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December 2020: wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

December 31st 2020. From today, we are shut in to Tier 4 level of Coronavirus restrictions because of increasing levels of the disease over much of England. Effectively this means that we must shut ourselves away from all outside contacts. Pubs and non-essential businesses are closed. We are able to shop for food, take excercise locally and that is that. Daughter Fiona will be shopping for us until we are fully vaccinated, as we are considered to be among the most vulnerable groups. It is a dreadful blow to many people who had been planmning and working towards safe living, whether business or at home, but it has been forced on the government by a new variant of Coronavirus-19 which infects much more readily and rapidly, though apparently no more virulently.

INDPENDENCE: With effect from 11-o-clock this evening, we are finally freed from the constraints of the European Union: a fully independent country once more. Looking back, it is sad that it has come to this. The start, as the Common Market, promised so much; freedom of trade, access to all markets. Sadly, politics took over, with the EU pressing towards full political union, total control from Brussels, against which we eventually voted. Now, we will be looking to build a long-term friendship with the EU, but as equal partners.

December 28th 2020. First thing this morning, Romey called me to look out over the front garden from upstairs. A couple of Roe deer were wandering round in plain sight lit by the morning sun. They spent ages pottering around, snacking on various shrubs before wandering off onto the lane - so confiding.

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus

Later, the deer were up at the top of the orchard for a part of the day, so I was surprised to look out of the study window, which is level with the the lawn outside, and see a deer walking towards me, peering in to where I was sitting. She stood still, so for some strange reason I waved to her, an impulse I almost regretted as it happened. But she stood there, registering my presence by twitching her ears as I moved, before turning away and walking off. Incredible! In late afternoon I decided to drive down to Catcott Lows, arriving as the skies cleared, in poor, but bright, contrasty white light. Wigeon were sleeping just off the edge of the water close to me (I was peering through one of the embrasures in the wooden fence outside the hide, sitting on a camping stool). I took numerous pictures of these sleeping birds, wondering how they would come out, but they were crystal clear, full of detail I had not expected.

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Yet, they were taken wide open at 5000 ISO, with 1.3 stops minus, giving me a variety of readings as time wore on. I leave you to judge whether such extreme settings work. I think they lend a different character to similar shots at lower ISO, if they had been taken on a brighter day at conventional settings. The perfect reflections add to the whole atmosphere. At the very last moment a delicate little Pied wagtaul appeared on the water's edge, just in front of me, and started wagging its way in search of food. It is interesting to reflect that this place is one of the most likely to see these little birds; they used to be so common on the moors, but no longer.

Pied wagtail Motacilla alba

Pied wagtail Motacilla alba

December 26th 2020.  The garden continues to bring its surprises. From Christmas day on, the Roe deer have been present for much of the day, also noted coming and going during the night.

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus, our visitors make themselves comfortable

But the real surprise was a beautiful white-marked buzzard sitting on a post I put in earlier as an alternative location for a trail camera. Thinking about it, it is the perfect perch, set where the land rises, with a wide view over the more open part of the garden. This bird never sat still, its head swivelling round continually, eventually taking off and dropping down behind some herbage - no doubt having its lunch. It was one of the most handsome of buzzards, with its while-marked plumage. As a species their colouring is very variable, from almost black to pale. Buzzards are seen quite frequently overhead, but only rarely down in the orchard.

 

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

 

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

Common buzzard Buteo buteo

December 25th 2020. Christmas Day. Not the usual occasion, with family spread around the country and in France, but notable for phone calls and a fine lunch cooked and dropped off for us by Fiona, Paul and Kerenza. Deer were much in evidence during the day and night. Below are a few shots taken with the trail camera.

Badger Meles meles

 

Fox Vulpes vulpes

Roebuck Capreolus capreolus

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus (trail camera)

December 24th 2020. BORIS JOHNSON HAS PULLED IT OFF! This afternoon, Ursula van der Layen, EU Commission President, and our Prime Minister announced that a trade agreement had been settled between the United Kingdom and the European Union after years of ups and downs. It will take place at the end of the month, when we finally leave the EU as a free country in full charge of our own future, four and half years after a referendum in its favour. The first agreement, when we left under a transitional agreement a year ago, had been flagged by many as completely impossible, yet he did it. Now, the culmination of all the efforts, also described as unobtainable, has ended in success; an agreement which appears to satisfy both sides - a triumph by any standards, though it is doubtful whether the BBC will recognise it as such! Boris is entitled to take full satisfaction for the achievement and should be recognised in perpetuity as the architect of our future as a sovereign country, against all that the sceptics put forth in opposition.

Over lunchtime, I walked up London Drove on a superb sunny day and, in spite of being shut off from the hides, had a splendid bird-rich outing. There was a cold, sharp wind blowing, a fine precursor to eruptions of duck hurtling across the sky. As I neared the north end of Westhay Moor, I saw and heard hundreds of duck in the air. Suprisingly they were comprised only of Shoveler, Gadwall and Mallard - no Wigeon (Anas penelope), which might have been expected. Shoveler were engaged in courtship flights as they have everywhere, a few males flying after a female.

Shoveler Anas clypeata

Shoveler Anas clypeata

It was good to see numbers of Mallard among the flights or on thei own. A few years ag, they were predicted to be on a catastrophic downturn but appear to have recovered well. If they were rare, they would be recognised as among the most attractive of ducks, as they are - even if not in behaviour. There are many cases of drakes drowning ducks in their efforts to mate.

 

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos 

Eventually these disparate species melded in with the rest to form large mixed flights, skittish in the wind, landing and taking off continually. The last of these explosions was caused by a Marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus) sailing over. These predators are seen more frequently as the year moves on.

Gadwall Anas strepera & Shoveler A. clypeata

Gadwall Anas strepera & Shoveler A. clypeata 

December 20th 2020. It was the first sunny, pleasant day for some while, a perfect excuse to visit Catcott Lows to see what was going on - quite possibly the last for some while as Coronavirus restrictions bite even more. As I had thought and expected, the hide was open but shut off to the public, with a large notice saying so. As elsewhere, the door and windows were left open to remove any possible sites of infection. For all that, I watched one  middle-aged man walk straight in, not even bothering to use the sanitiser on his hands. I stayed outside, as I had planned, sitting on my stool and gazing through a strategically-placed slot in the outside fencing. I had a perfect view, undisturbed by anyone else. Wigeon were there in strength, lined up along the nearby edge of the pond. A few Shoveler (Anas cypeata) were also present, but there was no sign or sound of Teal (Anas crecca), or other species. I had a marvellous time. Every so often, they would erupt, leaping into the air, circling and landing sgain, providing some great pictures.

Wigeon Anas penelope 

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

December 18th 2020. A day of exraordinaary events. But first, last night I went down to the medical centre at Berrow for my first Coronavirus vaccination. It was so well organised by our surgery, combined with two others. We were taken through the whole Pfizer process in under half an hour, painless and with no apparent after-effects. Now there is a three week pause before the next and final injection then a wait of a further wekk before being declared protected. Now, we wait for Romey to be called. I caught a brief glimpse of the male Roe deer a couple of nights ago but otherwise there has been no sign for weeks. Today, a foul day, dark, rainy and really windy one, the deer family reappeared. Romey spotted them briefly in the front garden, then I disturbed one who ran down to the bottom and out onto the lane. After that, the three of them burst past the trail camera by the study two or three times, visions of dark very much three-D, solid animals trotting past in seconds - exciting. They spent some while up in the orchard, sheltering under the trees then they reappeared in front of the kitchen and spent a long time grazing or grooming themselves. The mother was not that much larger than her children but she was bulkier. No longer thin, with ribs showing, her skin was loose on her, clearly well fed, but looking as if it was a shade too big for her, with rolls of flesh showing, not overfat but well-nourished. Light conditions were truly appalling but I pulled out the Nikon D7200 and its lightweight 70-300 lens and snapped away for over a hundred pictures. It did not let me down, mounted on a monopod for stability. Good pictures were obtained wide open at 5000 ISO, between 1/30 and 1/100th second, mainly the former. All were usable; quite astonishing performance I would not have believed if anyone else had told me earlier.

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus

December 9th 2020. The trail camera has been left out for three days and nights. On putting the card into the computer I was faced with over 100 pictures, virtually all taken in the dark. The camera had been set up to take two pictures within a very short span, at maxuimum power to deal with movement. I am still feeling my way both with the system and the location on the trail, which has brrn running alongside the house ever since we have been here. The angle of setting is critical, too acute and most of the pictures are on the very edge, just a head showing. Too much at rightangles and, if the creature is moving, it may blur. I am getting there now ,as may be seen on the following pictures taken during that period.

Fox Vulpes vulpes

 

Badger Meles meles

Badger Meles meles

Roebuck Capreolus capreolus

Roebuck Capreolus capreolus

December 6th 2020. I went upstairs at mid-morning and glanced out of the window; there was a most astonishing amount of movement in the rather watery sunshine. It was as if someone had pressed a switch which brought everything to life. Small birds had appeared after a long absence - one or two were even singing. Perhaps the fact that we had started putting bird-food out again may have helped trigger it. The first unusual event was to see a few Fieldfares flashing their white parts on the trees, then dashing back and forth. There is nothing unusual in seeing Fieldfares in the area; there are some quite large numbers down on the moors. What is unusual, is seeing them in the garden.

Fieldfare Turdus pilaris

This occurs normally only in the very coldest, hardest weather. It was cold, but not unreasonably so, around 4°C. By midday there was no sign of them. They are such attractive birds. Up in the bathroom again, a movement caught my eye. A male Sparrowhawk was bathing on our much-overgrown pond; it's shivering mode had brought it into view. I moved along the house to the next window and had a better view, no longer obstructed by greenery. I was fascinated, watching it make its toilet for perhaps twenty minutes.

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m


Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus m

This male bird appeared mostly grey at first sight, but quickly displayed barring and marvellous red underparts as he cleans himself. He pauses every so sften and you have an idea of its near-normal shape, then the whole bird shakes and shivers, water flying. Parts normally hidden appear, then tuck back under. Eventually, he has a last shake and flies straight off to a far tree, too quick for my reflexes. What a remarkable sighting, not the first, but the most comprehensive I have watched. How fortunate that I glanced out at that moment.

December 5th 2020. Keeping up the pressure, off to Westhay Moor today. It is very much a case of going when you can in this uncertain early winter period. Going there brought its own reward; A Great white egret has been feeding, or hanging about, Jack's Drove for the past couple of weeks. This time it posed for me before slowly flapping off for fifty yards or so. It appears to have become more accustomed to the car as the days go by.


Great white egret Egretta alba

Great white egret Egretta alba

Westhay Moor is a just a walk nowadays, the hides firmly barred against the public. I parked in my usual place, near the Lake hide, and walked up to the top in a chilly breeze, but strong winter sunshine. Not a soul was out and I enjoyed the peace and the glorious colours. On the way saw Gadwall and Shoveler in single figures but little else.

Gadwall Anas strepera

Shoveler courtship flight Anas clypeata

Shoveler courtship Anas clypeata

On the 30 acre lake there was a most extraordinary sight, a great extended raft of Coot, swimming together as if joined by strings.

Coot raft Fulica atra

Coot raft Fulica atra

Mink trap Westhay Moor

December 4th 2020. At last, it was dry, fairly sunny and much colder, just the weather for ducks! It was time for another walk up Westhay Moor to see what was on the move. There was a strong wind, making it much chillier, not unpleasant but there was a need to wrap up well. The North hide was shut, surprising as we were supposed to have come out of lockdown. Further on the little lean-to shelter was empty and not shut. The force of the wind was wel lillustrated here. A pair of Mute swans flew in from across the leke, were caught by a gust and one was hurled into the reeds right by me, with a real crash. She was quiet and still for a while before shaking herself, and dragging herself out of the tangle. I am glad to say she joined her mate, shook her tail several times and swam off, apparently unharmed. She had appeared enormous, solid and unmoveable as she loomed over me before tumbling down.

Mute swan Cygnus olor

The duck were certainly there, great numbers of mainly Wigeon spread over the water, whistling continually. On the furthest part of the lake, there were three Goosanders, the first of those who habitually spend the winter on and around that particulae piece of water.

Goosanders Mergus merganser

A Marsh harrier appeared over the most distant corner of the reeds, circling round, wavering in and out of sight, followed by a pause before all the duck took off with a roar.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Wigeon Anas penelope

December 2nd 2020. We have emerged from the second complete lockdown for Coronavirus but face a future system of tiers which has put most of the country in the middle or higher grades, much to many peoples' disgust. Here, we are in Tier2, the middle grade. It is not all bad; shops and pubs are reopening and some other restrictions have been removed. But the real news today is the announcement of a VACCINE being available from next week. It became clear that it is not going to be a speedy process, with under a million doses available before Christmas. Priority will go to NHS and Care home workers, and those over eighty. The vaccine is from Pfizer in Belgium and is said to be highly efficient. Another vaccine, from Oxford, is supposed to be very close. Two injections are needed, 21 days apart. So there are real signs of hope, though it may take more than six months to complete, a really difficult logistics problem. Now, we have to stop people going mad with sheer frustration, before they become immune, a major problem to come, I suspect.

 

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