Winter 2012-13

February 28th 2013. I am sure we all think of birds-of-prey as being lords of the air, well able to take care of themselves, but is this really true?  What prompted these thoughts? It was when I watched a Common buzzard being relentlessly harried by a Carrion crow. I have seen this so frequently round here and wonder what it must be like to be attacked almost anywhere you fly. Clearly the crows really dislike or resent the buzzards, or is it just a game with them, since no real damage ever seems to take place? Is it just that the crows cannot resist having a go when the larger bird flies over? The birds conduct the most amazing manoevres, flying upside down, twisting into the most amazing attitudes then suddenly it is all over and both proceed on their way as if nothing had happened.

I have seen few buzzards this winter but today was different, spotting five different birds in a few miles - a most welcome change. They have long been one of my favourite birds, so majestic as they sail over the house. These were all of the dark variety, though I did spot a startlingly white-breasted bird a few days ago. The dark one are much better camouflaged, at least in winter gloom, blending into the field colour as they hunt.

February 27th 2013. It is good to see small flights of Lapwings out on the moors again. The aftermath of the main floods has seen their arrival at last - probably from the near Continent. For the Lapwing, times have certainly changed, twenty to thirty ago they were present for much of the winter in huge numbers, usually mixed with Golden plover in smaller but still significant amounts. When they erupted, as they did frequently, it was as if smoke filled the skies, thousands at a time. They were seen as a spectacle to rival all, except the starlings dropping into the reed-beds at sunset. When the fields flooded, leaving long lines of grasses and raised ground standing proud of the waters, Lapwings stood in ranks following these lines, apparently dozing like smartly dressed inhabitants of some London club. In spring, we watched the Lapwings engage in their courtship flights, twisting, diving and hurtling up so vigorously that their wing-feathers screamed in protest.

Sadly, these days are long gone, even though the moors continue to look much the same, no chemicals are used and any fertilising is by way of animal dung. Now, few if any Lapwings breed on the moorland fields and the wonderful spring courtship flights have vanished, as has the drumming of snipe. These are sights and sounds that our grandchildren and their children ought to see, but may well be denied. Winters are far less exciting without the sights and sounds of the Lapwing hords, while Golden plover are in distinctly short supply.

February 26th 2013. Today, I saw something I had never expected, a Great white egret on Tadham Moor. It stood upright, taller than the local Grey herons, neck stretched right up as if searching for something in the grey waterlogged field. It saw us, lifted up and was off to land further away. Last year, two pairs of these birds bred on a nearby reserve, but seemed to stick to open areas in various of the nearby nature reserves, rather than the surrounding moors, hence my surprise. Although this is a rare bird, we are used to seeing them around on places like Shapwick Heath or Catcott Lows, exciting for visiting enthusiasts. The continuing grey, cold and miserable weather has brought few other treats with it. On the way home, a dark Common buzzard sat near the road on a gate post, while a few Lapwings flew overhead.

February 15th 2013. A fine day was forecast, so I persuaded Nigel Milbourne to leave his own 'special' Blagdon Lake for a day away at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge. We were two among a great many, the fine weather crowd swelled by children on their half-term holiday - all having a great time. The wild birds were there also in large numbers and the pictures quickly mounted up. We ended up walking round much of the site and were well-rewarded. One delight was the sight of four wild Cranes, Grus grus, though for much the time they were walking up and down the far hedge-line, a long way off. Eventually they flew but, sadly, away from us and out of sight but at least I have now seen them and know what to look for in the future.

Slimbridge has many specialities and these were present today. Perhaps the most famous are the Bewick's swans which visit every winter and have been so meticulously recorded from the very beginning of the project. There were plenty present, but most spent the day down by the river. In the evening, they started to fly in towards the centre, in little parties of two or three, waiting for the food being put out at Swan Lake. They are so slim and elegant, while their calls are magic. When I hear these calls, I am  always reminded of those long-gone years when a herd of up to 70 swans flew over the house most winter evenings. In those days they spent much of the daytime on Tealham Moor.

Most memorable are the gatherings of Greylag geese at Slimbridge. They are omnipresent and the sound of their calls surrouynd everything. At times, it seems as if the arrival of small and larger parties will never stop, circling round, dipping then rising again and taking another circuit before landing at last. They are greeted by those present with a further frantic calling, drowning the sounds of all else.

Ducks are the other attraction - thousands and thousands of them, many settled out on the wet fields and mud flats. Every so often, a Peregrine flies over and they all take off with a roar of wings. Among the most elegant are Pintail; the drakes looking as if they are off to some smart dinner party.

I always find photographing the many Shelduck present here is a particularly difficult pastime, though I can never give up the chance when it arises. They are very much quicker than they look and the contrast in the colours and white is almost impossible to control. But, they are so beautiful.

Hides on the way to the Holden Tower had amazing views of numbers of diving ducks feeding, preening and displaying just below the window openings. I particularly enjoyed watching Pochard diving and watching the violent bubbling beneath the surface, then seeing them burst out from below. Often, this accompanied by frenzied preening, with the bird rolling over and over in its efforts to get at particular parts. High entertainment.

 February 14th 2013. After a night of pouring rain, sufficient to get the miniature stream running down our road again, it turned out a sunny, warm day. After taking our dog for a wander down the new, and inappropriately-named Catcott Great Fen - such places are called heaths or moors locally - I joined a number of others in the main hide at Catcott Lows. The light was fantastic and there were a great many duck spread out across the waters. Though, like much of this winter, the birds stayed well away and widely scattered. This the second autumn where it has proved impossible to get the machinery out to top the herbage, as is normal practice. This gives great cover for the duck but is frustrating for the photographer and birdwatcher. It was good to see more Shoveler parties engaging in their courtship flights and this time I was able to catch it on 'film'.

It has been interesting to see the new reserve come to life gradually during the past few months, as it was dredged to a pre-determined pattern. The water took ages to rise, but winter rains have worked their magic and it is possible to see at last what the planners wanted to achieve. It looks promising, particularly if a hide is built, as is being discussed, but so far the birds are prominent by their absence. Time should change this, as the extensive reed beds attract them in summer as well as winter. It looks a good beginning.

February 8th 2013. The days are getting longer and the wood where the herons nest is showing the first signs of activity. But, the real change is taking place out on the open moors where there is much more activity in general, but more particularly in the heron world. Every time I drive across I see squads of Little egrets, five or six strong, in two or three places, trying to feed in the roadside ditches but driven off by approaching cars. They are easily scared into flight, but soon come back again. It is lovely to see their dead-white shapes after so long where they had moved off the moors to other locations. They look so exotic after our much quieter-coloured Grey herons, more redolent of rice-paddis than winter-grey moorland sward. The Grey herons are also back in numbers, though always solitary; preparing for the stresses of the nesting season. The differences in colouring between the first-year birds and the full adult plumage is remarkable; though both have their subtle attractions. They huddle in the ditches and rhynes, still and patient, and are a good sign of spring to come.

January 31st 2013. The levels are rising again on the moors, with the water on the North Drain lapping the top of the banks and oozing into the surrounding fields. It seems there is no respite from regular heavy falls, either directly or on top of Mendip, whence it makes its way slowly down to the moors. With bright sunshine raising the spirits once more, I decided to make my way to Catcott Lows, a local nature reserve with a hide overlooking a great open sea of water, which becomes a meadow in summer. At first glance there was little to see, then you get your eye in and there are little parties of duck scattered everywhere, though many are hidden in those clumps of grasses standing above the shallow waters. This follows two summers of summer rains, where it proved impossible to cut and trim the area, as is the normal practise. High winds darkened the water in sudden blasts which must keep he duck sheltering where they can. Teal, Wigeon, the odd Mallard, many Pintail, together with groups of Shoveler, were most in evidence. I particularly enjoy the spectacle of Shoveler courtship, as half a dozen or so drakes take off in pursuit of a solitary female and show us some serious high speed aerobatics and formation flying. It seems she will be completely overwhelmed but when they land the males appear to lose interest and just swim away; not very flattering!

Several times, the duck erupted as a Peregrine or Sparrowhawk passed overhead; the former diving and sweeping up at high speed and reappearing from a quite different direction. These eruptions are quite amazing; hundreds of duck appearing from an area where previously you thought there were only a few. As the light fell in late afternoon, a distant pale grey shadow proved to be the visiting Hen harrier we had been expecting, hunting up and down behind the Great white egret that had been stalking along the edge of the main beds all afternoon.

January 29th 2013. I drove across the moors this morning to take the dog for her walk and was amazed to see a bunch of a round dozen Little egrets at the edge of the first field. It is years since I last saw such a gathering here. Clearly, the combination of sloshy, waterlogged rough grassland and vanishing major surface water has proved the perfect combination to bring these lovely birds on to the moors. Now, they are everywhere, feeding in the ditches in two and threes, scattering like snowflakes as the cars approach. For much of the year they disappear, preferring the permanent waters of the local reserves, but reappear as the time for breeding approaches. You see them very obviously for a week or so before they start nesting, then they become much more secretive.

January 25th 2013. The floods have vanished, as has the snow, but the cold was more ferocious than ever, with a fierce east wind numbing the face. The garden appears to be the only place where birds are to be seen in numbers, including this busy family of Long-tailed tits.

January 18th 2013. We woke this morning to a complete covering of snow, as forecast. No problem for us, but clearly so for the small birds of the garden. After a long period where they hardly touched the various seeds we put out, they have poured back in, Blue and Great tits, House sparrows, Dunnocks, Collared doves, Starlings, Reed bunting, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches in numbers, Robin, Blackbirds and, a most delightful sight, Long-tailed tits hanging in a family group on the feeder. They all go to form a wonderful living tapestry whch we are pleased to see, to feed and, hopefully, save a few lives.

January 16th 2013. I have visited Catcott Lows several times recently, one of the local reserves which is normally extremely important for surface-feeding ducks in winter, often with thousands of Wigeon, hoping to find them present in their usual numbers. Sadly, they never gained usual numbers and have now tailed off to virtually nothing as the surface froze over. However, at each visit we see a real rarity, though it has now become commonplace on the larger reserves. It is really unusual not to see a Great white egret stretching slowly over the water as it searches for food. These birds never seem in a hurry, even more leisurely than Grey herons, though they do not seem to indulge in the long period waiting in one spot, peering down at the water below, which is characteristic of the commoner bird. The Great white normally stands erect, while the Grey tends to hunch down closer to the surface when fishing. The former may be seen shading its wings over the water in bright sunlight to make spotting its prey easier. I have not observed this in the Grey heron.

January 16th 2013. The sudden cold snap has brought with it considerable changes to our garden bird-table population. This is particularly marked by the arrival of two old friends – Reed buntings and a female Bullfinch. Both these only started to appear a few years ago. We especially enjoy watching the Reed buntings get smarter as the year moves on, the intensity of the black and white increasing as spring comes closer.

January 12th 2013. Although rain returns in force every so often, the floods on Tealham and Tadham Moors are now retreating. The pumping station is really eating at the body of water in the countryside and the North Drain and the Brue have dropped from their previous overflowing state, where the only signs of their presence were wisps of reeds and grass along the edge, to muddy banks with fast-flowing water far below. Driving across our two moors shows that in spite of this, the rhynes and ditches are still at a very high state. How come?

The local drainage board has spent the last couple of years installing new pipes under entrance gates, as well as a series of tilting weirs which hold water levels in the ditches at a set height, until evaporation lowers the whole water table. This is part of a new scheme put forward some while back, designed to maintain high water levels in the moor up to the start of the wildlife breeding season – an effort to replicate conditions in earlier times when wildlife was far more plentiful. Farmers have been offered compensation, but not all have approved. Only time will show if this works. All this is clearly shown if you drive across the moor into neighbouring areas. The ditches suddenly drop as the boundary is crossed, consistent with high-volume pumping under way.

January 1st 2013. New Year brings with it the highest water levels yet seen on Tealham and Tadham Moors. It is a beautiful crisp, sunny day as I drive along the top, northern side, through Westham, but i was surprised to see that the waters had again risen. In parts they very nearly touched what I call the boundary rhyne, where the contours of the hill start to rise up above the moors. Although the rain has lessened over the past days, the waters come from high on Mendip and may well take a day or so to reach us. It might be thought that this would bring a host of birds but the only beneficiaries appear to be Mute swans in large numbers. Farmers face real problems in this state, as there are less and less fields to hold their sheep, which spend the winter out; another bad blow after the wet state of earlier hay crops.


December 15th 2012. The moorland fields have lost much of their water, leaving streaks among the green but seeming almost free - until you walk on them. They are completely water-logged; ideal for soft-billed wading birds. For some years, snipe have been notable for their absence, or presence only in small numbers in certain remote spots, but today they were back in some numbers. I walked the dog along the eastwards extension of Jack's Drove and soon heard the characteristic squeak as they took off in droves, fanning out ahead as we walked - circling around and joining together in small flights. They are virtually impossible to see on the ground in the fields, dotted as they are with numerous clumps of rushes. A welcome sight, but how different from the flocks of hundreds regularly spotted some forty years ago.December 13th 2012. The kestrels are still with us, hunting all along the south of Tealham Moor, a glorious sight after so long without. Thanks to the help of Graham from Westhay, I obtained a most appealing shot of one perched on a gate really close by; as well as one lifting off from a Hawthorn Make the best of this opportunity - Once the waters drop, they will soon spread out away and over the wider countryside.

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MT_ignoreDecember 10th 2012. The floods on Tealham and Tadham Moors have disappeared overnight. It is quite astonishing to see how effective the pumping station has been in achieving this. Many of the surrounding ditches and rhynes are suddenly well below normal levels and the North Drain is way below yesterday's height. This means that the fields are showing green again but you cannot help think about the time, no doubt likely to come again, where we are desperate for water once more. Is there no way this bounty cannot be preserved?

December 7th 2012. I mentioned in an earlier piece that Kestrels had been virtually absent on the moors in recent years. One of the pluses arising from the floods, is that these birds have reappeared in some numbers. Driving across the floods, it is almost impossible to go far without seeing one. Yesterday, there were four in the space of a hundred yards. Today, I almost ran one down as it was feeding on something on the edge. I pulled up and the bird took off and landed right beside the car, where I was able to take several shots before it flew away in a leisurely manner. Several of the views have been of Kestrels on the road or the grass beside it – not normal behaviour. I suspect a shortage of voles or other food. Let’s hope they survive and will stay here.

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 December 6th 2012. Moorland floods on always bring in a number of visiting birds. Starlings seem to relish digging around on the wet around little clumps of grass which edge the ditches and rhynes. But perhaps the most noticeable are numbers of wagtails, the majority clearly Pied but perhaps having some White wagtails among them – a very closely related race. I have changed the previous picture as mis-captioned and substituted a definite Pied wagtail. Where all these wagtails come from is a mystery. They just appear and are seen all along the semi-submerged vegetation, bobbing and weaving in a constant search for food.

 December 5th 2012. The Whooper swan is still at Catcott Lows, looking well-fed and staying in much the same area the whole time. Other Whoopers seem to move around a great deal, but not this bird. A much closer look at the photographs revealed a possible reason; the bird is blind in one eye. Clearly it has managed to fly and land in its long journey from Iceland, but landing without binocular vision must make this difficult and it may be more sensible to stay where it is comfortable.

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 December 1st 2012. The water is just starting to drop on the moors. I was able to drive, extremely slowly, down Jack's Drove, which splits Tadham and Tealham moors and then across the bottom. Yet the apparent depth of the water looks much the same; bales of hay appear to be at much the same depth as before. Yesterday I explored Catcott Lows and found people in the hide, though there were few birds to be seen, though water levels were high and conditions looked perfect. However, there was one rather small Whooper swan feeding some way off. A friend, Alan, told me there was also a family of these same birds down on Tadham Moor.MT_ignore




Autumn 2012


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