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April 2018 wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

April 26th 2018. The first informal gathering this season of our invertebrate group was held at Loxley Wood on the Poldens today. Although April showers threatened at times we actually had a sunny, rain-free day after one initial, brief downpour while we were gathering at the cars. And what a day, what a wood, superb! It was a useful gathering, Jan and Jim, John, and Toddy; together with Ron, a welcome newcomer from the birdwatching world, who is anxious to learn about and photograph insects. As Toddy remarked after wandering round a circular route, he had not been in such a splendid wood since the days of his youth, the plant life is quite outstanding. Among many others, these included a great many Bluebells Endymion non-scripta, Wood anemones Anemone nemorosa, Ramsons Allium ursinum, Goldilocks buttercup Ranunculus auricomus, together with Primroses Primula vulgaris in huge clumps. Insects were in abundance, among these nine species of hoverfly, including the beautiful Ferdinandia cuprea with its golden-furred abdomen,

hoverfly Ferdinandia cupra m

as well as some lovely little Platycheirus, hovering like dark threads in front of the various flowers.

hoverfly Platycheirus albimanus f

hoverfly Platycheirus clypeatus group m

hoverfly Syrphus vitripennis f

hoverfly Melanastoma mellinum m

hoverfly Cheilosia scutellata m

hoverfly Eristalis pertinax m

hoverfly Rhingia campestris on Bluebell Endymion non-scripta

John pointed out many little micro-moths swarming over the pale green spikes of Wood sedge Carex sylvatica. It seems they are unusual in that biting mouth-parts are present, so they can feed on the pollen. Most moths do not have these. I never would have spotted these tiny creatures if they had not been brought to our attention.

micro-moth Micropterix canthella on Wood sedge Carex sylvatica

There were large patches of dog violets in the areas fringing the main ride, not at first obvious until you were almost on top of them. So full of unexpected colours and hues.

Common violet Viola riviniana

The Woodland Trust, owners of this ancient wood bought it many years ago and we were among the first to have a walk through under its new ownership. At the time it had narrow paths through a part and a great many conifers among the whole. Since then, we have visited a couple of times but the recent activities have made a huge difference. The principal change, apart from removal of many of those conifers, has been widening the central path to give a broad ride from west to east. One side had been cleared earlier, giving a wide area of grass, flowers and low shrubs to the south. More recently, clearance has been taking place to the north in the form of semi-circular areas piled with the logs, surrounded by grass and flowers. The sides of the ride were where the most spectacular displays took place. Bluebells lay in patches, often mixed in with Wood anemones, while Primroses erupted in huge, solid clumps, looking good enough to eat. We wandered through this marvellous display, pausing to look at the many insects moving beteen flowers. Eventually, we sat in a clearing on the logs for lunch and watched further, as it unfolded round us. Bee-flies were really active at this point, almost at the easterly end. A larger area had been cleared and provided perfect hunting grounds for these flies. They hover in front of flowers, their body quite steady and their legs not quite taking a perch, the wings a blur like tiny humming-birds. Bombylius major is very variable in colouring. In my garden they are sandy coloured, here most were deep, rich red-brown, though they had the peculiar effect of paling and darkening according to the angle of the light.

bee-fly Bombylius major

Bombus pascuorum, the only bumblebees spotted, has been the most frequently seen elsewhere this Spring, though I only sotted a couple here. Why were there so few bumblebees in this apparently perfect site? The most interesting insects were undoubtedly Nomada cuckoo bees, parasitic on mining bees. At the very start of the ride I found my first, which turned out to be different to all the others found further on. N. leucopthalma m differs from N. ruficornis males mainly in the shape and colour of the antennae, which are a rather unusual red underneath the latter and are hosted by the common Andrena haemorrhoa species. N. ruficornis is hosted by two other rather less common Andrena species. N. ruficornis was all over the place towards the end of the ride. It is a most attractive insect, active in the warm sunshine, colourful and, for me at least, unusual, especially in such numbers. I am still uncertain about the identification of N. leucopthalma. I am sure it is not the same species as N. ruficornis, but part of the identification depends on small reddish markings on the scutellum which, it is said. may join together or even vanish entirely, leaving an all-dark area - as in the picture. Whatever else, it certainly is a Nomada!

cuckoo bee Nomada leucopthalma? m

cuckoo bee Nomada ruficornis m

cuckoo bee Nomada ruficornis m

Right at the start, a single mining bee was found curled up in a dandelion Taraxacum officianale, but none others were spotted during our visit.

mining bee Lasioglossum punctatissimum

Finally, two other un-connected species were found, a groundhopper and a shieldbug.Any shildbug has become unusual in recent years. Such a change from twenty years or so previously when you would find half a dozen species each time you went out - a similar situation to what has come about with ladybirds Coccinellidae.

Slender groundhopper Tetrix subulata f

Gren shield bug Palomena prasina

Everyone reported having a great day out and I left John about to make another circuit of one of the sidepaths.

April 23rd 2018. Although for much of the time it was dull, at least it was not raining. An afternoon visit to Ham Wall was hoping for glimpses of the trophy birds of the time, but the visit was not particularly memorable, though it was good to be out in the fresh air. Crossing Tealham Moor brought a fine sighting of a Grey heron, particularly a head-and-neck portrait. This must be a good omen for the birds at the nearby heronry.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

They are the males out fishing for their females and the youngsters in the nests. The birds out on the ditches pay much less attention to people at this period as they concentrate everything on their viital fishing. Walking up to the Avalon hide, I sat on the rather fine bench opposite a gap in the reeds - often a place for unusual sightings, taken in comfort - a Great white egret flew across from the far reeds and right over my heaed, a fine sight.

Great white egret Egretta alba

Not much was visible from the hide itself except for a couple of Great crested grebes, long-time residents.

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

The Grey herons are nesting again among the reeds opposite, surely unusual? They are always described as tree-nesters. I did finally see what I had been hoping for, a Hobby. But it was along way off and only briefly glimpsed.

Hobby Falco subbuteo

April 21st 2018. Possibly the last garden insects for a while, as the weather is threatening cold winds again.

 

hoverfly Rhingia campestris m

hoverfly Rhingia campestris m

hoverfly Rhingia campestris m 

hoverfly Platycheirus albimanus m

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m

flower bee Anthophora plumipes f

flower bee Anthophora plumipes f

flower bee Anthophora plumipes f

April 20th 2018. More garden insects.

bumblebee Bombus hortorum m

bumblebee Bombus hortorum m

bumblebee Bombus hortorum m

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m

April 19th 2018. In the garden today.

bumblebee Bombus pratorum m

hoverfly Rhingia campestris m

bee-fly Bombylius major

bee-fly Bombylius major

April 18th 2018. It seems we have at last started spring, day long sunshine -yesterday still felt like winter - and over 22 degrees, after 10. Heard my first Cuckoo Cuculus canorus of the year at Catcott Heath in the woods, so something else echoes my feelings.

April 14th 2018. There are now 16 Rook's nests Corvus frugilegus in the garden, compared with 10 last year. All are very welcome.

Chris and I arranged to meet at Ham Wall for a combined visit to see what was going on and to hand over the NPS folio. We had a long and enjoyable visit though not as fruitful as we had hoped. For a change it was both warm and calm with much sunshine. We visited both the Avalon and North hides, walking through and among delightful scenery. As we had come to expect recently, the Avalon hide had little to see around it apaart from puchard and tuftie diving ducks. No signs anywhere of the previous Ring-necked ducks Aythya collaris in spite of scanning every possibility with great care. There were plenty of people about but the North hide had room to spare. Walking across to it, a fine male Chaffinch in full colour was most obliging.

Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs m

A pair of buzzards wheeled over the open area allowing good sights; the picture shows a particularly dark individual difficult to photograph against a bright sky.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

The view fron the hide was quite beautiful but there was less to see than we had expected and, as Chris said, 'I don't think I will be spending a great deal of time on these photos.' The majority of birds were diving ducks, most well away from us, with a pochard caught in flight, such a solid flier.

Common pochard Aythya ferina m

The surface feeding ducks were Mallard and Gadwall, both so elegant, the fomer quite flambuoyant while the others are much more subtle in their marking and colouring.

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos m

Gadwall Anas strepera m

Harriers were present, but they kept very distant. Their actions very much implied there was a nest amongst the distant reeds in front. My picture is no triumph of the photographic art but shows the female perched extremely perilously on a slender twig and provides a memory of a delightful moment.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

The final moments were completed by a Cormorant planing down, diving and emerging close in front. Hated by fishermen, it is a fascinating creature, like some living dinosoar (which I believe birds are said tp be, but this actually looks as though it could be one).

Cormornt Phalacrocorax carbo 

Cormornt Phalacrocorax carbo

April 13th 2018. I sent off a piece today to a society of which I am a member and thought it would do no harm if reproduced here. It refers to general conditions as seen here on the Somerset Levels:

'You’re probably sick of people saying what an awful winter and spring it has been, but here goes. Duck numbers have been greatly reduced here, while small birds have virtually stopped coming to the feeders. We really are faced with absolute reductions in numbers of insects, leading to all the other losses which have become so apparent. A long life-time has seen my memories go from stopping your car every 50-100 miles, to clear off the yellow gunge on the windscreen, to travelling to Scotland and back recently from Somerset and not even having to clean the screen at the end. They range from flower meadows everywhere in Devon, where I was brought up, to having to go to a reserve to see a lesser example. Of course there are pluses from climate-change, if that is what causes it, such as new dragonflies, egrets making their way over the Channel and the odd new rarity appearing, but what are we doing? Round here on the Levels we still live in an era of old-style farming, no fertiliser, no spraying, while lichens flourish everywhere (a sign of pure air). Yet we too are affected, showing vastly reduced numbers and types of birds, while the quantity and varieties of flowers along the edges of ditches is hugely reduced. Fifty years ago, there were fields in spring which were a deep pink all over with orchids. Now those fields are part of Shapwick Heath NNR and the orchids are all but gone. It gets worse each year, We read about bees being killed by chemicals that are freely available for all. Yet no one simply bans them, there are long debates before anything looks as if it is happening. Apathy is king. Is this, and similar factors, the real causer of the problems, rather than climate change? All I know is that it is possible to drive round our moors in splashy floods, which used to be key times, and not see a single living thing, not just once, but regularly. I have photos taken when we first arrived, showing the same areas alive with many species of bird, ranging from ducks to Dunlin and Curlews. Now there are none.'

Driving across Tealham Moor today I came across this beautiful adult heron who proved most co-operative in obtaing these prortraiis, leaving it happily fishing in the roadside ditch. Herons have been missing recently, not spotted in the usual numbers when in the breeding season. I chacked on the heronry on Tadham Moor and there are now a number of occupied nests in the front of the wood which is reassuring after earlier observations. IThey are certainly much later than usual.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

April 12th 2018. I saw my first Swallows Hirundo rustica of the year, several crissing and crossing the ditches on the western edge of Tealham Moor, though it was cold and drizzling.

April 11th 2018. Back to another day of relentless rain varying only in its intensity, chilly winds and nothing moving out on the moors. Spring?

April 10th 2018. Still grey and overcast, though a little warmer, it is as depressing as much of this miserable Spring. In mid-afternoon I felt a bursting need to be outside, to see what the outside world had to offer. The chosen venue was the RSPB reserve at Ham Wall. Surprisingly, the car-park was far from empty, though people gradually vanished as the way took me into side paths, away from the main ex-railway line crossing the length of the reserve. It may be a reserve, but it is a huge wild area, a mixture of open water, heath and reedbeds, large enough to hide great numbers of birds - as wild a place as can be imagined.

Common pochard Aythya ferina f

I had thought of going further afield but settled instead for the Avalon hide in the middle of the water. There were plenty of diving ducks, Tufted, Pochard and, as will be explained later, a solitary Ring-necked duck for comparison, though I only realised this bird was at this location after examining pictures on the computer.

Ring-necked duck Aythya collaris m

A lone Marsh harrier appeared briefly, sailing over the top of the hide; ducks flew in and left, but really there was relatively little going on.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

A pair of Little grebes were fishing just opposite, punctuating the air with their rather weird whinnying calls.

Little grebes Tachybaptus ruficollis

A Grey heron Ardea cinerea dropped into the reeds and another visitor confirmed that it was nesting there, as I thought had happened last year in the same place. I had not realised until recently that in addition to tree nesting they might favour reed beds, like egrets. A curious sound came from the second row of reeds, close to the heron, and served to introduce me to Simon, another visitor and RSPB volunteer for this reserve. The sound was a virtually continual, almost mechanical sound, akin to the clattering of beaks heard at a heronry but much quicker. Eventually, two separate birds were located making these strange call but we never did identify them. Simon thought they might be an aberrant call from a warbler but I did not feel this was so, but lacked any better idea. We both made our way out, back towards the main track but before reaching that I stopped at the westernmost blind, somewhere I usually neglect as it so often looks straight into the sun - not applicable on this dull day. There were some lovely little groups of mixed ducks which made nice pictures and kept me occupied before Simon reappeared. He pointed out a most exciting duck after searching through the Tufted drakes with his binoculars. Apparently a Ring-necked drake had been visiting the reserve for a couple of weeks. The critical differences became obvious once it had been examined, not likely to be forgotten in a hurry. The bill has an almost luminous white spot near the tip, while it lacks the long crest feathers of the tuftie. But most obvious is the distinctive shape of the head, a high, flat back and high forehead. The lovely, clear white flanks of the tuftie are replaced in the ring-neck with greyish tinges. The eye is a dull yellow instead of the bright yellow of the tuftie. In some light, the head and neck have a dark green sheen. The duck is a native of North America but there is always the possibility that it may be an escape from nearby Slimbridge. Further examination of the pictures showed there were at least three Ring-necks presnt and possibly more.

Ring-necked ducks Aythya collaris 1f 2m

Ring-necked duck Aythya collaris & Tufted

Ring-necked ducks Aythya collaris f & m, Tufted & Mallard

Ring-necked duck Aythya collaris m

Ring-necked ducks Aythya collaris f m, Mallard

Ring-necked ducks Aythya collaris f m, Pochard, Mallard

April 8th 2018. Still chilly in the evening, after a dull day, numbers of insects were still braving the elements. Amongst them were both male and female Anthophora plumipes. It seemed appropriate to concentrate on the females. It is rare to find both sexes arriving so close to each other, a reflection of recent weather. How different they are to the males, compa ring with previous shots of the latter.

flower bee Anthophora plumipes f 11mm

flower bee Anthophora plumipes f 11mm

flower bee Anthophora plumipes f 11mm

A fine queen bumblebee occupied much of the rest of my time, lifting off from a floer a millisecond before I have it safely in the viewfinder. But, evetually, I got my eye in again and determined its patterns of flight. Then the camera performed its miracles of capturing all that fascinating detail. Bombus pascuorum varies enormously in colour throughout its life and depends, I feel, also on its habitat. This one was a particularly handsome mixture, superb.

 

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum q 16mm

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum q 16mm

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum q 16mm

April 6th 2018. In the evening, late sunshine playing on the terrace and and beds full of Pulmonaria flowers, I sat on a stool and watched various bumblebees and male Anthophora plumipes males darting all-too raidly from flowere to flower. The wind had died and it seemed altogether warmer. It is the first tine I have bothered to look out my insect photography outfit and it proved worth the effort. In the end I was stopped by a dodgy battery rather than the bees departing for the evening. The two bumblebee pictures are of a worker with the yellow-brown tail colouring of a queen, once again illustrating how tricky bumblebee pictures can be.

bumblebee Bombus terrestris w 13mm

bumblebee Bombus terrestris w 13mm

It was good to see Anthophora plumipes at last. The Lungwort flowers have been out for a long time now and I was worried they might be all over by the time the bees arrived. Usually the bees are two or three weeks earlier. The males arrive first, as in so many bee speciies, waiting for the females to emerge and grab them immediately. This evening, the insects were all males; no sign of females yet. I see these bees and their preferred flowers as the real start of Spring in a normal year, but what is a normal year these days? The species is an odd one, the males these rich brown and sand colouring, the females almost all black, stubby and very like small bumblebees. For long they have been among my favourite subjects.

flower bee Anthophora plumipes m 11mm

flower bee Anthophora plumipes m 11mm

flower bee Anthophora plumipes m 11mm

April 5th 2018. The tax year starts today, as if we should forget, the time when we start months of working for the government for nothing. I had occasion to drive across  Westhay and Godney Moors on the way to Shepton Mallet, choosing the back lanes rather than the main road to Wells with its interminable 30mph restriction. For a change it was a bright, beautiful morning and the countryside looked wonderful, sparkling, with the roadside reeds sharp in the clear light. Driving on beyond the entrance to Westhay Moor reserve, there are large areas of old peat cuttings to the north of the road. It is good to report that several Great white egrets were feeding on these.



It is strange to find yourself looking down on them. as the water tabler has been kept low along this part. On my way back, just beyond the kennels, I met Romey in her car, on her way to walk Maddie. As she drove off, I spotted a suberb specimen of a Grey heron deep in the ditch, in full adult breeding plumage. It flew off, but offered another oportunity a field further on, how lucky.


April 4th 2018. The end of the afternoon saw Catcott Lows bathed in sunshine, the water whipped up by a vicious, cold wind. Not surprisingly, there were few ducks visible and nothing flying either. As I was about to leave, I was amazed to see a pair of Shelduck fly in, a species I have never seen here before, so worth recording. They only stayed a few minutes before flyng back in the direction from which they had arrived - the south. They have such lovely clear, uncompicated colours which were lit pefrectly by the bright, clear sun.

Shelduck Tadorna tadorna m

April 3rd 2018. There is still no sign of Spring. We have been waiting since the start of the previous month with no hint of winter's let up. Today there has been afternoon sunshine, but there is no sign of the wildlife to go with it. For the past two days I have had cause to drive round Tealham Moor wih its shallow, plashy floods all round, normally a paradise for late flights of duck and herons. Nothing, but a few distant Mute swans. Where have they gone? Why? Easter has passed, iron-bound with frost and even snow for a couple of days. When will it end? Flowers have appeared in the fields, hedgerows and gardens but there are no insects to pollinate them. Pulmonaria flowers are perfectly timed to coincide with Anthophora bees, and have been out for some weeks, but there is no sign of the bee.

Lungwort Pulmonaria

  A few sad bumblebees have appeared at any hint of sunshine but disappear all too quickly. The heronry on Tadham Moor, usually bustling with activity by now, is all but deserted. I sat for half and hour by the wood and not a single heron flew in or out, though there are one or two Grey herons Ardea cinerea feeding in the ditches, together with the occasional Little egret Egretta garzetta. It's not all gloom, it never is. Maddie and I walked round the edges of Catcott Fen and found that a great deal of work had been carried out on the reserve recently. Great areas of reeds had been cut and mowed to reveal grass and herb lawns, new sheets of water dotted these and it looked more like the traditional moorland that used to exist. It is artificial of course, but it is settling into the landscape and providing conditions such as were seen many decades ago, before the greatest phases of drainage had taken place. Nothing is really natural in our landscapes but soon this area will seem as we believe 'natural' once was. That it is working at last was the sight of four different Great white egrets Egretta alba enjoying the conditions.

 Great white egret Egretta alba

There is a splendid tower hide on one side but, since it opened two or thee years ago, there has been a dearth of birds to be seen. Perhaps the egrets are symbols of the reserve finally coming to life, as it surely must as it matures?


 


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