May 2017 - notes from the Somerset Levels

May 30th 2017. Our group met at Babcary this morning for a visit to Babcary Meadows, a long-established wetland meadow reserve alongside the River Cary. It turned out to be an important visit as well as being of wide general interest. John, Peter, Una and Margaret turned up. We had been expecting Nigel but he did not make it after all (it seemed it has rained hard all morning the other side of Mendip where he lives so he thought we would not be going). The morning was warm and muggy though mainly overcast, but this was no deterrence to the insect world. Conditions could not have suited them better. Every umbel had its inhabitants from a variety of species, but mainly hymenoptera, as well beetles and many flies.

sawfly, Cephus nigritus                                                                                                      © robin williams

The reserve is open to everyone, reached down a lane ending at a ford. Here the path takes you to a bridge over the river - narrow at this point - and into the meadows which have been hay meadows since at least the 1990's and quite probably long before. The meadows look like something most of us have long forgotten, with masses of wild flowers and insects, including a deal of Yellow rattle Rhinanthus minor, so often the main reason for abundance of herbage other than grass, which it parasitises. Hoverflies were present in some numbers on the edges of the river.

hoverfly, Cheilosia pagana m                               © robin williams

A few weeks ago, I was told by a local, the fields were covered in Early purple Orchis mascula and Green-winged orchids Orchis morio, and no doubt others, an amazing sight. Day-flying moths were buzzing in and out of the flowers including this splendid 6-spot burnet.

6-spot burnet moth, Zygaena  filipendulae       © robin williams

Almost the first find was important. Peter had taken a picture of a small bumblebee which he felt was' different'. I thought it might be an example of one of our great rarities, which a few years ago was almost common in wet, lowland Somerset. We searched around and spotted the bee again, confirming that it was indeed Bombus sylvarum. The picture below is very poor but was taken on the spot at long range and but is sufficient to confirm the identification.

bumblebee, Bombus sylvarum                                                                                        © robin williams

This was further confirmed by John netting it and displaying it to us in a pot, before releasing it. It is a distinctive bumblebee, the yellow parts having a greenish tinge, a black band of hairs running over the middle of the thorax, between the wings, plus a pinkish end to the tail. The sound in flight is high-pitched, always a good final confirmation. The managers of the reserve are sure to be pleased about this find. My picture below, taken some years ago, shows the range of colours in detail.

bumblebee, Bombus sylvarum m                        © robin williams

I was glad to see many solitary bees, more than I have seen for over a year. Amongst these were Andrena haemorrhoa in large numbers, particularly variable in size. John spotted a rather late Andrena cineraria, such a handsome bee. Not all were identifiable at the time but examination of the pictures revealed more later.

mining bee, Andrena haemorrhoa                      © robin williams

mining bee, Andrena haemorrhoa                      © robin williams

mining bee, Andrena nitida                                  © robin williams

mining bee, Andrena chrysosceles f                    © robin williams

mining bee, Andrena dorsata                               © robin williams

But the commonest were numbers of bumblebees, including Bombus lapidarius, B. pratorum, B. terrestris, B. lucorum and B. hypnorum.

bumblebee, Bombus pratorum m                        © robin williams

As we moved towards the second field for sandwiches, someone spotted an unusual-looking long-horn beetle with banded antennae.

longhorn beetle Agapanthia villosoviridescens © robin williams

Peter wrote later to say this was Agapanthia villosoviridens and, as far as he could determine, the first for Somerset. However, Nigel went on to point out we had both photographed it on at Priddy, Mendip, a couple of years ago. We had not realised its significance though. You cannot help wondering why it should have picked this spot to feed? Another plus for the managers of this splendid reserve. We also came across another striking beetle, a fine example of a red cardinal.

Cardinal beetle Pyrochroa serraticornis             © robin williams

Sitting over lunch, it was good to be out in the open, resuming the sort of conversation which continues from visit to visit, among good friends with similar interests. Although all the fields were excellent habitat, the most productive area was the edge of each, where lines of umbels were most frequent, including Hemlock water-dropwort Oenanthe crocata, hogweed Heraclium spondylium and Cow parsley Anthriscus sylvestris. This was where the majority of the insects congegated. There were some splendid examples of flowering Meadow foxtail Alopecurus pratensis, while Pendulous sedge Carex pendula flowers were at their best, even though they were out in the open field edges. It was interesting that although it poured with rain for much of the previous day, the gound was not really wet - though it is known officially as a wetland.

Meadow foxtail Alopecurus pratensis                  © robin williams

May 25th 2017. Took Maddie down on Jack's Drove over lunch. Up to now, it has been largely devoid of insect life but had come to life at last. The bottom of the drove is a proper old-fashioned stony track running through farmland, with wet ditches on either side. Few people walk here and it is usually very peaceful, popular with us. I was pleased to see this hoverfly present on a number of umbels. They are not common round here. The colour does not appear as usual, altogether redder and brighter. I can only explain it by pollens staining the hairs, which are nornally much yellower.

hoverfly Myathropa florea f                                  © robin williams

hoverfly Myathropa florea f                                  © robin williams

The few days have brought in a horde of Thick-kneed beetles (males with fat thighs, the females have conventional ones). They are to found on many of the umbels that fill the area bewteen water and drove - clearly a successful species still.

Thick-kneed beetle Oedemera nobilis m            © robin williams

May 24th 2017. Spent a while enjoying the insect life at the flats in front of the house, bathed in sunshine, almost too hot to sit in the open. I can sit in comfort on an old garden chair, camera mounted on a monopod, hat on head, watching the insects coming and going. In the earlier parts of the life-cycle, male insects appear before the females. The mason bees fly endless ly up and down the drilled logs and bamboos, darting onto one hole, finding nothing and on to the next. They can do this for a week before the females emerge. When they do the males pounce to mate with them even though only just into this world.

chalcid Pteromalus apum                                      © robin williams

There is just as much activity at the base of the logs where some mauve flowers seem to be irresistable to hoverflies and bumblebees.

hoverfly Eupeodes corollae f                                  © robin williams

hoverfly Eupeodes corollae f                                  © robin williams

bumblebee Bombus lucorum m                            © robin williams

bumblebee Bombus pratorum m                          © robin williams 

bumblebee Bombus pratorum m                          © robin williams

May 19th 2017. Ham Wall was very busy this morning, a great many visitors on their own plus the odd organised party, although these became less the further you were from the main drove, an ex-railway line running above the reeds. The morning started somewhat cloudy but by the time I had to leave, the sky was deepest blue all over, though still a touch chilly. Turning off the main track towards the island hide, saw a pair of Great white egrets scrapping or courting in flight by the lean-to blinds. It could have been two males objecting to each other, or a courting couple. At the end, they flew off in opposite directions.

Great white egrets Egretta alba                                                                                       © robin williams

Great white egret Egretta alba                             © robin williams

Great white egret Egretta alba                             © robin williams

As has been true recently, the hide among the reeds, disappointed. Although Bitterns Botaurus stellaris were booming, none were seen. Two different Great white egrets were nesting at opposite corners of the large reed-bed, each flying in and out periodically, often standing neck and head proud above the vegetation, like statues, hardly moving for minutes on end. A Great crested grebe appeared to be nesting off a channel to the side, carrying out its fishing in the closer waters, sometime sharing the area with a Cormorant. The latter bird emerges from and dives into the water with scarcely a ripple and it is difficult to predict where it will emerge.

Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo                                                                                    © robin williams

Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo                                                                                    © robin williams

Tufted ducks Aythya fuligula and Common pochards Aythya ferina, usually found in this area, are easier to track beneath the water, betraying themselves with a trail of bubbles. It was peaceful sitting in the shelter of the hide but more interesting further back on the walk leading up to it. A convenient bench half way along was a good spot for watching Swifts Apus apus feeding up above. Back at the blinds, I met some friends who were looking at a Great white egret standing on what could have been a nest platform. This splendid bird stared back at us apparently with the same interest as we gazed at it. We watched a Grey heron fly across the front, then divert to land beside the egret.

Great white egret Egretta alba; Grey heron Ardea cinerea                                      © robin williams

What happened then was the subject of some debate but by looking at the various pictures taken it became clear the heron had flown in with what at first looked looked like a well-grown Coot chick Fulica atra in its beak. Closer checks on the computer revealed this as a large Mole Talpa europaea. The bird went through a long period of trying to straighten it out before finally swallowing it, leaving a large bulge in its neck.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea                                      © robin williams

The questions raised by this display arose because the prey looked exactly like a black plastic bag at times, part-hidden as it all was by a narrow screen of reeds. Eventually, the egret flew off but returned when the heron had been joined by a second bird and both took off across the water. I have seen a heron in this same location on previous visits.

Great white egret Egretta alba                                                                                         © robin williams

Still no sign of Hobbys Falco subbuteo.
May 15th 2017. A quick visit to Catcott Lows brought some interest. As I got out of the car, a series of lightning-fast silhouettes became the first Swifts of the year for me, together with House martins. They were shooting back and forth over the car park and the roof of the hide, clearly a promising place for insects, as their bulging crops showed.

Swift Apus apus                                                       © robin williams

House martin Delichon urbica                              © robin williams

Something different, but similar, caught my eye and I found myself looking at a Hobby above the melee of the others, but it quickly disappeared again.

Hobby Falco subbuteo                                                                                                        © robin williams

The reserve still had a few Greylag goose families Anser anser, but not nearly the numbers of yesterday.

Greylag goslings Anser anser                                                                                           © robin williams

May 14th 2017. As promised, a return visit to Catcott Lows, but sadly no signs of the harrier. However, there were two Great white egrets out on the moor. One, which was really too far away to photograph, had the most extraordinary salmon-pink legs, like a flamingo Phoenicopterus spp. I have seen several with orangy-pink on part of the legs but this extended right up and down. Great whites do vary considerably in their colouring, the yellow beak changing to black when courting, with all sorts of stages in between but this was the most extreme. Another egret took off while I was examining the other and flew straightowrds me before turing off ovver the top of the hide. It gave me some wonderful views and the new lens took full advantage of its powers.

Great white egret Egretta alba                                                                                         © robin williams

Great white egret Egretta alba                                                                                         © robin williams

Just before leaving, there was a great burst of sound and a large gathering of Greylag geese, with several sizes of goslings, appeared from the right. My photographs are of only a percentage of the full crowd, the old geese ushering the babies to the best feeding grounds and making sure they did not stray. What a suucesful breeding season it has been for them.

Greylags and  goslings Anser anser                                                                                 © robin williams

May 13th 2017. A visit to Catcott Lows which might have been the final one of 'winter' - when the fields are flooded. but it turned out otherwise. Further visits may well be worthwhile. I sat there for some while, peering at largely empty shallow patches of water among the scrubby grass, and was just about to pack up and take Maddie for her walk when what I took to be a harrier soared up into sight. I am virtually certain she was a Marsh harrier but her colouring was not as shown and described in a number of bird books. The problem lies with the tail which has a quite definite band at the end. The books show and describe a pale red-buff tail with no banding. It is cleary a harrier, as a number of pictures show the bird from various angles (not brilliant shots but the bird was along way off). The V-winged flight seen from in front appears to confirm a harrier diagnosis.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus  f                                                                               © robin williams

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus  f                                                                               © robin williams

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus  f                    © robin williams

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus  f                    © robin williams

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus  f                    © robin williams

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus  f                    © robin williams

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus  f                    © robin williams

May 10th 2017. It was such a beautiful morning it was impossible to put off visiting Shapwick Heath again. It was still comparatively early, so there were few people around. Noah's hide was busy enough, but I managed to fit in on a side bench, hoping for an exciting morning but there was little to seen and certainly not the crowd of Hobbies Falco subbuteo for which I had been hoping. Indeed, I was to see none of the falcons during my visit, with dozens being reported on previous days. Bitterns Botaurus stellaris were booming and one was seen in the extreme distance dropping into a reed bed but again not what had perhaps been expected. Little birds were busy in the reeds in front and at least one turned out to be a Cetti's warbler Cettia cetti, at the point where I had photographed one previously. Peoples' hopes for a Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus passing over were dispelled when a typical Buzzard Buteo buteo photo was reviewed.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo                              © robin williams

However, just as I was packing up to leave, the opportunity for a superb picture arose when a Little egret Egretta garzetta, pitched in just to one side and below and gave a series of perfect poses - a splendid bird in full breeding plumage.

Little egret Egretta garzetta                                 © robin williams

Little egret Egretta garzetta                                 © robin williams

Others in the hide were fascinated by numbers of Pike Esox lucius gathering under some lilypads on the rhyne below. At one stage there were seven of them present in a single view, the largest perhaps three feet long. Without a polarising filter it was impossible to obtain a picture. On the way back to the carpark, I went into the new Tower hide opposite the scrape. It is a fine building, with shutters on all sides. Looking away from the scrape, two different female Marsh harriers were quartering that huge area of reedbeds stretching as far as the eye could see. A Long-tailed tit Aegithalos caudatus had a beak full of insects, pausing for a moment before vanishing into the beds. It seems strange to see a solitary bird in place of the usual family in winter.

Long-tailed tit Aegithalos caudatus                     © robin williams

Andrew, Allan, Peter and others were either in the hide or on the nearby bench. They told me that the previous day 17 Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis were seen on the scrape, the numbers building slowly over a period of a week. The time to see them is around 2.30 in the afternnoon. What an astonishing number for what is a really rare bird in Britain. I was told there was a Garganey drake Anas querqudula present, but it was far off and out of sight at the time. However, a small flock of Black-tailed godwits remained sleeping on the  far side of the scrape, feet in the water and many with their summer colouring strongly visible.

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa                                                                                © robin williams

May 7th 2017. A late afternoon visit to Ham Wall disappointed in terms of what had been hoped for, but brought its own rewards. As usual, the first point of call was the hide set in the middle of the reeds to the south of the main drove. Hopes had been for the sight of Bitterns Botaurus stellaris flying from nest to feeding areas but none were seen, though booming went on sporadically, a most eerie sound in its depth and tone. A really loud burst of song showed the presence of a Cetti's warbler and sure enough one flew off to hide in some reeds, barely visible through the shadows and stalks. The fact that there is a photograph, even a poor one, is tribute to modern cameras and lenses.

Cetti's warbler Cettia cetti                                      © robin williams

The only waterbirds were a few Tufted ducks Aythya fuligula and some Common pochard Aythya ferina.

Tufted duck Aythya fuligula                                 © robin williams

The other main reason for coming, apart from exercise, was hoping for a bonanza of Hobbies Falco subbuteo. It was reported yesterday that over 60 were seen in the area, while Chris sent me some splendid photographs he had taken of the birds in flight. We did see some, but they were distant dots further over on the Poldens - some 10 at one time. My enjoyment instead came from watching and photographing several Great white egrets Egretta alba. Particularly interesting was the 'display'? shot with the neck extended. I took a very similar picture last year, in the same spot. It seemed that no-one else in the hide had ever seen this behaviour before either.

Great white egret Egretta alba                                                                                         © robin williams

Great white egret Egretta alba                             © robin williams

Great white egret Egretta alba                             © robin williams

Great white egret Egretta alba                                                                                         © robin williams

May 2nd 2017. A brief visit was made to Catcott Lows to see progress on the summer dry-out and how the geese were getting on with their breeding. The water was still hanging on, leaving some splendid marshy patches, perfectl for waders and the various heron species, though none were present. The Canada geese Branta canadensis appeared to have left, or hidden themselves in the far-off parts of the reeds, but their place was well-represented by Greylag geese Anser anser and their numerous goslings. Families were spotted all over the open parts, ranging from the tiniest balls of fluff to quite sturdy, well-grown youngsters. If numbers are anything to go by, we should see some splendid flights of these truly British birds during the winter.

Greylag geese Anser anser                                                                                                © robin williams

Greylag geese Anser anser                                     © robin williams

 

 

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