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January 2019  wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

January 30th 2019. I was hoping for a word with Ron and other friends, so dropped into the hide at Catcott Lows to find them contemplating large numbers of duck and sheets of ice.

Wigeon Anas penelope & Shoveler A. clypeata

Too far away for useful photography, a lone Great white egret Egretta garzetta looked really uncomfortable, huddled up, not moving more than was essential, certainly not searching for prey. Later, looking at the book, I saw that its normal haunts are in southern Europe. They must find our raw, wet conditions uncomfortable in the extreme. I hope these experiences don't drive them away from our shores again. Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis live even further south than that. The Little egret Egretta garzetta lives also in the colder parts of Europe, so is much better equipped for our climate. It was great watching the duck, even more so when something disturbed them into one those strange frights so characteristic of this time of year.

Wigeon Anas penelope & Shoveler A. clypeata

On the way home, crossing Tealham moor, I came across a heron really close to the road. I had seen others looking little more than a bag of bones in this hard weather, where ditches remain frozen. But this one looked extremely well-fed, possitively bulky in a series of pictures, with signs of a meal showing in the neck. For a change, this bird was completely unfazed by the presence of the car. It is so good to see a fine adult so close-up.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

 

 

 

January 28th 2019. A brisk walk being needed, Ham Wall proved an ideal destination, the fine car-park and other facilities being much appreciated in these cold times. As I settled down in the Avalon hide poised above the reeds, a harrier appeared briefly, but she was the only one to be seen while there. I managed to obtain two or three pictures as she dived down into the reeds.

 

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

 

I went on to have a most enjoyable time watching and photographing common ducks in their winter habitat. I left feeling that I had not achieved anything but was pleased with the results when seen on the computer, though others may feel they are simply ordinary moments in duck-lives.

Common teal Anas crecca m

Common teal Anas crecca m

Common teal Anas crecca f

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

January 27th 2019. I keep on returning to Catcott Lows, though a visit involves little of that essential walking needed in present-day life. The carpark to hide door involves only a few yards of walking. Two reasons attract; one because other friends have the same reasons and are there. It is a time of finding out what is going on and how people are; essential ingredients. The other, of course, are the amazing hordes of duck stretched out in front even though the wind is really kicking up the waves.

Wigeon Anas penelope

Shoveler Anas clypeata


Wigeon Anas penelope m

Wigeon Anas penelope & Shoveler A. clypeata

Wigeon Anas penelope & Shoveler A. clypeata

Wigeon Anas penelope m

At first I found myself searching the background for predators, paying less attention to the Wigeon and others in front. Then I realised that these latter were photographer's and artist's dreams in their own right. Their activities, poses and behaviour were worthy of any lens, any person. Yes, it appears the same, as you settle on the bench, but life never stands still from moment to moment. Colour, shapes and movements fill the eye. At this season, in this particular year, it is impossible to ignore the Lapwings, now present in some numbers, continuing to build. My picture shows them crossing the water, low down, illustrating how furious was the wind this morning, huddled down as they fought their way across. The other shows how buoyant the flight is in reality.

Lapwings Vanellus vanellus

Lapwings Vanellus vanellus

The biggest surprise of the day was the appearance of numbers of Great white egrets over the back. We all agreed that there were at least thirteen of these large birds cavorting in the sky for a few minutes. 

Great white egrets Egretta alba

January 22nd 2019. It was a lovely hazy, sunny day, for once without those hard shadows seen so frequently in recent times. I walked up London Drove and even the rather sharp wind was dulled to a pleasant breeze. The muted silver-gold of the reeds was superb. And so it continued during the few hours I was there. I looked in on the furthest lake, but the duck were far-off, so walked back to the North hide.

North hide, Westhay Moor NNR, Somerset Levels

The only two people I saw there were leaving as I arrived at the door. After that I looked over a totally peaceful scene, the water near still, the colours muted in the distance. A solitary Great crested grebe was close to its previous nesting place, though there was no sign of the second bird I watched the other day. Perhaps this grebe was concerned by this? Every so often it called strongly. The grebe voice is harsh, which made it sound plaintive.

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

Gadwall were dodging in and out of the reeds, continuing apparently their relatively rapid increase in numbers over the years. The only other ducks were a few Shoveler Anas clypeata.

Gadwall Anas strepera f

The real excitement that kept me there, watching, were the views of a female Marsh harrier hunting the reeded areas. She came over quite close and the quality of the light was such as to bring out the colours of the bird quite perfectly. The generally dark plumage is all too easy to turn into an amorphous mass, a mere silhouette, losing shape without the gradation between the feather colours. She made several appearances while I was watching, a real privilege. Currently, this is the place with the best chance of getting reasonable sightings of these magnificent birds. For me, it has the added bonus of a reasonable walk to reach it.

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

Emerging from the entrance I looked across the lake to a few larger duck rather far out - the usual winter Goosanders that favour us each year.

Goosander Mergus merganser m

The final sighting came on the edge of Tealham moor before turning down Jack's drove. A number of the slightly dumpy Cattle egrets were feeding right by the road.

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

January 19th 2019. Driving across Tealham Moor this morning, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. As I turned my head, it resolved into an owl taking off. It did not look particularly large but it could only be the Short-eared owl that others have beeen talking about recently. I was in a hurry and thought no more about it. Coming back, in the last of a brilliant, low sun, the owl was patrolling not far from where I saw it earlier, between the road and the River Brue.

Short-eared owl Asio flammeus

A rash of birdwatchers and photographers were scattererd all along the road. Where did they all come from? How does the news spread so quickly? Are they on their phone the whole while? But it is great to know personally that the owl really is present on the moor.

January 17th 2019. The weather has not been of the best recently, heavy overcast with some rain, not conducive to photography. It improved today, so I went for a walk on Catcott Heath, needing the exercise but also curious about the state of the tower hide at the edge of the water, overlooking Catcott Fen. This hide is an excellent one, well-thought out, with an upper storey as the accommodation, seemingly ideally placed. Yet, as has become usual, there were no birds to be seen.

Tower hide, Catcott Heath, Somerset Levels

The large span of open water was completely empty. On the other side, water-streaked and apparently ideal, there was no sign of anything either. Why? When it was being built and dredged out, there were masses of duck flying round; ever since, nothing. Never mind, it was a good walk, peaceful over attractive surrounds. On the way back, I dropped in to the Catcott Lows hide. What a different tale! Large numbers of Wigeon were everywhere. The islands in front were full of sleeping birds, interspersed with Lapwings. Unfortunately the light was rather harsh, in spite of apparently looking perfect. So photography was not at all easy. The best light was on the left hand island, dubbed 'Long Island' by Ron, who was also there. It shows the sheer numbers of birds birds packed in wherever they could. As usual, sleep rather than feeding was their activity.

Wigeon Anas penelope

A couple of times something disturbed the ducks, once a full-scale alarm, though we were unable to see what had caused it. Possibly a predator high overhead, though I could see no sign. Typically they circled and circled, dropping down, then whistled up again before actually landing. Very spectacular.

Wigeon and other duck, Anas penelope

Wigeon and other duck, Anas penelope

The other frights were most likely caused by a Lapwing or some other bigger bird passing a shadow over part of the population. The duck took off in bursts of spray, but flew only a few feet above the water, pitching immediately at the end of their flight. These latter erruptions betrayed other species among the Wigeon, especially Shoveler.

Wigeon and other duck, Anas penelope

The area is doing really well, but there were no signs of the usual predators while I was there. Though, perhaps a single Great white egret might well come under that category. Often while I am there this, or another bird, flies in and gradually works its way closer. Dignified and statuesque as always.

Great white egret Egretta alba

Finally, as is becoming usual now, I am glad to say Lapwings were well mixed in among the ducks, frequently lifting up and moving a few yards. They cannot look anything other than beautiful.

January 10th 2019. The forecast was for an hour's worth of sun, followed by increassing cloud, and so it worked out on another walk at Ham Wall. The last visit was so good, I decided on going to the Tor View hide again. THe light was still rather contrasty and harsh for much of the time but the harriers behaved near perfectly, appearing almost as soon as I sat down.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

She hunted up and down much the same areas previously. The first harrier was a dark female and remained on her own for some while. Strange excitable call came from quite close, then a second female emerged, flying low down towards the other, still calling the whole time. The final picture came from a teal bobbing up under the hide.

Common teal Anas crecca f

January 8th 2019. I had a most delightful and productive visit to Ham Wall, and will certainly do the same on another occasion shortly. Hazy sunshine eventually cleared to a fine blue sky. People arriving in droves to see the Starlings should have had a perfect visit - provided the birds actually arrived at this destination tonight. By that time I was well on my way home with just under 400 pictures on the card, too tired to stay with the others. I made my way to the Tor View hide, set in the middle of the reeds and water. It was quite busy, but I found myself a seat facing eastwards, where the light was less glary - and stayed there. The surrounds were studded with duck but nothing flew. Batches of Coots provided a deal of entertainment though, fighting each other for no obvious reason. It seemed a bloody process, little quarter being given. The birds assumed some strange contortions in threat-mode, before rushing in to the attack.

Coot Fulica atra

Coot Fulica atra

Then a harrier appeeared in the extreme distance, slowly moving nearer, dropping down into the reeds for a while. She, for any we saw were females, reappeared from various areas so it was not clear whether it was one doing a Houdini, or several different birds. We were treated to long displays, sometimes coming quite close, often tantalisingly distant. It was the longest period watching harriers in action that I have ever come across, lasting well over an hour. Unfortunately the light was rather harsh and contrasty, not ideal, but the shutter went on clicking. Eventually, it seemed the time had come to leave the harriers to themselves. The light was getting worse and the birds became difficult to pick out among the reeds.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

My new destination was the bench set half-way along the narrow path leading to the hide. Miraculously, the light intensified and cleared, blue sky at last, and ducks flew over, quick-winged, in continuous flights. It was a true 'Peter Scott evening flight', just as he painted wild waterfowl so marvellously years ago. Among these flights, Tufted duck were perhaps the most exciting, their wings beating so fast, small-bodied but solid. I had not really been aware of them on the water previously, but here they were flying in substantial numbers.

Tufted ducks Aythya fuligula m

Tufted ducks Aythya fuligula

Tufted ducks Aythya fuligula m

Gadwall were also an important part of this evening flight. Not as spectacular as the tufties but supremely elegant in their own quiet way. Many yars ago they were great rarities, now they are common in these parts, proving that not everything is on a downward path.

Gadwall Anas strepera

Gadwall Anas strepera

I saw far more than I managed to photograph, tired from looking through a viewfinder for so long, but there is always another time to make up for that. You have to be wide awake to get any pictures. The duck erupted from the reeds, flew towards you, hardly changing perspective until suddenly they filled the viewfinder, then were over and past.

January 7th 2019. It has been a really grey, dark day but I needed a walk and decided to visit Greylake. It stayed dark until Greylake was reached, then the sky became harsh and bright in front of the hide. Photography was really difficult aginst the contrasty sky. Eventually there came a short period with watery sun, while the usual cold westerly wind strengthened - a longtime feature of this place. There were large numbers of duck in front. Most stayed were they were, but little parties flew in from the back and landed to the left, out of direct sight. They could only be described as restless, as there did not seem to be any predators to have caused the flights, which were in only penny packets, rather than all-out frights.

Wigeon Anas penelope; Shoveler A. clypeata

 Common teal Anas crecca f

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

I enjoyed the visit but, as nothing further was happening, decided to leave and call on Catcott Lows on my journey back. It really was rather unpleasant there, drizzling, low cloud and little sign of it improving. However, this did not put off the resident Lapwings. They were really active, while the air was filled with the sound of their calls, very entertaining.

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

 

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

January 4th 2019. It was a marvellous, perfect winter day, no wind, full sunshine from mid-morning, ideal for a walk up London drove on Westhay Moor. It was cold, 3°, but bracing. Perfect birdwatching weather. The lake to the western side of the drove sparkled. Up against the island, the usual Great white egret fished quietly, interspersed with long periods of just standing. It must be a perfect situation for the bird, plentiful food and little disturbance. Although common now, these egrets still look foreign in our surrounds.

Great white egret Egretta alba

The hide set in the reeds was empty to start with but a couple of friends appeared and made good companions. A pair of Great crested grebes, still scruffy in intermediate plumage, swam out and started their wonderful shaking courtship dance, somewhat early I would have thought. This was followed by a quick exploration of the old grebe nest from last year, then they split up. The one near the nest became rather agitated, calling, chasing along with head and neck held low on the water's surface - a broken romance?

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

Apart from them, the only other inhabitants were a pair of Tufted duck. Eventually the wait for predators paid off. A gloriously brightly coloured  Marsh harrier appeared from the very back and flew into the reeds on the right, perching high up on an slender branch rising up above the reeds. We watched it searching widely round, twisting its head the whole time. Eventually it took off, giving some fine shots with dangling legs.

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

On my way back down the drove to pick up the car, a couple of Goosanders flew past and across the water, settling far away. It is good to see them again, they come here each winter, staying throughout.

Goosanders Mergus merganser

The egret was still at it's post as I strolled past.

January 2nd 2019. A still, sparkling day tempted me out to visit Steart Marshes, a huge area of grass, reeds and water largely determined by breaching the seawall a few years back. This was part of a huge change to the Steart peninsula designed to cut flooding elsewhere. The opportunity was taken to greatly increase the local nature reserve and has proved highly succesful. It is used by armies of families out walking and numbers of birdwatchers and photographers anxious to see what has happened and record it. I parked at the main carpark and walked to the Quantock hide with its large freshwater lake. I had hoped to see the three Spoonbills Platalea leucorodis still reported present, but it was not to be. However, there were large numbers of waders, mostly Golden plover but including lesser numbers of Redshank Tringa totanus, Dunlin Calidris alpina and others. A Lesser yellowlegs Tringa flavipes has been recorded in the area recently.

 Steart Marshes 

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria

It was a strangely peaceful visit, not disturbed by predators sending the whole lot into the air. There were many teal taking advantage of good muddy feeding conditions on the shallow shore. It was fascinating watching them contort themselves as they slurped the liquid mud. Colours and shapes emerged that are not normally seen on such elegant ducks.

Common teal Anas crecca

Common teal Anas crecca

Common teal Anas crecca

The only other obvious birds were Shelduck, prominent among the hordes of darked birds. They were the only restless ones, every so often taking off and circling several times before setttling on another area.

Shelduck Tadorna tadorna

I left this tranquil scene and drove up to Steart Gate carpark, a place I had not visited before. On the way there, a female Kestrel sat on a bush overhanging the road. Fortunately there were no cars around and I was able to snatch a few shots before moving on. She stayed quite unmoved by my presence and the switching off and on of the engine.

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

From Steart Gate, a path took me along the inner side of the breach, looking over rather gloomy dark reeds and muddy water. This section is tidal. At this time there were no birds visible, the inhabitants of the grassland, sheep. The light was now much poorer and against the brighter sky, not worth walking further. On my return I stopped at a melee of cars parked all round a corner, on both sides. Tripods and cameras were everywhere. I asked a friend who was part of this crowd and he told me a Short-eared owl was up on the fencing above. A rounded blob was all that was visible.Then the owl moved, flew over to another post and I managed a couple of distant shots of it landing, which was pleasing. What always amazes me is the long, slender wings, quite different to the rounded ones of others in the owl family.

Short-eared owl Asio flammeus

Short-eared owl Asio flammeus

January 1st 2019. The new year has arrived. A moment for hope and for looking back to see what has happened and been achieved over the previous year. May I wish everyone have a Happy New Year. But first an apology for a mysterious event. Two days in the New Year had already been entered and saved, then disappeared just as the pictures were to be added. Not only that, but a thousand recorded visitors just vanished at that same moment. Every effort has been made to find the missing period but I have to accept it is wandering around above in that mysterious area which computers inhabit. On this bright morning I decided to visit part of Westhay Moor with which I am not too familiar. Instead of London drove, I parked on Daggs Lane drove and walked up to the island hide on the right. It looked marvellous, sparkling water and glowing reeds, but there was no wildlife to be seen. I suspect it may have been the numbers of people taking their consitutional walks beside it. The open water is very close to the main drove, with only a narrow screen of reeds. The Reception hide was equally disappointing, very little to be seen, though it was largely undisturbed. I went on down the main path through the reseve and turned off to visit the Tower hide set among reeds and water. After a couple of birdwatchers left, I was on my own. A swan flew over and another turned up right below, giving a marvellous close-up view. Common they may be on the Levels, often a hundred or so in a field, but nothing detracts from their grace and beauty.

Mute swan Cygnus olor

Mute swan Cygnus olor

Not a lot else happened for a while, then a speck in the distance resolved into a Kestrel. It was fascinating watching the detail gradually resolve as the bird drew nearer. Ordinary, grey-brown, then the marvellous colouring became more obvious.

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus f

Finally, an immature male Marsh harrier gave a distant but impressive show of aerobatics as he hunted the reeds. Identification has to come from a number of shots at this difficult stage of transforming to adult. None of the reference books show all the possible variations. The upper surface of the wing is often the best confirmation.

Marsh harrier, Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier, Circus aeruginosus m


 


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