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January 2020: wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

January 31st 2020. A historic moment in the history of the United Kingdom. At 11-0-clock this evening, the United Kingdom finally left the EU, after a three year period of argument and recriminations, following a positive referendum result. Now we must join together, regardless of the past, and make the best of the many opportunities ahead, as we have in the past. We are a sovereign nation once more, responsible to ourselves only for success or failure. 

January 24th 2010. I thought it might be appropriate to put in a few remarks I entered into a recent Folio of the Nature Photographic Society. They perhaps sum-up the strange year we have just undergone.

'It has been an odd year. Hot summer and a distinctly wet but warm winter down here. Our local summer season has been much improved since the Wildlife Trust dug a pond in front of the hide at Catcott Lows. Now it is an all-the-year location with Cattle, Little and Great white egrets flourishing and visible. This has carried on into winter with numbers of Wigeon lying dozing on the grass in front, as well as on the water. But the winter birds were very late in their arrival, clearly finding the right temperatures where they were. The recent few days of frost have at last increased numbers greatly in important reserves such as Greylake. As reported previously, the insect season continues to bring a steady decline in numbers of insects, though not so much of the species. We continue to photograph them but have to work hard to find what used to be common. As an example, hoverflies are really difficult to find in the garden, solitary wasps have all but vanished, as have beetles. Small birds come into the same category,  with few using the feeders this year. It used to be relatively easy to go out and find insects to photograph in flight, not so now. I can offer no real explanation, as we live in a wildlife-friendly area, no spraying, little artificial fertiliser. How much worse it must be where intensive farming is the norm.'

January 21st 2020. Even colder this morning, thick frost all over, with mist hiding everything beyond the garden, contining until lunchtime. Popped over to Catcott Lows for a rather truncated hour, as I had to be back to before it was too dark. The water in front of the hide was quite still, areas of it iced over, giving some wonderful shots of duck sleeping on the ice. The numbers of duck were large, clearly increasing each day of this colder spell - just what we had all been awaiting. The mainly Wigeon were scattered widely, some in the water, others standing on the ice, asleep, while a great many others were grazing the grass between the water's edge and the hide. These grazers scrapped, disagreed with each other and behaved much less peacefully than normally. Every so often they would all take off, only a few feet up into the air, then settle out on the water. They all fidgeted for a few minutes, dipping part underwater, flapping their wings and shooting about as if to attract attention. After a few minutes they gradually made their way back to the grass and resumed grazing. I remember noticing this same behaviour a number of years back when the water was almost fully iced over. Then, they flew off to a tiny area kept clear of ice, showing much the same behaviour, before walking across the ice back to the grazing area. A notable few moments came as a buzzard appeared from one side, flew across in front of us and landed behind the pumping shed. However, this predator caused practically no reaction from the many birds it flew over. A Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus would have put the whole lot up for a number of minutes at a time. It appears that the buzzard had flown backwards and forwards from this point to a pole on the other side several times during the day. Perhaps the duck realised it was not after them, or were they reacting as if it was no threat in general?

January 20th 2020. Another perfect, sunny, cold day, with ice on the ditches and rhynes. I parked in the main area at Steart at 11-o-clock, hoping Chris and Ron might be there, having left a message the night before, but clearly they had not opened up their mail or had other plans. My aim was the Quantock hide overlooking the great freshwater lake, which is usually full of birds. Conditions were perfect, great clarity, the sun in the right direction, but where were the usual hordes? In fact, though, I had a marvellous, if unexpected time, watching and photographing a most beautiful adult Grey heron standing right in front, and there it stayed for all the time I was there. During that time it fished continually, dilgently, most of it within a circle of only a few feet. It caught a great deal, usually with each strike, but the creatures were tiny, barely registering on the photos. Among these morsels were tiny shrimps, others impossible to determine, but not one of any size whatsoever. It was fascinating to watch this splendid heron twisting and turning before striking, or waiting patiently, head poised over the water, before shooting down.

 Grey heron Ardea cinerea

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

 Grey heron Ardea cinerea

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

Although disappointed at first because of expectations, I had a most enjoyable time concentrating on this beautiful bird in action. There were no signs of Spoonbills Platalea leucorodia, or the huge flocks of Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria generally found at this time of year. But It was good to be out in the cold fresh air which, hopefully, will start to bring in the more nomal influxes of waterbirds.

January 19th 2020. Woke this brilliant, cold morning to spot our little family of deer on the rim of a field in front, silhouetted against the sun. Good to know they are back in the area once more. On my way out to visit Greylake, I was astounded to see one of those same deer walking up the drive. The car disturbed her, but she only trotted off back into an area of bushes, no signs of panic.

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus

Walking up the entrance drove at Greylake, through walls of straw-coloured Typha, I came across a very friendly female Reed bunting, who posed beautifully - not normally so forthcoming.

Reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus f

There were very large numbers of duck present, both in tightly-packed rafts on the water and in the grassy area in front of the main hide; well illustrated as a Common buzzard Buteo buteo flew over and drove them up into the sky.

Mixed duck Anas spp. in a solid block

They circled and circled, landed briefly and then took off again with a roar of highly-stressed wings. This went on for many minutes even when the predator had vanished over the horizon. It is so spectacular when this happens, the excitement in the air quite palpable. One set of ducks shoots around, lower down, wings and shapes co-ordinated, the undersides showing white, then darkening as they turn. Other much higher flocks, almost jam together with their sheer numbers, rising up as quickly as they are able, climbing, diluting their numbers as they reach the apogee. Such excitement in the air.

Mixed duck Anas spp.

Mixed duck Anas spp.

Wigeon Anas penelope

I was particularly delighted to see numbers of snipe flying from one patch of reeds to another; then noticed there were others closer, just over the rhyne in front. A period of intense concentration showed there were probably a dozen or so in plain sight, though they became virtually invisible as they stopped moving. Snipe have the same effect on almost everyone who sees them. 'Aren't they beautifuful, such colours', though in fact they have rather heavy bills and are quite dumpy compared to other waders. I guess it is the dazzling camouflage as well as the sheer difficulty of spotting them, that catches the imagination.


Common snipe Gallinago gallinago


Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

This is a marvellous example of camouflage. Look closer and there are two birds huddled up together. It was only the more prominent bird stretching out that brought them to my attention.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

January 18th 2020. I walked up London drove on Westhay Moor this afternoon; soft sunshine, with little real breeze. made it particularly enjoyable. While it was really peaceful, with few other people to be seen or heard. My quarry was the gathering of Goosanders that live on the Thirty-acre lake each winter. At first there was no sign of them, then a few pale shapes were spotted deep under the shadow of the far bank. Eventually a few emerged, male and female, and fished the lake much closer, making for some interesting pictures with lovely late-sun colouring in the water.

Goosanders Mergus merganser

Goosanders Mergus merganser

Goosanders are sawbills; long, slender, fish-eating, diving ducks, with serrated bills to make grabbing and holding fish easier; extremely elegant, differing in appearance from our more conventional surface-feeding ducks. How lucky to have them on the doorstep.

January 15th 2020. Catcott Lows was really lively today, with a great many birds flying in and around, set against marvellous blue skies with fluffy white clouds, others resting, as the Wigeon so often seem to do.

Wigeon Anas penelope

A Great white egret flew across, ghostly pale, not settling, but setting the tone. The photographs were extraordinary, detailed, but hardly differing in intensity from the surrounds, most unusual.

Great white egret Egretta alba

A great burst of trumpting rang ahead of large flights Canada geese, who circled overhead giving a most magnificent display. They are such truly beautiful birds, delicately marked beneath.

 Canada geese Branta canadensis

Canada geese Branta canadensis

After them, small flights of Shoveler took to the air, five or six males chasing a female. They take off with very loud thundrous wing-strokes, part of their display. 


Common shoveler Anas clypeata


Common shoveler Anas clypeata

Finally, this technically poor shot of a Marsh harrier scaring the living daylights out of a number of duck. She appeared from nowhere, having worked her way down the side of the hedge. then shot out and over the duck. She did not appear to have a go at any of them. Was she just having a bit of fun? The quality is very poor, but it all took place a long way away. An altogether memorable afternoon.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

January 12th 2020. The sun gradually diminished during a late visit to Catcott Lows, staying until the light really was too poor for photography, even using the much greater ISO that a modern camera permits. A Great white egret caught the last of the real sun as it flew across, wing beats slow and stately.

Great white egret Egretta alba

For days, people have been queueing up hoping to see the ring-tailed Hen harrier that has been around for some while now. I was scanning the far distance, over the bridge, when I caught a glimpse of a movement in the corner of my eye. Yes, it was the missing harrier, as usual far, far off, nevertheless quite clearly the Hen harrier. The barred underparts of the wing and white rump were quite obvious. As for photographing it, that was a very different matter, even trying to find it in the viewfinder as it drove back and forth against the reeds. My 400mm lens is light and manoeverable, very sharp, but distance is always a problem. The following pictures have no merit as pictures, but do show the characteristics of the bird in a remarkable display of modern optics. So, take them as they are, records of a splendid few minutes when this fine bird did appear.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus

January 9th 2020. I was at Greylake by 11 this morning, cheered by an apparent window in the recent poor weather. Unusually, the Treehouse tower was quite warm, with only the lightest of breezes coming in from the west. Both hides are notorius for their freezing status. Greylake was packed with duck all across the front. You have a quite different view from this open platform - looking obliquely across the water. It appeared odd, showing much more water, the duck more scattered, with perfect views to the south where much is hidden from the other, main hide. As appears to be the norm nowadays, most of the numerous duck were asleep. stirring only when definitely disturbed by some outiside source - predator or helicopter.

mixed duck Anas spp.

There were a great many teal everywhere, great favourites of mine, so I decided to try and take a series of pictures of the duck in a variety of poses. They lend themselves particularly to close-up, high definition prortraits as they preen. The camera brings out the marvellous pencilling on the flank feathers.

Common teal Anas crecca m

Common teal Anas crecca m

 Common teal Anas crecca m

 Common teal Anas crecca m

Common teal Anas crecca m

The female may not look as exotic at first, until the subtle colouring starts to intrigue. Glimpses of green, blue or mauve views of the speculum bring the colouring to life and you realise suddenly just how attractive she is. The closer you are, the more the patterning catches the eye, as with so many other duck.

Common teal Anas crecca f

Another series of shots were of the birds flying towards me. What a miracle it is that autofocus is able to concentrate on the bill and head while maintaining perfect sharpness.

Common teal Anas crecca

Common teal Anas crecca

Common teal Anas crecca

There were considerable numbers of snipe around, though it was all but impossible to find them, searching the reed bases for their presence. The secret is to catch them as they fly, following them to their final location. Easier said than done! But, concentrating on the apparently empty area may reveal them venturing out from their camouflagd resting place. They are designed to vanish as they stop moving, the perfect camouflage experts.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago

But, as so often, the most spectacular scenes were initiated by predators passing over the reeds, or sailing across high overhead. Then the multides of birds, usually ducks, erupt into the sky, many more appearing than had seemed possible beforehand, emerging from behind rushes, from within the reed beds and even behind the minutest whisps of grass that still camouflaged the bulky bodies.

 mixed duck Anas spp.

 

mixed duck Anas spp.

mixed duck Anas spp.

January 9th 2020. One of the highlights of recent visits to the wetlands has been the number of Mute swans seen in flight, as well as record numbers of mutes out on the moors. Here are a couple taken at Catcott Lows today.

Mute swan Cygnus olor

Mute swan Cygnus olor

January 4th 2020. I had a most enjoyable visit to Westhay Moor today, walking up London drove to the North hide. Passing the entrance to the Lake hide there was a loud drumming deep in the reeds, the noise of many duck taking off. Soon they appeared, now silver, now dark, as they twisted in their synchronised flight. Among the many Wigeon were quite a few Pintail. Back and forth, down and up again, reluctant to settle. There was no sign of what had caused this, no obvious predator. They looked marvellous against the bright waters and glowing winter reeds.

Wigeon Anas penelope & Pintail A. acuta

A bit further on, there was another, different thunder of rising duck, this time entirely Gadwall Anas strepera, yet further off. It was interesting to see this influx of duck, even more so on the southern sector. Usually the bulk of duck are further up to the northern boundary. Opposite the North hide, on the large lake that revealed it self through the edging of golden reeds, several pairs of Goosander were on the water. Eventually, one took off and gave me the chance of a flight shot or two.

Goosander Mergus merganser

But more was to come. After waiting a few minutes upstairs in the tower of the North hide, the first harrier appeared, a male, revealing such splendid coloured plumage as the light caught him. This was my only sighting of the male, almost all the remainder were of a dark adult female.

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

Marsh harriers are almost impossible to sex at this time of year when so many are still in juvenile plumage. She treated me to a real hunting display, dropping down, lifting off, floating effortlessly over the water, then beating towards me (the remarkable Sigma lens had no difficulty in focussing on the head as it came towards me). The harrier made three or four visits before the clouds closed in and it was time to walk back, still largely free of a breeze. Final bonuses were swans in flight against the reeds and a wonderful rainbow


Mute swan Cygnus olor

Westhay Moor

January 3rd 2020. 

There has been a hiatus in writing this entry. Somehow, when bringing up a new year and month, chaos ensued - the website refused to acknowledge the new month. Tim reserched the problem, but time after time it refused to work. Then came the breakthrough and it is working correctly once more. Thank goodness for the determined expert. Why it happened we do not know, nor do we wish to find out! Just pleased it is flowing in once again. A brief visit to Catcott in fine weather brought pictures of Wigeon sleeping, erupting and other events, cheering us up after the break and recent dreadful weather.

Wigeon Anas penelope

Wigeon Anas penelope

 Wigeon Anas penelope

 

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