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February 2019  wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

27th February 2019. I felt in an experimental mode today. I decided to give a real trial to using the Sigma 1.4 converter I use with my 150mm macro lens, on the 100-400mm Sigma zoom lens at maximum magnification. I am also experimenting with slightly changing the way in which I convert from tiff to jpeg for the web. It was another superb day, windless, hot and the light perfect at Catcott Lows. I took a few shots with the unconverted lens, as a comparison. Then switched to the converted mode. The lens focussed perfectly, even though f6.3 is the widest aperture normally. If it am critical, I suspect the detail is not quite as perfect as the normal lens, but I am getting an extra 1.5 X magnification, taking it to 900mm - no small impact. Using the normal situation , it would require a great deal more blowing up on the computer, again losing much detail. In perfect conditions such as this, the experiment is a success and I will be using it again.

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

As usual in Catcott, Wigeon were by far the most numerous ducks, mostly asleep but every so often stretching and preening, rarely taking flight. Shoveler were present in reasonable numbers and were a bit more active, the drakes sparking each other off, ocasionally lifting off into flights of half a dozen birds chasing a female - such splendid colours after grey English winter days.

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m

As for the question of resolution on the website, I have made changes, converting directly from the original tiff to a specified size jpeg, via Pixillion. It works well on most, but the pictures of Shoveler above are far less detailed than the original. It is quicker than my previous method and I have contacted the program people to see whether they have further tips. I know I have to be careful to increase both contrast and colour density to suit their algorithm, but await their reply. Since, I have downloaded a program called RIOT that shows you before and after pictures side-by-side. The Shoveler picture is now produced using this method but not at full optimisation, as I have to sort out a new work-flow. It is a brighter, clearer picture already but not yet as sharp as I hope.

25th February 2019. We have entered a long spell of really fine weather, little wind, clear sunshine and record temperatures for the time of year. There is little sign of significant insect life in the garden, but that may be because nightime temperatures are low, as happens with clear skies. I drove off to meet Chris at Greylake, arriving at around 10.30 in the morning to find masses of duck in front of the hide. Chris reported little movement, although he had been there since 8.30. Everything was sleeping. More than a hundred Black-tailed godwits dozed without their usual regular wing-stretching catching the light.

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria

On the way in, a Reed bunting fed on a Typha head, bending it right over. She was completely unconcerned, paying no attention to my standing so close.

Reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus

Overhead, a Marsh harrier sailed across the reed-beds.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus

At the hide, most ducks snoozed, the sun lighting up metallic and coloured feathers, but few flew. I photographed some Gadwall coming in, Shoveler and Wigeon, but had hoped for more.

Gadwall Anas strepera

Wigeon Anas penelope; Shoveler A. clypeata

Wigeon Anas penelope; Shoveler A. clypeata

Another, or was it the same Marsh harrier, roused practically none of the ducks as it sailed over one edge?

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus juv. f

This was followed by the much more unusual Hen harrier, a 'ringtail', as the young birds are known, males and females appearing the same at that stage. It did not come particularly close, but a couple of pictures serve as records.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus 'ringtail'

It was good to see various snipe again, they are not visible always at Greylake. This time, little flights were busy for much of the time. One bird landed conveiently near a Little grebe. Several of these delightful waterbirds were busy around the open water.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

Little grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis

At midday, we decided to leave, Chris for home while I looked in elsewhere on the way back. More Reed buntings were feeding on a stump in the carpark, to round off an enjoyable but low-key visit. Catcott Lows was still dotted with duck, few of them other than dozing in the warm sun. A Lapwing came closer.

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

A Great white egret circled the hide a couple of times before settling towards the back. We had some fine views as it sailed past, wings beating characteristically slowly but powerfully.

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

The swans were still busy with each other, flying round, settling and cosying up to each other, a peaceful scene.

23rd February 2019. I took a long walk on Westhay Moor in the afternoon, enjoying a warm day with plenty of sunshine lighting up the reeds, though this gradually clouded over as I reached the North Hide. As usual, nothing stirred anywhere for some while. Then something quite unexpected happened. A Sparrowhawk appeared above the reeds, as if by magic; nothing one second, then the hawk diving down deep into the Typha and shooting up again. It was a frantic few seconds, trying to photograph this little rocket before it vanished. It was all done by instinct and, remarkably, everything clicked. The main picture is not all in focus, the bird was in full blast, but I like the effect.

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m

After a long period of waiting a Marsh harrier appeared, not very close, but making for interesting pictures. She was in that terribly difficult interim plumage that confuses so much at this time of year. It is important to take lots of pictures to see the important parts. After a short period of hunting, she decided to rest on the super-thin branches of a bush growing out of the reeds. I have seen other birds go to the same place in the past. It was highly rewarding to catch the various poses as she rocked and twisted to keep her balance.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

On the way home, a fine Kestrel appeared briefly on Tealham Moor to complete the day.

Kestrel Falco tinunculus

22nd February 2019. Today's visit was to Catcott Lows bathed in sunshine and still full of ducks. The geneneral impression in the area as a whole is that the numbers of birds are diminishing noticeably. I suspect many have already left on their migratory flights, that sad period when you realise that winter is at an end - the top period for most bird-watchers - before the insect season has started. Apart from enjoying watching the ducks, including the first tentative courtship flights of Shoveler, several males chasing a solitary female. A pair of Mute swans started a courtship dance in front, eventually leading to full-blown mating. They appear so loving, forming such elaborate inter-twinded shapes.

Mute swans courtship Cygnus olor

The most interesting find was a lone Dunlin hiding on one of the islands, squeezed in between the ducks. I have never seen one of these birds at this location, though many years ago large flights of Dunlin were spotted on other parts of the moors.

Dunlin Calidris alpina & Wigeon Anas penelope

On my way back, a Little egret behaved in a really fiendly manner, walking up and down above a ditch on Tealham Moor. A strong wind blew its feathers perfectly to reveal its breeding plumage.

Little egret in breeding plumage Egretta garzetta

17th February 2019. A remarkable day for our website. We have now reached a quarter of a million visitors, from around thirty countries: a day we never could have imagined when Tim and I started 'insectsandflight'. Thank you so much for visiting our part of the world and its wildlife through this site.

12th February 2019. I drove over to the RSPB park at Ham Wall, passed the nearby Wildlife Trust park opposite and decided to drive in - it was totally empty. I realised I had not been down the rhyne onto Shapwick Heath for such a long time I had not even seen the replacement tower hide at Noah's Lake. While the day was warm, it was overcast and miserable-looking, not at all inviting. Nevertheless I had a good walk down and felt better for it. The new hide is comfortable, well-made, but rather badly designed. The shelf below the windows is narrow, not suitable for the mini-tripods increasingly used by photographers and telescope users. Older hides always have wider shelves, whereas there is a tendency to fit nidgy little ones to the latest generation. However, the main piece of poor design, universally acknowledged by users, is the space between windows. The area between is really wide,  wasting precious space and preventing the eye from travelling seamlessly from one window to another, as in other hides. Why won't designers talk to users, or look at popular existing hides for tips. Why re-invent the interiors with each new one? The lake itself is as I always remembered it in the past, All the birds were dots in the distance, too far away for anyone except high-powered telescope users. It was also grey and heavily overcast, all colour sucked out of the scene. As I was about to leave, I looked down below and saw a swirl in the water and a Great crested grebe popped up from a dive. I was lucky. It stayed in the same area for some while, providing an unusual angle to view the bird and a good selection of pictures.

 Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus 

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus 

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus 

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

February 11th 2019. My visit may be seen in two clearly different parts, Catcott Lows and Tealham Moor, on a not particularly hopeful day, overcast and chilly. I had meant to go on to Greylake but found that time had run out on me. As usual, Catcott held large populations of duck, the vast majority Wigeon, mostly asleep in serried ranks, though with periodic bunches suddenly bursting out into a fit of squabbling. The main interest for this visit were Lapwings, intermixed with the duck in quite large numbers. Fortunately for me, they took to settling on the edge of the water closest to me. I concentrated the lens on these, as well as the short flights they made periodically. There was a great deal of preening and I enjoyed the many and varied poses for well over an hour before I had to leave. It is particularly interesting to see the gradual build-up to full breeding plumage, as the colouring intensifies.

 Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

The final sighting was of a solitary pair of godwits among the Lapwings. Somewhat of a change from my visit to Greylake.

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa; Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

On the way home I kept an eye out for the Short-eared owl Asio flammeus that so many bird-watchers had been enjoying on Tealham Moor recently, but was not lucky. Back at Catcott, Alan had been showing me some superb pictures of it at rest and in flight, that he had taken earlier in the morning. But it was not to be for me. Instead, further round on Jack's Drove, I came across a more distant bird-of prey. At first glance, I thought I had found the owl, as it was slightly turned away. Even when it was more side-on, I was still confused. There was white on the face and rounded owl like bumbs on the top. Eventually it lifted off and flew across the other side of the road. It was a buzzard but with colouring unlike any buzzard I have seen before - intriguing. Has anyone any views on this identification?

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

February 6th 2019. Another fine morning, though with hazy sun for periods, seemed suitable for a visit to Greylake to see what might be happening to one of our premier sites. There plenty of duck, but most seemingly asleep, including many packed together on the strip stretching out in front of the hide - always a shock to new visitors. But nothing much was happening, the perennial worry for the photographer. Every so often, the odd singleton took off, shuffling the nearby dozers, while nearby teal engaged in their first belligerent shows of the courtship ritual.

Shoveler Anas clypeata

Common teal Anas crecca

Common teal Anas crecca

We always hope for something unusual to catch the eye. Then, someone spotted some Black-tailed godwits over to the left, and we spotted there were large numbers hunkered together in three groups, given away byt the habit of a few individuals flicking their wings up, then down again.

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

I moved round to the little tower shelter to the left for a better look. I could see more detail there, though they were still some distance away. The plum moments came when something disturbed them, though unseen to me. They took off in three waves and kept themselves separate while they circled and dipped, not able to bring themselves to land again. Curiously, the surrounding ducks remained largely unaffected, sitting firmly where they were. The godwits circled and crossed in front, sometimes really close, at others venturing further off. In the end the settled, appearing reluctant, but anxious to continue their dozing, and I left after enjoying a marvellous spectacle. 

 Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

 Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

 Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

February 2nd 2019. A fine, cold, sunny forecast boded well for a longer walk along London Drove on Westhay Moor this afternoon. On my way there, along Jack's drove, I came across a car stopped in one of the southern droves. It was surrounded by twenty and more Cattle egrets picking away at the mud within a few feet of the car. As there was a car coming towards me, I had no other course of action than to drive on.

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

As I walked down London drove, I met my neighbour Martin, coming in the opposite direction. To my surprise I found he is now a bird photographer and watcher, well equipped and enjoying it all. I am so delighted. While it was most enjoyable, great conditions for a walk, the bird life proved somehwhat disappointing, except at the very end. I spent a couple of hours in the North hide but saw next to nothing - a few Mallard, Coots and Mute swans. There was a very distant view of a Marsh harrier but that was all. Mendip in the background was still white with snow but there was little elsewhere. During the course of the visit it became clear that even the snow on Mendip was decreasing quite visibly. At the end, I packed up and walked over to the 30 acre hide to see what was going on further north and west. A Great white egret was feeding right under the shadow of the hide and, later, provided some fine flight shots, always exciting.

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba 

I walked back along the drove, the evening colouring gradually stengthening, small flights of ducks racing across the sky, the cold increasing the whole while - bracing and peculiarly enjoyable. By the time I reached the car almost all colour had been sucked out, leaving the reeds silhouetted against the remaining brightness.

Wigeon Anas penelope

Westhay Moor NNR - on the way home!

February 1st 2019. We are surrounded by snow today, a far from usual situation in our part of the country. The short hill just round the corner from our lane is insurmountable at present, as we know from previous experience with our cars, so I am catching up with matters that need handling, paperwork and updating the computer. The snow is only a couple of inches thick, but crunchy under the overcast sky and will probably remain so for much of the day. Another hard frost is predicted for this evening, but it should all be cleared by the end of tomorrow.




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