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February 2018 - wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

February 28th 2018. It is the last sunny day before snow blizzards are predicted. It is astonishingly cold, -1°, with a wind-chill of probably another 10°. Why quote this? A friend, Peter, decided not to risk the long journy from Swansea and possible snow, but Chris and I arranged to meet at Ham Wall in spite the cold. We decided to make our way directly to the Avalon hide, a fairly new construction I had never visited. The way there was beautiful, snow lying on sheets of frozen water, the pale reeds blowing in the wind, the sky intense blue with a few white clouds blowing across.

A bitter day, Ham Wall

The building is two storey, well-designed with plenty of opening windows, though the method selected for holding them open is far from easy to use. It begs the question as to why the various conservation organisations do not stick to proven methods when they build new hides? This one lacked the normal-width shelves on which people balance mini-tripods for telescopes or cameras.

Avalon hide, Ham Wall

Although the wind blew in from the front, we managed to sit by one that was more sheltered than elsewhere. Only a relatively small patch of water was still free of ice, some way off. A few duck were mingled in with growing numbers of Coot, quarrelsome as ever. Then came that we had been hoping for, the first of what turned out eventually to be four Marsh harriers flew in from one of the side channels. The cameras started clicking and did not stop for the rest of the morning. It turned out to be an absolute bonanza.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f wavering over the reeds

As one harrier dropped down, another wavered across low over the reeds. Two settle within feet of each other opposite our viewpoint, one or the other rising up a few feet before dropping down once more. High up, a male harrier circled overhead before dropping down and joining in with the others. Eventually, though I missed it, a male harrier was caught by Chris as it dropped food for a female, characteristic of courtship. 

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f, with Crow intruder

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f, a favoured spot

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

February 27th 2018. I was driving across Tealham Moor this afternoon when I had to pull into a gateway to let another car past. I glanced down to the edge of the ditch which edges every road in the area and saw a buzzard sitting there apparently quite undisturbed by the engine, or when I switched it off. I was able to phograph it from several angles before driving off, leaving it still stiing there, undisturbed - an extraordinary encounter with a handsome bird.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

February 26th 2018. A quick visit to Catcott followed a walk with Maddie. Brilliant, clear sunshine, with ducks close to the edge, made for a series of successful portraits. It is so good watching waterfowl through the viewfinder, feeding, displaying and just living, a great advance from older film cameras. Looking through a modern DSLR viewfinder is like binoculars, free of grain or any distractions. The view through the 400mm lens is like a view through a low power telescope. 

Common shoveler Anas clypeata, Common teal A. crecca

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m

Common Teal Anas crecca f

Common teal Anas crecca m

Wigeon Anas penelope m

February 25th 2018. I had a splendid time of sunshine and biting winds out on the sea-edge at Steart Marshes once more - taking advantage of the weather and tide-times. I parked in the 'dog-walkers' car-park and walked east until I reached an old fence running down into the sea. I was delighted to come across a Skylark among the coarse grasses below the seawall edge .In general, this bird has become far less seen in recent years, particularly our inland moors.

Skylark Alauda arvensis

I parked myself by it, trying to look as unobtrusive as possible, but still felt I was standing out on the great open spaces. I took various pictures of Dunlin, Redshank and Curlew, but most remained a considerable way off, even those in flight kept well away from the sea's edge.The majority were Dunlin, one of my favourite waders, restless, companionable and attractive both as individuals and in their amazing synchronised flight.

Dunlin Calidris alpina

Dunlin Calidris alpina

Dunlin Calidris alpina

Dunlin Calidris alpina

Redshanks were the only other waderts spotted today, usually in little parties of five or six. This bird was on its own, the final sighting of a chilly but rewarding visit.

Redshank Tringa totanus

I came to the conclusion that I need to camouflage myself, break up the outline, if I am to have greater success. Also, it is neccessary to be there at least an hour before high tide, to take advantage of the birds being hustled up by the advancing tide. The next practical, daytime, high tide levels occur at the end of the first quarter of March. I plan to take a back-pack stool, together with some plastic netting to drape over and break up the outline. It is possible to obtain personal hides which you wear, but this set-up is very light, all contained in the one backpack. The sea is quite distinctive here, waves breaking in brown, muddy torrents. The Bristol Channel has huge, scouring tides, the second highest levels in the world, the suspended silt bringing this grubby-looking appearance. Still, the birds do not seem to object.

February 23rd 2018. I had a most extraordinary day, but, in the end, a succesful one. I was supposed to meet Chris at one of the car parks at Steart Marshes. Unfortunately there are four of these, one of which I had not seen before. I chose this and it was the wrong one but did not know until later. I guessed that I should have gone to the walkers car park in the village but this also was wrong. We never did meet, though Chris found my car and left a note to say he had gone home. By this time I had been there two or three hours and was on my way home. I ended by walking from the top Steart Marshes car park to the very end, at Steart Point. The round trip was over five miles, beyond my normal capabilities but, to my amazement survived perfectly well. The first half was along the Coast Path which runs above the high tide line, separated from the sea by a thick wall of reeds for almost its entire length. At the end, not far from the point, someone had cut a swathe through the reeds and I was able to make my way to the open beach marshes. The tide was not a particularly high one, so the sea was still quite a way out, though it was not that long after high water. At last there were birds. Was this the place that Chris had spoken about? I sat down on the edge of the scrub and grass and watched. As I came into sight, the first flights of birds lifted off and flew away but after a while more flights flew up and down, some landing in front. The great majority were Curlew, with others Dunlin.

Curlew Numenius arquata

Curlew Numenius torquata

It was so good to see the Curlew in particular. Inland, they have become rarities where they used to be plentiful. It was good too to meet up with Dunlin once more. Many years ago we used to have flights of a hundred or so spending much of the winter on Tealham and Tadham Moors.

Dunlin Calidris alpina

Dunlin Calidris alpina

The day was exremely cold but I was well-wrapped and comfortable. Sitting by the sea, the wind was offshore and not so cutting as inland. The only ducks present were Shelduck Tadorna tadorna, dotted off the sea edge out on the water. Hinckley Point nuclear power station was misted in the distance, with the edges of Exmoor faint beyond.

waders and Hinckley Point nuclear power station

After this, I rejoined the path and reached the tower hide on the Point. It appears to be a popular spot for walkers but the views are all very distant. It is a great pity it was not situated closer to the sea or the River Parrett which originates close by. However there are three other hides out on the edges of the grass, closer to the river. As someone said to me. "They are lovely old that remind me of garden sheds, not much use for bird views but must be visited." They are very dilapidated but only one edges directly onto tidal water. Steart Marshes is an amazing concept, with a marvellous future. Government money has been poured into the area to ease flooding and coastal erosion. Old marshes have been dug out, seawalls knocked down and the river allowed to take over a large part of the area, hides have been built and many miles of paths laid out. The result is the achievement of what the coastal experts hoped for, while producing the most amazing large conservation area now managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Sir Peter Scott, the founder of the trust would have heartily approved of the concept and its eventual achievement. Birdwatchers, botanists and entomologists enjoy the results as do a great many who just enjoy the freedom of the walks.

February 22nd 2018. At first glance Catcott appeared empty, then a harrier showed at the far end of the reeds. A huge eruption of ducks shot into the air, filling the space in front. Wigeon, Shoveler, Pintail and a few teal were all present, swirling around, up and down in a bedlam of noise. A splendid sight.

Wigeon Anas penelope, Pintail A. acuta, Shoveler A. clypeata

But do not be fooled, numbers of duck in the Catcott area are well down from the glory days when they covered much of the surface of the water. And, the winter may coninue for us but the fisrst of the migrants are already on their way. Slimbridge announced that the first of the Bewick' swans Cygnus columbianus  had left already. A most enjoyable period then followed as the harrier flew through the ducks, apparently totally uninterested in them. Was she enjoying seeing them surge into the air, was she bored and deciding to have some fun?. This behaviour has been noticed previously with Pergrines Falco peregrinus. It was fascinating to see the ducks flying only feet away from the predator, shooting past with no apparent worry, real entertainment.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f, Wigeon Anas penelope, Pintail A.acuta

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f, Wigeon Anas penelope, Shoveler A. clypeata, Pintail A.acuta

 Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f & Wigeon Anas penelope

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f & Wigeon Anas penelope

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f & Wigeon Anas penelope

February 12th 2018. Walking down the track leading to the North Hide on Westhay Moor, it could not have been a better start to the visit. Brilliant sunshine, with great clarity, made up for a strong, cold north-west wind. Waters interspersed with great sheets of golden reeds were guaranteed to cheer the heart, though waterfowl were all but absent on the way, until the large lake was reached where there are always swans Cygnus olor. The hide looks out over a large sheet of water edged with reeds which stretch out as far as the eye can see. Ducks were few, though small groups of Shoveler were busy,  as they usually are. Some were already paired off, others joined groups of noisy males trying to intimidate each other. Individuals took off, flew a few yards and settled again, fussily grooming themselves as if to show they were serious, though appearing somewhat embarassed by it all.

Shoveler Anas clypeata m

Shoveler Anas clypeata m

Little parties of Wigeon were present at the start of the visit, but these males gathered themselves together, took off and left. I was sorry to lose the sound of their whistles, such a cheerful background to any bird-watching by water.

Wigeon Anas penelope

Much of the time was spent enjoying the antics, and aerobatics, of three Marsh harriers. At first they were patrolling the very back of the reeds, too far away to see much more than their wavering flight, every so often dropping down below. They gradually moved forward towards me, and I started to see detail through the viewfinder.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f 

The final stages came as they rushed past the hide. The wind caught them and they were over and past in seconds. It was difficult to keep up with this but fortunately a number of succesful pictures were taken.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

As I walked back along the track, the dark clouds started to roll in and a lone Cormorant flew across.


Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

February 7th 2018. It has been a glorious day, the wind from the south west but fortunately not too strong; the hide at Greylake is famous for chilling its visitors in winter. The best light is in the morning and it was superb, crystal clear for as far as the eye could see, the water as blue as you get. Ducks were everywhere, packed together like sardines in a can, many sleeping. The great majority were Common teal, with the odd Shoveler Anas clypeata, numbers of Wigeon and a smattering of Mallard.

Duck massed on Greylake

Common teal  Anas crecca

Common teal Anas crecca f

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos m

The best I can do is let the pictures speak for themselves. I could not stop pressing the shutter release as opportunities presented themselves. At first I could not get into the main hide, there were so many enthusiastic visitors, instead sitting in the much more open raised blind. This gives a somewhat slanting view across the lines of main interest - quite different.

Common teal Anas crecca, Wigeon Anas penelope, Shoveler Anas clypeata

Eventually, people started streaming away and I found a good seat right at the front, and started to view the ducks really close.

Common teal Anas crecca & other duck

Gradually I became aware of Wigeon among the throngs, bulkier, beautifully-coloured, grazing non-stop on the watery vegetation and grass.

Wigeon Anas penelope

The occasional Common snipe Gallinago gallinago appeared briefly, only to vanish immediately it stopped moving. At one stage a Peregrine Falco peregrinus flew lazily across the hordes, though with no obvious interest. The ducks immediately leapt tinto the air with a roar of stressed wings and gave a fine  but short display. They were not too obviously impressed with the predator, settling almost immediately.

The eruption, duck disturbed by a predator

The eruption, duck disturbed by a predator

Full of all-too fresh air and sunshine, I walked back along the track to the carpark, through the large reed bed surrounding it, when I spotted a Kestrel hovering low down, part-obscured by the fronds of the reeds. It paid little attention as I drew nearer, occasionally moving to take station over some selected spotspot. Its head remained in the same position relative to the ground whatever position the body and wings took. She, for that was what she proved to be, was clearly determined to mine the reeds for its meal and I left it still hunting, but in the far distance.

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

February 5th 2018. I walked down the long drove to the North Hide at Westhay Moor. It was perishing cold but a beautiful sunny day. Everything sparkled. There few birds on the great sheets of water passed by, a number of Canada geese Branta canadensis, Mute swans Cygnus olor everywhere, and a few Goosanders Mergus merganser, regular visitors to the largest lake. As I approached the hide, walking down the causeway, a Sparrowhawk appeared high overhead and I managed a quick, all-too distant shot as it dropped in a steep stoop. The speed of its drop was really something.

Sparrowhawk stooping Accipiter nisus

The visit was taken over by harriers thereafter. It proved an uncomfortable visit, as a cold north-east wind blew straight into the open front. Eventually the stay was cut short by a growing awarenes that my core was becaoming shrammed, but not before some exciting moments. None of the harriers came close, so the resulting pictures are the result of considerable enlargement, but worth showing I believe, because of their significance. The first sighting was a female Marsh harrier far over the huge expanse of reeds. She appeared as a shadow in the distance, rising and falling as harriers do, floating low over the tops, dropping down periodically, gradualy working towards me, but so slowly.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

This held my interest for some time. Although distant, the telescope of the viewfinder tracked progress and I felt I was part of the hunt.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f, a part of the landscape

Later, three harriers flew in over the hide and then showed themselves in a rather closer part of the reed bed. I was surprised that one turned out to be a juvenile male Hen harrier, whereas the others were Marsh harriers. The Hen harrier flew more or less straight down wind and eventually out of sight, few histrionics in his behaviour.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus

Although when they first appeared, all three looked as if they were playing, the Marsh harriers were the ones that continued this early display behaviour, soaring up into the sky and coming together as they dropped, continuing this until their flight took them out of sight.

Marsh harriers Circus aeruginosus m & f

February 1st 2018. January has been one of the most unpleasant months, wet and windy with little let-up. Today, the new month hopes for improvement, with overall sunshine for at least the next couple of days. Although there has been so much rain, often for most of a day, the earlier floods have dropped out on the moors. The pumping station must be working flat out. In view of all the recent concerns about general flooding I cannot but think that there must be a better solution than driving all our plentiful winter waters down to the sea as soon as it appears. There has been talk elsewhere about holding water in newly-revived wetlands. Here we have an existing wetland in the form of the Brue valley moors, yet it is not being utilised in any reecognisable manner. Houses are extremely few and raised above the surrounding grounds. During winter, the fields are empty with cattle inside. There seem few problems in instituting some innovative thoughts to keep much of the water in the ground - instead, the pumps start immediately it rains. We have a nationally-needed resource, use it.


 

 

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