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March 2019  wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

30th March 2019. I enjoyed a most rewarding and enjoyable afternoon out at Westhay Moor NNR, wonderful weather, sunshine, with only light winds. The walk up London Drove was beautiful, the reeds lit up and glowing. I found Graham in the North Hide with another friend and enjoyed their experience and knowledge. Two birds caught our special interest - Marsh harriers and Great crested grebes. The adult grebes were the same pair that had a nest in the reeds right opposite. This was now deserted, a fat male Mallard Anas platyrhynchos fast asleep on it. The adults were in the middle of the water, periodically venturing closer. A closer scrutiny showed little striped heads poking up from one of their backs. There were three chicks, tiny, but quite capable of slipping off, swimming and scrambling back again. The parents were really attentive, a real family in every sense. It seems there may have been four chicks earlier, but these three seemed healthy and strong. Every time father came near, the heads popped up and strained over the edge, clearly hoping for more food. I trust the pictures show some of this spirit. I will watch progress with the family as they grow and trust no tragedy befalls them.

Great crested grebes Podiceps cristatus

Great crested grebes Podiceps cristatus

Great crested grebes Podiceps cristatus

A beautiful, colourful male Marsh harrier made two visits while I was there, the first briefer than the second. I am almost certain it was the same bird each time, the colouring being quite distinctive. He floated into sight from the deepest background, at first just a hint of movement, then the colours appearing and strengthening as he came closer. Such a superbly elegant bird, light as a feather but completely in control of his flight. There is nothing laboured about it, even when taking off. A buzzard is supremely in control when it sails in circles overhead, but has to work hard to take off. No such temporary lack of elegance is found with the harrier. He is always perfectly turned out, absolutely graceful, even later in the year when  into the moult, losing feathers; the grace of his movements makes up for any lost symmetry in outline. It was fascinating watching him quartering the reeds, head down, moving on after a slight check, then dropping down, wings spread wide, before vanishing into their mass. A short pause. Is he eating a small mammal or bird, or sitting there wondering where he went wrong? It has been shown that quite a small percentage of such episodes lead to a kill.

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

27th March 2019. I was on my own visiting Westhay Moor this afternoon. I saw only a couple of people in the distance while one person came into the North hide, briefly. It was a lovely, sunny day, the sky a deep blue. When I got home I thought I had had a rather unexciting but peaceful time. Then I looked at the pictures on the computer and realised there was a wide and interesting selection. A male Marsh harrier appeared twice, though only for a brief period on each occasion. Each time, he swept up from the very back, circled across and vanished once more. Was he assessing whether there was a potential meal or just checking the bounds?

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

When the predators do appear, there is a mad rush in trying to find him in the viewfinder, adrenalin at work, then it is all over, leaving a sense of loss behind. The glowing white-gold reeds make the ideal background, but there is no choice as he wheels against a duller area at the back. There were few but choice duck on the water and every so often they would swim closer, sometimes offering fine portraits. Tufted duck showed off their purple head sheen, Gadwall their intricate patterning, particularly on the males.

Tufted duck Aythya fuligula

Tufted duck Aythya fuligula m

Gadwall Anas strepera m

Common teal Anas crecca f

Finally, the grebes. A fairly distant nest was located where it has been for several years, set on the edge of an island of reeds. One bird sat firmly on the nest while the other 'fussed around'. There is no other way of describing it's actions. It brought little offerings of twigs, but no obvious food. Eventually, the two chose to change-over. The larger bird stood up and stretched. As the computer showed later, three little babies, vivid in striped uniform, struggled around at one end of the nest. The original bird slipped into the water and proceeded to preen and wash for several minutes before smimming off. The other bird hauled itself onto the nest and settled the tiny youngsters down. I did not see any feeding taking place before everything went back to normal.

Great crested grebes Podiceps cristatus

Great crested grebes Podiceps cristatus

Great crested grebes Podiceps cristatus

25th March 2019. A late visit to Catcott Lows promised very little at the start. Ducks were much reduced in numbers and nearly all were fast asleep. I was pleased to meet up with Kiff, who used to work for the Somerset Wildlife Trust, but has now retired. He was busy photographing, as were others in the hide, though 'prey' was much reduced. As I was on the point of leaving, a Great white egret flew in from the background, slow wingbeats exaggerated as it came into view head-on. I had a marvellous time photographing it as it came closer, then landed. So graceful in flight, it became even more so as it started fishing. We are so lucky to have these birds in the area.

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

Finally, a few Lapwings started displaying, bringing opportunities for flight shots. I must say, I found the 900mm of the whole lens outfit rather constraining when the birds were close. The 400mm on its own is much easier to follow the birds and swing with them. But the 1.4 X converter loses only a little in sharpness when it locks on. The speed of focussing seems unaffected by whether the converter is fitted or not, which is remarkable, as the original zoom is only f6.3. Technology is always one step ahead!

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

21st March 2019. This morning there were two Anthophora plumipes mining bees in the garden, one from each sex.

mining bee Anthophora plumipes f

Ham Wall again provided a good walk, but with little in the way of birds, although we did hear a couple of Bitterns Botaurus stellaris booming - in the extreme distance - my first time this year. On the way there, Romey spotted a roe deer at the back of Tadham Moor. Why report this? Simple, we have seen virtually no deer on the moors for a long hile. Years ago, there were few days when you did not see deer, anything up to a dozen together in a field. But those days have long gone. It is believed to be due to excessive poaching, often carried out with powerful lights at night. Whatever and however; we miss them.

Roebuck Capreolus capreolus

Back at Ham Wall, an unexpected bonus was the discovery of an exceedingly tame little mouse on a atch of grass by one of the blinds. A movement caught my eye and I found myself looking at a Yellow-necked fieldmouse, a species I have never come across before. It went about it's business without worrying a button about us. I was photographing it at a range of only a few feet; it just got on with the all-important business of feeding. What a privilege for us!

Yellow-necked fieldmouse Apodemus flavicollis

Yellow-necked fieldmouse Apodemus flavicollis

Yellow-necked fieldmouse Apodemus flavicollis

Yellow-necked fieldmouse Apodemus flavicollis

To complete the day, a fine Cormorant circled overhead a couple of times before deciding that we were not to be trusted, making off to the further reaches. They are not popular, but I enjoy watching them as  much as any bird. They are graceful, sinuous, bold and elegant in so many of their poses. They also can look as if they really are the remnant dinasaurs they actually are.


Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

17th March 2019. Romey and I spent a wild and woolly afternoon walking round Ham Wall. For much of the time there was nothing to see. The duck and their predators were keeping well hidden in this gusty weather, everything looking as cheerless as can be. Just as were about to give up and go home, a grebe appeared in front, swimming strongly towards us until it was at the pefect distance. Then it started preening, giving a marvellous set of poses.

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

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

13th March 2019. I must be mad! I cannot resist the lure of bad weather. 30-50mph winds were forecast and duly arrived, by then I was back at Greylake. But, for the first time I photographed through the glass, without opening the shutters. Others took the same decision without anyone demurring. You had to feel for the duck, they hardly stirred, hunkering down into the vegetation as far as they could, head-on to the westerly wind. This was so strong that, walking along the path, I was caught aback several times, staggering backwards for a step or two before recovering briefly. It really did shriek and scream when this happened. At the same time, the area lay under a glorious blue sky. A Little egret provided a diversion, sweeping in and landing quite close. It did not appear to be much incommoded by the wind once it had its balance on landing, settling down to fish most diligently on the edge of the water. It performed the old egret trick of shading the surface beneath spread wings to aid its vision beneath the water.

Little egret Egretta garzetta

Little egret Egretta garzetta

Little egret Egretta garzetta

It was a morning for concentrating on portraits of duck whenever possible. Many were tucked as close as possible under the smallest of pat-cliff edges or stands of rushes.

Common teal Anas crecca m

Common teal Anas crecca m

Something unseen passed over the assembly of ducks and they all, as one, roared into life, scrabbling to find wing amongst all their fellows. It really was a fantastic sight, accompanied by the sounds of all those wings straining upwards. The numbers multiplied by several times the birds seen previously. All those hidden behind the reeds and rushy clumps, others behind the island and off to the side, leapt for life. Fantastic. They circled and circled before gradually settling again, until only a few pair were left in the air. Real drama.

a melée of Wigeon & other duck

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

11th March 2019. Although it was still blowing hard, I ventured out to Greylake in the morning and was not disappointed with the results. There was plenty to see in spite of the weather. Somethinng stirred the birds up a bit, though only one distant harrier was spotted. Black-tailed godwits were the main protagonists, leaping into the sky every so often, showing first their darker sides, then the almost pure white underneath, all in near-perfect synchrony.

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

 Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

Much of my time was concentrated much closer, where some snipe appeared briefly out of nowhere. Their camouflage is extraordinary, birds disappearing the moment they stopped moving. A few snipe were spotted in the grass after a deal of searching. I had thought they might not be here at all, being small and appearing vulnerable, but after a while the first bird became apparent, deep in a bunch of grass and reed. As the wind strengthened, these few birds started shifting, trying to tuck themselves further out of the blast. It was then that you spotted them. They vanished once more as they settled into their new position.The lesson for their children must be, 'freeze and you will disappear'. It works every time. This time, their moves were dictated by trying to get out of the wind, which really was wicked.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

I did open the shutter on the hide, but tried desperately to hide behind whatever I could find; a window divider, even the camera. South westerly or westerly winds come straight towards the watcher, screaming across infinite distances of flat lands away from the sea. Before I left, I concentrated on portraits of sleeping or preening duck, tucked into whisps of vegetation or the crumbling edges of the peat. On my way back, I looked in at an inhospitable Catcott, the ducks all with heads under their wings. The only exception being a bunch of Shoveler males clearly at odds with each other, but forming a pleasing pattern.

Shoveler Anas clypeata

On the way home, an obliging Little egret allowed a classic portrait.

Little egret Egretta garzetta

10th March 2019. We are in a period of intense weather, extremely strong winds not always obvious at home, where we are sheltered from westerly battering. I thought that Canada Lake, opposite the main area of Shapwick Heath (though still a part of that same designation), would be sheltered but had not really thought it through. After a delightful walk through the woods, heath and open fields, I glimpsed the water through the reeds - numerous white caps on short, sharp waves as far as the eye could see.

 

 Canada Lake

Opening the shutter in the hide, the wind screamed through, deadening the skin almost immediately. Local weather reports indicated these winds were averaging over 30mph. The lake and heath beyond involves miles with no obstuctions, so I was feeling the maximum possible effects. At first there were no birds or signs of life anywhere, just acres of curling waves bursting into white tops. Periodic super gusts rocked the hide on its short stilts and ripped at the face. I found myself sheltering, or trying to shelter, behind the rather insignicant camera body, my hands slowly numbing even in excellent windproof fleece gloves. My eyes were running, scanning the huge are of broken water in front, then something appeared, a dark shape right over the other side. A minute later a Cormorant landed in front and started fishing in the turbulent water. It did not seem succesful, though it might have eaten its catch below the surface, but it gave a splendid demonstration of its total mastery of the medium.

Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

 Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

 Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

9th March 2019. Today, a selection of individual portraits taken at Catcott Lows from among the many ducks sleeping on the islands and on the grass close-by.

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

Wigeon Anas penelope m

Common shoveler Anas clypeata

Just before I left for lunch, a distant harrier drove them all up for one of their intense frights, landing after in a flurry of dipping into the water and shakng their wings. It is a common nervous reaction as they recover from their flush of adrenalin.

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

8th March 2019. Although it was not particularly warm, a sharp wind cooling down the scappy sun, a male Anthophora plumipes mining bee flew rapidly from one Pulmonaria flower to another. He was the first I have seen this year, endlessly searching for any feeding females. A week or so back I spotted the odd bumblebee but since then there has been no sign of insect activity, even during much warmer spells. The flowers are certainly there to maintain them.

mining bee Anthophora plumipes m

7th March 2019. I took another walk along he the length of London Drove on Westhay Moor. The actual walk was windswept, mainly overcast, with nearly all the waters deserted of widlife. It did, however, clear away the cobwebs from sitting in front of a computer for too long. The North Hide was sheltered from the prevailing wind, while the sun came out for a while, but there was unusually little to be seen for the hour or so I was there. The Great crested grebes are again nesting in the edge of the reeds in front of the hide. The sitting bird was quite restless and I spotted at least one large white egg when she did so. The other bird appeared briefly but did not stay long. This is the third year they have nested in exactly the same spot.

Great crestd grebes Podiceps cristatus

The wind strengthened, moving the hide quite noticeably in the gusts. A pair of Little grebes made their presence known with great burst of calling, then swimming hard towards me. Such attractive little birds, both in colour and behaviour.

Little grebes Tachybaptus ruficollis

Little grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis

Finally a couple of Great white egrets appeared, one after another, settling and hiding from the wind deep in the reeds but by then the colour was being sucked out of the scene, eventually becoming almost black and white creatures.

Great white egret Egretta alba

6th March 2019. It was a marvellous, sunny, blustery day and the water at Catcott Lows was whipped into steep, rolling waves. A predator disturbed far more Wigeon than had been apparent from looking at those open waters. Clouds of spray were whipped up and the duck looked as if they were badly shaken up, yet the harrier was far away over at the back, normally insufficently close to worry them.

 Wigeon Anas penelope

Perhaps the wind had already got under their tails? While there were other distractions, my time was devoted to a group of Shoveler fighting each other in the shallows close by. The colours of the duck were vibrant, the water rich blue, disturbed by the fierce winds that shook the hide. The birds were in the early stages of courtship, a single female being impressed, or not, by a group of males chasing each other, biting at their rivals tail-feathers and other excitement. There were clouds of spray being kicked up, much ritual washing by individuals after they disengaged. It was a delight to watch and even more fun to photograph.

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m

 

Common shoveler Anas clypeata m

All the pictures were taken with the 100-400mm lens with a 1.4 converter, giving an effective focal length of 900mm.

4th March 2019. Romey and I went for a walk at the eastern end of Westhay Moor NNR this afternoon. It was overcast and chilly for much of the time, occasionally allowing some sun to come though and cheer the place up. First call was at the Island Hide - only a few duck - then to the Viridor hide, also largely without wildlife. Never mind, the walk was the main point, to get some exercise after recent poor days. Our final stop was the Tower Hide, really only a blind on stilts, largely open to the weather. However, worth the effort. it has proved to be an interesting spot previously. Walking up to it, through an area where the chainsaws have been at work, Gadwall were making good use of the wet grazing that has resulted.

Gadwall Anas strepera

A Great white egret Egretta alba was lit by the sun and, set against a near-dark background, appeared enormous, brilliant, spotlit perfectly. But not for me, I was not quick enough on the draw so it flew on unrecorded. The hide showed a grey sky and large, dull expanse of reeds. These fill an extensive area and are the regular feeding ground of harriers. We were preparing to walk back when Romey spotted one of these fine birds in the distance; at first a shadow, then moving into focus, flying across the front and on without pause; then another, following much the same course.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Our day had not ended when we reached the car, driving out we spotted a buzzard sitting on a post, not in perfect light, but good enough for a portrait with the later help of the NXD program. The bird moved on to the post on the corner where I had seen another, or was it the same, buzzard previously? And there it stayed as we drove off. An unexpected end to the day.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

WORKFLOW

For some while, it has been clear that the workflow and systems used for inserting my pictures into the web were not optimising the potential from the original. The changes involved in taking advantage of the RIOT program, have made me look at the whole process, then set out a complete workflow, from taking the picture to use on the website. Recent changes have been so successful that they ought to be recorded for anyone seeking a similar process.

CAMERA/LENS COMBINATIONS

The cameras are all Nikon, D7100, D7200, and an old D300.

Birds

D7200, with Sigma 100-400 f5 to f6.3; light, sharp and rapid-focussing. I am now testing the use of a Sigma APO TELE EX DG 1.4 Converter to give a longer reach.

Insects

1, D300, with Sigma 180 f 5.6 APO macro, used with Metz 40 MZ-3 auto flash. A perfect outfit for photographing insects in flight at nest holes. Effectively 270mm focal length. Impeccable results, freezes action, razor sharp.

2. D7100, with Sigma 150mm f2.8 APO Macro DG HSM lens, using built-in flash through a Rogue Safari Fresnel lens to increase the power. Fitted with Sigma APO Tele 1.4 converter giving 315mm effective focal length. Particularly versatile for insect as well as  other photography when roaming out in the field.

SETTINGS

Birds:

Aperture priority. f7.1 or 8. ISO 640 - 800 in reasonable to good light.

Insects:

D300. Manual, 1/250th at f16 or 14, ISO 200. Flash 'Auto' - set at aperture 16, P16, 105mm (around 1/6000th second)

D7100. Manual 1/250th at f16 or f14, ISO 200. built-in Flash on 'automatic'

DEVELOPMENT

The latest Nikon move effectively outlawed the D7200 from the earlier models, as this camera no longer supports Nikon Capture NX2, used by those cameras. However, a new means of opening the Raw files now applies to all of them, under the latest NXD. Nikon has introduced View NX-i and Capture NXD, for capturing the output of the D7200 and any other Nikon cameras by way of Nikon Transfer 2.

The output from the two sets of programs is contained within the same folder, but not all the files will open in NX2, only those produced by that program. NXD is able to open all of them. I have designated those specific files originating from NXD/ViewNX-i, by adding 'D' to the end of the name, e.g. '2019-03-01 Ham Wall 0934D'. I now use View NX-i to carry out basic changes to colour, contrast etc, then save them as TIFFs to the appropriate NX2 headings, e.g. 'Kestrels', or 'Great white egrets’. All further manipulation occurs to TIFFs within the more sophisticated NX2 program, which I am fortunate enough to have from my earlier Nikon history, in exactly the same manner as previously. ViewNX-i is able to finish off the manipulations, but without the very important sharpening/noise reduction functions not present in that program. It is an odd way to set about development of the file, a real mix-up, not readily understandable by the ordinary person, but it can work as well as previously if used in combination, as above. Why Nikon decided to close a really good program and offer a less-sophisticated one in its place, I cannot imagine.

PUTTING PICTURES ONTO THE WEB

This has become a simpler process since downloading RIOT. This is a free program for non-commercial users, that converts TIFFs to JPEGs for use on the web. I resize a copy TIFF of the picture to the pixel width I wish to use, say '680', bring up RIOT and open this file. A window appears showing 'before' and 'after' pictures, side-by side. They appear identical to my eye, so I then save the result in the original folder. The copy TIFF may then be deleted to save space.

Open the 'Vanellus - Administration' tab in Google

Log in to 'Article Manager', select 'March 2019',

Select insertion point for picture in the text,

Click on 'Image' at bottom of screen,

Browse, select from files, open,

Start upload - done.

A good quality picture is now on the website. 

1st March 2019. The real objective was a walk when we visited Ham Wall this afternoon. The place has been really dead during recent visits, but I ended up with various interesting, if not ground-breaking, pictures. Ducks are showing signs of courtship, though there are far fewer than previously. Colouring is strengthening as their plumage moves towards days of courtship.

Common shoveler Anas clypata

Common teal Anas crecca m

Tufted ducks Aythya fuligula m

Tufted ducks Aythya fuligula m

Grebes are nearly in their full glory. There were a few dotted round the water as we walked towards the Tor hide among the reeds.

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

Small birds were gathered round the main platform area, people must bring crumbs to feed them.

Great tit Parus major

The colours of the reeds were lovely against the periodically dark skies. Ham Wall is a glorious place to enjoy acre upon acre of these wonderful landscapes. We are so lucky to enjoy such prospect so close to home.

Ham Wall

On the way home we passed the heronry on Tadham Moor. A few days ago, nothing was happening. Now herons flew in and out, with one sitting on the highest point like a sentry. In front, there only appeared to be a single bird on a nest, but this should change rapidly as spring moves closer.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

You may ask why such a motley collection of pictures? It is my first full effort using RIOT to convert the originals to JPEG. And, for the first time I am satisfied that the picture on the screen really does resemble the TIFF picture out of the camera, after corrections from the original RAW.



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