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November 2018  wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

November 30th 2018. Over the last day and night there have been really stormy conditions, with winds of over 50 mph. They screamed away and the trees bent in alarming fashion. Fortunately we were not damaged at home, though there was a short intermittent power-failure, quickly brought back on line. This morning was the very opposite, the wind just the faintest breeze, sunshine and reasonably warm. I reached Greylake at around 11am to find that the usual chill breeze was coming in from the south-west through the open shutters, though not enough for too many worries, nor did it appear to affect the birds. There were masses of Wigeon and Teal on the lawn in front, packed tight, though few on the pond. Almost immediately, a Marsh harrier appeared, working her way up from the very back until she started a major panic in front, though never comng really close.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

A Kestrel Falco tinnunculus caused another, lesser eruption, while the usual Buzzard Buteo buteo sat solidly on one of the boundary fence-posts as it has in both of my recent visits, digesting. No other predators were seen while there, though a Peregrine Falco peregrinus had been reported earlier. I was following the harrier through the eye-piece of the camera when the view was completely blotted out by a storm of duck taking off - very spectacular.

Wigeon Anas penelope

A white dot appeared right off to the margins of sight and gradually resolved as a Great white egret slowly flew on towards us, eventually passing over the hide. I had some of the finest views of this superb bird that I had ever seen. With wings outstretched, it looked enormously wide. We are so fortunate this splendid species decided our area was just right for breeding.

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

November 26th 2018. It seemed appropriate for another trip to Greylake; the morning was fine and the wind not too sharp - Greylake is famous for its arctic blasts from the south and west. Although the car park was quite busy, no one visited the hide until I was packing up to leave. In front, the scene was marvellous, plenty of water in runnels and streaks across the grassland, the sun shining and the sky mostly blue and open. Yet there had been a change since my last visit. The numbers of ducks out on the peninsular lawn were much reduced, while most were now Wigeon; Snipe were there, but visible only in tiny numbers.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

These were replaced by many Lapwings, their calls echoing continually, every so often all taking off and circling, with no obvious cause.

Lapwings Vanellus vanellus

Golden plover were the other numerous waders, hundreds and hundreds of them, well-hidden on the ground, but bursting up into the air and circling high and low. Little parties of these plover were constantly lifting off and dashing past at high speed. Very spectacular. As the light struck their silhouetted, dark bodies, they almost vanished against the sky, momentarily re-appearing as palest shadows.

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria

A Marsh harrier appeared and re-appeared several times, keeping well away from where I sat. At first her sighting prompted numbers of distant duck to erupt but, eventually, the strangest sight was that of the harrier quartering the reeds really close to the duck, without apparently disturbing them. Perhaps the duck realised that the predator's search on this occasion was for small mammals, not waterfowl ?

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Wigeon Anas penelope

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

I enjoyed a splendid, peaceful morning, but eventually the cold seeped in and it was time for home. By then it was clouding over, the colouring reduced to more normal, greyer tones.

November 25th 2018. Although it was a really overcast day, we decided to visit Catcott Lows and see how the winter-influx of ducks was coming on. Another reason, however, was to carry out a practical test. I wanted to find how good the D7200 was in poor conditions, operating at settings beyond what I have experienced before. The other day, 1600 ISO proved no problem whatsoever; this time it needed 3500 ISO to suit the light. All the pictures shown here were taken at that setting. I am amazed at how effective high ISO has proved under these conditions. All the pictures have been processed without using noise-reduction. It is truly astonishing, making the majority of days as possible for useable photography. There were masses of Wigeon, every few days brings more. It is so good to hear the whistles of the males and the low grumbling calls of the females. Winter is well on its way, not popular with everyone, but a magic time for the bird-watcher. The duck were restless, with a few leading a great tail of the rest on to the grass, where they grazed feverishly. It did not last long before they all lifted off and flew back to the water, landing in columns of spray, never flying more than a foot or so in the air.

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

The difference between this restlessness and more serious behaviour was well illustrated when a Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus flew over. Then, the ducks leapt straight up, and circled and circled before landing, minutes later.

Wigeon Anas penelope

November 22nd 2018. It wasn't a bad day and it came to me that Greylake might have come to life by this time. It is one of the first places where the ducks congregate in numbers in the later part of the year. A problem is that this period is allocated for essential maintenance, so there may be much disturbance from people with chainsaws, diggers and other machinery. Fortunately I had chosen right. It was totally peaceful for much of the time I was there, on my own. The hide looks over a rhyne, with a pond to the right and a great lawn, much loved by ducks, stretching out in a wide peninsular in front. Although there was not much life on the pond, the rest was alive with duck, mainly Teal, with a few Wigeon and many Mallard among them.

Common teal Anas crecca f

Common teal Anas crecca

But the first thing that caught my eye was a flight of Golden plover, sharp-winged and elegant, passing in front at high speed. There were much larger numbers right at the back, almost out of sight.

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria

A feature of the place has always been the number of snipe, particularly in the reedy area just in front. Today was no disappointment. At first I could see none, then I got my eye in and found their shapes moving among the grass clumps, gradually working their way closer. I have never met any bird watcher who does not react positively to snipe. Perhaps it is because when they stop moving, they immediately vanish from sight, causing much frustration? Or perhaps it is just their lovely cryptic colouring?

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

A cloud of duck erupting in the distance indicated a male Marsh harrier methodically quartering the reeds, the pond and surrounding grasslands. Colouring was particularly fine in the partial sunlight, the harrier matching this.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

As always, the hide was really chilly, eventually I felt the need to warm up again and decided to go home via Catcott Lows. Here there was a completely different population of ducks, almost entirely Wigeon, who have always loved the water there. The numbers are building up well, with the sheer volume of whistles bearing this out. For the first time, the birds were grazing on this side of the pond, right up to the hide.

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

They are a nervous lot, grazing happily, then all streaming back into the water before once again leading back up the grass. This occurs time and again, the duck behaving like a flock of sheep, keeping tightly together.

Wigeon Anas penelope

Every so often this happy scene was disturbed by some unseen predator, or even a completly harmless other species, passing overhead. Then they all take off, flying low down over the water, landing almost immediately, without any circling.

Wigeon Anas penelope

On my way home, coming up to the village of Burtle, I spotted a Kestrel hovering to the side of the road. I was able to pull in and watch from a reasonable distance. I assume it was a young bird, though descriptions read elsewhere do not confirm this. The difference is that the wing-tips on 'my' bird are not black, but carry on the colouring of the remainder of the wing. I have noticed with other species that young predaors vary more widely than the experts record in their books - maybe just a lack of space.

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

November 21st 2018. I thought I had had a rather disappointing walk along the length of Westhay Moor NNR, until I looked at the pictures I had taken. The day was superb, continuous sunshine in a blue sky, the wind enough to chill, but not too much. This marvellous wetland looked enchanting in the sharp autumn light. How much longer will this spell of gorgeous weather continue?

wetland, Westhay Moor NNR

By the end of the drove, just before reaching the North hide, there were several Great white egrets fishing, close to a Grey heron who was standing there like an unmoving statue.

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

November 18th 2018. Yet another perfect, blue-skied, sunny day. Romey and I decided on a good walk on Ham Wall, going as far as the Avalon hide. That part turned out to be rather a damp squib, with little other than a few Mallard Anas playrhynchos to be seen, though it looked superb. Walking back, we came across the same very tame Grey heron we had seen before, when crossing the bridge over the main rhyne. It allows people within feet of it and seems little concerned by them. I do wander if it has a damaged wing and is unable to fly, though it seems in general good health?

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

As  time was getting on we decided to stay by the main platform and have a look at the Starling invasion. The RSPB representative said they were only expecting 50,000 birds at this time, rather than the millions expected later in the year, but the evening was so perfect it seemed a shame not to see the spectacle. It was delayed until after 4-30 but eventually impressive, though the birds did not perform their twisting and twirling manoevres in the sky.

Starlings Sturnus vulgaris

November 17th 2018. It was a glorious, sunny, near-windless day, following on a spell of the superb autumnal weather we have been enjoying recently. A walk along the glowing reeds and sparkling water at Westhay NNR seemed perfect. While the view out of the front was amazing, the North hide remained empty while I was there,  It was disappointing to find nothing on the water, or in sight, except for the Cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo that live on some dead trees way off to the back and right.

Autumn, Westhay Moor NNR

It was all so beautiful that the lack of birds was scarcely noticed, but patience was to be rewarded in the end. My eye caught a shadow out of the corner of my eye, resolving into a colourful male Marsh harrier which I photographed on his way over to the background. What a treat!

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

The whole show concluded with some Mallard dropping in as the evening light coloured the scene. Last of all came a trio of Gadwall.

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

Gadwall Anas strepera

November 13th 2018. What could have been an inauspicious day, turned out to be far from that, even though the start proved the former. I thought Chris was visiting Steart Marshes that morning to search for waders on the shore. In fact his e-mail had taken a day to reach me and I did not notice the date. I went to our usual meeting place, but there was no sign of him. Nor were there any waders on the sea edge, in spite of the tide being just right. Instead, I stopped at the main carpark and walked down to the Quantock Hide, set on the edge of a large sheet of freshwater. A long line of sleeping Golden plover ran across in front, a wonderful sight.


Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria

They stayed like this for half an hour or so, then a harrier flew over and they were off in a roar of wings. They circled above, surrounding the predator,  and finally settling to the side, with excellent views fron the other part of the hide. It was clear that there were not only plover, but Dunlin and possibly others that may emerge when all the images are studied on the computer.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m & Lapwings Vanellus vanellus

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria

On the far side, three white shapes turned out to be Spoonbills, probably those we saw the other day - though at least one appeared to be much closer to adult plumage, with yellow-tipped bill. Has the change from juvenile to adult taken place in such a short period?

Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia

Later, there was another eruption when an unseen predator passed over, the Spoonbills taking off and circling the width of the sky, a splendid sight.

Spoonbills Platalea leucorodia

Spoonbills Platalea leucorodia

On my way in, the nature of Steart was well characterised, watching a Kestrel cruising above one of the several banks in the reserve, then rolling over just like a Sparrow hawk Accipiter nisus, to catch some creature out of sight below. Birds of prey are frequent at Steart, enjoying this captive larder.

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

November 10th 2018. I spent half the afternoon entering this day in the diary, only to find it had all vanished after 'saving', just leaving a gap! So here goes, trying to reproduce my thoughts once more. It was rather overcast at Catcott Lows, where I was anxious to try the new camera under testing conditions, also having part-solved how to overcome problems of transferring the images to the computer and processing them, using the new Nikon program. I am delighted with the D7200. It produces grainless enlargements at 1600 ISO, more than previous cameras could manage. This produces sharp pictures with good, natural colouring. What more could be wanted? There were plenty of ducks on and around the new pond, with water spreading widely across the field. It was the perfect time and place to test the outfit, using the very sharp 100-400 Sigma lens on the front. I have selected a few pictures to illustrate my findings.

 

Wigeon Anas penelope 

Wigeon Anas penelope 

Wigeon Anas penelope

A final joy for the day was finding this fine adult Grey heron on Tealham Moor. These birds have such delicate colouring - with a touch of pink and mauve among the grey, always a surprise when printing off new heron pictures.

 

 Grey heron Ardea cinerea

November 9th 2018. I spent the afternoon at  the Lake hide on Westhay Moor NNR. On the way over, I managed to stop the car in time, as I spotted a darker-phase buzzard sitting on a dead tree by the side of the road. It must have been really well-fed, as it paid no attention to me at all, filling the viewfinder.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

The Lake was deserted at first, then came an extraordinary event. A knot of small waterbirds appeared, six, perhaps even seven Dabchicks (Little grebes) who proceeded to dive and swim in a tight-knit group all over the lake. All except one were youngsters, the adult in slightly more colourful winter plumage. A pair of Gadwall were completely fascinated by them, swimming after them and nudging ever closer; rarely being separated by more than a few inches.

Little grebes Tachybaptus ruficollis

The finale was provided by a fine female Marsh harrier who flew in over the reeds and dropped down on the edge, disappearing from view for some minutes before flying off. No doubt enjoying her meal under the canopy.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

November 8th 2018. I made two visits to Catcott Lows today, separated by a visit to the dentist for a quick repair. The reason for going twice is the sheer excitement of finding that so many ducks had arrived for their winter visit. It was so good to see them massed on a mound, and on a couple of the pond islands. The sound of Wigeon whistling, and the overall background murmur, cheered everyone who saw and heard it. To match the birds, overnight rain had raised the water level in the pond and was spreading widely elsewhere. It would appear that two of the four islands will almost certainly be covered completely soon.

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

If the pictures are delayed, blame Nikon. I have bought a Nikon D7200, a superb camera, but the company has decided to close it's NX2 software and only offer 'NX i' to open the RAW files from this camera. Now I have to learn a new system - not as versatile I fear - as well as having to run each category of RAW file in duplicate. After years of running an excellent integrated set of software, why remove some of the key features that have always been so attractive to the user? I know I am not the only one who has made this point, particularly relevant to those with large numbers of filing categories. The other problem, temporary I hope, is that I have to learn a completely new system, after years of using the old one. Hence the delay, both in printing off and understanding the 'help' folder. My other cameras will continue using the old system with all its benefits, but with possible future confusion.

November 6th 2018. One grey day has followed another. I had hoped to get out in the morning when some sun appeared, but other duties were indicated. I reached Catcott Lows at past three, already well overcast and darkening. There was nothing to be seen from the hide, though it was full of friends, so we had a good natter about birds and life. It seems that earlier they had seen a Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus, Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, a Red kite Milvus milvus, Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus and Merlin Falco columbarius, as well as a Peregrine Falco peregrinus. So some people had had a first-class day. Prior to this, by the bridge under the lane from Burtle, I was amazed to see up to thirty Cattle egrets feeding by and under a herd of young bullocks.

Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

It looked cold out,  but the earlier 8°C had risen to 15°, so perhaps the flies had emerged and were pestering the cattle once more. Catcott is a busy area this year, even though the great hordes of winter birds have not yet arrived.

November 3rd 2018. A dull, rather windy visit to Catcott Lows showed absolutely nothing to start with, just bright water, harsh contrast and overcast sky. I spent half an hour looking at this and decided to retire home and search though the databases for pictures, or read a book. It hardly looked worth looking further at blank pasture. Then something unseen must have flown overhead; a great eruption of ducks occurred from deep within thickets of reeds. One moment there was nothing, the next the sky was filled with wildly circling ducks. Extraordinary!

Mixed ducks erupting

Somewhat later, all the ducks had again vanished; nothing stirred, then someone spotted a dot in the midground; a Peregrine, probably the cause of the previous excitement.

Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus

 

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