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May 2019  wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

May 31st 2019. The month ended in a real high note with a visit to Catcott Lows. A flock of around 70 Black-tailed godwits were feeding just opposite the hide. I was alerted to this when I sat down and opened the shutter. A really strange twittering sound floated in through the opening. I have never heard anything like it and could not imagine what it might be, until I looked more closely opposite. A mass of these beautiful waders were feeding as fast as they could in the shallow, splashy water and vegetation, dabbing their beaks up and down as fast as might be. While a few were almost in their paler winter suit, many were flushed with red and a few in full, barred breeding plumage - a brave sight on this marvellous, bright sunny afternoon.

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

A really bad-tempered Lapwing spent a deal of time flying down onto various individuals, driving them into flight. These lifted briefly into the air, but were not to be disturbed from the serious business of feeding.

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus attacking Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

In amongst these, we watched a Garganey swim into sight after spending much time on the other side of one of the islands. I was told there had been two drakes there earlier. I only pulled out when the light was becoming much less kind to the photographer. A wonderful experience I had not expected.

Garganey Anas querquedula m

May 30th 2019. In theory, this was the day for another invertebrate meeting, but for a variety of reasons I found myself alone on top of Walton Common, near Clevedon. I ended up having a most interesting and productive day. For much of the time it was sunny, sometimes strong, at others hazy but always with a quite strong wind. This was enough to make photography tricky in some of the more open spaces. The car was parked in a layby which has been opened up and much-improved since my last visit. Opposite this, a path winds up steeply through woods, then bursts out into the open, still steep, where short grass and masses of wild flowers flourished, including hawkweeds and other members of the family Hieracium, great spreads of Common rock-roses Helianthemum numularium, speedwells Veronica spp., Black medics Medicago lupulina, Horseshoe Hippocrepis comosa and others from the vetch family, as well as many more species. I fancy I was a few days early for getting the full harvest of these flowers and their insects but still managed many interesting finds. A few butterflies were in evidence in this hot area, including the Common blue.

Common blue Polyommatus icarus

One thing I did, which normally does not happen because of peer pressure to move on, was to erect my stool and sit down at what looked a likely spot; not just for a few minutes, but more than half-an-hour at a time. This paid dividends at several places and was most enjoyable. On reaching the plateau on the top of the common, I took a route I have used several times in the past. It did not look much different, other than that some of the trees were obviously taller. The path takes you along the edge of the hill, through a scattering of trees and shady grassland, with periodic glimpses of the sea beyond. The place where we used to eat our sandwiches, on the edge of a steep cliff, appeared untouched; highly floriferous, overlooking the golf course below and the muddy waters of the Bristol Channel beyond. Shortly after this I made one of my stops, close to where we had found solitary wasps nesting many years ago. The reasons for stopping were a few small circular holes on the edge of the path. In fact, nothing emerged from these while I was there, though a couple of ants briefly explored them. Nevertheseless it was a good place to stop and observe, while eating my lunchtime pasty. if you are lucky, sitting and waiting brings opportunities to watch behaviour. For instance, I noticed a black insect, covered in pollen, nestling deep in a hawkweed flower and set up the camera on its monopod to photograph its behaviour. Time flew by and many pictures were taken of the sawfly as it pushed and wriggled, opened its wngs and made the best of the flower's bounty.


sawfly Cephus nigritus f

sawfly Cephus nigritus f

sawfly Cephus nigritus f

Other insects appeared also, increasing stiffness was the only reason I folded the stool and went on my way.

mining bee Halictus tumulorum f

digger wasp Rhopalum coarctatum

mining bee Andrena fulvago f

The open top, the plateau, was a marvellous sight. The grass was a foot or so high, none of it flattened or battered, the seed heads all at much the same height, waving in the breeze, a mosaic of colour. Thistles were everywhere, not the ordinary Creeping thistle Cirsium vulgare, but other more insect-friendly ones such as Welted thistle Carduus acanthoides, though only one or two had the first small flowers bursting out in penny numbers; one of which had a bumblebee already settled on it. Another couple of weeks! Huge flattened ant-mounds were covered in flowers such as Wild thyme Thymus serpyllum and Rock-rose, attracting butterflies, bees and other insects.

mining bee Lasioglossum calceatum f

mining bee Lasioglossum calceatum f

mining bee Lasioglossum leucozonium f

bumblebee Bombus pratorum m

beetle Oedemera lurida

The path led on westwards back to where I had come up the flowery, dry slope. I noticed a patch of Red clover Trifolium pratense and decided to sit there and observe them for possible insects. I have long been told how important this clover is to bees of all sorts, but had rarely seen anything on them. This patch deserved a bit of observation. Was I right to be so cynical? I had a fascinating half-hour, finding that it was indeed an attractant to bees, or at least the three species I came across. The first to catch my eye was a mining bee Lasioglossum laevigatum.

mining bee Lasioglossum laevigatum f

Then I spent a long while watching bumblebees working their way most thoroughly round the flowers, searching for nectar. One was so brightly coloured I thought at first it might have been B. muscorum, but this was eventually discounted. There were the faintest traces of black hairs round the wing roots and elsewhere.

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m

The final sighting was another mining bee. L. malachurum, probably on the edge of her range at this spot.

mining bee Lasioglossum malachurum f

The way back felt even steeper, but I had had a more than worthwhile visit. I will try and come back in the next couple of weeks, there should be much more to see by then.

May 28th 2019. I thought our walk up Westhay Moor would be unremarkable but we enjoyed the outing and found one or two interesting moments. Swifts have now arrived in numbers, always a welcome sight at this time of year. A lone Hobby Falco subbuteo was spotted briefly, flying in among a whirl of the smaller birds, seemingly as fast. There were numbers of House martins among the Swifts but no Swallows Hirundo rustica.

House martin Delichon urbica

A solitary grebe appeared out of the side passage making us think that perhaps it was nesting there, as it engaged in the elaborate washing and cleaning so characteristic of a sitting bird relaxing after it is relieved by its mate.

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

Yes, we did see a Marsh harrier finally, quartering the reeds, then straight off over our heads and out of sight. There is a nest somewhere in that maze of reeds out in front.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

May 25th 2019. Catcott Lows looked amazing today, like some searchlight into part of a cowboy drama. The Somerset Wildlife Trust have let a mainly black herd of cattle into the confines of the area to keep the vegetation under control. This proved succesful in the past in preseving the perfect conditions on the reserve. It was wonderful to see the cattle splashing through the water, feeding all over the area, providing the perfect grazing for them and ideal conditions for the now resident flock of Cattle egrets, that feed on the flies attracted to the summer herd with its adults and youngsters.

Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

Panic at Catcott Lows

Saviours of the Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

May 24th 2019. Chris Hooper rang and suggested we meet at Catcott Lows round lunchtime. This proved most productive, with several of our friends present, snapping away. I was particularly delighted when, almost immediately, a quite sizeable flight of Black-taile godwits shot up into the air and circled several times. They all appeared to be in the red of full summer plumage.

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa

Before the pond was dug, this hide would have been deserted, gazing over a largely empty field. Now though there was much to see. The main attraction was the presence of numbers of Cattle egrets in fine, coloured breeding plumage. Although they tended to keep well away, close to where the resident bunch of young and old cattle were feeding, enough flew round to produce some nice pictures.

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

Several Little egrets were feeding in the splashy area rather closer, giving a fine comparison between their slender grace and the rather sturdier Cattle egrets. An unexpected visitor was a fine female Shelduck who flew in and hid herself in the background. I gather she has been in and out in recent days, perhaps on holiday?

Shelduck Tadorna tadorna f

Chris had to get home, so when he left I decided to have a look at the Tower blind on Westhay Moor. This proved to be overcast, chilly and totally unproductive - no sign of the Hobbies Falco subbuteo. My next destination was the Lake hide, after a wonderfully tranquil walk along the main drove, past quite still waters and banks of reeds. This has always been one of my favourite places to spend time, beautiful, peaceful, but sadly not normally very productive nowadays. I put this down to the removal of a number of larger trees along the edge some years back, though this may not be the real reason, perhaps the greater numbers of people using the nearby path? However, I had a great and varied time watching, in particular, a pair of Great crested grebes indulging in their famed courtship dances. They were partly obscured by a fringe of reeds but this if anything added to the spectacle. They were entranced with each other, shimmying and shaking, turning this way and that, stretching up, then subsiding to shake their heads, crests flying in the breeze. I could have watched this for ever, but eventually their passion subsided and they went back into the reeds, out of sight.


Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

 Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

A Great white egret appeared in the corner of my eye when it moved slightly; it was fishing in a screen of reds, well hidden from the main part.

Great white egret Egretta alba

A Magpie flew back and forth across just in front, providing excellent views of its shape and colouring. It has some food in its bill, feeding young at the other end of the flight.

Magpie Pica pica

My finale for the reserve was a magnificent Gadwall drake swimming right up to where I was sitting.

Gadwall Anas strepera m

On the way home, a large field had recently been ploughed on Westhay Level, attracting great strings of the larger gulls and one lone buzzard, no doubt hoping to pick up worms and larvae from the freshly harrowed soil. A truly interesting and varied day out.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

May 23rd 2019. I popped over to Ham Wall this afternoon, not really expecting much other than a good walk - it was overcast and chilly. In fact it was more interesting than I had thought. I ended up at Avalon hide among the reeds and water, and I first things I saw were a succession of dragonflies settling in on a fringe of reeds. They were all newly hatched, pristine Four-spot chasers, so beautiful. The 400mm lens coped admirably with their detail.

Four-spot chaser Libellula quadrimaculata

A few Mallard brought some interesting pictures, but the star turn came with a Great white egret, worth the visit in its own right. Looking at the egret pictures, it is quite easy to confuse them of being a Little egret Egretta garzetta, In this specimen, the beak is black and appears slender. It is only when you get to the final one that you are certain it is a Great white, the legs are one colour, not the distinctive yellow 'shoes' contrasting with black. The black beak is the sign of breeding plumage, at other times it is a dull yellow.

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

May 22nd 2019. Yet another glorious day and this time the insects in the garden, at the drilled logs and bamboos, have really come to life. It was good to see some Osmia bicornis females had at wotk with their nests. Very little sign of the males has been sighted so far this year. They should have been out for at least as month. It is good also to see the male O. leaiana males dashing frantically around searching for their females. It is unusual to see them stationary as in the pictures. No sign this time of the O. caerulescens noted earlier.

mason bee Osmia bicornis f

mason bee Osmia leaiana m

mason bee Osmia leaiana m

The only other bee I noted was bathed in the eerie colouring of one of the many plants of Euphorbia that have appeared everywhere this year. They are attractive to a variety of insects. They are one of a few plants that seem to baffle the photographic process and produce a colour differing from the original.

mining bee Lasioglossum xanthopus m

I always feel the stars of the log family are the little black Crossocerus wasps. Tiny and threadlike to the casual observer, flying with their legs dangling, they are quite distinctive. In close-up, they show as much sculpture as any insect. I think they are stars for me because their identification involves so much hard work once the pictures are on the computer. The male cetratus below is distinguishes mainly by its front legs with the tibiae outlined in pale colouring. The megacephalus has distinctive red-brown spines on its legs, with everything else black.

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus

digger wasp Crossocerus cetratus m

digger wasp Crossocerus cetratus f

The little cuckoo or jewel wasp is not the normal species found at logs in gardens. It is its rarer cousin which we have had in small numbers over many years. Why it is particularly attracted to our garden is unknown, baffling? Then why does anything live in a particular place that seems no different to many other places that do not support it? The obvious difference from the commoner Chrysis species is that there are no teeth on the back of the abdomen.

cuckoo wasp Chrysura radians

At last, a few hoverflies, but perhaps not the ones we might have expected. Meredon is otherwise know as the Narcissus fly, as it has been for a great many years. Its larva destroys Daffodil flowers as they develop.

hoverfly Meredon equestris m

hoverfly Syritta pipiens f

hoverfly Syritta pipiens m

May 20th 2019.  Hobbies are being reported from all over the place. My favourite spot is the Tower blind at Westhay Moor. It was a glorious sunny day with small white clouds on a clear blue sky. Some people hate this lighting but I find it can produce the right condions if you are lucky.

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

I was particularly lucky as one chap had been there since 10-30 in the morning - it was now 3pm - and only just started seeing Hobbies as I arrived. They are very fast and arrive without warning, making them difficult to find in the viewfinder and to keep visible while diving and twisting, but worth every moment of the effort. It is only possible to see how succesful you have been when examining the results on the computer - never good enough but hopefully better than before. While all this excitement was being generated, a lone harrier appeared and flew right across the front, much statelier progress than the Hobby but also beautiful, being a tri-coloured male.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

But that was not all the interest this afternoon. A chap pointed out a Great spotted woodpecker Dendrocopus major that was nesting in a slender, rather scruffy willow tree opposite. At regular intervals it would burst out and fly over into the reeds or over the hide, searching for food for its mate and perhaps chicks. I only left because I heard a clang beneath my feet and the camera stopped working. Fortunately another person spotted the battery which had fallen out of the camera. We were unable to find the rather slender latch and I thought I might be lucky and find it at home, as the camera travelled between there and the hide in a rucksac. And, luckily enough, there it was where I had been charging the battery overnight. This is rather flimsy fastening, as it has happened to an earler one from the same series of cameras. It appears to be a click-fit and not very secure.

May 14th 2019. Our invertebrate group met this morning at Sand Bay, beyond Weston super Mare, at the furthest National Trust car park. John M, Nigel M, Chris H, Margareta E and I assembled in perfect weather, all day long sunshine, albeit with a breeze which sharpened up on the top. We had a marvellous visit, though photography proved difficult as the insects just did not settle. We spent much of the time watching them dancing in front of the bushes and flowers. A great many of these insects were bees and many of those were Nomada, notorious for such behaviour. We took the steps up from the parking area and had a bonanza of bees on the Wild radish Raphanus raphanistrum fringing the path, which at this point ran through a tunnel of wind-blown bushes, sheltering them but not cutting out the sun - ideal for insect life. In many ways I could have wished to spend more time on this short length of particular habitat, but we were out to explore Sand Point, overlooking Sand Bay, and this we did.

mining bee Lasioglossum xanthopus m

mining bee Lasioglossum xanthopus f

On the return journey, this same area, still looking the same, was virtually devoid of insect life. From there we burst out into the open, with a great many of flowers in bloom, of which the dark mauve of Wild sage Salvia sylvestris seemed so dramatic,

Wild sage Salvia sylvestris

great patches of Germander speedwell Veronica chamaedrys, a clump of Houndstongue Cynoglossum officianale,

Hounstongue Cynoglossum officinale

a deal of Sea campion Silene maritima with its ring of black anthers on pure white, the brilliant yellow of Common rock-rose Helianthemum nummularium, caught the eye particularly. The sea-coast has a wonderful palete of colours at this time of year.

mining bee Halictus tumulorum f, on Germander speedwell

mining bee Lasioglossum leucozonium f

It is probably a mile to the point from the start of the path. Half way along, we decided to take a narrow, rather unstable path that ran diagonally to the edge of Swallow Cliffs and on to the end of the point. This took us away from the open top down to bush-fringed edges, with many May trees Cratagus monogyna providing a powerful attraction for bees and other insects. I must confess to finding the path very difficult, with balance a problem, but worth the effort. My problems were compounded by the fact that I had left my monopod behind.

cuckoo bee Sphecodes gibbus

sawfly Athalia rosae

Harlequin ladybird Harmonia axyridis

micro-moth Pyrausta purpularis

The views across the bay were astonishing, the sea being near calm. During the visit we saw the bay vanish as the tide went out, then reappearing again as it turned the corner. Beyond, against the sparkle, were the islands of Steepholm and Flatholm, opposite was the side of Brean Down. Nigel had some excellent binoculars and we watched a few Grey plover Pluvialis squatarola in full, glorious summer plumage, running along the edge of the water. It would have been amazing to photograph these but even with the finest long lenses they were far too far away. Perhaps the most amazing and frustrating events was the appearance of very large numbers of Nomada cuckoo bees on the upper edges of the cliff, where a fringe of wind-swept, scruffy, sparse bushes and much Ivy Hedera helix, disguised the edges. Frustrating because they just would not settle, while my skills at flight photography were completely unable to cope with their endless circling and zig-zagging. The Ivy semed a particular attractant, though there was not sign of blossom at this time of year. Perhaps the shiny surface was a factor? Eventually the odd picture was taken but mainly of the larger Nomada, the more numerous, tiny versions almost defeated me.

cuckoo bee Nomada lathburiana m

cuckoo bee Nomada ruficornis m

The only picture I managed of the smallest British Nomada was this one, caught on frame as it dashed low in its endless circling.

cuckoo bee Nomada sheppardana

May 11th 2019. , I went back to the Tower hide at Westhay today, settling in my usual place on the bank of the lake - and waited; still using the camera without the converter. Eventually, the unexpected overcast cleared to give spakling white clouds in a wonderfully clear blue sky. The wind was still in the eastern quarter though, meaning that many birds flew over giving just a tail view. However I had a great time, lots of fresh air and a fair amount of overhead activity. At first it was just a swirl of Swifts Apus apus, then came a Common buzzard Buteo buteo and, at last, a Hobby, the bird I had hoped to see in such fine conditions. At first the Hobbys were high up, catching their prey almost in the cloud. Indeed, I watched one rise up until eventually it did vanish into the cloud. I took many pictures that were later deleted, but a few were interesting, showing fresh aspects of behaviour. Each year we strive to capture these elusive, rapidly flying birds, hoping for them to come that little bit closer, and each year the time they are here goes by far too quickly. Towards the end I moved up into the blind, for that is what it is, without seats or shutters on the openings, and enjoyed a different perspective as well as tales of what had been seen previously, from one of the very experienced photographers there already. There is a beautiful, peaceful view across the water, with acres of reeds beyond. Right opposite is a willow tree, which has been used by the hobbys as a perch, though I have never been lucky enough to see that. Somewhere in the background, a Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus is nesting, though not visible during this visit. A pair of Gadwall Anas strepera appeared not to be in nesting mood, simply whiling the time away in lazy feeding, as is their normal wont. An hour or so vanishes without worry before home calls.

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo 

 Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

 Hobby Falco subbuteo

May 10th 2019. I had a brief period watching the 'flats', finding to my delight that they were starting to become more active - about time too! I was particularly interested in what appeared to be a small mason bee emerging from a hole rather smaller than 4mm in diameter. I realised that this sighting apparently confirmed my findings of a week or so ago that it was a male Osmia caerulescens; comparison with the hole size confirming a length of under 9mm. This may indicate a need for some changes to keys. Authorities usually claim that the integument (skin) is black. Not all do though. One described this as green or blue metallic shades, another bronzy. My picture show quite clearly that this insect has bronze metallic integument. I looked online and found other pictures looking exactly like mine, from good, reliable sources. I then looked at previous pictures I had taken, some of which had a just faintly bronzy sparkle on otherwise black thorax & abdomen. Yet others do indeed appear to be just black. It appears that this factor is considerably variable. What confuses matters further is that some pictures of Hoplitis claviventris appear similar to my current picture. A common factor between this picture, some online pictures of O. caerulescens and of H. claviventris males is that they have green eyes, a striking feature; others show ordinary dark eyes. My abiding sense was of how small the hole was from which it emerged. Osmia normally enjoy much larger holes, another factor is a common description of the head being rather larger than normal. This head appears fairly conventional. So, it remains a puzzle. I shall have to enquire elsewhere. I consulted one such, Nigel came down in favour of Osmia, possibly caerulescens or leaiana. My feeling from this is that on balance it is O. caerulescens as I have not come across any references or pictures of leaiana with green eyes.

mason bee Osmia caerulescens m

mason bee Osmia caerulescens m

mason bee Osmia caerulescens 

It was good to see a couple of black Crossocerus digger wasps exploring holes in the logs. This grouping forms the major part of species found in the logs. These particular ones were the largest of the common visitors, C. megacephalus, one of my favourites. It may be of interest that all these pictures in today's offering have been translated into jpegs by way of RIOT, using 'Optimised standard encoding', at 85%. I think the results are excellent and comparable to the original tiffs.

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus

Finally, an unexpected visitor, though it has been seen before, made its way from the logs it had been exploring to a nearby flower. My picture shows the wing-cases just spreading as it takes off.

Cardinal beetle Pyrachroa serraticornis

May 3rd 2019. I was anxious to see if I could get some better pictures of the Hobbys that have been arriving in numbers during the last few days . Instead of using the 100-400mm lens with a 1.4 converter, I decided to make this session without. The lens is more wieldy, easier to swing and find the bird in the viewfinder. I would like to check also the detail that each set-up might retain in poorer light. My visit was to the Tower blind in the centre of Westhay Moor where access to a good flight-viewing point is excellent. As I walked up, the sunshine faded and the sky clouded over, leaving even poorer conditions than I had hoped. At first nothing moved. Was it too cold for the insects and hence their predators? No, eventually they started flying and the lens proved its worth, though the birds were rather distant.

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

A fine male marsh harrier appeared for a short pass across. From past visits, I think its mate is nesting almost straight ahead. The visit was rounded off by a troop of swans passing across the background.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Mute swans Cygnus olor

May 2nd 2019. I spent a most enjoyable hour at catcott Lows in late afternoon, expecting to see little, going to check that all the duck had vanished on their summer journeys. It was terrific, lots of life, much activity, but not  ducks; geese and their babies everywhere. Both Canada and Greylag geese were present. The babies golden and fluffy, the parents jealous of anything coming near them.

Greylag geese Anser anser

Greylag geese Anser anser

Greylag geese Anser anser

Canada geese Branta canadensis

Canada geese Branta canadensis

Canada geese  Branta canadensis

Canada geese geese Branta canadensis

May 1st 2019. A quick visit to Westhay Moor kept me in touch with the grebes and their babies. It was a harsh, contrasty day, cold and miserable but the walk warmed me up. I only saw one baby with a single grebe, but likely the other ones were with the other parent not present. The baby had really grown as can be seen as it begs and eats a small fish from its parent.

Great crested grebes Podiceps cristatus

Great crested grebes Podiceps cristatus

 


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