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December 2018  wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

December 31st 2018. I spent a brief period at Catcott Lows, the final visit for the year. The forecast had been for an hour or two of intermittent sunshine after much heavy overcast, warmer and virtually windless - good conditions. Unfortunately there was no sign of that sun. I stayed for a while and proved once again the sheer versatility of the new Nikon 7200 and the Sigma 100-400mm lens. The Lapwings filling the nearby islands were portrayed in far greater sharpness and detail than I had expected, with the lens wide open and the camera set at 3200 ISO. The images were sharp, showing great detail, but there was a deal of mushy grain shown on the computer. The NX2 program got rid of a lot of this and the results are quite acceptable, even if not prize-winning.

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

From the sounds coming from around, it became apparent there were numbers of geese in the area . At first it seemed they were all Canada geese, then a few Greylag geese appeared.

Greylag goose Anser anser; Canada goose Branta canadensis

On the way home I came across a sight I had despaired of seeing on Tealham Moor again. At first I thought the flocks were Starlings Sturnus vulgaris gathering for their evening flight, but closer observation showed they were Lapwings, behaving just like Starlings in their elaborate flight patterns, twisting and turning, forming pictures in the sky. There were many many hundreds of them, far more than have been seen in recent years, though not as much as the multi-thousands we used to see on the moors years ago. How marvellous if their numbers really are on the increase, perhaps it will be followed by their return to breeding in the area.

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, Tealham Moor

December 29th 2018. I spent a couple of hours and more down at Greylake today, hoping to see one of the larger gatherings of duck in the area and, perhaps, the birds of prey that so often go with this. In fact, very little  happened. The main interest was the duck horde, but I had a fascinating time, as became obvious when I looked at the nearly 300 pictures on the computer. As usual, these were rapidly reduced to a much more handy number. It was time to look more closely at the commoner birds in front; to photograph shapes, colours and behaviour, rather than hoping for rarities.

Shoveler Anas clypeata; courting party

Wigeon Anas penelope; exploding into flight

Wigeon Anas penelope

Common teal Anas crecca f

Common teal Anas crecca f

Common teal Anas crecca m

Common teal Anas crecca m

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago; Common teal Anas crecca

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago; Common teal Anas crecca

There was a dramatic moment as I drove into the car park. I noticed someone peering through his telescope at the field opposite the entrance. He called me over to have a look. There it was, distant but quite clear, a fine male Merlin Falco columbarius, tiny and trim. He was too far off for my camera, but it was a great sighting of a far-from-common predator. I was impressed with my fellow enthusiast who hailed from Glastonbury and travelled by bus with all his heavy equipment. He doesn't drive. It was clear that this had not held back his outings. The visit ended with another uplifting moment when someone pointed out three or four Black-tailed godwits feeding, pale and ghost-like, among a bunch of ducks.

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa; Wigeon Anas penelope

On the way home I briefly stopped off at Catcott Lows, masses of Wigeon with a few other duck species, but the light was getting even worse, so home won out, after a fascinating outing.

Wigeon Anas penelope

December 22nd 2018. I had a most enjoyable visit to Ham Wall, arriving there before lunch, a pasty eaten as I walked. For various reasons I had not been out for a good long walk for a number of days, so that was my main target, though carrying the long lens 'just in case'. Almost immediately we came across a Great white egret part-hidden in a gloomy patch alongside the main rhyne. Nowadays, you are quite unlucky if you do not see one of these magnificent birds here.

Great white egret Egretta alba

Being so close to Christmas, the car-park was nearly empty, though later in the afternoon people were gathering for the nightly Starling Sturnus vulgaris display. For much of the walk to the far Avalon Hide, it was lightly overcast with a reasonable breeze. Overhead, the sky was blue, but the sunlight fell on nearby Mendip, not the rest of the moor. On the final part of the walk, just before the hide, I noticed something moving on the path ahead. She was a fine female Reed bunting, completely unaware of my presence at first, ignoring me completely when only a few feet ahead. Was she starving, desperate? She did not look like that, plump and active. Had she just landed after a long migratory flight? Whatever, it was a great opportunity to study this handsome little bird.

Reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus f

The hide was quite busy but I found a well-placed window and settled down. There were plenty of duck, more than on the last occasion. Shoveler Anas clypeata were very active, already busy in the world of courtship, several males taking off, low down, settling almost immediately. Later, they wiil be found chasing a female, circling several times before landing.  Numbers of Mallard A. platyrhynchos, Teal A. crecca and Wigeon completed the count.

Wigeon Anas penelope

I met a very pleasant couple from South Wales who mentioned that they had been watching Mallard mating only a few days ago - either very late or extremely early? After a while, a couple of Marsh harriers appeared, too far for photography. One favourite area was just in front of a large farmhouse, the birds sailing over the yard and garden as well as the surrounding reeds. Eventually, one female flew closer to the watchers and we were treated to some fine aerobatics as she dropped down, or shot up after an unsuccessful foray. However often they are watched, the magic remains.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

I never tire of watching and photographing birds in the course of their working day. This perhaps explains the many different pictures that occur in these pages. The hope remains that you have spotted some fresh behaviour or that the pictures are that much better than the last. Many may not be technically worthwhile, but they show aspects of behaviour otherwise unrecorded by me. The final picture is of one of the many Mute swans that live on the moords in winter, often hundreds of them. They may be common, but they only know how to be elegant.

Mute swan Cygnus olor

December 14th 2018. Somewhat grey overcast for much of the afternoon. I spent it walking Westhay Moor fom a direction I do not take normally. I parked on the main carpark on Daggs Lane drove, then walked up past the entrance to the miain part of the reserve, to the Island Hide only 50 yards or so on the right. I cannot remember ever visiting this before, so was curious as to what I would find. You walk along a walkway raised on piles above the water, surrounded by thick reeds (said to be the main haunt of Bearded tits Panurus biarmicus, though none were present today) to a well-made, piled, structure looking out over open water. On each side the reeds crowd in, though only partially concealing Daggs Lane. While I was there, very little was to be seen other than a pair or so of Mallard Anas platyrhynchos. I suspect this may be due to the propinquity of that main path. It is a most attractive view in front, but there was nothing to see after a long period of waiting. From there, back to the main reception hide, overlooking further waters, again empty of life. By now it was noticably darkening, but decided for a last try at visiting the tower hide nearby. Here I did have some luck after a long wait in which the light was gradually sucked out. A fine adult male Marsh harrier flew across and disappeared. A couple of times he reappeared, the light showing up the grey and darker brown plumage well. I thought it unlikely that much of a picture would be made of it, especially with the lens wide open, using ISO 3200, but the results were better than I dared hope. Such a handsome bird.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

On the way home, close to the carpark, a large bird was perched on an old bale of silage. I stopped the engine and car, and was able to take a dozen or so pictures without apparently disturbing the buzzard. It appeared quite unfazed by my presence, and the clicking of the shutter. The picture shows the strange state of plumage. Buzzards vary considerably but this one was unique, patched with white among its feathers, handsome. I would have stayed longer if another car had not come along.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

The quality of the picture is amazing considering ISO 3200, lens wide-open and very slow shutter speed of 1/60th second (with 400mm). The picture on the monitor was several times brighter than the actual scene.

December 13th 2018. It was intensely cold but bright this morning. As the wind would not be blowing straight into the front of the hide at Greylake, so it seemed a good time for a visit. The main hide was packed full of people, so I went up to the tower platform beside it - empty. Eventually I was joined by Pete Hobbs from Shepton Mallet who, although relatively new to the area, clearly knew it well. There was plenty of life out there, but it all looked quite different from that angle. At first I thought it was the more oblque angle, but then realised that there was a great deal more water about. The lawn in front of the main hide had been reduced to a long thin strip, while new pools and runnels had appeared all  over the area. The ducks were there but were settled, silhouetted in lines along the length.

Shoveler Anas clypeata, Wigeon A. penelope, Teal A. crecca, Gadwall A. strepera

Shoveler Anas clypeata, Wigeon A. penelope, Teal A. crecca, Gadwall A. strepera, Snipe Gallinago gallinago

It has been such a joy to see so many Lapwings on the moors in recent weeks, though still nowhere near the numbers of years past, but a great improvement on recent years. There were numbers here at Greylake today, and their colouring is strengthening all the while, reaching towards the true glory of full breeding plumage.

Lapwing  Vanellus vanellus

Lapwing  Vanellus vanellus

Lapwing  Vanellus vanellus

December 12th 2018. Although the camera makes the pictures look bright, in fact it was a rough time when I visited Catcott once again. The brief window in the weather did not last long, the winter-dark moving in even earlier, killing the colours in the birds. The place was packed with bird-watchers, all hoping for something interesting in the spells of sunlight. The highlight for many was the discovery of a male Pintail emerging from the middle of a batch of duck on one of the islands. He was in full plumage, as elegant as ever.

Pintail Anas acuta m, Wigeon A. penelope

Pintail Anas acuta m, Wigeon A. penelope

Pintail Anas acuta m, Wigeon A. penelope 

Shutters clicked incessantly, though not always succesfully, as when Andrew's newly-mended Nikon 400mm lens would not focus consistently, to his consternation. However, this short, late visit proved a success in spite of everything.

December 10th 2018. Catcott Lows again attracted my attention, as it did with other interested watchers. The new pond has largely subsumed into the general flooding over much of the area, but two or three islands stand proud of the surface and it has undoubtedly brought in larger numbers of birds - hence the people. It was onkly a quick visit, but the highlight was a female Hen harrier patrolling over the far edge of grass and reed. It is so good to see this species, as our breeding population has suffered such losses. Nothing seems to stop the grouse-shooting gamekeepers destroying nests and young, illegal as it is. We are fortunate in seeing migrating birds passing through during our colder months. My picture is definitely just a record, not a very good photograph.

Hen harrier Circus cyanea f

While the majority of duck are Wigeon Anas penelope, it is good to see increasing numbers of Shoveler. The males are still a little patchy in their colouring but the females are well worth a look, neat and tidy, beautifully marked.

Shoveler Anas acuta f

Shoveler Anas acuta f

The final event was a Great white egret flying in, huge against the duck, settling for a spell of quiet fishing on its own, a fitting end to the visit.

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

December 7th 2018. We decided on another visit to Ham Wall when there was a welcome break forecast for lunch and after. It was very windy, surprisingly so, as it had beens almost still in the garden. We left to eat early at Sweet's excellent café on the edge of Tadham Moor, much loved by cyclists and serving really good food. During lunch a huge black cloud came over and it pelted down, looking as if it would never stop, but by the end it cleared to a rich blue sky, the countryside washed clean, with perfect visibility, so we decided to carry on after all. It was much windier down on the reserve, but we soon warmed up with the walk down the main track and then south to the Tor View Hide - virtually an island within the reeds, surrounded by water. It was not long before were were entertained by a couple of harriers quartering the reeds, though not as close as I had hoped. They wavered along not far above the vegetation, the wind catching them but causing little unstability, their wings and tails adjusting to compensate instantaneously. They are always so enjoyable to watch.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

On this occasion they dropped down several times but reappeared rapidly, perhaps only a small creature to whet their hunger. Numbers of ducks increased over the afternoon, particularly Mallard, followed by Gadwall, a duck which used to be so uncommon, but is found in many places in growing numbers.

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

Gadwall Anas strepera m

A Grey heron Ardea cinerea, Little egret Egretta garzetta and Great white egret Egretta alba sat tucked into the reeds, close together, clearly keeping out of the cutting wind. Eventually, wind-chill and another black cloud in the distance, forced us out and on our way home, but we had had a most enjoyable afternoon. So often, that particular hide seems to be surrounded by empty water. It was good to see so much going on.

December 3rd 2018. Mixed weather continues and you have to take your chances when you can. I spent one such break at Catcott Lows, towards the end of the afternoon, leaving only when the sky coloured up. On the way back, I noticed a wet field on Catcott Heath, beyond the main drain, with numbers of Canada geese grazing away as if they had not seen wet grass before. They are such elegant birds.

Canada geese Branta canadensis1-

It is soporific sitting in the hide, Wigeon whistling all round. It is all too easy to find yourself dropping off, unless something catches the eye.

Wigeon Anas penelope

Apart from the duck, the main attractions were the many lapwings. The sounds of their gatherings drowning out the Wigeon at times. They are such restless creatures, lifting off and circling wildly for no apparent reason. After years of seeing far too few of these beautiful waders, it is good to look out on goodly numbers once again, not just here, but at Greylake also. One of the islands in front proved popular wih these beautiful waders, filling up immedeatly when one of their 'frights' was over. It was most enjoyable, if at times frustrating, trying to catch the right moments as they flew in to land.

Lapwings Vanellus vanellus

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

Lapwings Vanellus vanellus

The final spectacle came when Wigeon started taking off. circling restlessly until they were all in the sky, then moving off away from the reeds and water, perhaps over to Canada Lake, silhouetted against the evening glow.

Wigeon Anas penelope

December 1st 2018. We went for a walk at Ham Wall. Although I had the camera, it was sufficiently overcast in the afternoon to feel that it would just be a walk - stretching our legs and getting some fresh air. It turned out to be one of the most memorable of times. The occasional harrier appeared in the distance, as we sat in the island hide set among the reeds and open water. Both male and female were seen, the birds gradually losing their colouring and detail as the day moved on.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus, hunting in the late light

Then we found ourselves witin an amazing, magical world, as little parties of Starlings started to pour in from one direction and another.

Starlings Sturnus vulgaris, the roar of wings was deafening

They gradually built up, as we knew they would, into huge flocks of thousands, then more. Thousands upon thousands swirled and twisted, tossed up into the sky, then started to descend, the result looking like water pouring from the spout of a can.

Starlings Sturnus vulgaris

Starlings Sturnus vulgaris, whirling down into the reeds

They were landing really close to us and the noise was overwhelming. This looked as though it might be the end but other streams of birds appeared and landed on the opposite side to were we were sitting. The process was repeated, with huge numbers of the birds appearing and joining the new settling area. Fantastic.


Starlings Sturnus vulgaris, like a blizzard in the sky

Starlings Sturnus vulgaris and Glastonbury Tor

Everyone who saw this speactacle was equally overcome with the sheer excitement. We had heard there were supposed to be over a million birds in the area. It appeared to live up to this estimate - though how on earth do people count such an astonishing gathering?


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