Spring 2015

May 30th 2015. Further sessions at the 'flats' were fascinating - they are great time-wasters when you should be doing something else. I was interested to see another species of digger wasp exploring the logs. Pemphredon is quite readily recognised by its long, tapering first abdominal segment and comparative lack of hairiness. They are seen every year, but not in numbers or very often.

We are lucky enough to see three species of jewel (cuckoo) wasps regularly at the logs, though not so many this year. The brilliance of their colouring always takes people aback. Though you have to look carefully to find them, for they are all tiny little creatures and move rapidly in their search for suitable hosts.

It is always of interest to see all three species of common wood-nesting Osmia at the same time. Their flight periods do not always overlap. Shortly, I hope to publish a visual recognition paper to help people to identify each of these with reasonable accuracy, though there will always be problems with very worn individuals. I am sure many will not want to kill specimens in order to identify species regularly seen at their logs, as I do not.

May 29th 2015. A glorious, sunny, not too windy morning and afternoon, found me spending far too much time sitting in a chair by the logs, watching the activities at the 'flats'. With the weight of the camera taken by a monopod, it was a wonderful way to see what was going on, without becoming over-tired by equipment becoming heavier as the day goes on, as it always does. And there was a great deal of activity, not all of which can be identified immediately, with a variety of little black wasps and mason bees buzzing in and out. At this stage I suspect there was more than one species of mason bee present, though close examination of the pictures is needed for confirmation; the early Osmia bicornis was certainly the main contestant for nest holes. The majority were females, taking loads of pollen into yellow-stained entrances, then wriggling and twisting as they built their cells, fascinating to watch.

Of the various black digger wasps, male Crossocerus cetratus were immediatly identified by the shape and colour of their front legs. The rest will have to wait. This wasp is common with us at this period, surprising, because it is one of the less usual digger wasps. But we seem to specialise in the rarity being common. In the afternoon the brilliantly-coloured jewel wasp, Chrysura radians, appeared once more, as it does most years - yet this is a rarity in many places.

I spotted the much more numerous Chrysis mediata later - a regular visitor to the logs. Another welcome sight was a small black and gold wasp excavating and preparing its nest. Symmorphus bifasciatus is a very active, incredibly busy creature. The sheer hard work involved in its nest construction has to be seen to be believed. No sooner than it had sealed up the end of the nest hole, when she went down into another and started the whole process once again.

Ectemnius continuus seems to be a regular visitor to the logs. Generally, it has been seen quite frequently but this year appears to be special for this easily-recognised black and yellow wasp. with the characteristic broken bands.

Finally, an event not connected with the 'flats', although a few feet away. Some years ago, we decided that a Firethorn bush was too spikey and dangerous on the front of the house - and cut it down. But it appears to be indestructible; each year it grows again. Eventually, Romey decided to train it into a fan, and this year it paid off. This morning several Andrena mining bees spent their time feeding on the lovely white flowers, a splendid outcome.

May 22nd 2015. Sitting by the logs, an increasingly attrative occupation during warmer sunny weather, my camera managed to focus on a minute fly which was buzzing round the nest holes and, occasionally, scooting right into them, emerging covered in yellow pollen. I have become awareof the number of different flies that live in close proximity to the logs but have not spotted this species before. I am hoping that some dipterist will be able to identify it from the picture. Now, Martin Drake sent me an e-mail confirming the name and telling me about its behaviour. It seems it dives into holes containing Osmia cells and feeds on the pollen stored within. Later I took a picture of one emerging, smothered in bright yellow pollen.

 

It is easy to be lulled into a sense of watching the same insects after a period of seeing them dashing ino and out of potential nest holes. I realised suddenly that the bee I was watching was larger and digfferent in shape, even if similar in overall colouring. This is the first leafcutter bee of the season - somewhat early I fancy. Males usually arrive some while before the females and haunt the nest holes hoping to mate as soon as they emerge.

The coloured digger wasps are always a pleasure to observe after little black creatures which are the norm. Ectemnius continuus is instantly recognisable from the broken yellow stripe patterns on the abdomen.

It was good to see that Anthidium was still present following its earlier visit.

May 21st 2015. It is some time since I last added a new species to those visiting our 'flats'. Sitting in front of an ancient  and rather rotted log, a flash of colour caught my eye. A female Anthidium manicatum was exploring some of the larger nest holes. This was interesting, because I have never seen a female visiting the logs before, and because it is a good many years since the species has even been seen in the garden. These bees are unusual, both in their behaviour and the relative sizes of the sexes. The males are much larger than the females, a reversal of the normal situation in hymenoptera, while their behaviour is unique. The femal sits on a flower while the male flies round and round in a standardised ritual dance. Once seen, never forgotten. 

At this stage I must let everyone know that there will be no pictures for the next period - hopefully not too long. They will be taken still but there is no means of adding them to the diary. My main computer, the only one with enough hard-drive space for a large picture libary, has come to a grinding halt, so a new one is indicated. At present I cannot download the pictures or work on them when converting from RAW to TIFF, but hopefully it will not be for too long - fortunately all flies are fully backed-up.

To continue with the day's activities, another first was a visit by a female Anthophora plumipes, a mining bee which has not been much apparent this spring. Males were seen in the log holes many years ago, apparently waiting for females to emerge, but never a female at our particular logs. Let's hope that she is the forerunner of many in the future. The sexes are easily distingished, the males are pale brown while the females are nearly all black.

All three species of Osmia mason bees were present at last, illustrating some of the key differences between them, which are not always easy to spot, though I think I am getting my eye in now.

It is always delightful to see the fantastically-coloured jewel wasps - though their 'prey' may not think so. They move so quickly that they are a real challenge to photograph, exploring the nest entrance in seconds, before moving on just before the shutter clicks.

My final shot is of what is at present our commonest digger wasp. Males are still hoping to catch visiting females, though most have mated and are bringing in prey to the holes The prey is tricky to see, often looking like dark shadows beneath the insect, apparently widening the real body shape.

May 16th 2015. A morning spent at the flats and logs was not wasted. There was much more activity, both with wasps bringing in prey and mason bees their pollen. The bees were really busy, few males, but the majority females, busy wih the whole process of nesting. Masses of bright yellow pollen was spilled round the nest holes, while the females were puffed out below their abdomens with it's bulk stored in and on their pollen baskets. Heads and thoraxes shone with golden-green reflections, the very colours of Spring come to life.

It was good to see numbers of tiny black digger wasps flying round, testing the smaller holes in the logs and, eventually, bringing prey into the holes. Those I identified, were all Crossocerus cetratus, active and really busy. They carry their prey, small flies, slung under their abdomens, paralysed as living food stores for their young when they finally emerge. These wasps, in common with many other insects, never see their parents, but have to be self-sufficient when they are born, so their feed supplies must be there, un-spoiled and fresh, as they need them.

It is always fascinating to see just how small are some of the holes in which the digger wasps choose to make their nests. Even more interesting to watch is the manoeuvering used in feeding the prey into these confined spaces. They really do have problems in inserting the heads and then literally stuffing the flies into the hole, often taking minutes to do so, heaving away with what might be described as their back legs and shoulders. The picture below shows one wasp in the final stages of this process, abdomen shoving down into the hole.

The last of these wasp pictures shows something common to this period; a male sitting in a hole waitng for, and hoping for, a female to approach while searching for a suitable nest. Male bees may wait like this for more than a week. With the wasps, the process is much more temporary as the two sexes emerge much closer to each other.

The finale shows the approach of the first ichneumon of the year, searching in turn for a larva in which to lay its eggs, aided by an immensely long and thin ovipositor which is able to penetrate the deepest cavities. These eggs will hatch out before those of the host, whose larva will be consumed by the parasite. This particular species is a common visitor to the 'flats'.

May 15th 2015. Another active morning at the flats brought a favourite pose by a mason bee, busy constructing and filling a nest-cell with food for its eventual larva. All round, digger wasp males were searching for the elusive females, which will soon be everywhere.


May 13th 2015. A windy but sunny morning was spent at Catcott Heath today. The walk took us down the track at the entrance to Catcott Lows, along Catcott Fen edge and into the wooded edge of Catcott Heath, emerging eventually looking over Canada Lake. The place was empty of people, but the natural world was starting to stir at last; for it has been virtually sterile for some while, with no signs of anything moving. There has been much talk recently in various Wildlife Trusts of the need to keep the purity of the English bluebell, so it is strange to record numbers of Spanish bluebells appearing alongside the edges of the main drove leading between the Catcott reserves. My picture was taken on Catcott Heath. Surely a case of 'the mote in your own eye'. If I look at my own gardent, it is clear it will not take long for them to spread  A single plant was put in many many years ago, before we knew about such matters, and now they are eveywhere, including among grasses in an orchard area. Romey despairs from the way they have taken over in flower beds, no matter how many are dug up each year. The second picture shows our native Bluebell as a comparison. Its flowers hang on one side only, whereas the Spanish flowers are random.


The next picture, of a bumblebee - one of the commonest species - is a commentary on the odd spring weather. It is the first bumblebee I have seen in the countryside, or garden, for weeks, at a time when they should be at their commonest. These creatures are equipped to avoid weather problems, as they have their own internal heating process to help all-weather flight, regardless of temperature. by shivering their muscles, Clearly this has not worked very well this year even though we have had a deal of warm weather, as well as cold. Perhaps the problem is the fairly violent changes in temperature from day to day in a random pattern?

I thought the same problems had affected damselflies, but they are now appearing in numbers, many almost transparent in their early teneral state.

Sawflies manage to hide their presence for much of the time and it is very easy to confuse some ichneumons and sawflies. The latter have no waist, while ichneumons always have a 'wasp-waist', though this is often part-hidden under clouded wings. It was good to catch this common species out in the open.

This waonderful spring tapestry caught my eye as we were leaving the reserve; the new leaves blowing against the rich blue sky.

May 9th 2015. A most beautiful Osmia was watched for some while at the logs, bathed in sunshine, the insect showing high productivity, bringin in load after load of pollen for the nest hole.

Later in the morning, when the sun was at its full strength, a quite large beetle appeared on the logs, feeling the various holes for its own possible use. I have seen this species before, but it is the first time I have seen a female. I was quite thrown out by the fact that it had 'conventional' antennae, without the long projections found on the antennal segments of the male. All the pictures shown online are males, as they are so spectacular, usually without mentioning sex. Eventually a friend put me right.

May 8th 2015. Walking round Catcott Fen this morning, there was little to see, though the herbage was starting to look lush at last. Then a flash of colour caught my eye and I found myself looking at a fine male Hairy dragonfly. My picture shows where it gained its name. This is the earliest of our large dragonflies and has long been found all over the Levels, though in recent years numbers have been poor.

May 7th 2015. A day of great activity in the garden as well as in the drilled logs of the 'flats'. The warm day brought out he first real day of insect activity and I spent it photographing in the garden. It was glorious; tiring because of the sheer concentration needed, and totally absorbing. Below are a few of the results showing the first real variety of the year.

The first of the little dark Platycheirus hoverflies appeared, flitting from flower to flower, with little pause to help the photographer, but the miraculous technology of the autofocus system of a modern DSLR camera froze them, showing astonishing detail in such a tiny creature only a few millimetres long.

Rhingia has been around in the garden for some while, but is always worth watching, so full of detail and such a superb flyer. I was able to take a whole series of one such insect against this filmy background of palest green, a great opportinity.

A particular surprise, was finding a Sphaerophoria flying into a nearby flower. Normally, these are seen here much later in the year. The pale yellow is subtle but striking.

The first few little black digger wasps appeared at the logs around midday, searching the holes and pulling out again, quickly. Occasionally, one would go into a minute hole and, somehow or another, turn round and emerge head first - an apparent impossibility. I was particularly pleased that this one was able to be identified by the pale edges on the foreleg. It is worth noting that this insect is around 7mm long, excluding its antennae. It is amazing how camera lenses manage to record so much hard detail in such tiny creatures. The original TIFF files are even more detailed,

Osmia bicornis males had at last been joined by the first females, for whom they had been waiting so long. These latter immediately started exploring the right-sized holes; frequently finding them already occupied, as betrayed by yellow pollen spilled round the entrance.

To complete the day, the first one or two Osmia leaiana males were spotted flying frantically between the same holes in use by O. bicornis. Normally, they appaear rather later in the year, so there is not so much overlap.

May 5th 2015. Although the moors were overcast and rather unpleasant, Catcott Lows was basking in soft sunshine, but blasted by a fierce wind. At times a rainbow was seen in the distance, but no rain fell here. The colour of the wind-blown grasses was softest, pale green and there was a hive of activity, most of it supplied by Greylag geese. Several pairs had very young family bobbing in their wake like bathroom toys, while one had older goslings feeding with them on the grass. Other Greylags were unattached. A pair of Canada gees and a good number of Mute swans completed the population. A Common buzzard blew over the top at such a rate that the few ducks were undisturbed. All this activity was a surprise, not having expected much other than a blank canvas.

April 30th 2015. Today was interesting. It was distinctly cold, with a strong wind; a time when most insects do not fly, especially those that are able to shelter in the holes in our logs. In the garden itself, there were no insects to be seen, even when the sun came out later on. Not a bumblebee or hoverfly to be seen, yet the flats had a really busy time and this went right on until the evening gloom was just starting to show. I have never seen Osmia flying beyond late afternoon - say 4.30pm - yet numbers of males were searching the nest holes the whole day until after 7pm. They must feel they are going to miss out in this brief break in the weather. Are the females late in their emergence? I must look at my past records. The second picture is not that of a female working on its nest site, but a male searching the hole with its long antennae; an unusual pose.

In the afternoon, I took a visit to Westhay Moor NNR to view progress at the nest of the Great crested grebes. It seems all was well, there were several eggs in the nest at the Lake hide, revealed when the sitting bird turned them and added greenery to the nest. One curious detail was that when another grebe approached, it was clear that it was tiny, nearly half the size of the sitting bird. I suspect it was not the mate, since there appeared to be no reaction between the birds.

On the way back, at the north end of Jack's drove, a fine male Wheatear was sitting on the same post where I took pictures of a juvenile the other day. A splendid sight in full colour.

Back at home, the sun caught the bird feeders outside the kitchen window, and a procession of birds arrived for a last feed before the evening crept in. I was so pleased because one was a Goldfinch, a bird which has been strangely missing in the garden this past winter. Their brilliant colours never fail to cheer.


April 29th 2015. This evening, as well as the previous one, as dark was falling - the time known locally as dimpsy-dark - a Badger has been visiting the bird feeders in front of the kitchen. It gives the impression of being a younger animal, as it is not perticularly large, though bulky at the rear, as all Badgers are. We do not delibrately attract these creatures, it appears to be searching for seeds and scraps that have fallen from the feeders during the day. Clearly it does well, for it stays, head down, for up to half an hour, until it is all but completely dark. An ordinary torch shone on it from the window does not seem to register or bother it, nor does a flash. Badgers have been part of our life all the time we have lived here, with a well-worn path leading down hill and out at the bottom. Quite possibly they have been there for generations yet, unlike Foxes, we have never seen one out in daylight in our garden. However, a mile away, at the bottom of the hill where the flat moors start, we have watched Badgers playing in daylight at the entrance to their ancient den - known to have been in existence over living memory and before.

April 28th 2015. Spent a fascinating afternoon down at the Lake Hide on Westhay Moor NNR, watching a pair of Great crested grebes at their nest. At first, the nest was not obvious, just low collection of weeds and stems in the middle of the water in front of the hide. Th sitting bird was so still it was easy to miss. A few minutes after sitting down, the action started. A grebe appeared, swimming vigorously, holding a long piece of greenery, and the sitting bird roused itself from its torpor. The other bird arrived, fussed around setting out its new piece of greenery in the structure of the nest. I suspect this was very necessary as the nest was barely above the surface. This process was repeated continuously and gradually the nest looked more stable. It all looked to be in the early stages but one of the grebes rose up to rearrange everything and a large white egg was revealed.

A bit later, the male approached the nest and the female flattened herself before the male mounted her. The gifts on offer all appeared to be greenery, though there might have been a tiny fish in the bill.

In the middle of all this excitement, there was a brief glimpse of a Bittern flying from one batch of reeds to sink behind another, too quick to focus in the camera. Fortunately, it decided to make another dash and this time I was lucky. Every so often we heard the distinctive low booming it makes, preceded by an intake of breath, or so it sounds like. This booming has a strange character, it is impossible to judge from where it is coming.

April 24th 2015. Driving up Jack's Drove, a movement caught my eye and I stopped and reversed very slowly. I was not mistaken, a fine, colourful Wheatear was sitting on a gatepost and allowed me to watch and photograph for several minutes. These beautiful birds were once common in spring and autumn, but nowadays may be counted as unusual, though statements such as this may not be realistic, as cycles of bird rarity or commoness ought to be in terms of decades, rather than our usual short-term views.

April 23rd 2015. We decided to enjoy another superb evening walk at Ham Wall in view of the fine, balmy weather and the poor prospects for the next few days. We walked out to the hide among the reeds and found a few hopeful phtographers, but  there was virtually nothing to be seen; disappointing, but it did not spoil our outing. However there was one surprise. We parked our car beside a newly excavated pond which was settling in nicely. Some hopeful soul had drilled holes in a new section of bank, presumably for Water voles, though we saw none. Instead, a small frog with a yellow stripe along its back was sitting in the shallows and allowed me to take some pictures. On looking more closely at the pictures later, it turned out to be a Marsh frog, an incomer to our country. The surprise was that it was both silent and in the open. Usually, they keep out of sight and produce a quite exraordinary volume of harsh calls, quite out of proportion to their size.

April 21st 2015. Romey and I decided to visit Ham Wall this afternoon. It was so beautiful in the late sunshine, miles of pale golden reeds and water everywhere. At long last, we found the new car park has opened, nicely landscaped by the side of a pond. This removes the problem of the original Ashcott parking area, not enough room for the many visitors. You get a splendid view from the main track which takes you from west to east, as it is on the raised bed of an old railway line The reserve is a paradise for artists, as well as walkers, naturalists and photographers. A Wedmore friend, Martin Banner, has painted some wonderful landscapes of the area, which I have been lucky enough to watch as they come to life.

We walked out to the hide in the middle of the water and reeds and were rewarded with a number of sightings of Great white egrets. They kept on rising up above the reeds and circling before settling again - most restless. It is wonderful to think that these once very rare visitors are seen widely and regularly round here, as well as breeding in the local reserves. When the photographs were examined in more detail, for the first time I was able to see the brilliant green triagle in front of the eyes which is a feature of the full breeding plumage.

Bitterns were booming in the distance, a very deep note which seems to issue from below the earth, but none of the birds were spotted. It cannot be long until they are feeeding young, for they breed in numbers both here and in neighbouring Shapwick Heath. Along with the egrets, Grey herons were much in evidence and behaving in a similar manner, errupting from their reed patches to perform wild manoeuvres above, before dropping down again.

There were not that many ducks around, a few Mallard, Common pochard which like the deep waters in the centre, as do the Tufted duck and a few Garganey. We spotted a pair of these rare visitors on the edge of the reeds and watched them cross over to another channel but, sadly, they remained far off. Another bird-watcher told us that several more were to seen from a different viewing platform.

April 20th 2015. This wonderful period of sunny days continues, though yesterday's cold wind made it feel more like the end of winter. This morning was different, warm and comfortable, as well as was the rest of the day. Greylake has proved so productive recently, it was the obvious choice for an early visit. Once again, a Redshank was the star of the show, displaying itself along in front of the hide, as close as could be, as well as engaging in multiple courtship displays further away.

A Garganey drake swam across the pond and was visible for a short few seconds - several more are said to be present but the reeds, grass clumps and rushes hide them well. The deep sound of a Raven above drew attention to a Red kite it was mobbing, high above. Not a predator we see very often.

I think it must have been that bird that disturbed some of the remaining duck, perhaps the last view of Wigeon and Teal in flight for the season? THe excited sounds of Goldfinches feeding close by the hide yielded a shot of one on a fence wire, always such an elegant bird.

The finale came from a Little egret which had been feeding on the far side of the reserve, took off and flew over the front of the hide, giving a perfect example of how the direction of light can change the appearance of what is normally seen as a snow-white bird.

April 17th 2015. A couple of people I know queried the setting of 1/250th second shutter speed on my Nikon D300, when used for insect flight photography, 'why not increase the speed to freeze the wings more effectively?' This a misunderstanding of how flash systems work. 1/250th second is the maximum shutter speed for synchronisation with the actual flash duration. The latter is a component of the flash gun operation. Within that shutter speed, my flash setting is determined by a number of factors such as the design of the gun and the f number set on the lens; in my case 1/5000th second, taking place within the window of 1/250th second provided by the shutter. This is sufficient for the flash to provide the majority of the light on the sensor, precluding any real influence from daylight. Thus, it supplies sufficient light to slow down and reveal the wings, even though they are moving at up to 400 beats per second. At times the picture may freeze the action and at others will only show a blur, because the wings are near-stationary at the top and bottom of their strokes, while accelerating frantically in between.  I like to see at least some trace of movement in the picture, it gives life to the image and appears natural. More detail on flash and camera settings is given in photographic techniques.

April 16th 2015. Walking along Catcott Heath, near the old hide, a flash of silvery wings betrayed my first sighting of a Large red damselfly, settling by the side of a ditch.

April 15th 2015. My first real confirmation that the season was really changing, several male Osmia bicornis (formerly Osmia rufa) mining bees were exploring the logs and tubes of my 'flats', searching for the possible presence of females, though it is a week or so too early for that. The sun shone on them, though a cold wind made it quite chilly. I hope they don't give up because of that.

Later in the morning I was surprised to see an early Anthophora plumipes, not a male but a female, on the Lungwort Pulmonaria officianalis, in the garden. Females normally appear a week or more after the males. Later, I had a brief sight of a fawn-coloured male hurtling from flower to flower.

More insects followed later in the day, when I spent some time both by the flats and sitting in front of the Pulmonaria, Lungwort. The flats yielded an unexpected visitor this early in the year. A fine digger wasp was busy exploring the logs and potential nest holes. Such a handsome and distinctive species.

The time in front of the Lungwort was interesting. Each year, I wonder if I can still capture insects in flight. The camera equipment is the same, but are my reactions as they need to be? Fortunately, it seems they still function, though time will tell if the results are as consistent as they have been. Early bumblebees and hoverflies appeared and I had an exciting and tiring half hour or so, bathed in warm sunshine. Tiring, because of the degree of concentration that is needed, focussing using autofocus close to where you hope the insect will visit. Without a degree of pre-focussing, it is impossible to catch the insect as it flies; the focus inevitably slips to the background, leaving just a blur. Looking at the screen after the shot is both exciting and frustrating. Hopefully the former if it is succesful, with pin-sharp features where you want them, such as the mouthparts emerging as an insect approaches a flower. At f16 or f14, depending on distance, not everything will be in focus, the eyes being the most important. Wing-blur very much depends on the part of the cycle of the wings. At full acceleration, it is not possible to freeze hoverfly wing cycles but, near the point where they changes direction, it should freeze the movement, though not completely, or the picture may appear lifeless, like a cardboard cutout.

April 14th 2015. Spent a glorious hour or so at Greylake. Another warm, sunny day with little wind, made it particularly enjoyable. Already, the numbers of birds are clearly much reduced, but the species have also changed. The air was alive with the calls of Redshank and Lapwings, rather than the whistle of Wigeon and sounds of Teal, though small parties of the latter remain present.

Lapwings were particularly active, taking umbrage both with each other and birds of different species, soaring up into the sky and twisting down with the tearing sound of tortured wing feathers. One particular bird landed in front of the hide and then gradually made its way towards the front of the grass across the water. It was in full breeding plumage, the crest feathers long and elegant and the back and wing coverts a mass of metallic sheens.

After this bird had been lured off by another, a Redshank traced much the same pattern of movement until it eventually walked out and fed along the water's edge opposite. From a distance, a dull brown bird, with paler markings; but close-to, what a difference. The feathers vary in shades of  brown, delineated by darker markings, and it becomes a supremely beautiful creature. I took a great many pictures, as it spent over half an hour feeding in front, bobbing and dipping, never in the same position or shape from one moment to the next. A privileged  time indeed.

April 9th 2015. The good weather continues, so decided to visit Greylake reserve this morning. There were a few others in the main hide but nothing much seemed to be going on - ducks were sparse and well hidden behind clumps of grass and rushes, mostly fast asleep. But people were buzzing with excitement for, among the ducks was a male Green-winged teal, keeping company with a crowd of Common teal. The photo below is far from good, the distance was too great, but it does show the basic differences between the two drakes. The Green-winged has a vertical white stripe separated from the pale of the breast by a line of dark, while the Common teal has a horizontal white mark along the upper side - qiuite obvious in the field. The question remains, is it an escape from a collection or a genuine American migrant? Whatever, I feel am unlikely to see another.

Most of the ducks, and there were far fewer than we had become used to previously, were scattered widely, well-hidden behind grass and rush clumps, but among them were other celebrities. A pair of Garganey were hiding among the main group to the north. The tiny teal-related ducks visit our area regularly in the Spring, but had not been seen at Catcott this year, where they often visit in Spring.

At first, most of the activity was provided by courting Moorhens and Coots, often violent affairs, with flurries of spray and mixtures of flying birds, not always from the same species.

Then, little parties of Lapwings stirred into action and started their courtship flights, always amongst the most exciting of natural events in Spring. Their frantic calling built up, interspersed with the sounds of tortured wing feathers as they corkscrewed up into the blue, nearly but not quite hitting each other.

The finale came, when a Marsh harrier appeared at the end of the reserve, making several distant approaches across the reeds and finally much closer, driving the ducks into the air in waves as she approached. Such a splendid and majestic bird.


Crossing Tadham Moor, on my way back, , I saw my first two Swallows of the year - summer should be on its way.

April 8th 2015. On the way to walk Maddie, we crossed Tealham Moor in warm sunshine, with next to no wind. Everything sparkled, the ditches had the first sword-leaves of Flags Iris pseudacorus emerging, contrasting with the dead straw-coloured reeds and grasses. Busy in all this were Grey herons and Little egrets Egretta garzetta fishing with extreme concentration. At this time, with mates sitting in the nest wood, often they may be approached in the car, even a noisy diesel such as my Volvo, provided it is done gently and as quietly as possible. A 400mm lens may well provide pictures that need little or no re-sizing. Maddie had to contain her patience as long as these moments continued.

This water theme even suited a buzzard. At first it was eating something small in the field, then it flew along and landed on a ditch, where it preened and cleaned itself for some while, reflected in the water.

April 7th 2015. After a rather misty start, it became another marvellous day, sunny, without any wind. A day in fact when I would have expected to see a great many insects emerging. The garden is full of flowers and the car registered 20° C., by far the highest of the year. Yet there was little in sight - one or two bumblebees and a cloud of midges. However, it proved to be the first encounter with a hymenopteran at the insect logs. I had a brief sight of a mason wasp on a log before it flew off, a cheering moment presaging what is to come.

April 6th 2015. A lovely day for a Bank Holiday, with virtually wall-to-wall sunshine and little breeze. How lucky, with so many people enjoying a long weekend of holiday. Looking out of the kitchen window, we were staggered to see two Jays in the garden, both restless and constantly on the move. So, it seems likely we have a breeding pair, after years of not even catching a glimpse of a single bird. The flash of white rump has become a familiar sight at last. Seeing these birds, I fell to thinking about the state of bird life in the surrounding countryside.


Yesterday, we took a longish circlular route round Chilton Moor, along the drove, across the bridge and back along the river. The only birds spotted during all this walk were a couple of Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, two Cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo and a few crows. Small birds were absent completely. And yet this is far from unusual. Years ago, the skies were always busy, while hedges and fields were crowded with life; hares would have been seen regularly and wild geese visited the open moors. Huge flocks of Lapwings Vanellus vanellus, were to be seen nearly all winter, while exotica like flocks of visiting Dunlin Calidris alpina and Ruffs Philomachus pugnax, were regular. Herds of around 70 Bewick's swans Cygnus columbianus spent the days in winter out on the moors in front of the house, flying off to sleep elsewhere every evening, going over with wonderful musical calls. None of these are to be seen nowadays. What is happening and why? In this area, basic agriculture  has not changed that much, though sheep are now plentiful where they were absent previously, while milking herds have been replaced largely by beef cattle. We seem to be crowding out all life but our own. How sad!

April 2nd 2015. This struck me as a rather unusual view of a heron, spotted striding along the edge of the road in between favoured fishing spots.

April 1st 2015. Our resident family of Great spotted woodpeckers has become more active again, after only intermittent visits during the winter. The male has been much in evidence on the nuts we put out, but this is the first time he has been seen actively searching the nearby Quince tree for larvae. What amazing colours, more tropical than overcast England! I am almost certain I have seen and heard the rare Lesser spotted woodpecker Dendrocopos minor during the last month, but have not managed a photograph, will be keeping an eye out for it.

March 31st 2015. After a terrifyingly noisy night of gale-force winds, it became a brilliantly sunny day, an opportunity to visit a hide, but one facing in the right direction, as the wind continued unabated throughout the day. The Lake hide at Westhay Moor fitted this perfectly. Walking up the drove was rather frightening, as the wind screamed through the rather scrubby, slender trees, making you wonder if any would give up the ghost while passing beneath. Inside the hide, a particularly solidly-built one, it was comparatively quiet, but the scene in front was far from so. The wind gusted across in dark, screaming energy - a Coot struggled at times to make any headway against the blasts.

The reeds on the other side looked magnificent, rippling with shadows as the gusts hit, and the waves at the edge showing distinct silver tops where they broke. Westhay is marvellously beautiful in the sunlight, set against dark waters and palest reed fringes.

Near the hide, a Great crested grebe was fishing, elegant in full breeding plumage, diving within a very short time after each emergence. Sadly, it did not seem to be having a succesful hunt while I watched. I had been talking to someone yesterday who took a whole series of pictures of a grebe catching large fish in exactly the same place. His pictures were quite excellent and I had hoped I might have had the same luck, but every photographer knows that a great deal is down to luck.

A calmer moment in a more sheltered spot.

However, there was a bonus in the form of a Reed bunting. It arrived, settled briefly on the edge of the hide, then flew to a small tree by the side. He stayed there long enough to have his portrait taken, while the wind snatched at his plumage. These delightful little birds are definitelu on the increase in our area, even our garden.

March 25th 2015. It was another fine but chilly day, so decided to visit Greylake reserve in the morning. The result was unexpected. My photography was largely confined to a Reed bunting feeding on a series of frothy reed heads just in front of the hide. It was wonderfully entertaining, watching it stripping each for the seeds - not, as I thought at first, for nesting materials.

After leaving the rather inactive view from the original hide, I went into the next door raised blind, but this just gave a rather wider aspect of sleeping ducks, mostly well-hidden in the grassy clumps. Walking back along the track gave a couple of views of Water rails, though they move so fast that you almost doubt your eyes. The first part of the path and ditch, with cut-down willows in the background, is much favoured by these normally-elusive birds

March 24th 2015. The Jay has been much in evidence in recent days. He appears more colourful in flight than when standing or among shrubs, where he is much more camouflaged. Although they are predators on small birds and eggs, we feel we are priveleged to have such a comparatively rare bird among the garden population.

March 22nd 2015. Herons are now much in evidence out on the moors, readying themselves for the labours of keeping wives and families fed, though at present there is only the slightest evidence of activity at the heronry. For once, the road along Tealham was empty and I was able to watch a pale, ghostlike young heron feeding its way along a rhyne, sometimes with success but often without. Is it still learning the requisite skils?

I briefly touched on Catcott Lows, now showing more bare ground each day as the flooding evaporates. There were still many ducks, but these were even less active, scattered widely over the water and increasing cover. I was particularly interested in a group of teal feeding rather closer to the hide, marvelling at their amazing colours, so often lost in the distance. Then something caught my eye. One particular female showed an unexpected colour in her speculum. Instead of intense green, she showed bright purply-blue. I cannot find mention of this in my books but the photograph shows it quite clearly - most interesting. Indeed, more than one bird had this same characterisic. The direction of the light must have been such as to induce this colour.

March 21st 2015. I woke really early; something must have unconsciously come into my mind. When I opened the blind, there were three Roe deer in the garden. The movement of the blind may have caught their eye, but they only shifteded a few feet. I was able to go downstairs, fetch the camera and take a number of shots before they moved slowly out, uphill and out of sight. The sun was out, but the light was still poor, so I was delighted to make some success of one or two pictures.

March 20th 2015. Had a wonderful time at Catcott Lows watching a number of herons interacting. The major actors were three birds, just to the right of the hide, caught in low, strong sun - though the wind was mighty chilly even inside the hide. One heron remained quite separate from the others, while these two circled each other, apparently feeding, but clearly keeping a close eye on each other. On a couple of occasions this errupted into open warfare, though it did not look as if either actually speared the other. I reckon they were a couple of males trying to impress a solitary female.

March 19th 2015. Driving along past the heronry on Tadham Moor, my eye caught a movement but, before I could stop, I was well past a heron sitting on the edge of the ditch. I reversed slowly back past it and had another look. Thankfully, the heron sat there quite still while the window wound down, allowing a number of shots before it flew off in a less than hasty mode. I feel it makes a particularly happy portrait of this normally wary bird.

Although there were no signs of herons or nests at the front of the wood, this was a sure sign that activity was taking place somewhere in the depths behind. At this time of year, the ditches and rhynes again become populated by herons fishing to feed their nesting mates, shadowy figures intent on searching for movement below, a welcome sign of Spring being on its way.

I drove on to my destination, the bottom of London drove, leading into the heart of Westhay Moor NNR. It was a truly beautiful sunny afternoon and I expected much activity at the Lake hide but, sadly, this was not to be. A few Teal and one or two Wigeon were the only ducks, but it was incredibly peaceful, no-one else in the hide or nearby. I spent an hour there watching Coots fighting amongst themselves and one or two Cormorants circling and settling, though only briefly. One individual flew down in front of the hide, resplendent in full breeding plumage, showing just how beautiful they can be in their own unusual way. Cormorants remain one of my favourite birds, though disliked by many other people, especially fishermen.

March 17th 2015. Visits to both Greylake and Catcott were enjoyable, though not a lot was happening. Greylake had plenty of birds, but they were mostly sleeping and well scattered among the tufts of rushes, reeds and open water. Took a couple of portraits when the opportunity arose.

At Catcott Lows, it was even quieter, though pleasantly sunny. The few visitors soon left and it was very peaceful, as was the scene in front. The Great white egret Egretta alba was still there, but in the background, where it stayed asleep. I was pleased to see a little group of Roe deer on the bank, they are no longer as common as they used to be, though often present in this reserve.

March 16th 2015. The garden birds are really starting to come to life, with much singing and agressive displays. Blackbirds have not been very visible this winter but are now starting to appear in numbers. Daffodils are rather late but provide a good background to their activities.

March 14th 2015. A blustery, chilly, grey day with odd bursts of sun. Crossing the moors, it became obvious that the herons were out in force, fishing the rhynes and ditches, or hunting in splashy moorland stretches. Little egrets are obvious, so white and stark, making swans look quite dirty, even on an overcast day like this. As always, it is fun to see their yellow feet, like trainers on the end of the dark legs.

At Catcott Lows, there were surprising numbers of duck, mainly Wigeon, but they were well tucked down among the vegetation and extremely well camouflaged.

This is the time of the heron. The moors have individuals everywhere. At one point, three or four individuals could be seen at once, though they were restless, constantly changing station.

March 12th 2015. The Great white egret was again on station in front of the hide at Catcott, though the light was harsher and picked out less detail. Once again, I watched it catch a fish and the struggle to straighten it up before it was able to swallow it. How lucky to be so close once more.

In the garden, loud humming sounds led me over to two large queen bumblebees hard at work on some of the few flowers around. One was the expected Bombus terrestris and the other Bombus hypnorum, a bee whose habits we are only beginning to understand. My impression is that she is the earliest bumblebee of all, but has only been resident here for a few years. She might appear to be a Bombus pascuorum, but is readily distinguished by the white tail of the former, which can only just be seen in the picture.

March 10th 2015. In late afternoon I spent a fascinating couple of hours in the hide at Catcott Lows. The sunshine picked out every detail in a Great white egret patrolling in front of the hide and I concentrated my efforts on obtaining a wide selection of pictures of its behaviour while I had such a chance.

It was marvellous to be so close to this huge bird and watch its various techniques, as it went about its business. The hide was empty and appeared to have been so for some while. The ducks and other water birds appeared to know this and were spread evenly round the water, as well as close by the hide. The egret spent much of its time walking slowly along, not appearing to be after prey, just completely relaxed. Every so often it would stop and paddle its feet around in the mud, perhaps to feel protential prey or to disturb something to be caught as it swam away. When hunting, the bird looked much more professional, bent over, searching, then extending its head and neck right forward, before striking with great speed. After that came the business of trying to straighten the fish along the length of the bill. When this was achieved, head and neck stretched up so it could be swallowed with ease and at speed.

The above pictures do not really show the bird's full change of plumage at this time of year. The next ones show some of the long skeletal plumes it develops during courtship, so elegant and the source of its downfall in earlier times, when they were shot to provide plumes for ladies' hats.

March 7th 2015. It has been a remarkable day, both in quality of weather and the variety of wildlife seen. My visit was a much-delayed one to Greylake RSPB reserve, which I had been promising myself for some while, but car problems intervened for a few days. I arrrived at about 10am and stayed until lunch. Warm sun and a balmy south-west wind barely ruffled the water surface, but for over an hour the duck seemed to be taking advantage of this by dozing, rather than feeding or flying.

At first glance it seemed as if there were far fewer than usual, had they already started the great movement out to their breeding grounds? A little group of snipe were half-hidden in a gulley and as inactive as the rest. Only a Moorhen still seemed to be thinking of food and never stopped marching around and swimming to and from.

It was very peaceful and rather soporific; so much so, I thought of going home. Then it all came to life, with an explosion of ducks from all sorts of spots where they had been hiding behind clumps of rushes and reeds, as well as the open water. A distant Marsh harrier was spotted quartering back and forth across the reeds, sending waves of duck up ahead. By this time I had moved from the original ground-level hide to the next-door raised blind. From above, the views of this great movement of ducks were staggering, there were far more duck out there than had been imagined. The harrier passed by and they settled briefly, then it felt as if every duck in the place errupted at once: a Peregine had joined in the hunt. At one stage harrier and Peregrine were in the far edges of the same frame of a photograph. The harrier had a green tag on its wing, a bird which has been present both at Catcott Lows and Greylake in recent weeks.

It was difficult trying to keep the focus on the Peregrine as it shot behind columns of duck cross-crossing in front. The sheer speed of the falcon was breath-taking. It had to make numbers of passes and eventually my pictures revealed why. This was a juvenile bird, still learning the vital process of hunting and killing.

However, eventually it did so and set down close to the outer fence to feed on whatever it had taken. Within a minute or so, two more Peregines joined it at the dinner table. An adult and two juveniles. What a treat! By this time, all the duck had settled once more and life was back to normal as far as they were concerned.

Pintail were present in some numbers, as were Shoveler, but the majority of ducks were Wigeon.

 March 5th 2015. A lovely sunny morning with a really cold, sharp wind. The first bumblebee of our season appeared, searching the Snowdrop flowers Galanthus nivalis. She, for she was certainly a queen, was very dark, likely Bombus terrestris, but I could not be certain. The Great white egret Egretta alba was again feeding on Tealham Moor, but this time just alongside the road though it was too dark for a photograph.

March 4th 2015. Recently, I have discovered a new spot in the garden for photographing small birds. They queue up for the feeding station in the hedge, just where I stop the car when I come home. In spite of it's diesel rattle, quite often they pay little attention to me a few feet away. I must make time to sit there for longer, you get a very intimate view, difficult to obtain normally.

March 2nd 2015. I have been using a new piece of kit for some while now and feel it is worth mentioning for people looking for the same solution as me. [I have no connection with any manufacturer, merely report on items that has been of particular use in my own photography]. Originally someone  suggested I might go online to an American manufacturer, Kirk, to look at their specialised equipment for macro and long lens users. My first purchase was a tripod lens-collar for my Nikon 80-400mm lens, notorious for having a most unsubstantial fitting of its own. This proved first-class, solid and rigid, as well as comparatively light. My latest 'good' buy is their 'mini-tripod', shown below. This is capable of supporting up to an astonishing 100 lbs, and is absolutely solid and unflexing. It also folds flat for easy carriage. This set-up is perfect for the majority of hide shelves, as in our local Somerset ones or at Slimbridge and is obtainable through Wex in the UK.

The set-up I use in the hide, based on this tropod, has a sliding plate to fix the balance, Gitzo's hollow ballhead and the Cullmann interchangable quick-release system, standardised on all my lenses. The solid tripod and silky-smooth head action provide really easy and effective means of following birds in flight, nearly as smooth as contemporary gimble heads, but without the height and extra weight. Further information and pictures will be found in Bird photography.

March 1st 2015. It hardly feels like Spring, even though there was a deal of sunshine under a cutting wind. Nevertheless it is the Spring quarter and hopefully flowers and bumblebees will follow. On my way to Catcott, photographed a female Kestrel huddled up in a tree and sufficiently self-interested to pay little attention to the car below.

At Catcott, little was happening. There were far fewer ducks and most of those were rather somnolent. However, it was good to see a young roe buck feeding in among the rushes at the entrance to the reserve, so delicate in feature at this stage of his life.

On the return journey, a Great white egret was spotted on Tealham Moor on a small local reserve, wading through the shallow waters, banging down to catch some unseen creature. It is the first time I have seen one of these birds on Tealham, though one was briefly spotted on Tadham last year. It must be getting close to the time where herons will be starting to gather nest ing bits and bobs and will be seen again on the rhynes and ditches - fishing to feed their mates. Signs of this have been apparent recently, with Little egrets Egretta garzetta appearing in numbers on the moors, though as scary as ever, jumping as soon as anyone comes near.



Winter 2014-15


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