April 2017 - notes from the Somerset Levels

April 28th 2017. Catcott Lows is still in action, as I found to my surprise. Sketchy pools of water hang on and it seemed there was quite a population of birds, once the area was scanned properly. I went down to try out a new acquisition, an exciting recently-announced Sigma 100-400mm f5-6.3 lens. I part-exchanged my Nikon 80-400 which, although a really sharp lens, is let down by its comparative slowness in locking onto moving objects like birds in flight. The new lens is even lighter than the comparatively lightweight Nikon, at just over 1,000 gms and about half the weight of two other recent options by Tamron and Sigma, both offering 150-600mm. As the years roll by, there is a compulsion to lighten what has to be carried, forgoing the extra magnification. It is a super lens, perfect for my needs, light, very sharp and with lightning-fast, silent internal focus. It should prove perfect for both flight and static shots. Catcott Lows was alive with geese and tiny goslings, both Canada and Greylag Anser anser. Numbers of families paraded in front, the goslings clearly recently-hatched, puff-balls of gold rolling along in front of the very attentive parents. 

Canada geese & goslings Branta canadensis                                                                © robin williams

There were numbers of Little egrets feeding on the shallow pools and a great deal of activity. Two, in particular, were either a couple of males taking objection to each other, or a courting pair, though they looked too belligent for the latter. Once again, the red colouring inside the bill was much in evidence.

Little egret  Egretta garzetta                                                                                            © robin williams

Little egret  Egretta garzetta                                                                                            © robin williams

Little egret  Egretta garzetta                                                                                            © robin williams

Little egret  Egretta garzetta                                 © robin williams

There still a few duck out on the deeper patches of water, mainly Common teal Anas crecca, as became evident when a Marsh harrier started quartering the wetlands. It was well on its way towards us when a particularly angry Lapwing started diving on it, coming extremely close at times, even causing the harrier to turn over on its back once, claws pointing up at the wader. By some quirk of light, the Lapwing appeared neary as large as the harrier, with its wings fully extended. Sadly, this display drove the harrier back into the distance and out of sight.

Marsh harrier & Lapwing                                       © robin williams

Marsh harrier & Lapwing                                       © robin williams

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f                     © robin williams

April 22nd 2017. Computer problems have multiplied recently but fortunately the end seems to be in sight at last. At one stage it appeared we had lost virtually everything except the actual website but a great deal of hard work and a splendid program, Recuva, has  brought virtually everything back. A major problem had been made worse by finding out that the hard drive backing up the boot-up process had also failedsince the last back-up, just to add to our woes.  However, all now appears well. It was busy at home during the day but, Late in the afternoon, I felt I needed fresh air to clear my head, so drove down to Ham Wall. It was cloudless, warm and peaceful, the perfect time. Although the car-park was fairly busy, the reserve itself was almost empty of people. Sadly, it was also fairly empty of wildlife. I walked out to the island hide, reached by a well-sheltered walkway and found it too empty. Tufted ducks and Pochard were present and active but only in small numbers.

Common pochard Aythya ferina f                        © robin williams

Common pochard Aythya ferina m                      © robin williams

Common pochard Aythya fuligula                                                                                 © robin williams

A Great crested grebe was fishing in front, between dives visiting the nearby reeds. The reason became clear when a tiny striped baby appeared out on the open water. Perhaps the picture is not quite that shown so often, perfect in feather and colour, but it shows the grebe emerging from one of its dives, dishelled and still wet.

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus                © robin williams

It was very beautiful out there, the light superb, the only sound being the quiet boom from a distant Bittern Botaurus stellaris every so often. Just before it was time to walk back, a pair of Little egrets flew over from the Glastonbury Tor direction and started displaying on the other side of the hide, twisting and turning, almost touching the water, then soaring up again - extraordinarlly beautiful. On looking at the pictures an interesting feature became visible. At least one of the birds had a bright red inside to its  beak and was showing it for much of the display. Whether they were male and female or two males trying to see each other off will for ever remain unknown.

Little egret Egretta garzetta                                  © robin williams

     Little egret Egretta garzetta                                                                                      © robin williams     

Little egret Egrettgarzetta                                    © robin williams

The final incident for the day came at the other end of the route back, from the blind facing west, an area usually straight into the sun in the afternoon and not normally visited. Nevertheless I did, and was rewarded with a series of views of a Little egret fishing, part-hidden among the reeds, back-lit. Quite superb for the delicate colours and flashes of light on the foliage; a perfect end to the day.

Little egret Egretta garzetta                                  © robin williams

Little egret Egretta garzetta                                                                                     © robin williams

Little egret Egretta garzetta                                  © robin williams

Little egret Egretta garzetta                                  © robin williams

April 21st 2017. This morning the flats (drilled logs) in front of the study were really active at last. I spent an hour or so being entertained by the inhabitants and visitors of this self-contained world. They have been in operation for 25 years now and 70 Hymenopteran species have been identified over this time visiting the nest holes. There may well be more than this that have actually visited it, as I do not capture and kill them and, clearly, cannot be there each and every day. The volume of activity is early this year, usually ushered in by the mason bee Osmia bicornis, but this time with numbers of little black digger wasps of the Crossocerus species. The digger wasps are found normally a few weeks after the mason bees. I must go to my copy of MapMate and see how the current dates compare qith the past. Osmia bicornis males generally arrive a week or so before the females, giving them the opportunity to mate as soon as the latter emerge, as is the case with so many insects. The males are instantly recognisable, though variable in colouring fron straw-coloured, through gold to fiery red, depending on how long since they emerged. Their frantic activity must be wearing in every sense. Males are distinguishable from the fatter, furrier females by very long antennae and a bunch of white hairs on the face.

Mason bee Osmia bicornis m                                © robin williams

Mason bee Osmia bicornis m                                © robin williams

Mason bee Osmia bicornis m                                © robin williams

As far as can be seen, this picture shows a male following a very early female into a hole, though some males can give a similar appearance from the rear. The difference in colour between the two is well illustrated. Although the long antennae of the male are designed to sniff out what or who is in the potential nest-hole, it does not always work. You see an insect fly confidently into a hole only to emerge somewhat dishevelled a second or so later - someone has already staked his claim.

Mason bee Osmia bicornis m                                © robin williams

It was specially interesting to look more closely at the digger wasps for this early invasion included at least three species. The largest of these was Crossocerus megacephalus, common throughout the summer here. The males, for all the wasps, like the bees, are almost certainly males exploring the potential for females in the nest-holes, are from 6-8mm in length.

Digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus m         © robin williams

The other two were from the smallest species that visit the logs. Although all look very similar when seen in close-up, without any reference to give size, as in a photo, and generally black throughout, they seem very small when spotted on a log. Tiny, thread-like, anonymous insects until they fly, when the typical digger-wasp attitude becomes obvious, legs dangling down. C. elongatulus is fractionally the larger at from 5-6mm, whereas C. annulipes, with it large head, is from 4.5-6mm long. 

Digger wasp Crossocerus annulipes m                © robin williams

Digger wasp Crossocerus elongatulus m            © robin williams

Digger wasp Crossocerus elongatulus m             © robin williams

April 19th 2017. It warmed up over lunchtime and I spent an hour at the drilled logs of the flats, fasciated, as always by the frantic activity of those insects looking to mate or locate a suitable nest-hole..

Flats', drilled log nest sites                                      © robin williams

The first to catch my eye was a head peering out of one of the logs. Numbers of hHymenoptera do this, hoping to stop a female emrging or, more likely, one searching for a nest.

Mason bee Osmia bicornis m                                © robin williams

Among the more usual Crossocerus species, it was interesting to spot a couple of new wasps for the year, ones that could be identified by colouring, size and flight time - though they are earlier this year.

Digger wasp Crossocerus annulipes f                 © robin williams

Digger wasp Passaloecus gracilis                        © robin williams

April 17th 2017. A lovely late-afternoon, warm and still, brought more insects out in the garden, particularly on the beds in front of the house, facing south. The main insect-attractant is Lungwort Pulmonaria officianalis, followed by Lamium spp., and Spanish bluebell Hyacanthoides hispanica. The latter has taken over the garden after introducing one single bunch of bulbs many years ago. Surprisingly, only one bumblebee, and that an early male, was spotted in spite of apparently perfect conditions, but then they have been notable for their absence this Spring.

Bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m                       © robin williams

Very like a bumblebee, Anthophora plumipes were present largely as females, but there was also a single male, the first I have seen this year. Males usually emerge well before the females so as to be waiting to mate immediately they emerge.

Mining bee Anthophora plumipes f                      © robin williams

Male and felmale Anthophora plumipes look totally different from each other. Unless you were aware of this, you would never connect them as the same species. The female is a really woolly bear, similar to a bumblebee in shape. Whereas the male is sand-coloured and in many views far less rotund.

 Mining bee Anthophora plumipes m                   © robin williams

 Mining bee Anthophora plumipes m                   © robin williams

 Mining bee Anthophora plumipes m                                                                              © robin williams

However, the most interesting time was yet to come. The expected bee-fly, Bombylius major, appeared quite quickly, instantly known from the thick dark marking at the ffont of the wings. Then more bee-flies appeared and I started photographing them enthusiastically before realising they were different from major. The wings were spotted and the insect was altogether darker. This was the much more unusual Bombylius discolor. The last time I had seen one of these in the garden was 25 years previously! From what I hear they have declined in recent years.

 Bee-fly Bombylius discolor                                     © robin williams

 Bee-fly Bombylius discolor                                    © robin williams

 Bee-fly Bombylius discolor                                    © robin williams

 Bee-fly Bombylius discolor                                     © robin williams

April 11th 2017. There was a proper sign of the coming of the real Spring this morning. The first male mason bee was spotted exploring the potential nest-holes in the logs outside my study. Vivid red-gold, it is impossible to miss him when he appears.

Mason bee Osmia bicornis m                                © robin williams

April 9th 2017. Another perfect spring day led to my first visit to a hide on London Drove, Westhay Moor NNR, where a new two storey hide has replaced one burnt down by vandals some years back, together with a rotten, unsafe walkway. The site is still very raw, with a temporary walkway through the reeds  and little to shelter the visitor from being seen by the birds. Nevertheless, it has had very good reports since opening and deserves a look.

London Drove hide, Westhay Moor NNR          © robin Williams

first impressions were good, with a buzzard flying across and past, giving clear views of its plumage.


Common buzzard Buteo buteo                                                                                         © robin williams

Common buzzard Buteo buteo                              © robin williams

This was followed by a female harrier hurrying over and past into the vast areas of reeds to the right.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus                     © robin williams

Downstairs, the hide has a first-class view of water in front, edged by reeds, while the upstairs gives a wider but slightly odd view. Both areas have good opening glass shutters with wide shelves in front, sufficient for the usual clutter we all carry with us, as well as room for a sturdy table-top tripod such as my Kirk. Greylags were in considerable evidence, flying in and out for much of the time, such splendid-looking creatures in their Spring finery.

Greylag goose Anser anser                                     © robin williams

Moorhens were very active. It was specially interesting to see one in flight right across the water. Usually, they stay firmly wedded to the surface.

Moorhen GallGallinula chloropus                        © robin williams

The final excitement came when a brown shape swum right acroos in front, from one section of reeds to another. At first, it looked rather like a very small, young otter Lutra lutra, so I clicked away as it sped across. It was only later, on going through the pictures, that I realised it was a mink - the first I have seen for some years. It travelled at quite a rate and vanished into the reeds for good, but what an interesting experience, though the various conservationists may not be that thrilled.

American mink Neovison vison                                                                                       © robin williams

American mink Neovison vison                                                                                       © robin williams

American mink Neovison vison                                                                                       © robin williams

The day rounded off well crossing Tealham Moor, when a small bird was seen on one of the gateposts. It was a Meadow pipit. Why so interesting? For many years they all-but disappeared from the moors, where they used to be so common. I was really glad to see one again.


Meadow pipit  Anthus pratensis                           © robin williams

April 8th 2017. It is good to report that two birds that have been missing from the garden have turned up once more. We feared that Greenfinches had suffered from the disease that has threatened them over recent years.

Greenfinch Carduelis chloris                                © robin williams

Goldfinched were extremely common two years ago but since have disappeared. This could be because of an abundance of natural foods on the moors below but who knows. It is good to see such colourful birds once more.

Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis                              © robin williams

In the late afternoon, very warm and largely breeze-free, I sat down in front of the Spring-flowered bed in front of the house and started looking for insects. They were certainly well in evidence - at last! The first to catch my eye was a female Anthophora plumipes, always the herald of Spring, but somewhat late this year. Black and rounded like a bumblebee, with a touch of bright orange on the leg, she has a high-pitched hum in flight, a dead giveaway if present - but there was no sign of any males, which normally emerge first, as in many hymenoteran insects.

Mining bee Anthophora plumipes f                     © robin williams

It was good to see one or two bee-flies visiting the Primroses Primula vulgaris as well as other flowers, the former especially abundant this year. Thebee-flies look so curious, with their long proboscis permanently rigid and extended. They do alight sometimes, but for much of their time they hover with the proboscis deep in the heart of a flower. Such delightful but tiny additions to the garden, but only for a short while.

Bee-fly Bombylius major                                                                                                 © robin williams

Bee-fly Bombylius major                                       © robin williams

 

Bee-fly Bombylius major                                       © robin williams

At last there were numbers of bumblebees darting from flower to flower. You have to be quick to catch them in the viewfinder though. It is mainly an instance of trying to pre-focus roughly where you expect them to be. There is no way that autofocus will lock on unless it is very close to the actual insect when the button is pressed.

Bumblebee Bombus hortorum w                          © robin williams

Bumblebee Bombus hortorum w                          © robin williams

Bumblebee Bombus hortorum w                          © robin williams

Bumblebee Bombus hortorum w                                                                                      © robin williams

Bumblebee Bombus pscuorum m                         © robin williams

Bumblebee Bombus pscuorum m                         © robin williams

Bumblebee Bombus pscuorum m                         © robin williams

Bumblebee Bombus pscuorum m                                                                                    © robin williams

It was a lovely time, right up to early evening, warm enough to stay outside and to keep the insects flying.

April 5th 2017. More fine weather continues, though it is not doing much for Spring insects because of the cold winds. I was anxious to continue tests on the mirror lens, as well as seeing how the migratory exit of the ducks was building up - certainly well on its way. There were many ducks around, spread widely over the large area of the reserve, but only a small percentage of those seen on the last visit. It doesn't seem likely we will be seeing many of the winter ducks shortly, as they move on to their breeding grounds elsewhere. Nevertheless, it proved an interesting visit and the photographs continued to show promise - the lens is indeed sharp. Manual focussing is an art I have lost in recent years but it soon comes back as a skill. Walking along the entry way, it was good to see a bright and colourful example of a Cuckoo flower on the edge. Soon the moors will be grey with millions of these beautiful flowers, food plant for Orange-tip butterfly larvae Anthocharis cardamines.

Cuckoo flower Cardamine pratensis                   © robin williams

Few others braved the winds heading into the hide for long, indeed it was was what cut my own visit short eventually. Most photographers prefer to open the glass shutters to reduce the risk of affecting the resolution of their lenses. At first, nothing was obvious nearby, then a slight movement showed the head of a snipe appearing between the vegetaion.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                   © robin williams

As the eye became more used to to concentrating hard on the area, the snipe could be followed as it fed its way along the edge, but always part-hidden behing the reeds and lost in its cryptic plumage as soon as movement stopped.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                   © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                   © robin williams

A visiting heron landed to one side and srted feeding after a long period where it stood like a statue doing nothing but check out the area. Herons produce some wonderful and graceful shapes once they concentrate on their hunting.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea                                                                                                  © robin williams

Eventually it looked round and flew off without any signs of haste.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea                                                                                                © robin williams

The only other event of note was a Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus being mobbed by a single Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, the smaller bird causing it to twist and turn in efforts to escape- - too far off for effective photography.

April 2nd 2017. At last, signs of Spring, with the arrival of a few insects in the garden. Bombus Hypnorum, B. hortorum and B. pascuorum queens were present in very small numbers, a sign of hope to come. Bumblebees are resilient creatures but the very cold winds seem to have kept them from emerging. Once they have done so, they are able to keep going in the cold by shivering their wing muscles, the reason they are seen in the evenings when other insects have vanished.

Bumblebee Bombus hortorum q                           © robin williams

It was good also, at last, to see Anthophora plumipes at last. A single male and a female were feeding at their favourite Spring flower which coincides with their emergence, Lungwort Pulmonaria officianalis, of which there is much in the garden. But surely, there should be many more by now?

Mining bee Anthophora plumipes f                     © robin williams

Mining bee Anthophora plumipes f                     © robin williams

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