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January 2018 - wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

January 31st 2018. The weather showing willing, I felt so invigorated by yesterday's visit that I decided to go back to the North Hide at Westhay Moor. It turned out a most interesting visit, with concentration on two species of birds, Marsh harrier and Gadwall, both of which performed just as I would have wished. Gadwall were there in some numbers, each time I thought I had seen them all, another lot would appear from behind a set of reeds. They are such unerstated birds, superficially dull at first glance, but subtly detailed and coloured seen closer. This lot was restless, taking off and settling almost immediately - the start of courtship I suspect.

Gadwall Anas strepera

Gadwall Anas strepera

Gadwall Anas strepera

Gadwall Anas strepera

I stayed for a couple of hours, enjoying these spectacles enormously. Then, just as I was thinking about going home, a harrier appeared in the distance, swept along the side and overhead. It was a beautifully-marked male, paler than I remembered. The spread of the wings is remarkable, with the wide fingers of the wing-tips flexing and moving as he floated over, as only harriers do - a real 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

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

January 30th 2018. I took a long walk the length of Westhay Moor this afternoon, sunny but a strong, cold wind. The North Hide is starting to settle into its surrounds, as the reeds have found the edges of the causeway and screened the way in. I like the upper storey for its rather more unusual views of the birds and animals. It is well-designed, comfortable and looks after the needs of watchers and photographers, with everything at the right height.

North hide, Westhay Moor

Great crested grebes Podiceps cristatus were dividing their time between courstship ceremonies and building up a a new nest at the back of the vista, too far for sensible photography but fascinating. Coots were in a particularly belligent frame of mind. Every few minutes one would chase another across the water, pattering along the surface, kicking up dollops of water as they did so.

Coot Fulica atra

One of the features of this moor is the huge area of reeds stretching as far as the eye can see.There are inlets and narrow passages leading into this. I was looking at one of these when I noticed the reeds shaking at one point. As I look through the viewfinder rather than binoculars, I was ready for anything. In a moment, I realised I was looking at an Otter as it swirled breifly into sight. Always a thrill. What is unusual is the way the light has reflected the blue of the sky only onto the otter and its body surrounds, tinting the whole blue-grey.

Otter Lutra lutra

One of the last things I saw was a Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo sweep in from the edges of this and over my front, the colourful head markings showing well.

The replacement hide for the big lake yielded nothing but Mute swans Cygnus olor and what I have noticed before, a Great white egret Egretta alba  feeding along the edge close-by, tucked into the shadows, difficult to spot.

January 29th 2018. I looked in on Catcott Lows only briefly after walking Maddie round Catcott Fen. The waters looked almost deserted, with only a few duck in the far distance. Just before I left, a flock of Lapwings appeared. They just could not bring themselves to settle, going round and round, dipping down, then lifting again. Eventually they all drifted off rather aimlessly and vanished. But, they did form some rather fine patterns before they did so.

Lapwings Vanellus vanellus

Crossing Tealham Moor on my way back, a buzzard took off from a post, before sailing on to the next one behind. The picture looks uncannily like a Short-eared owl Asio flammeus at this angle, but it definitely was a buzzard.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

January 26th 2018. Greylake looked marvellous this morning, deep blue sky and hordes of ducks everywhere. The first picture was rather out of context - Starlings instead of ducks. These birds are present in larger numbers than recently.

Starlings & Lapwings

In the hide, some people drew my attention to a Common teal with strange colouring, nearly similar to one I saw last year but even stranger. This bird had a lilac speculum and the head was tinged with the same colouring, otherwise it was as the normal variety. 

Common teal with unusual colouring Anas crecca

RSPB volunteer had seen numbers like this recently. He attributed it entirely to the direction of light and refraction, but I am not convinced completely. An ID book mentions blue listed of green but this is definitely lilac. Common teal were the predominent duck today as the pictures show - although people had spotted a male Green-winged teal Anas carolinensis, as well as photographing it. Periodic eruptions of duck turned out to be mainly teal. The picture below gives an idea of the Greylake reserve and the watery shallows so popular with these shallow-feeding duck. It also may give an idea of the chilly morning and its sharp winds. Below that, the picture shows the centre of one of the much larger eruptions when a predator is spotted.

Common teal & Greylake reserve Anas crecca

Common teal Anas crecca

These splendid duck-eruptions were caused by a female Marsh harrier flying in from the side.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

A most enjoyable side-show was provided by teal in the early stages of courtship. Several little bunches of males started milling around, then lifting off and flying at another, or chasing them furiously in sparays of water. The were no visible females to admire their champions.

Common teal Anas crecca

Common teal Anas crecca

Close in front, a solitary Lapwing worked its way closer so it was possible to see its exotic oiled-silk plumage with the naked eye, such a beautiful bird at this time of year.

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

As the Lapwing worked across the front it disturbed a snipe, causing it to move ever so slightly, instantly revealing its presence. Further examination of the area showed there were several. Eventually they came into the open and started feeding. They are smaller birds in real life than they appear in photographs.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

January 20th 2018. Chris and I met up at Catcott Lows hide at midday on what seemed an impossibly wet and windy day. I was handing over an NPS portfolio to Chris so that gave the excuse. But in fact the weather brightened over a period and we were able to take some reasonable photos. It is good to report that the build-up of ducks continues, many Wigeon Anas penelope, Teal and Shoveler Anas clypeata, togther with a few Pintail Anas acuta and Gadwall Anas strepera. In one of the wetter and mistier periods, I photographed some teal flying past. The result has an extraordinarily painting-like appearance, probably because of the high ISO and degree of magnification, seeming to capture the atmosphere of the moment.

Common teal Anas crecca

We had a two or three full-scale duck erruptions caused by predators overhead, though distant. A solitary female harrier was the cause in each instance.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

The last of these brought splendid views of the culmination of a hunt. She was sailing along quite high when she rolled over and plunged down on some small creature below, After that she remained mostly hidden in the reeds, presumably digesting her meal. It was fascinating to see this large bird transform itself from lazy wavering flight to a high-speed attack. The wings widened and became huge as it braked before dropping.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

In between these moments, we watched a Great white egret make its way from the back reeds to much closer, searching as it went, stately and patient in its hunt. As usual, its prey seemed always to be very small creatues, not the larger fish and frogs favoured by the Grey heron Ardea cinerea. Great whites are always elegant but in the non-breeding plumage, which this is, are always so smart, set off by the all-yellow bill. In summer this darkens to mostly all grey-black changing its appearance completely, aided by the plume feathers of that period.

Great white egret Egretta alba

The session was completed by a couple of Mute swans taking of in the distance and flying towards us. It was good to watch through the viewfinder and see the detail build up. They formed lovely patterns against the misty waters. Swans are so common, so much part of our landscape - sometimes a hundred in a field - that they are neglected as subjects. Whatever they do, they remain graceful and brighten up the worst winter weather.

Mute swan Cygnus olor

On the way back, crossing the moors, I came across an unusual twist to a common situation. Crows are consistently nasty to birds of prey, mobbing and bombing them wherever they go. I watched a rather bedraggled buzzard being harassed by a couple of crows. The buzzard landed on a post and, to my astonishment, one of the crows settled on the next-door post. Then they completely ignored each other. When the buzzard lifted off, the crow resumed its nastiness. It settled again, this time accompanied by two crows, and they resumed their apparent neutrality.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo & Carrion crow Corvus c. corone

Later, I came across the same buzzard sitting on a post, trying to dry out its feathers, partly unfolding its wings, dripping water, then shaking them and closing them. This process being repeated, numbers of times. I presume this bird had lost its waterproofing during the continual rain. After a while it seems this workout had succeeded as the bird lifted up and flew off across the moors.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

January 16th 2018. Today's outings included a visit to Bowling Green Marsh at Topsham. We were lucky that early showers cleared to good sunshine when we reached the reserve and its splendid new hide. We were surprised that there were not more birds as it appeared to be high tide - our mistake, the reserve is non-tidal. So the estuary could have been at any state. Nevertheless, then we enjoyed our visit both through the reserve itself, the great views from the windows and the friendly people we met. A few Wigeon Anas penelope were spotted on our arrival but the majority of birds were waders. A few tiny Dunlin Calidris alpina kept well away and none of the pictures taken were worth keeping. Redshanks were more confiding and we enjoyed watching them feeding quite close. They are elegant birds but much paler now than in breeding plumage.

Redshank Tringa totanus

Redshank Tringa totanus

Redshank Tringa totanus

Redshank Tringa totanus

The most numerous birds were Black-tailed godwits, larger birds I have seen here on other occasions, in ghostlike winter clothing, though one or two were well on their way to summer red.

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

It's a splendid place for a visit, with well-planned hide, beautiful surrounds and the likelihood of seeing almost any water and shore birds, when lucky. At the right state of tide hundreds of Avocets Recurvirostra avocetta may be seen at close quarters.

January 15th 2018. Romey and I are having a few days in Devon, staying close to where I spent a number of years when young. Gittisham Common looked as it used to be, except that it is now enclosed by fences, Many many years ago, I saw five Montagu's harriers sitting on the telephone wires, an amazing experience not ever likely to be repeated. Most of today was spent by the sea and during the course of this we re-visited Seaton Marshes. The walk took us down to the island hide, beautifully designed with a covered walkway to the centre of the pond. Unfortunately not a great deal was going on. Birds were notably absent but I managed a few shots. Little bunches of Teal were feeding on the exposed mud and in the shallows. They seem such cheerful, happy duck, always chatting to each other.

Common teal Anas crecca

Shelduck were the only other, and very noticeable inhabitants. It seems this is one of their strongholds as I always come across them on these waters. They are so brightly-coloured you cannot miss them.

Shelduck Tadorna tadorna

Shelduck Tadorna tadorna

January 14th 2018. The ducks were definitely on their way at Catcott Lows. As soon as the car door was opened the haunting whistles of the Wigeon were heard. They were active too, for a change, jostling and pushing each other, lifting into brief spells of flight, feeding, chatting. It is so good to see them after the long barren periods where we had hoped previously. My pictures show a selection of different aspects of Wigeon, feeding, flying, exploding into flight. A period of duck exuberance.

all pictures: Wigeon Anas penelope




January 11th 2018. It is some while since I visited Ham Wall, so decided to make it my late afternoon target. Although windy, the Tor View hide in the reeds was brightly lit, although open on all sides and blasted by the wind. As found in other visits, there was little to be seen, no birds of prey or other exotica, just a scattering of ducks. Among these were Shoveler which then went on to give a some impressive fly-pasts - such splendid birds.

Shoveler Anas clypeata

Shoveler Anas clypeata

There are plenty of swans around and frequently it seems as if you have photographed every possible angle, then comes a sky like this and another picture is added to the total.

Mute swan Cygnus olor

After this I walked back along the causeway and sat on a conveniently-placed seat opposite an opening in the reeds. Dressed well for winter, it was really comfortable and a good place to see what was going on. Canada geese flew across, silent for a change. They are such beautifully-marked birds, a problem is some parts but not here, where they are a bonus.

Canada geese Branta canadensis

Canada geese Branta canadensis

Later, as the light turned golden, a couple of these birds perched on an almost invisible plank and spent ages tidying themselves, every so often cocking an eye skywards, perhaps for possble predators? Though they would need to be extremely powerful to tackle such a heavy bird

Canada geese Branta canadensis

Canada geese Branta canadensis

A heron dropped into the reeds and was caught momentarily in the falling light. Finally, a couple of Coots engaged in bad-tempered chases of which I had a ringside seat. A fascinating end to a visit without sight of anything unusual, but some lovely glimpses of the ordinary.

Coot Fulica atra

Coot Fulica atra

January 7th 2018. A brilliant late afternoon tempted me in to the Lake Hide at Westhay Moor. Surprisingly, I was on my own for all except a couple of minutes of the hour and a half I was there. It was really beautiful, with great clarity and brilliant sunshine. The only minus was the wind which was really strong blowing straight in to the hide. It may appear odd, but I managed to overcome the worst of the chill by hiding behind my camera set up on its mini-tripod. It was only when I closed the shutters to go home that I realised I was colder than I thought yet I was really well clothed, with windproof, muliti-layeder garments. I have noticed this before; the cold seeps into the core of the body without you realising until you move. 

The important thing is that the ducks are back at last - not huge numbers but sufficient to make the visit worthwhile. The main body were Gadwall. Their deep croaking calls were everywhere.

Gadwall Anas strepera

I spotted the odd Shoveler Anas clypeata, a bunch of teal Anas crecca that were having great fun chasing each other at high speed, but always the other side of the reeds, not the open water in front. The other quite sizeable group were Mallard, smart as paint in their newly-acquired plumage.

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

The duck kept themselves well-sheltered. A pair of Gadwall were tucked into the edge of the island in front and did not move while I was there, just opening an eye briefly to check that all was well. Others ventured briefly out onto the open water as they crossed from one set of reeds to another.

Gadwall Anas strepera

As the light dimmed and changed its temperature a single Gadwall flew towards me and abruptly altered course, the resultant picture is a strange one, shadowed and the detail eroded, clearly indicating the time was ready to go, the picture not worth displaying. Leaving, the sun was in front, silhouetting the Typha heads against the hard light.

Typha in silhouette

January 6th 2018. Driving across Tealham Moor in bad late afternoon light, I came across a buzzard sitting on a post alongside the road. As I stopped and wound down the window, it lifted off and then, to my surprise, settled on the grass ahead.

 

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

It stayed put when I stopped slightly further off, not even moving when I switched off the noisy diesel engine. It was a really difficult feat to get the bird in the viewfinder, so acute was the angle, but three shots were made with success, before I drove off leaving the bird still sitting. It is one of the most beautifully marked buzzards I have seen. They vary enormously. Some are really dark and gloomy, others are pale, almost silver with a white breast - extremely elegant.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

January 3rd 2018. A wild and windy day after a really stormy night - gusts of over 100 mph reported in Cornwall and Cumbria - but the weather forecast indicated a period of sunshine for a while, so off to Catcott for a quick look. Maddie has been really sick over the New Year and had a spell staying with the vets overnight but was collected in the afternoon. My visit was in the morning. It seemed strange to go to Catcott without her. A number of friends were gathered there, Alan, Andrew and Peter, but reported little activity. The only real moments came when the Starlings appeared in the background and a small party of under twenty Teal started to circle and dip. Clearly they did not like the blustery conditions and could not sit still, but remained in the area. At first sight they looked like a flight of waders, flying so fast and with such sharp wings, twisting and turning from dark shadows to silver ghosts as they flew. They are real masters of light, showing up as in perfect control whatever the gusts did to them, so fast, like quicksilver.

 

Common teal Anas crecca 

Common teal Anas crecca

The final, delightful sighting was of a swan emerging from behind a bunch of rushes. It seemed such a perfect combination of winter colour with sunshine hitting the wings.

Mute swan Cygnus olor

On the way back, on the road from the river bridge to Alastair's farm, a Kestrel was spotted to one side of the road, close-by, hovering. I managed to pull up and, for a miracle, the road remained quite empty of traffic. I wound down the window and shot off picture after picture with the viewfinder full of bird. It paid no attention to me whatsover - astonishing - and I was able to take a large number of pictures. What is noticeable in these is that the head remains rigidly in the same postion relative to the ground, regardless of the position of the wings. What a wonderful sight, what a beautiful bird and what singular luck; one of those gold standard times that arise so infrequently, so memorably.

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

 Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

January 1st 2018. Yet another year gone by and a new one started; time to start planning the coming invertebrate season. It would be marvellous if it was thought that the reduction in numbers of so many of our previously common species would cease, but I fear long-term changes show no sign of this. I have been going back through the earliest editions of these notes and the trend is unmistakable. The only hope is that this is part of a longer-term cycle which will turn in the opposite direction in due course. Nature is not short-term, cycles can operate over decades and not the short-term ranges we judge. May I raise my glass to a Happy New Year and longer-term, happier trends.


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