere near this bird.

Magpie Pica pica                                                     © robin williams

Magpie Pica pica                                                     © robin williams

Out on the water, a pair of Gadwall took off in a flurry of spray and a Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo landed with all its feathers standing out like an electrified mop. They are so sleek in open flight but landing seems to demand help from every feather as a brake.

Gadwall Anas strepera                                           © robin williams

March 4th 2017. A hundred more pictures have been added to Birds in Flight Gallery, covering 2016. A second Rook's nest has appeared in the same Ash tree.

March 2nd 2017. Out at Catcott again, checking further on the value of the Tamron reflex lens. Once again it performed most satisfactorily, though the light was not on my side. It is sharp, but great care has to be taken with focussing. The arrows and focus-spot aids in Nikon cameras are a great help and very accurate. For stationary objects, ducks paused or seated birds, the short Kirk or Gitzo tripods sat on the hide shelves make this relatively simple, though you have to concentrate hard. Depth of field is small but obvious and good enough for most birds. In the better moments, against clear skies, hand-held flight shots are quite possible but the percentages misses are higher than with a modern autofocus lens. I had been worried about whether the viewfinder would be bright enough in poorer conditions but the Tamron worked well, unlike a modern reflex lens which became almost impossible in those conditions. I understand the secret lies in special mirror coating on the Tamron but whatever, it is far more usable than I had expected on these surrounds. With water, rushes, grass and reeds, the famous out-of-focus doughnuts have not proved a problem. Most satisfactory, sums up the verdict, based also on lighness and minimal size.


Common shoveler Anas clypeata m                   © robin williams

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m                   © robin williams

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m                   © robin williams

Great white egret  Egretta alba                          © robin williams

March 1st 2017. Hardly the start of spring today, with rain and high winds forecast. After exploring their two old nests from last year, the rooks Corvus frugilegus appear to have given up and built a new one in the large old Ash tree Fraxinus excelsior next to the barn. They are such welcome birds in the garden, active, cheerful and voluble. It would be good if more took up the offer of empty trees and little disturbance. 


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