Autumn 2016

November 29th 2016. It was another fine sunny day, so decided to visit Greylake to see if the duck hordes were present there as well. Approaching the hide, there was a loud noise coming from the other side of the screening trees, sounding a bit like a distant digger at work. But actually, it was thousands of duck, almost all of them Common teal, a most amazing sight and even more so when the whole lot took off as one bird within minutes of my arrival. I have never seen so many teal in one place and this appeared to be so for other visitors to the hide.

Common teal, Anas crecca                                                                                            © robin williams

Common teal, Anas crecca                                                                                            © robin williams

I heard one photographer say to another, 'How many more variations can you take of one species?' He and his companion left the hide afterwards, apparently saturated with the sights and sounds of so many birds of mainly one species, though when I went through the pictures, I found I had photographed a small flight of Wigeon.

Wigeon Anas penelope,                                         © robin williams

But perhaps their exit may have been for another reason. Although there was no wind, it was hand-numbingly cold, in spite of good gloves. Someone said that this must be the reason the hide is known as the refrigerator. The normal reason for this is the prevailing wind coming directly into the open windows but today it was just bone-chilling cold - built tinto the air surrounding us. Overnight, daughter Fiona reported -6° on her car, not at all typical of Somerset, in the 'balmy' south-west. My visit ended eventually because I was so cold, needing to have my fingers thaw out.

On the way home, the road passed by Catcott Lows and I could not resist a quick look. What a different outlook, ice everywhere! The ducks, still mainly Wigeon, in contrast to Greylake, were confined mainly to an area they had kept clear overnight, packed in like sardines in a can. Every so often they would leap into the air as single cloud, though there was no apparent reason. But the real interest in this far-off pageant was the behaviou a couple of birds of prey. A Carrion crow had a real go at a Marsh harrier, refusing to let her go whatever the manoevres.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus                     © robin williams

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus & crow        © robin williams

The final shots were very much snatched ones, as can be seen. The quality is as it happened, but I felt they were worth showing. It is not often that it is possible to see the prey slung underneath the bird. The Sparrowhawk appeared out of the blue and crossed the field of view, almost certainly flying from a patch of vegetation in the water where a number of small birds had been seen, mostly Stonechats Saxicola torquata. It may be a favoured spot for these hawks to hunt, as I have seen exactly this happen in the same place on another occasion.

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus+prey                    © robin williams

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus+prey                    © robin williams

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus+prey                    © robin williams

November 28th 2016. After the last visit, a return to Catcott Lows combined with walking Maddie seemed ideal for another fine crystal-clear morning. Earlier, crossing Tealham Moor, we came across a Kestrel hovering alongside the road. Pulling in, a few good shots resulted, even though a couple of cars sped past at one stage. It is so good to see these fine falcons back on the moors again.

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus f                                © robin williams

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus f                                © robin williams

At the hide, there was another full spectrum of ducks, mainly Wigeon. I spent a deal of time trying to catch that 'perfect' moment but wonder if it will ever happen. The individual ducks are so beautiful they deserve individual treatment but their mass erruptions, or 'frights', are as amazing and exciting. They errupt as one, chatting quietly together at one moment, then simultaneously filling the air.

Wigeon Anas penelope, Shoveler Anas clypeata                                                       © robin williams

Like wader flocks, they turn as one, from dark top views to dazzling white below, zig-zagging off once the bulk are in the air.

Wigeon Anas penelope,                                                                                                  © robin williams

A lucky moment caught this fine Shoveler as it shot off. I think they are amongst the most beautiful of the ducks with their green-shot heads and distinctive bill (sometimes talked about as comic but mistakenly, very much fitted to their means of feeding.

 Shoveler Anas clypeata m                                    © robin williams

Some other watchers were kind enough to show me a rather splendid sight - two Peregrine falcons Falco peregrinus sitting side by side on a wooden fence rail. This was right at the top, on the edge of the trees beyond the reed beds, so too far for my lens but clearly visible through the binoculars. They sat there solidly throughout my visit, almost certainly digesting recent captures. The final, and unexpected moment came when a Magpie flew towards the hide and up and over, always a tricky shot to capture. Three of the sequence were out of focus, but this one locked on the eye and bill - a fine bonus for the day.

Magpie pica pica                                                    © robin williams

November 26th 2016. The winter duck-season started at Catcott Lows, at last, with an exhilarating  performance. The day has been beautiful, full sunshine and marvellous light, so that distant fields appear as if next door. We reached the hide before midday, stayed for an hour, then walked down Catcott Heath, past the second, virtually unused hide, as far as we could go. A delightful walk with fungi sprouting on the path and the sound of Canada geese Branta canadensis echoing across from the larger of two flashes on the Lows. And there they were chatting to each other, bathing and generally relaxing, perhaps twenty birds in all. On our return, we stopped again at the hide and enjoyed another half hour or more before driving home.

 Wigeon, Anas penelope                                        © robin williams

Wigeon, Anas penelope                                        © robin williams

 Wigeon, Anas penelope                                        © robin williams

Wigeon, Anas penelope                                        © robin williams

Wigeon, Anas penelope m                                    © robin williams

Wigeon, Anas penelope f                                      © robin williams

Common teal, Anas crecca m                              © robin williams

Pintail, Anas acuta                                                 © robin williams

The final event took place just as I was about to leave. A very distant Great white egret took to the air and settled to the right of the hide. Ron and I managed to open the side shutters without distturbing the bird, though it was rather far off. We watched fascinated as it caught a small fish and spent some while playing with it, hurling it back into the water and catching it again several times.

Great white egret, Egretta alba                           © robin williams

Great white egret, Egretta alba                           © robin williams

Great white egret, Egretta alba                           © robin williams

November 24th 2015. In the morning, the garden provided the entertainment, both at the feeding station and in the grass and fallen multi-coloured leaves. First sighting was a Fieldfare, rootling around among those leaves. Numbers of them have arrived in the fields and on the hedge-trees of the moors, flying like confetti ahead of the car as you drive round, calling with that distinctive 'check-check'. We were surprised to see one in the garden, usually this is a sign of very hard weather but although cold, it was nomal for the time of year.

Fieldfare, Turdus pilaris                                      © robin williams

This bird was joined by a Jay, colourful and busy. It is so good to see this species after those years when they were invisible and unheard in the area.

Jay, Garrulus glandarius                                    © robin williams

The feeders are quite busy again but most of those attending are from the tit family -  Great Parus major, Blue and Long-tailed Aegithallus caudatus. This morning they were again joined by a Coal tit, one of my favourite birds, so distinctive and seemingly cheerful, but an uncommon vistor to our garden.

Blue tit, Parus caeruleus                                      © robin williams

Coal tit, Parus ater                                                © robin williams

In the afternoon I drove over to Catcott Lows, via Tealham Moor. On the latter, I came across a buzzard siting a a post by the road which has become much busier in recent months, a feature of the various diversions that have been in effect because of much-delayed road repairs. This splendid and co-operative bird did not take fright when I had to restart the engine, move off and pull in to a gateway to let another car go by and it even remained perched when I reversed back for another picture - most unusual. As the pictures show it has a fine plumage, with pale-edged feathers and pale breast, very handsome. Local buzzards vary from the unusual nearly-white birds to a really dark brown.

Common buzzard, Buteo buteo                           © robin williams

Common buzzard, Buteo buteo                           © robin williams

At Catcott, it was good to see that our very heavy rain has at last had its effect. The waters had spread widely across the heath and there were good numbers of duck present under the very grey skies. The first thing heard when the car door was opened was the welcom double whistle of the many male wigeon. It took me right back to see a bunch of quarrelsome Wigeon drakes having a grand quarreling session. I get the impression that although this appears rather bad-tempered, they actually enjoy it - letting off steam perhaps. Teal, Anas crecca, were also present in some numbers, as always feeding much closer to the shallow edges. 

Wigeon, Anas penelope                                         © robin williams

November 22nd 2016. After days and nights of storms everywhere, we woke to a completely transformed world. Waters spread across the moors below, not over the roads but clearly waiting for further rain to take them up to the edge. It did end up raining all day but this time a slow, steady, continuous, uncomfortable but sparse dampening, sufficient to put off any thoughts of going out until Maddie forced the need. Although everything was soaked, natural drainage kept it from rising further. It was interesting to see that the flooding - a perfectly normal event on these moors - arose from inside the fields, rather than from overflowing ditches. Today, and the next few days, will produce some marvellous landscapes in this fresh water-soaked world.

winter flooding on Tealham Moor                      © robin williams

Flights of Canada geese flew across, honking wildly to add to the atmosphere. A dozen or so birds at a time - we are not bothered by huge numbers as occurs in other parts of the country, so enjoy their presence for the beauty of their calls and presence. 

Canada geese, Branta canadensis                       © robin williams

This is the time of the Starling, when great flocks come over from the Continent and take over the fields for much of the winter. At any time of the year they are individually beautiful birds but, during winter, quite different to the green and purple shot breeding plumage. During winter, the pencilled feathers only become distinguishable from a general dark appearance when close. For much of the time they feed in large flocks - 'murmurations' - across the fields, spreading along the edge of the road and flushing ahead like leaves in the wind.

Starling, Sturnus vulgaris                                    © robin williams

Starling, Sturnus vulgaris                                    © robin williams

November 20th 2016. Overnight there were some considerabler storms. Down in Margate they reported gusts of over 100 miles per hour. Luckily, we slet through most of it, though recollect great bursts of sound. The wind was accompanied by torrential rain, as various leaks in the roof testified. We cannot find where they are, but they only arise when the rainfall really is excessive. At first, the sky emerged blue and cold but soon went back to quite bright overcast. I decided to drive down to Catcott Lows to see if this had brought in any birds but was disappointed to see the waters had only advanced modestly over the main meadow. The were a number of duck in front, but all were Mallard but these were soon disturbed by a passing Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, too quick to gain a picture though. I did however catch the moment when the ducks passed by, bringing back memories of the huge flights of winter-ducks - still to come, we trust.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos                              © robin williams

A swan took off, lightening the space in front of the hide, as they do so often. The powerful beats of the wings sounded inside and, so slowly, it lifted up from the water, a powerful machine in action.

Mute swan, Cygnus olor                                       © robin williams

The end of the visit came with the arrival and departure of a Marsh harrier. There was no point in waiting further, the large, long-legged predator had ensured there was nothing left on the lake. She came from high above, then dropped to just above the surface of the water and along the top of the reeds. At the end of each beat, she swept up, displaying the large area of wing as she banked round. A few minutes convinced her there was nothing to find and she was off to Canada Lake and Shapwick Heath. From remarks in the hide's note book, she is a regular visitor at present - such a graceful bird.

Marsh harrier, Circus aeruginosus f                   © robin williams

Marsh harrier, Circus aeruginosus f                   © robin williams

November 17th 2016. There has been a long pause between entries. No excuses, but the weather has been awful, lots of rain, low cloud and a lack of birds. I have been using the time also to improve and update the gall insect galleries completely. This is still not finished but is coming on well. The wait should prove worthwhile with clearer, sharper pictures and many more of them. But goodness, how much time this takes! The one bird that has increased recently is the Kestrel. Previously we had been worried that these were no longer to be found on the moors, but numbers have increased recently and have even been photographed when the weather allows.

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus f                                © robin williams

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus f                                © robin williams

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus f                                © robin williams

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus f                                 © robin williams

November 10th 2016. A bright, clear morning was just right to see how far Catcott Lows was starting to flood. Water was spreading slowly across some of the lower-lying parts but only showing as a few shallow pools. At the far back there were lines of ducks along the edge of a deeper line but it was too far to see what they might be.  Nothing moved closer to the hide except for some rather belligerent swans. Two of them were particularly so until, eventually, one drove off the other but, in the meanwhile, showing some lovely feather patterns against the damp green of the grass and reeds.

Mute swan, Cygnus olor                                      © robin williams

Mute swan, Cygnus olor                                      © robin williams

Mute swan, Cygnus olor                                      © robin williams

Towards the end of the visit, a mob of crows Corvus corone corone appeared in front and started to tear about the sky. It was only after watching them for a while that I realised there was a buzzard in the middle. Part of this ignorance arose from the fact that it was a particularly small buzzard, making the crows seem not a deal smaller. Normally this bird shows up as much larger.

Common buzzard mobbed, Buteo buteo           © robin william

November 7th 2016. After a virtual absence during the past month, squirrels are back under the feeders in the garden. They are beautiful little things, as this portrait shows, not that different from Red squirrels Sciurus vulgaris, but with a stronger facial profile and lacking the ear tufts. They may irritate at times, but add to the fun in the garden, as they play amongst themselves, up and down the trees, in an endless game of tag. The young ones clearly enjoy thmselves enormously but, when they want to, also are the most determined to overcome obstacles in attacking our feeding stations. I would hate to be without them completely.

Grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis                    © robin williams

November 3rd 2016. A spare sunny morning took me down to Greylake reserve, hoping that the place was coming to life after its long autumnal and late summer emptiness, but sadly this was not so. The other side of the Polden hills was heavily overcast, though quite calm. The hide was empty, as was the reserve it looks over. Four or five ducks swam at the far end of the pond in front and that was it. However, I did spot a faint grey shape flash over the moor in the distance. The photograph showed it was a Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, that was all. The picture was hopeless. I enjoyed the peace looking over the water and moorland but there was one final sighting to make it worthwhile at last. A Grey heron flew right across the front, really close, barely giving time to swing the lens and keep the image in the viewfinder - splendid.

Grey heron, Ardea cinerea                                   © robin williams

Coming back across the moors, I stopped in time to get a shot of a buzzard perched on top of a treeful of bright Hawthorn berries. It is good to report that this particular bird seemes to have taken up residence on Tealham Moor, frequently being seen on one of the bushes or trees, though not so obliging normally.

Common buzzard, Buteo buteo                          © robin williams

The usual input of gulls has appeared on the fields and particularly on the gateposts. They are a little early this year as the fields are still largely dry. Common they may be, but still remarkably handsome birds at any time of year.

Black-headed gull, Larus ridibundus                © robin williams

November 2nd 2016. Some while back, I mentioned my dissatisfaction with the degree of difference between the original TIFF pictures produced from the RAW camera input and the quality when JPEGs are shown in my website. Since then, I have carried out a deal of research and experimentation and the differences have been considerably reduced. It may be useful to show how this has been achieved. I have never used Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom so this is really aimed at those of us who use other software. My work is taken using Nikon NX2 programs to convert from RAW to TIFF, as well as subsequent changes to the sharpness, colour, contrast etc., as required, including work on resolution and noise supression. This process is used to produce pictures of 4000 pixels ready for storage and printing to the highest standards. The first stage in conversion to pictures suitable for the website is to reduce the size to 450 pixels (for the majority of work, in the 'Diary' sections, or other sizes as they will appear on a particular site), then refocus, a vital part of the whole. This raises the quality to its peak. Recently, I bought a licence for Pixillion Plus, an optimisation program from Australia, which allows batch-processing of the images, then transforms them into JPEGs. The results are remarkable and consistent. In addition to optimisation of the quality of the end result, the file size is much reduced, making for faster appearance of images on the screen. My next piece of research looked into the benefits or otherwise of using RAW throughout the workflow until the final stage, reducing stored file sizes considerably over TIFFs. There are definite advantages to this, so in future all RAW files will be fully corrected and named in that format, then stored as such. What happens next is not yet certain. If files are to be printed it is likely that conversion to TIFF will be the final stage, since I am not sure that my current and excellent HP printer will be able to cope with RAW. Two options are possible for on-line photos. Pixillion will convert directly from RAW, but it does so very slowly. If this proves a real bind then a conversion to TIFF will be used prior to using Pixillion. Further tests are the only way to resolve this.

October 26th 2016. It seemed an unpromising day for a visit to Ham Wall but I needed some exercise and treated it as further exploration of our local facilities. Once again, it turned out to have some surprises, even if the sky was overcast and getting darker. The first of these was a Bittern flying a large circle round my location in the central island hide. Later, someone told me that he had never seen so many since the spring.

Bittern, Botaurus stellaris                                    © robin williams

Then a harrier appeared right over the reed-beds in the distance but, in the end, gave some good views a little closer.

Marsh harrier, Circus aeruginosus                    © robin williams

Marsh harrier, Circus aeruginosus                    © robin williams

Cormorants have always been among my favourite birds, common here on the Levels, seeming as ancient as dinasaurs, with bodies that can flex into any position. The passage between the reeds and the hide seems to be a favoured spot for watching them.

Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo                      © robin williams

Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo                      © robin williams

October 23rd 2016. There was a real burst of autumn colours in the garden this morning, best summed up in a series of pictures taken of male Chaffinches. After long periods where the feeders have been all but neglected, the sunflower seeds are being attacked more vigorously once again.

Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs                                © robin williams

Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs                                © robin williams

Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs                                © robin williams

October 22nd 2016. Further deer sightings on the un-named drove we call Chilton Moor north produced one or two interesting pictures. It is so good to see the deer reappearing after long periods where they are apparently missing or even shot out of existence.

Roe buck & doe, Capreolus capreolus                © robin williams

Roe buck & doe, Capreolus capreolus                © robin williams

Roe doe, Capreolus capreolus                             © robin williams

This drove is an interesting one as it has three spurs, of which this is one, going east from a much wider north-south section that runs across a bridge over the main drain. This is not just a narrow ordinary drove, but a wide grassy track which must have survived from the network of ancient droves that traversed the countryside, clearly long used for moving herds of animals long distances and providing grass as fuel all along the way. It provides a series of peaceful walks where anything can turn up - one year it was the haunt of several Short-eared owls Asio flammeus.

Maddie on Chilton Moor drove                           © robin williams

looking north from Chilton Moor drove             © robin williams

October 20th 2016. A brief exploratory visit to Catcott Lows brought some unexpected results. There has not been the amount of rain recently to expect anything but the usual dry summer pastures but surprisingly there were a few pools forming among the lower depressions and there were even a few Mallard Anas platyrhynchos and Gadwall Anas strepera poking around in them. Within a few minutes of settling in the hide, a Marsh harrier appeared in the distance, while a succession of Carrion crows crossed over in front.

Marsh harrier, Circus aeruginosus                    © robin williams

Carrion crow, Corvus corone corone                  © robin williams

On the way home via Tealham Moor, a grey heron showed its fine adult plumage close-by and a Little egret fed in a ditch beside the road. After a long absence during high summer, it is good to see both these herons on the moors once more. Both remain as wary as ever.

Grey heron, Ardea cinerea                                   © robin williams

Little egret, Egretta garzetta                                © robin williams

October 17th 2016. A couple of days ago, Toddy wrote to me enclosing a small cardboard box with a couple of mysterious-looking tiny clay pots inside. They had been found by a relation of a friend of his who lives near Orleans in France. It seems they found these there and wanted to know more about them. Toddy had already identified them as the nesting pots of Potter wasps, Eumenes.

Eumenid pot from France                                    © robin williams

They are similar to pots we have found in Devon, belonging to Eumenes coarctatus, but may be from other species in the family in view of their French origin. 'Our' Potter wasp collects mud from small puddles and uses it to construct miniature clay pots joined to heather stalks. These look like Roman amphorae, with a neck and rim at the top.

Potter wasp, Eumenes coarctatus clay nest pot © robin williams

The female wasp collects small caterpillars and, after paralysing them, inserts them through the neck before laying an egg. The egg hatches, feeds on the caterpillars and eventually emerges as a fully-grown wasp, seen here collecting clay for the pot.

Potter wasp, Eumenes coarctatus f                     © robin williams

Potter wasps are not common in this country but well worth studying if they are found in the neighbourhood. I am most grateful to Toddy for sending these little pots to me. One of the two contains what looks like the remains of a wasp that did not manage to emerge - fascinating.

Eumenid pot from France, with dead wasp       © robin williams

October 16th 2016. The more open views of near-winter bring closer views of creatures long hidden by the lush gowth around ditches and rhynes. It is fascinating to watch changes in colouring as the season go by. Herons have subtle changes, even in full adult stages.

Grey heron, Ardea cinerea                                   © robin williams

Grey heron, Ardea cinerea                                   © robin williams

October 10th 2016. A brief but disappointing visit to Slimbridge in perfect, still, sunny conditions. The problem was machinery. The two favourite areas, Rushey Pen and the hide below it were quite empty of birds. Rushey Pen had a bulldozer at work right at the front, while the other had someone strimming the reeds. I can understand the need, but they had not mentioned this on their website. I would have put my visit off until these operations were finished. However, I managed half a dozen shots, of which the most interesting are below. I was home shortly after lunch, most unusual.

Greylag goose, Anser anser                                  © robin williams

Greylag goose, Anser anser                                  © robin williams

Rook, Corvus frugilegus                                       © robin williams

On my way back, driving from the motorway over Tealham Moor, I came across a  splendidly-marked buzzard. Markedly colourful, with white-edged feathers, it became even more so when it took off. It is interesting to think back on how many variations have been seen in the area, from all but black birds to ones with gleaming white breasts. These latter have become less obvious, but perhaps this bird is a move back to the lighter variation. Does the hue of the plumage have any effect on selection by a potential mate?

Common buzzard, Buteo buteo                            © robin williams

Common buzzard, Buteo buteo                            © robin williams

October 7th 2016. Chilton Moor is a large area of the Levels, with a number of droves going westward to join a long one linking to a bridge over the drain. These have long been favourite walks, largely empty of activity, peaceful but not always with much wildlife, as there is active shooting in the area which makes the creatures more wary. The first of these droves has become a popular walk for Maddie and I, as with all of them, grassed and wider than usual. She runs ahead sniffing and exploring but sticking within hearing range. She stopped by a gateway with thick hedges on both side. As I came up I caught a glimpse of a couple of young roe deer feeding near a gripe - the whole area is largely grassland. I was able to creep forward and take a few pictures with a small bridge camera without disturbing them. It was particularly pleasing to see them as they have been absent from so many places recently.

Roebuck, Capreolus capreolus                             © robin williams

Roebuck, Capreolus capreolus                             © robin williams

It was good to see that the Ravens, Corvus corvus, were still present on these moors. These previously-rare birds are now much more numerous everywhere. These particular ones seem fond of a row of huge electricity pylons that march across the moor alongside the South Drain. Elsewhere on the moors, Ravens have been known to nest on the top of these structures and I reckon this may be occurring on one of these pylons somewhere close, though I have not seen any evidence so far.

October 4th 2016. Herons have started to appear on the moors again. It is not just that you can see them more easily as annual dredging has cleared the banks on ditches and rhynes; the same bird is seen regularly at the same spot each day. The adults are still in magnificent colourful plumage and it is a joy to stop the car and watching them fishing.

Grey heron, Ardea cinerea                                    © robin williams

Grey heron, Ardea cinerea                                   © robin williams

Grey heron, Ardea cinerea                                   © robin williams

In the afternoon, we were much entertained by a troop of Long-tailed tits causing mayhem on a couple of fat-balls outside the kitchen window. At one stage there were somewhere between eleven and twelve of these minute, delicate-looking birds twisting and turning, hanging upside down and using every manoeuvre to get at the food - a bedlam of birds. Yet they are real family creatures, moving together, feeding together and appearing the best of friends. It must be ten years or so ago that the first of these tits appeared. Now, they are regular visitors who add greatly to our enjoyment of the feeding stations.

Long-tailed tits, Aegithalos caudatus                © robin williams

October 3rd 2016. Contrary to what had been expected, an afternoon spent at the Lake hide on Westhay Moor was sunlit and undisturbed. At first it looked empty of life, but as the afternoon wore on a trickle of birds appeared. It is such a peaceful place that it is perfectly enjoyable to just sit there even though there are no creatures around. A Bittern made an appearance at the far side of the water, briefly but memorably.

Bittern, Botaurus stellaris                                    © robin williams

You could hear Gadwall, Anas strepera, in the distance, out of sight, then a few started flying around, or over into the next door private reserve. A lone Shoveler swam round the corner and sat on what must be a raised underwater bed in front of the hide, preening and then sleeping  before eventually flying off after nearly half an hour.

Shoveler, Anas clypeata f                                     © robin williams

Shoveler, Anas clypeata f                                     © robin williams

A splendid Cormorant passed across, silhouetted against the bright water, followed by some Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, which seem to have recovered their population during this last year.

Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo                       © robin williams

Finally, a distant, colourful bird turned out to be a Jay when the light picked it out fully; a bird which appears to be more abundant than in the past. Not the greatest of pictures, but the first I have obtained in flight, reflecting the fact that while this is a website diary, it is also the opportunity for keeping a personal photograph gallery, for private memories - easier and far more comprehensive than making prints and sticking them into an album which takes so much time and paper.

Jay, Garrulus glandarius                                     © robin williams

On the way home, a Buzzard topped an electric pole, sitting there gazing at me, before lazily flying off - a fitting end to the afternoon.

Common buzzard, Buteo buteo                           © robin williams

Common buzzard, Buteo buteo                           © robin williams

Common buzzard, Buteo buteo                           © robin williams

Arriving home, I glanced at the log 'flats' and spotted a slender insect busy exploring the holes in a log with bark left on it. It was an ichneumon, possibly the final insect to be attracted to the logs this year.

Ichneumon, Ichneumon suspiciosus                 © robin williams

October 2nd 2016. The year rushes on. The heating has gone on at home, in spite of sunny days, for the nights have a bite to them and the old stone cottage remains chilly throughout. Romey and I had a great day out, in perfect sunshine on Seaton Marshes, a local reserve near Seaton in Devon. Although relatively-speaking there were few birds around, we ended up quite satisfied with those we had come across. There were lots of visitors - like us making the most of what might be one of the last near-summer days. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, particularly those who took the open-topped tram that runs back and forth from Seaton to Colyton. The first place we visited was the Tower hide overlooking both the tram line and the estuary. The highlight there was a group of Black-tailed godwits. Most were well on to winter colouring, but a few were flushed with the remains of summer plumage.

 

Black-tailed godwits, Limosa limosa                  © robin williams

For us inland visitors, it was interesting to see the numbers of Herring gulls, fierce, large predators with much dazzling white in their plumage. Other than the godwits, the only wader spotted was a solitary Curlew idling its afternoon away.

Herring gulls, Larus argentatus                         © robin williams

Curlew, Numenius arquata                                 © robin williams

Cormorants remain favourite birds, and sure enough one flew slowly across as a couple of canoeists drove all the gulls in front of them, a flurry of detergent-white.

Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo                       © robin williams

A solitary Shelduck came down to the edge of the tide for a drink and a thorough wash.

Shelduck, Tadorna tadorna m                            © robin williams

The next hide was one that fills me with envy. It is set on an island on a large pond in the marshes, with a covered way leading to it. Sadly, there was not a great deal on the water but clearly it has huge potential for watching waders and waterfowl really close, without disturbance. We would benefit from such an approach on some of our moorland reserves. A male Common teal Anas crecca was with a few Mallard but little else.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos m                          © robin williams

The final part of the visit took us to an extremely welcome cup of tea provided by volunteers from the information centre.

September 30th 2016. Although I could not imagine that there would still be activity at the log-nests, I sat down in the sunshine for a quick look. To my amazement, movement caught my eye and I spotted a solitary digger wasp exploring a hole briefly, before disappearing into it. Waiting another quarter of an hour brought no further glimpses of this very late insect.

Digger wasp, Ectemnius continuus f.,                © robin williams

September 28th 2016. Over the past week there have been sightings of herons feeding in the ditches out on the moors. This seems to happen most years, what happens to them earlier at the end of summer is a mystery? Part of the reason may be because the clearing of the ditches by diggers and cutting of the surrounds makes them easier to see but whatever, it is a welcome sight.

Grey heron, Ardea cinerea                                   © robin williams

September 29th 2016. Nigel took me round Blagdon Lake in the afternoon, always a joy at any time of the year. The first of the winter ducks were present but really little else of note, with the exception of Great white egrets of which there were several, though rather far off. We have seen none on the moors at home for some months, so it was great to renew acquaintance with them, though no longer in their summer finery.

Great white egret, Egretta alba                           © robin williams

Contrary to an earlier visit, where the lake was too full for visiting waders, now it was very low, with banks of mud showing widely. The far-end, to the east, looked quite beautiful, the sun catching the trees as they blew in the wind. Unless you caught a glimpse of the dam, it would be difficult to imagine it as anything but natural - superb.


Blagdon Lake, far-end                                           © robin williams

September 23rd 2016. It was a glorious autumn afternoon when we reached Catcott Heath. It was warm, but the wind was quite strong, so we decided to walk down the track which ends up going through the woods on one side and a hedge with large trees on the other, ending up looking over Canada Lake. There were plenty of darter dragonflies, as is usual when autumn arrives. I was fooled by one red male into thinking it was a Ruddy darter, Sympetrum sanguineum, by its waisted abdomen, rich colour and apparently dark legs, but lowing it up in the computer revealed a fine Common darter. The old female shows the blue shading beneath the abdomen which comes with age in this species.

Common darter, Sympetrum striolatum m      © robin williams

Common darter, Sympetrum striolatum f         © robin williams

Almost as soon a I got out of the car, I heard a mewing call behind the trees, then a buzzard sailed into sight. The gusty wind suited it fine, making the wing-tips work hard for their living. It is good to see this species again, they have been few and far between this summer.

Common buzzard, Buteo buteo                           © robin williams

But the real fun came when a couple of young kestrels appeared from near the same point. They were out to play, making the most of the conditions. It was fascinating watching them indulge in a fine exhibition of aerodynamics in action, tearing up to each other, lifting up and even flying upside down. No-one could ever say this was purely reflex action - they were out to enjoy themselves and so they did; there was no attempt to hover and search for food. Gradually they moved away but were still busy at their games as they vanished from sight - wonderful.

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus                                   © robin williams

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus                                   © robin williams

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus                                   © robin williams

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus                                   © robin williams

September 15th 2016. In spite of fine, unseasonal weather, very warm and sultry, there have been few insects at my nest logs (it is only in the spring that the hollow bamboos prove to be used). However, this morning proved to be a bonanza. Four different species of digger wasp were seen and identified in the course of an hour's watching. Crossocerus elongatulus, C. styrius and C. cetratus are all small conventional black digger wasps.

Digger wasp, Crossocerus elongatulus f            © robin williams

Digger wasp, Crossocerus elongatulus f            © robin williams

Digger wasp, Crossocerus styrius f                    © robin williams

Digger wasp, Crossocerus cetratus m                © robin williams

The fourth digger wasp, Trypoxylon figulus, is a species new to me, although the similar T. clavicerum has been seen many times over the years. These are odd-looking creatures, their appearance varying according to the direction of light, as patches of pubescence on legs and abdomen reflect this, and give patterns that show up and then vanish. The long first segment of the abdomen and the knobbly appearance of the other segments are immediately recognisable. These particular insects are particularly small - perhaps a starved childhood? The female ought to be from 8-12mm. Spiders are the prey used to stock their nest cells.


Digger wasp, Trypoxylon figulus f                     © robin williams

Digger wasp, Trypoxylon figulus f                      © robin williams

September 8th 2016. As I was walking past the study, a brief flash of colour caught my eye. A small black and yellow digger wasp was exploring holes in the most rotten of the logs. No other insects were to be seen then, or over the next half hour, as I watched the drama unfolding. The wasp eventually disappeared into the hole but kept on reappearing with a pile of 'sawdust'. I lost sight of it completely at that stage and thought I must have missed its emergence, then a female flew in and repeated the process. The hole looked awfully full of wasp until it became clear that there were two present, one looking out and the second pressing its way in.

Digger wasp, Ectemnius continuus f                  © robin williams

Digger wasp, Ectemnius continuus 2Xf             © robin williams

Digger wasp, Ectemnius continuus 2Xf             © robin williams

I had to leave then, so never found out whether one was attacking the other, or both were using the same nesting tunnel, in harmony with each other?

September 7th 2016. Today is the last scheduled summer meeting of Somerset & West Country invertebrates. Una chose the locations but unfortunately was unable to be with us, as with Margaret who accompanies her. John, Nigel, Toddy and I met at Knowstone Moor, SS835 219 at our usual 11-o-clock. This Devon reserve is just off the Tiverton/Barnstaple road, open moorland on one side and a large area of mainly grassland on the other. The day was warm and mostly overcast, but it was interesting, prolific and sucessful in terms of species seen. The moment we opened the car door we found the first species, as with much of the day, on the wonderful mauve/blue of Devilsbit scabious Succisa pratensis. The dark, sizeable hoverfly was instantly recognisable as Sericomyia silentis, which insect turned out to be present all over the reserve. I am used to seeing it at home, but never in the numbers seen here.

Hoverfly, Sericomyia silentis m                            © robin williams

We spotted another large and colourful hoverfly, Helophilus trivittatus, but unfortunately it never sat still long enough for a photograph. Two hoverfly species were present which I had not seen before, both found on high, wet moors in the west, a fair description of where we were. Eristalis rupium is a dark but typical Eristalis, distinguished by a yellow rear metatarsus. Up to now, I had not even been aware of its specific name.

Hoverfly, Eristalis rupium f                                 © robin williams

The other exciting find was Arctophila plumosa, a spectacular straw-coloured bumblebee mimic, looking very like Bombus pascuorum. The most odd feature was a pair of pink antennae. I have admired this insect in illustrations but had not expected ever to see one.


Hoverfly, Arctophila plumosa f                           © robin williams

Hoverfly, Arctophila plumosa f                           © robin williams

Other hoverflies included particularly large and colourful specimens of Helophilus pendulus, Eristalis horticola, Syrphus vitripennis, Episyrphus balteatus.

Hoverfly, Helophilus pendulus                             © robin williams

The only bumblebee appeared to be Bombus pascuorum, though a couple of bright specimens may have been Bombus muscorum, well-suited to this particular habitat.

Bumblebee, Bombus pascuorum m                    © robin williams

Meadow appeared to be the only grasshopper species, found in both locations.The short wings are an excellent giveaway.

Meadow grasshopper, Chorthippus parallelus © robin williams

Recently, large spider-webs have started to appear generally, Two species were noted, Garden spider, Araneus diadematus preying on muscids; and Araneus quadratus, with its rich golden colour, preparing a crane-fly, which I had seen bumble into the web. This co-ordinates with reports on radio, television and papers of a huge invasion of craneflies.  However, I am sure that our resident spider specialist, Toddy, will report a great many more species.

Spider, Araneus quadratus f & Cranefly prey   © robin williams

The final surprise, was to see a number of Small tortoiseshell butterflies in pristine condition. Surprising because a report appeared in a newspaper this very morning discussing their recent worrying disappearance from the country.

Small tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae                      © robin williams

After lunch, we moved to Rackenford moor, SS851 211, only a mile or so away, also run by the Devon Wildlife Trust. It was not apparently as prolific as the earlier site but photographs continued to pile up. In the end I found I had photographed the same number of species, though many were different. For a start, the flowers were mainly yellow, buttercup, Ranunculaceae, and hawkweed, Hieracium, rather than the previously predominent clear mauvy-blue of the scabious, though there was some of this in the rougher patches. The entrance is through a small wooded area bounded by a bank. Most of it was rough grassland, some tussocked, other clearer, with huge clumps of bramble Rubus species and gorse Ulex spp., like vast islands. Hoverflies were busy on many of these, especially when weak sunshine warmed them somewhat. These included Sphaeraphoria scripta, Cheilosia bergstammi with its orange antennae and C. scutellata. These were the first Cheilosia I had come across this year which in itself is a strange statement illustrating the absence of hoverflies over much of the period.

 Hoverfly, Sphaerophoria scripta f                      © robin williams

Hoverfly, Cheilosia bergstammi m                     © robin williams

Hoverfly, Cheilosia scutellata m                          © robin williams

Agian, we found the usually common Episyrphus balteatus, Platycheirus albimanus, Syritta pipiens, Eristalis nemorum, E. rupium, as well as numbers of Helophilus pendulus, once more particularly large and colourful.

Hoverfly, Eristalis rupium f                                 © robin williams

At first glance, I thought a Rhingia hoverfly was R. rostrata but closer examination on the computer revealed R. campestris - in a rather striking pose. Earlier, at Knowstone, Nigel thought he had spotted R. rostrata, but could not be certain.

Hoverfly, Rhingia campestris                              © robin williams

The only micro-moth was a Nettle-tap Anthophora fabriciana, while once again a few newly-emerged Small tortoiseshell butterflies were seen. One small patch of flowers held a few mining bees, the only solitary bees seen during the day. They were all males, of the handsome but tiny metallic Lasioglossum leucopus.

Mining bee, Lasioglossum leucopus m              © robin williams

Finally, I must mention large numbers of the fruiting Bog asphodel, lighting up the field when the sun came out all too briefly.

Bog asphodel, Narthecium ossifragum             © robin williams

At the end, I must conclude we had a most splendid end to the season's visits, enjoyable and extremely productive, as well as in good company. The first impressions of both moors belied the number and variety of insects found, while coming across two new species was particularly unexpected - well worth a future visit.

September 6th 2016. Our daily visit was to Catcott Heath reserve, a favourite stroll through the edge, and on through the length of the woods, running alongside the far reaches of Catcott Lows. It was overcast, but completely still, and quite astonishingly humid, the air sitting like a weight above us. The humidity became even worse, stiflingly warm, when we reached the wooded part. It was a typical autumnal day, the season slipping away from summer to a period with few flowers on the edges of the drove and, apparently, little hope of seeing much wildlife. Certainly, there were no sounds of wildfowl from the open waters, now hidden from sight by the still high foliage surrounding them. But there were insects gathering on the few remaining flower heads and umbels. Most were the common flies usually found there, but I came across a fine Platycheirus hoverfly, the first I have seen from this usually common family for a month or so.

Hoverfly, Platycheirus fulviventris f                 © robin williams

Hoverfly, Platycheirus fulviventris f                  © robin williams

The only other hoverfies were Eristalis pertinax, Helophilus pendulus and the most numerous of all, Rhingia campestris. The sole bumblebees were a couple of Bombus pascuorum, brightly-coloured males. A few spiders were come across, lurking between leaves on their webs, while micro-moths were spotted as they landed. Apart from all this, autumn colours in berries and dying leaves added to the attractions and interest.

Great hairy willowherb, Epilobium hirsutum   © robin williams

The walk had been more rewarding than expected at its start. The strong scents brought on by the humidity suited Maddie perfectly and she had a great walk. On my return, I spent a few minutes in front of the logs at home. I was really lucky, catching that moment when a digger wasp searches one of the holes (around 6mm long) - a definite plus for the end of the season.

Digger wasp, Crossocerus annulipes f                © robin williams

September 1st 2016. This morning, mist over the moors showed that autumn was on its way, although fine 'summer' days are following each other still. The slightly chillier evenings demand a fleece top now, but sadly the main indicator of the season is the much shorter day, with this phenomenon appearing to accelerate. So, the year moves on: today is the first day of autumn, marking at least the start of the end of the summer time for insects - though, ironically, there are more around than there were in mid-summer. In line with this, I have changed the pictures and colour design of the first page, 'Introduction', as I have done each quarter. 

Over lunch, Maddie and I went for a walk on our 'new' part of Catcott Heath once more. Flowers are becoming less and less, so it will not be long before the last insects disappear for the cold season. The only prolific flowers are those of Hedge bindweed Calystegia sepium, blinding white where the sun catches them. The hoverfly Rhingia campestris is still around in some numbers and is to be found inside many of the flowers, often apparently just resting. In one, a brilliantly-coloured reed beetle shone out, a late Plateumaris sericea male sunning itself.

Reed beetle, Plateumaris sericea m                    © robin williams

The last sad Comfrey flowers Symphytum officinale, tatty and fading, plus a few umbels, Umbelliferae, were still busy with bumblebees, in a last frantic search for nectar. So the day proved better than expected.

Bumblebee, Bombus lucorum w                         © robin williams

Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris m                       © robin williams


Summer 2016


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