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January 2021: wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

January 31st 2021. The RSPB is holding its annual citizen bird-watch. We were interested to hear the details, as we have participated in previous years; then we thought, there are no birds at the bird feeder and haven't been for some months. Earlier, squirrels had completely wrecked the feeder. The new one arrived after quite a gap, was filled with sunflower hearts - and nothing! A couple of small tits (Paridae) appeared took a few grains and since then, nothing. Is this part of the long-term decline in all wildlife that we have been observing? Is it our feeder? In parts of the garden, often the very tops of trees, there is some bird-song when the the sun warms a day. usually a Robin (Erithacus rubecula).

Robin Erithacus rubecula

Apart from that, there are Jackdaws (Corvus monedula) in small gangs and our Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) building nests still, but nearly half as many as last year - after a period where they increased annually.

Jackdaw Corvus monedula

Rook Corvus frugilegus

January 30th 2021. The whole locality is soaked. The land squeezes out water as if you are standing on a sponge. The view down across the moors is amazing. Past the skeletal winter-trees of the rising ground, water covers everything in immediate sight until the edge of the Poldens is reached; then there is a dark band of shadow, like a distant hedge. Beyond that there is a narrow band of sunlit distance - the top of the Poldens. The water below starts a couple of hundred yards or so out from the line where the Isle of Wedmore lifts up. Beyond that, the only green is where the tops of field edges show in a long wavering line. When the sun shone briefly on this scene, it was incredibly beautiful. It is a good few years since so much water has lain on the moors, no doubt Mendip had a real downfall of rain in the lst day or so, falling hard on already sodden ground. The weather forecast shows more falling in the next few days. In recent nights, the trail camera by the old trail here has has had more than half the pictures spoiled by the downpour and the mists associated with it. It must have been really bouncing off the ground at the time. It is really remarkable that the camera records at all. Normally, the sounds of duck and geese drift up from below, no such is heard at present.

Tealham Moor

January 25th 2021. At last, a wonderful, calm, sunny day. The view across the moors is spectacular, a few traces of snow but the majority sparkling, wet. Many fields are inundated, whether from above or seeping up from below is not obvious. It is said that heavy rain on Mendip eventually finds its way down to flood the moors after three days. It has had that rain over many days recently and is now permanently flooded over many parts. It is incredibly beasutiful in good light like this. Not as flooded as it used to be for sure, but very much part of life here in the winter. Decades ago, the moors flooded for weeks on end. It was like living over an estuary, the only thing missing being ships. The installation of automatic sensors and electric pumps has made it unlikely for this to be seen again. One year, there was so much water that all the roads were flooded, and the only solid earth was that of the roadside banks. Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) and buzzards (Buteo buteo) sat on gates and used them for observation perches, as their prey was driven up from the fields into these last places of shelter. Looking round, our Rook's (Corvus frugilegus) nests are doing well, in spite of gales in recent weeks. As far as I can see there are eight either under construction or being refurbished from past years. There werte fifteen visible last year before the new leaves blotted out our view. There may be more to come; my observation is that first-year youngsters are only allowed to start thers after the older birds have completed their work, then it proceeds at a great rate.

January 24th 2021. We woke to a carpet of snow. Why should that be unusual? This area, low-lying and wet, does not suffer snowfalls in most years and when it does it is a mere smattering. This has not always been so, but you have to go 40 or 50 yers to the time, one year, when the blown snow filled the lane to the hedge-tops and tractors had to clear it over the next day. Today's snow is around an inch in depth, already starting to melt by midday even though it is most definitely cold still. Quite often, in these parts, snow only starts as the temperature rises. I examined the trails but they had lost their snow covering by the time we emerged, leaving a muddy mess. The trail cameras showed there had been movement continuing during the night. It is strange reading this, realizing that little has happened in the wildlife sense this month. Not being able to go far for exercise means that other wildlife sites are out of bounds, while the moors have little sign of life judging from the sounds rising up from below. We are doing just what the givernment urges, staying home and waiting for the world to come back to life eventually. The trail cameras show that life carries on with the larger mammals. Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) never stop their night-time movements, Badgers (Meles meles) are quite plentiful, about half the number of the foxes, while deer (Capreolus capreolus) wander in and out to no particular pattern. The fact that we see so many badgers is interesting, as Tim tellls me that the cull has been strong around here. Some people have always maintained that culling just encourages others to come in and fill the niche. I hate to see them destroyed, but cannot but sympathise with the farmers who are so afraid of TB in their herds. Surely a vaccine for their cattle must be the long-term solution?

January 12th 2021. Warmer today, but horrible and damp. Clearly our garden suited the deer. Two of them spent much of the day in and out, while they were recorded entering and leaving during the night. We watched them up in the orchard in the early morning, looking dark and bulky. Later, I was sitting in my study when I looked up as a couple of deer came from where the trail is constricted and ran out almost into my window. I had this vision of a heavy, wide deer blundering past, dripping wet which darkened the coat considerably, before they were away andout of sight. This was repeated several times in the next half hour. They appeared restless, not sure where they wanted to be, then eventually settled down to graze up above for some while. It is good to have them back with us.

 Roe deer Capreolus capreolus the old doe

Based on recent efforts, I would like to make some observations about trail cameras discovered as I try and achieve the best quality pictures. The main problem I suffer is trying to not only capture the whole animal but to slow it down effectively so as to avoid a blurred picture. To achieve both parameters is a delicate balance. The camera needs to be angled slightly towards the trail but not too much. If correct, the animal will tend to be to one sideof the picture somewhat, but is a whole image, while its effective speed has been slowed to provide a sharp picture. The other factor is distance. My camera has two lenses, for day and nighttime. It took me a while to realise they were not of the same focal length. The day lens being a longer focal length, magnifying the image more. So, the right distance at night leaves daytime images of deer over-filling the image, often out of focus, and vice versa. Again, this is a question of balance, having to choose the most important distance when you put the camera out. This recent really wet weather, leaving everything dripping, is almost always followed by some mist. Recently, most sets of pictures include a period where the mist overwhelms the images, leaving a faint shape in a hazed surround. There is nothing to be done about this except resign yourself to it. After various tests, I conclude that the camera should be set at the highest resolution, 24mp, in spite of statements I have read saying there is no improvement over the basic 4mp, because the higher mp settings are all software enhanceents of the original 4mp. My setting is 24mp for the still pictures I take. You need evey possible bit of help to achieve the highest quality pictures that can be achieved. There is another point to consider; the two cameras differ. One has low-glow infra-red lighting to capture the image at night, the other has completely dark infra red modules to achieve the same rresult. There is a difference and it can be seen when looking at the results. The low-glow is faintly visible to those being photographed. The pictures sometimes betray this by the creature's attitude. The no-glow camera shows animals in completely natural attitudes - the camera shutter is electronic and silent. Which to use is part of setting up the location of the cameras. Trail camera photography is not just a question of setting a camera on a tripod and waiting. It is a difficult assessment of numbers of factors and, as far as I am concerned, a continuing process of learning, just s complex and difficult as conventional wildlife photography.

Yesterday, I noticed the first Snowdrops Galanthus nivalis were fully out, while there were also Primroses Primula vera in a sheltered spot. Yet there are still roses in bloom on a climber that has not stopped flowering over the whole summer and autumn.  Nevertheless, even in this evil weather,  the season is moving on, there are the first signs of life in the undergrowth, a realization that may, perhaps, cheer people in troubled times.

January 7th 2021. We woke up to an intense frost decorating all the shrubs, trees and grass with the sharp white sheen of ice. It stayed white all day, just becoming a little less intense in the middle. Temperature was not taken, but the locality was said to be around -5°C, cold for our part of the region. Earlier, I decided to buy another trail camera to provide coverage over other parts of the garden. The new Browning Patriot arrived yesterday and was put to immediate use on another part of the main trail. The results were examined this morning, allowing the two cameras to be compared. Both are excellent, but the new Patriot gives a sliver of improvement when pictures are compared. I fancy the software has gone up a notch to make it a tad easier to achieve the final result. After uploading the jpg pictures, I undertake a routine conversion to tiff, to allow for any improvements to be made to the picture, without affecting the quality. For on-line use they are then converted back to jpg via RIOT. It sounds complex but it produces the highest quality for the finished pictures.

January 4th 2021. It is much easier to see trails when winter comes. Frosts knock back the last of growth showing animal-paths in several places in the garden, some quite unexpected, and quite apart from the main trail that has been here long before we arrived. Last night I moved the camera up to the top of the orchard where I found a trail wavering up and through the fence. I thought I might have been imagining things but attached the camera to a tree some distance away and hoped. In the morning, I found I had been right, a couple of distant pictures of a Fox Vulpes vulpes and an an even more distant blob of a Badger Meles meles rewarded me.

Fox Vulpes vulpes

The camera has now been moved back to the main trail but further up the garden, with the camera facing north-east, to see what that brings. All this undoubtedly increases the feeling of anticipation in the morning, a good thing in these gloomy times, where reports are coming in of increasing rates of Covid-19 in the area.

January 1st 2021. Another year has gone but this time the world is not a happy place. Restrictions on personal freedom are at their highest and Covid-19 virus remains at its most virulent. Hope lies ahead, with two different vaccines now available and being administered, though there are doubts about which are the best doses for optimum protection and also getting everyone virus-free, a balancing act. Now, there are two major events taking place, the virus and our exit from the EU, both with huge impact on life.

We woke to a really hard frost, the whole area white. Two of the Roe deer were wandering round on the garden looking dark and large. No doubt the trail camera will give us a clue as to their overnight activity. And there was - this beautiful young doe.

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus young doe

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