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March 2018 wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

March 26th 2018. The foul weather we have been getting paled sufficiently to take Maddie for a walk near Catcott. It was too good an opportunity to waste so a visit to the Lows hide was indicated afterwards. Duck numbers were much reduced and, in spite of almost continuous rain over recent days, the water levels had fallen also, leaving areas of plashy grasses, favoured by many water birds. Many duck must already be on their way towards their summer breeding grounds, as we are well into Spring, though you would not think it. The past month has seen little let up in wet weather and strong, freezing winds. Insects apear to have given up almost completely, with many never starting. The ducks are almost all Wigeon, usually the first and last of winter. I shall be sorry to see them vanish completely but do look forward to a proper Spring when perhaps we can think again about photographing insects. As the photographs indicate, it was true winter weather, old-fashioned wildfowl weather that the old coastal wildfowlers would have known, though they would be wrapped in layers of clothing out in the open salt marsh, where we are in a sheltered hide. High ISO pictures demonstrate how far camera technology has developed in capturing these moments on a dull, blustery day

Wigeon Anas penelope - a winter view

Herons were enjoying ideal conditions - they always love the splashy, shallow areas where they seem to find their prey at just the right depth. They fly in, apparently slowly, but those wide wings cover the ground at a surprising rate. Their colouring varies by season but also with the changes in light. At times they are a definite blue or even mauve-tinted at certain angles. The adults are smart in black and grey at this time of year but the year's youngsters scruffy and largely untidy grey. The cold may have hit them, or perhaps they like the poor conditions as much as we do? There are few of them around and the heronry on Tadham Moor has little life to be seen; nomally it should be bustling by this time. 

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

March 25th 2018. I was astonished as well as delighted to hear a Curlew Numenius arquata calling on Tadham Moor this morning. It must be far more than twenty years since it was heard here. During this period, this previously common bird has become worryingly unusual throughout the country. When we first arrived here, Curlew were breeding on the moors. I still have some black and white photos of the young on a nest scrape close to the North Drain. A friendly farmer had been watching progress from egg to babies and took me to see several stages of their development. If I can find the negatives I will try and put in a picture from then.

March 23rd 2018. Romey called me into the kitchen this afternoon to see a lovely little male Sparrowhawk sitting in the shallows of the pond. In the end I had much better view from the shower room upstairs, looking down on the bird. I managed to open the window without disturbing him, then took a whole series of pictures of him bathing and cleaning himself. Eventually he flew straight out of the garden without seeking out any of our resident population.

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m

March 20th 2018. Chris and I met at the North Hide on Westhay Moor. Although it was part sunny, they proved to be difficult conditions for photography, with rapidly-changing backgrounds in the sky, from blue to harshest white and thunder black. Nevertheless we had a most enjoyable afternoon. I learned a deal more about setting the camera for such conditions. In altering from insect use to bird photography I found that I had left exposure set as 'matrix', the perfect setting for bright sunshine and even blue sky but not for these changing conditions. It has now been reset to 'centre-weighted' with the minimum central circle - 4mm. This means that the majority of exposure is set on that circle, which should coincide with the single central point used for focussing. To start with, Great crested grebes were the main attraction. A couple of pairs were present, one of which was on a rather distant nest right in front, though part-hidden by reeds. Because of this, there was an amount of agression which gave us some amusement.

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

As seems to happen, the harriers arrived rather later. We had a splendid display by a really well marked male which flew all round, though never as close as I would have hoped.


Marsh harrierCircus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrierCircus aeruginosus m

March 19th 2018. Coming back across the moors I took this shot of the remaining snow on Mendip.

South side of Mendip from the Levels

March 16th 2018. I made an afternoon visit to the North hide on Westhay Moor NNR, having heard that harriers were very active in the area. It was a lovely sunlit view from the upper storey of the hide. There was only one other person there, so there was plenty of room to choose a good position. The first half of the visit was devoted to ducks, of which there were good numbers. Tufted ducks were the most obvious, with their lovely black and white plumage. It was particularly good when they swam closer and were virtually underneath the shutters eventually. It gave some unusual views and brought out a beautiful green metallic sheen on the drakes' heads. Usually this sheen is purple, so possibly the change is due to the angle of view.

Tufted drake Aythya fuligula

Tufted ducks Aythya fuligula

Tufted ducks Aythya fuligula

The other fairly numerous species was Gadwall. The drake is such a beautiful, understated bird, full of delicate tracings which appear to emerge as the bird comes closer. The female is also beautuful, a more refined version of a Mallard duck Anas platyrhynchos. They appear to be equable creatures, getting on with each other, not continually quarreling like the Mallard.

Gadwall Anas strepera

Later on, a distant, high-flying shape resolved into the first of the harriers, soon there were three, or perhaps four - we were never quite sure about that, as one would disappear to the side and another appear. Was it the same bird or another? My companion told me that there were two pairs courting and nesting among the visible reeds, so we could have seen the four birds. All were Marsh harriers, the first ones females, unusual in keeping high in the sky, not coursing low down over the reeds as they do normally, so not hunting for food.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

The latter half of our 'harrier' time was given over to male birds. I was pleased to see and photograph these, as the majority of Marsh harriers seen here and elsewhere this winter have all been females.

Marsh harrier Circus aerugunosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

March 13th 2018. Yesterday we had our first brief glimpse of a bumblebee. This afternoon the place is buzzing with them. Bombus terrestris, B. lucorum and B. lapidarius have all appeared, driven by the warm, mainly windless sunshine cheering us all up. Perhaps spring is now on its way?.

March 7th 2018. Driving over the moors this morning, and on my return later in the day, I met up with the same buzzard. Their plumage varies so much the one from another that it is often easy to identify an individual, This one is still young, from the last year's brood and, as I have noted in other years, has not yet taken on the wariness that comes with age. I pulled in to a gate to let someone past and found myself looking at a buzzard on a post. I switched off, usually enough to drive he bird away, and it stayed looking directly at me. I had to get on after taking a few shots but it remained even when my noisy diesel started up.

Common buzard Buteo buteo

Exactly the same took place on my return, on a nearby post.

Common buzard Buteo buteo

I was off to join up with Chris at Steart Marshes for another go at the shore birds before tide heights dropped down too far. We met up and moved on to the limited parking above the fence running down into the sea, which we then followed down and set up on the edge where the bare mud changes into raised clods. We waited and waited, nothing appeared on the sunlit waters - still looking dark and glomy because of the high silt content in the water. The tide began to drop and we started putting away the cameras but just as Chris had filled his rucksack with camera bits, the first flight of Dunlin streamed across us in front of us. The same little drama repeated a couple more times before the regular movement of waders persuaded us that it was worth setting up permanently and enjoying what we had come to see.

Dunlin calidris alpina

We had a marvellous time. There was quite strong wind so in one direction the birds shot past a really high speed. It took a deal of concentration to spot the flights and ready yourself before they were almost past. At first, the flocks were all Dunlin, distiguished by a black line along the centre of the white tail and white underwings.

 

Dunlin calidris alpina

Dunlin calidris alpina

Dunlin calidris alpina

 

Dunlin calidris alpina 

Later, some of the larger flights consisted entirely of Knot, a somewhat larger and plumper wader. Though with nothing to measure for relative sizes, they appear remarkably similar as they whizz past. Knot have a pale grey-white rump and tail, without the black line of the Dunlin, while the wings are grey beneath, rather than shining white.

Knot Calidris canutus

Knot Calidris canutus

Knot calidris canutus

Knot Calidris canutus, one of the larger flocks

There were a few Curlew Numenius arquata flying independently, while periodically Shelduck Tadorna tadorna appeared, usually in pairs flying over the sea.

March 1st 2018. Officially it is the first day of spring, but nobody told the weather. Most of the country is under snow, some of it quite deep, while the West Country has been given the threat of a 'Code Red' weather warning. We expect very strong winds and bad snow for the next 48 hours or so. It is a dark, gloomy day and the birds are badly affected by the cold -1º but with a wind chill estimated to subtract another 10° from that. It is not just setimentality that says they are badly affected. You can see it from the numbers and the way they behave. The moors are frozen solid, so various inhabitants have flown up to us. Redwings, rarely seen here, are rootling in the leaves and periodically coming right up to the windows of my study.

Redwing Turdus iliacus

Redwing Turdus iliacus

Redwing Turdus iliacus

Redwing Turdus iliacus

Redwings Turdus iliacus

Blackbirds hunker down on the grass, looking like rounded black tents. Dozens of Chaffinches, Goldfinches and lesser numbers of Greenfinches and House sparrows scrape away on the grass looking for fallen grains and queue up for the feeders which have had to be filled several times during the day. For the first time this year, Starlings have joined in with parties of six or seven eating as fast as they are able. A Bullfinch was glimpsed, rarely seen here. Blue and Great tits, with Long-tailed tits, congregate on the feeders or the fat-balls, though curiously this latter is less popular today. Mouse-like Hedge sparrows join with Robins in walking round at your feet when filling the containers. While it is nice to see this congregation of birds, it is sad to think of the reason, as the shock of changing temperature and frozen ground strikes them. Even the Daffodils have been hit, tumbled down onto the ground. As the time of the Red warning came, 3pm, the snow increased in intensity, though the wind did not appear as strong as yesterday. Not being office bound, with stocks of food, our main worry is possible power cuts, as our house depends on electricity. After years of mainly warm winters, it teaches a salutary lesson when the cold and wind, with freezing rain threatened, finally hits - many years ago this was a more normal situation.


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