Winter 2016-17 a

February 27th 2017. Years ago, I used to have a Tamron miror lens and eventually sold it but not before taking many good pictures with it. Looking back through those pictures I was struck with the sharpness and even tone across the images. Numbers were of fine quality. So I have just bought one of the last bunch, designated 55BB, said to be the sharpest and brightest. Preliminary results are excellent, unlike another modern, extant 500 mirrot which was very poor. I feel it should be ideal to take to places like Slimbridge, paired with a 70-300 Tamron used for flight pictures mainly - also very sharp. The mirror lens weighs less than half my 80-400 Nikon and will not weigh me down too much. Time will tell, but it looks promising from a short time spent at Catcott Lows.

Wigeon Anas penelope, Shoveler A. clypeata                                                            © robin williams

Shoveler Anas clypeata                                         © robin williams

Shoveler Anas clypeata                                         © robin williams

February 24th 2017. An unexpectedly good day, after two days of really damaging gales, with a great deal of destruction round the country, took us out into the countryside once again. At Catcott, the scene was tranquil, next to no breeze, golden reeds and sleeping ducks. A few were preening but most were fast asleep which made me feel I should join them. The one moment of real note came when a snipe suddenly appeared from behind a bunch of rushes and swam around for some while. I suppose there is no reason why it should not swim but certainly I haver seen one do so before.The first picture shows the snipe appearing from behind some rushes, swimming strongly, demonstating just how small the wader is in comparison with the ducks.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                  © robin williams

This image gives a much clearer view of the delicate feather-markings and shows how quickly the bird was swiming.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                  © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                  © robin williams

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                  © robin williams

This last picture of the snipe illustrates its feet hitting the bottom at last, the body rising up in the water.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                  © robin williams

One the way home two, and possibly three, Great white egrets were spotted stalking across the shallow flooded fields on Tealham Moor. The third was far-off and part-hidden behind vegetation, but the scale looked right for this bird.

Great white egret Egretta alba                           © robin williams

On our return, the grey skies had not affected a large queen bumblebee, Bombus lapidarius, feeding on one of the borders, though it was too quick for me to capture in the camera. It is my first sight of the species this year. Bumblebees are among the few insects able to overcome the cold by shivering their muscles to built up power for flight.

February 20th 2017. As Maddie and I walked along Jack's Drove this afternoon, harsh calls alerted us to a couple of large birds flying westwards across Tealham and Tadham Moors, presumably to their stamping grounds near Burrowbridge on Sedgemoor, perhaps on their way back from Slimbridge? These were the first cranes to be seen by us actually over the moors here. They are bound to spread out from their hub in due course and should become more familiar. They do not look their size in the sky, as they seem to far fly higher than herons and egrets.

Common cranes Grus grus                                  © robin williams

February 18th 2017. Catcott Lows had comparatively few ducks nearby but there were numbers scattered round the distant waters. Once again, sleep was the normal  course of events for the majority, though groups of Shoveler were still impelled to leap into their courtship flights.

Shoveler, Anas clypeata & Common teal, A. crecca                                                   © robin williams

Amongst the various duck species, the teal drake stands out when examined in detail, close-to. Each photograph taken seems to portray different flashes of colour, never the same. They are tiny, but perfect.

 

Common teal, Anas crecca                                   © robin williams

On the edges of the water, the southern side, there was a most welcome small goup of birds. They always bring comment but more so nowadays. Years ago, they were common on the open moors, usually part of the vast flocks of Lapwings Vanellus vanellus found for much of the winter. In recent years these flocks have diminished to almost none on the moors, most being found now in the reserves. While related to Lapwings, they could not be more different. The latter are round, winged, black and white and heavier-looking. The goldies are sharp-winged more wader-like, but just as beautiful, their golden hues camouflaging but glowing once noticed.

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria                                                                               © robin williams

The great bonus came when a Marsh harrier floated out from the bak of the reeds towards us, driving packets of ducks up ahead of her. She appeared not to take much notice of them but she certainly drove them into flight, although on this occasion they settled fairly quickly. The harrier was a juvenile female with varied plumage reflecting earlier forms. As the sun caught the wings and body, it revealed dark and light, as well as stronger colours, a beautiful sight. We are so lucky to have a fair chance of seeing one or two during visits in the winter. They breed nearby on Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall and, no doubt, in the wider are of the Moors and Levels.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f                                                                             © robin williams

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f                    © robin williams

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f                    © robin williams

February 17th 2017. Ham Wall looked calm and beautiful as the sun came and went, but the breeze kept slight - part of a recent run of fine days at the end of a normally less benevolent period.

Ham Wall                                                                © robin williams

As with some of the other reserves, there were not many water birds around, so I concentrated on attempting to capture moments when pochard dive, which happens at lightning speed and little indication of timing. Eventually a pattern of timing started to emerge, but it required great concentration - tiring in the extreme, but enjoyable. Pochard are usually found at Ham Wall, and especially round the island hide, now know as the Tor View hide.

Common pochard Aythya ferina f                      © robin williams

Common pochard Aythya ferina f                      © robin williams

Common pochard Aythya ferina f                      © robin williams

While doing this, my eye was caught by a teal swimming just below, a view not usually seen. The patterns of the plumage looked different, but showed  fascinating detail.

Common teal Anas crecca f                                 © robin williams

Further away, a pair of Great crested grebes started the first phases of their courtship dances, a sure sign that Spring is on its way at last. They shook and faced up to each other for what seemed ages, then lost all interest, apparently, and swam off in opposite directions. While the colours are quite strong, the head-dresses are not yet fully developed but time will soon put that right.


Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus             © robin williams

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus              © robin williams

February 16th 2017. There were few ducks at Catcott and, as usual recently, most were fast asleep but little parties of Shoveler defied the norm. Courtship flights are in full blast. Every few minutes, and increasing in intensity, little flights of four or five drakes would take off in pursuit of a duck, whizzing round the sky at high speed before landing to a frenzy of preening, as if the drakes were embarrassed by their display of emotion.

Shoveler Anas clypeata                                                                                                  © robin williams

I was just leaving, strapped into the car, when a man on the other side of the park waved at me and pointed up into the sky. As I lept out, he shouted, 'Cranes'. Two of these huge birds were passing over the hide flying south, so high they looked quite small. What a wonderful sight!

Common crane Grus grus                                    © robin williams

Common crane Grus grus                                    © robin williams

On Tealham Moor, a Grey heron sat tight while feeding in a roadside ditch, giving a breif sighting before an oncoming car forced us to move to a passing place. The light made it a rather unusual low key portrait.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea                                    © robin williams

February 15th 2017. Most of the birds were fast asleep when I walked into the hide at Catcott Lows but I was delighted to meet up with Ron again and talk techniques and lenses with him. The only event of note while there was the arrival and eventual departure of a great white egret, that so elegant bird now not unusual round here. Indeed another was again feeding near the North drain on Tealham Moor as I drove through. This one gradually came nearer, uit still a way-off, then gathered itself together and flew across the front, before disappearing to the south. It gave us some splendid views againsta dark background, bringing out its shape and outline.

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

February 14th 2017. A further 120 images have been added to the Birds in Flight gallery.

February 10th 2017. A brief look-in at Catcott brought lots ogf sleeping ducks, but little movement other than grooming and preening. Unfortunately it was around lunch time, the period where ducks as well as humans are geared up to taking it easy, but some nice images were obtained.

Wigeon Anas penelope                                         © robin williams

Wigeon Anas penelope                                         © robin williams

On the way home, crossing Tealham Moor, a pure white egret caught my eye and I stopped for a closer look. The bird was at the edge of the roadside ditch, seeming oblivious to the car and watcher. The only problems were various reeds and other vegetation intruding between us as it fed its way along, leaving brown marks on the picture. This seemed a problem until I realised that it was actuality, how you see such birds as they go about their life.

Little egret Egretta garzetta                                                                                          © robin williams

Little egret Egretta garzetta                                © robin williams

February 7th 2017. A gloriously sunny morning turned into a rainstorm just as I entered the Lake hide at Westhay Moor. The downpour went on for a deal of time and the visit, while peaceful, yielded nothing in terms of waterfowl. The waters were totally empty, everything asleep, hidden or just plain absent.

Westhay Moor NNR, from Lake hide                                                                          © robin williams

The only pictures taken were of a Great tit sitting in the rain on a nearby shrub. A couple of these little birds have become used to feeding on seeds left just outside the hide shutters by visitors. I suspect it will not be too long before the birds venture inside - like the Robin Erithacus rubecula at Catcott Lows.

Great tit Parus major                                            © robin williams

Great tit Parus major                                            © robin williams

Driving back across Tealham Moor, it was good to see a Great white egret standing bolt upright by the bridge over Old Rhyne, startlingly white against the sodden field. I thought it had was on its way when it flew off down the rhyne and landed far off. But luckily it decided to reverse this and flew back towards me, before heading off into the moor where it started feeding by a ditch. It is wonderful to find this formerly super-rare heron spreading out from its Shapwick base to become not unfamiliar in the open moors near by.

Great white egret Egretta alba                           © robin williams

Great white egret Egretta alba                                                                                     © robin williams

Great white egret Egretta alba                           © robin williams

February 5th 2017. I thought it would be a clear, sunny day at Greylake, but the sun was misty and intermittent, while the wind whistled in from the south-west, as it does so often. The hides were crowded with weekend visitors but I managed to claim a spot in the front and settled down to enjoy one of my favourite places. The first picture shows the enormous numbers of ducks that fill the air when a predator goes over. This particular erruption was caused by a very small male Peregrine Falco peregrinus that appeared from nowhere. I did get a picture, but it is so distant it is not worth reproducing. The effect is an absolute roar of wings and the detail is hidden in the turmoil. As the ducks circle and circle, individual birds become visible at last, a marvellous sight.

Greylake, with a multitude of mixed duck species                                                   © robin williams

Mixed ducks, Shoveler, Teal, Wigeon & others                                                          © robin williams

The ducks were not particularly close today. First sight appeared to show lesser numbers, with few on the water nearby, but closer attention revealed teal in good numbers, mostly asleep or resting, part hidden by the reeds. The colours are amazing. In my picture, a flash of lavender appears briefly on the wing of the duck at the back, while the brilliant green on the others shows up as if backlit by LEDs. Their constant chatter and clear whistl3es were a background to the gathering.

Common teal Anas crecca                                    © robin williams

 

Mallard were prominent again, a good sign of their reviving status. It has felt strange not seeing them everywhere in the past few years. Courtship is already in the air for many of the ducks, often in the form of one unfortunate female being chased by a number of males. In the case of Mallard, this may well lead to bullying and even death, the male drowing the female in his passion.

 

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos                               © robin williams

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos                                © robin williams

Shoveler are much kinder to their ducks. They may chase her, and frequently do, but when they settle they appear to treat her with respect. Shoveler are such a strange mixture, extremely elegant on the water but they become much dumpier in flight - like fat-bodied torpedoes, going at a tremendous pace, well-designed to provide optimum aerodynamics. Always, the patch of blue on the wing surprises the eye, so different to any other duck, soft yet dominant.

Shoveler Anas clypeata                                                                                                 © robin williams

Shoveler Anas clypeata                                        © robin williams

On a different note, Coots were also occupied with the start of the courting season but in flurries of sheer nastiness. Several of them were engaged on the ditch in front of the hide and all appeared to hate each other, suddenly charging at a neighbour or even squaring up to+ each other in a flurry of feathers and striking legs.

Coot fighting Fulica atra                                      © robin williams

February 4th 2017. The afternoon found us walking down the northern drove on Chilton Moor. We throughly enyed its peace but truth to say there was little to see but the surrounding countryside, with one important exception.

 Chilton Moor north                                               © robin williams

Something brown ahead, in the middle of the grassy drove, suddenly lolloped off - not in too much of a hurry but facing away from us. It was a Hare, a creature that has been evidenced by its absence in the last two decades. They used to be abundant on all the moors, then we realised we had not seen any, a sad loss. The picture was snatched but at least it proves I had seen it.

Brown hare Lepus capensis                                  © robin williams

February 2nd 2017. It is a terrible day, the wind gusting really strongly from the south-west, though the temperature has actually risen to 13° after days which had been much colder. At one stage after lunch, the sun came out for an hour or so, which coincided with dog-walking time. On the way over, an egret posed obligingly by the side of the road in excellent light. They are such elegant birds, but usually shoot off as soo as the car stops. In poor ligh they lose thei impact, needing bright sun to bring out detail and shape.

Little egret, Egretta garzetta                               © robin williams

Maddie and I dropped off at Catcott Lows to find the hide empty, shuttered. As the car stopped, a great wave of ducks shot up above the roof of the hide and the sounds of their flight roared over the wind. Inside, hordes of duck were in close, below, many sheltering from the wind behind patches of rushes and grass, but others with heads tucked into their backs, bobbing up and down in the waves. Little parties of Wigeon were in the early stages of courtship, quareiling with each other continually, rushing at each other in showers of foam. The winter-sun really caught their yellow foreheads and made the red glow.

Wigeon, Anas penelope                                         © robin williams

Wigeon, Anas penelope, Shoveler A. clypeata   © robin williams

 Wigeon, Anas penelope, C. teal A. crecca           © robin williams

Parties of Shoveler drakes stood out, lit as if by searchlights, the white breast, chestnut flanks and green heads reflecting strongly, while the unexpected blue covert feathers stand out as so different to other duck species. Already, flights of Shoveler drakes were starting their courtship as they took off and chased a female.

Shoveler Anas clypeata m                                    © robin williams

Most of the time, the ducks were largely silent but every so often a crescendo of drake Wigeon-calls would build up, sometimes coinciding with a short flight. Most of these were just routine, only rising a few feet up, then settling; certainly not the huge erruptions when a predator passes over. There was no doubt that the most magical moments arose when the sun burst out after a cloud passed over. The contrast was so sharp, the birds etched into the background. A perfect 'duck' afternoon.

Shoveler Anas clypeata, Lapwing V. vanellus  © robin williams

Common teal Anas crecca m                               © robin williams

Common teal Anas crecca m                               © robin williams

January 25th 2017. Driving back past Rattling Bow bridge on Tealham Moor, the slow flight of a large white bird showed the presence of a Great white egret, the first of the year on that location. It landed and started fishing its way up a ditch before I had to move on for an oncoming car. It is wonderful to see these birds spreading out from their original breeding areas of Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall.

 

Great white egret, Egretta alba                           © robin williams

January 24th 2017. After a quick lookin at Catcott Lows where little was moving, Maddie and I drove on to the northern drove on Chilton Moor, a favourite walk for both of us. The sun was hazed over after another fine afternoon when we strolled down the wide drove, much-muddied from heavy machinery going up and down at times. Fortunately the peaty soils dry quickly and the peat drops off boots quickly. Looking up, shapes of flying birds, high up, caught my eye, seeming unlike anything usually seen here. It was a flight of six Goosanders, torpedo-like saw-billed ducks not found generally in these parts, though they do favour one spot on Westhay Moor where the water depth appears to suit them most winters.

Goosanders, Mergus merganser                          © robin williams

After the walk, we drove back up to join the main road when to my astonishment movements drew my attention to several Roe deer standing out in the open in the middle of the field beside the road. One buck seemed to be in charge of a number of does. He had very striking open scent glands on his chest, something I have not seen previously.

Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus f                          © robin williams

Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus f                         © robin williams

Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus m                        © robin williams

January 23rd 2017. Another splendid, unseasonal and sunny day took me to Ham Wall in the afternoon. The RSPB are now charging the general public for parking, but members avoid this. It was the first time I had seen the ticket machine in action though there were few cars to fill their coffers today. Leaving the reserve later, however, it was filling up with people who are coming to see the great evening spectacle of the Starlings Sturnus vulgaris in such perfect clear weather. I walked straight out to the island hide where I met Andrew and other friends who were already well-esconsed. The main object of attention was a Water rail feeding just below the hide, sometimes out in the open, at others part hidden by the platform or the rather dense reed stems. We all took a series of pictures of this confiding bird, but it was pure luck to catch it both in the open and avoiding a silhouette, for the sun was mostly behind the rail.

Water rail Rallus aquaticus                                 © robin williams

Water rail Rallus aquaticus                                 © robin williams

Water rail Rallus aquaticus                                 © robin williams

Another bird was also causing my friends a great deal of grief. A Cetti's warbler was dodging in and out of a mound of cut stems but always too quick for the photographers to catch. I was fortunate in that I was focussing on a tiny clear patch hoping to catch the rail when the warbler popped out and wove its way in and out of the more open reed stems. I was lucky enough to obtain a few good pictures from this excursion of the bird, remarkable for a creature famous for remaining largely unseen, though posessing an incredibly loud voice. It is quite usual to  hear their calls apparently within feet yet not manage to see the bird which is quite common on the Levels.

Cetti's warbler Cettia cetti                                    © robin williams

Cetti's warbler Cettia cetti                                    © robin williams

Cetti's warbler Cettia cetti                                    © robin williams

Cetti's warbler Cettia cetti                                    © robin williams

Cetti's warbler Cettia cetti                                    © robin williams

One and then two Common snipe were-part hidden for much of the time, though close in real terms. It is only when seen close that I realise quite how small they are.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                   © robin williams

January 20th 2017. I had to deliver a portfolio to Nigel at Blagdon today. After our business was over, he drove me round Blagdon Lake to see what was present. After a really cold start, a brilliant sunny, clear day resulted and the lake looked at its finest. But, as out on the moors, there was comparatively little wildlife to be seen. The lake has not seen the numbers of birds normally found. Some Canada geese Branta canadensis moved over from the water to a next-door field, where they were joined by the small flock of local Barnacle geese. Later, we spotted a few Greylag geese Anser anser, not usually found here and the first of the year. I was particularly interesterd to see a few Goldeneye diving ducks, but many of the others were Mallard Anas platyrhynchos.

Goldeneye Bucephala clangula m                      © robin williams

Goosanders have been present at the western arm of the lake, above the dam so we parked and walked out to the bay but unfortunately the drakes were absent, though very obvious the day before as Nigel mentioned. A few females were there and I show an earlier picture, as they parked themselves way beyond photographic range.

Goosander Mergus merganser f                          © robin williams

On the dam itself, picking through the mishmash of debris found there, a Grey wagtail glowed in the sun, not a bird I see very often.

Grey wagtail Motacilla cinerea                            © robin williams

The final excitement came as I was getting into my car to go home over Mendip, right in Blagdon village. A Comon buzzard sailed overhead, caught in the late sunshine, giving marvellous views of the underside. One of my favourite birds, a fine ending to my day out.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo                            © robin williams

January 19th 2017. Maddie and I went to Chilton Moor for our walk today along the grassy, wide drove that leads west, then turns south before returning on one of a couple of leads to the east.  It is a lovely, peaceful stroll through conventional farmland, largely permanent grass with sheep or cattle but normally strangely empty of wildlife, apart from gulls and crows. But this time proved different. A silhouette against the light turned out to be a deer standing against a hedge line. Walking closer, three Roe deer appeared and slowly walked off towards the distant farmhouse. They were all does and all three were clearly heavily pregnant. It was strange to see such delicate, elegant animals turned into bulky, uncomfortable-looking creatures.

Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus                            © robin williams

Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus                            © robin williams

Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus                            © robin williams

Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus                            © robin williams

January 18th 2017. A day of brilliant sunshine, though that was not predicted. Catcott looked marvellous, but the birds were sitting tight for much of the time and there was no sign of predators. Nevertheless, managed a few pictures of ducks and gulls whirling around in a panic over some unknown fear, driving them up into the air every so often.

Wigeon, Anas penelope; Teal, A. crecca and other duck                                           © robin williams

Wigeon, Anas penelope m                                    © robin williams

Wigeon, Anas penelope f                                       © robin williams

January 17th 2017. For the first time in all the years we have been here, a Treecreeper appeared briefly, shooting up a tree for just a few moments. Why we have never seen one of these before, or a Nuthatch Sitta europaea, I am baffled. The garden would seem to supply both their basic needs, but there it is.

Treecreeper Certhia familiaris                            © robin williams

January 14th 2017. The Lake Hide at Westhay Moor NNR looked out over a most beautiful scene, the depth of colour enhanced maybe by the intense cold of the wind. The sun gave a perfect backlight to the Typha walking down to the hide.

Westhay Moor backlit Typha                              © robin williams

From the hide, looking south the colours brightened and brought on smiles, though birds were few and far at first.

Westhay Moor, from the Lake hide                                                                              © robin williams

A few small parties of ducks flew over but the strength of the wind either forced them high above or caught their tails and shot them across, low down, like bullets - far beyond the capacity of a mere mortal to keep up. Eventually, a Gadwall flew straight towards me and an interesting shot was taken, though identification was not at first easy. I suspect the bird is at an intermediate stage of plumage, making it confusing.

Gadwall  Anas strepera                                         © robin williams

January 11th 2017. For some while, Little egrets have been appearing in incresing numbers feeding on ditches and rhynes beside the road. A welcome sight but why now? Itseems rather early for them to think about breeding. Generally, they are a little later than the Grey herons Ardea cinerea at the Heron wood on Tadham Moor.

Little egret Egretta garzetta                                 © robin williams

Catcott Lows was not as full of ducks as I expected but there were plenty of bird-watchers around and occasional erruptions brought some excitement. Some of these disturbances are difficult to explain, nothing seems to have caused them, others may occur when a Lapwing Vanellus vanellus or seagul flies over. These disturbances are mild, the ducks rarely rising more than few feet before settling. When a predator causes one, the effects are much more startling and the ducks may continue to circle for quite some while.

Wigeon Anas penelope & Shoveler A. clypeata © robin williams

Wigeon Anas penelope & Shoveler A. clypeata                                                          © robin williams

Eventually it had to happen, a couple of Marsh harriers appeared, seeing to play together over the reeds, disturbing a few ducks but clearly not really interested in them. One soon settled, picked up some square object, looking like a small brick, before disappearing over towards the heath. The other was not to get any more peace though, as a large Carrion crow came up and started mobbing it. These birds seem to look on predators as their particular playthings, though not usually harriers, appearing to prefer buzzards Buteo buteo. What a pain they must be to those who they annoy like this. They do not appear to actually hit, but go close enough to buffet them. My first picture shows the pair against the distant background of Gastonbury Tor.

Marsh harrier, Circus aeruginosus & Carrion crow, Corvus corone corone        © robin williams

Marsh harrier, Circus aeruginosus & Carrion crow, Corvus corone corone        © robin williams

The final delightful sight against the light, was of a small flight of Lapwings landing to the side, dotting the shallower reaches and standing on the raised level of grassy tumps. There they stayed, not feeding or even calling to each other, as if taking station for the evening later.

Lapwings Vanellus vanellus                                                                                           © robin williams

January 10th 2017. A celebration of our wedding anniversary! Early in the morning I was standing outside on the terrace looking at the sky and wondering if the promised sun would be likely to appear, when I heard a familiar deep hum. Looking down, an extremely large, fat bumblebee queen was hovering in front of a green Hellebore flower. On checking the temperature, it turned out to be 8°, but she will get a nasty shock tomorrow, as sub-zero temperatures are forecast. But it is great to be reminded of the coming of spring.

Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris q                         © robin williams

January 5th 2017. Today was yet another extraordinary, bright, sunny day, with every detail near and far sparkling and looking as if even distant cattle or sheep could be picked off the landscape. We have been enjoying a number of these recently, unusual for this time of year. Little wind and midday temperatures of 5°, but it still felt distinctly chilly in the Lake hide at Westhay Moor. Clearly, it had been far colder in the night, as the water was ice-covered from front to rear, with no patches anywhere where waterfowl had managed to keep it open, so had little hope of seeing much. But I was wrong, several flights of ducks circled overhead. Mallard and Wigeon made up the majority of these. Gadwall Anas strepera are always present in the area, but they had concentrated on some open patches in the private reserve next door, not on the pond in front. It was good to see numbers of Mallard here, they have been notable for a huge reduction in numbers in recent years.

Wigeon, Anas penelope                                                                                                  © robin williams

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos; Wigeon, A. penelope © robin williams

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos                              © robin williams

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos f                            © robin williams

The colours in the landscape were magnificent, reeds glowing in front, sky deepest blue and the ice paler, streaked with white. At first there was nothing, then a slight move caught the eye, a snipe changing position on the very edge of the reeds. Careful scrutiny revealed a number of these waders edging the Typha, most  sleeping, standing on the ice - perhaps waiting for it to melt and let them feed.

Common snipe, Gallinago gallinago                  © robin williams

It was a superb afternoon, made even more so when some old friends came into the hide and had a long talk with me. I had not seen Jan and Jim for a few years but now they have moved close to where we live. It was good to hear about their recent life. Returning over Tealham Moor, I passed numbers of Little egrets on the roadside ditches. I stopped to watch one and it took off and passed right in front, a great opportunity to round off the afternoon - note its extraordinary yellow feet.

Little egret, Egretta garzetta                               © robin williams

January 4th 2017. Predators took the main interest this morning on a brief visit to Catcott Lows. Ducks were crowded together over the largely frozen waters, keeping an area free of ice, concentrating them in two or three parts in dark masses. Almost as soon as I got there a Marsh harrier appeared quartering the distant reeds, then disappeared out of sight. The odd-looking female bird, probably first year, seen previously was then spotted coming straight towards us but something distracted it en route and it never came really close but some pictures were obtained.


Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f                   © robin williams

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f                   © robin williams

At home, a Robin proved once again that it did not just feed on insects and caterpillars. Frequently they are seen feeding avidly on Black sunflower seeds.

Robin Erithacus rubecula                                    © robin williams

December 31st 2016. A final visit to Catcott for the year saw me concentrating on portrait shots of female ducks. The Common teal ducks look rather undistinguished until the flash of green from the speculum is revealed. In actual fact, most female ducks may be dismissed as dull until the plumage is seen up close when the intricate colours, edging and shading become more obvious.I was also there to test higher ISO settings on the D7100 camera. All the pictures were taken with the Nikon 80-400 lens wide open, at 2000 ISO. I was impressed with the results.

Common teal Anas crecca f                                 © robin williams

Common teal Anas crecca f                                 © robin williams

The final picture is of a flight of Wigeon drakes chasing duck - early signs of courtship?

Wigeon Anas penelope                                                                                                  © robin williams

December 28th 2016. A brief visit to Catcott before lunch ended with a couple of interesting shots. The ducks were still largely confined to cleared patches in the ice and, as usual at the moment, mostly sleeping it off! They formed a pretty solid block three quarters of the way back before the reeds and ground at the back.

Mixed duck, mainly Wigeon, with Common teal and Shoveler                               © robin williams

For a change, snipe were flying around, no doubt looking for unfrozen patches where their soft-tipped bills would work effectively. We were all delighted when one of these secretive birds emerged from behind a patch of rushes and stood in the open out on the ice, a most unusual piece of behaviour. I must confess I had never really noticed the ginger tip to the tail before, but it is obvious in the picture.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago                  © robin williams

Finally, a Peregrine was spotted at the back before tearing up to the hide and crossing the front. The picture is not my finest, taken against strong contrast in the sky, but shows the dark, heavy shape and even heavier bill - a fine sight.

Peregrine falcon  Falco peregrinus juv.             © robin williams

December 27th 2016. A brief visit to Catcott, via more dog-walking, brought some fine views of Wigeon in flight, one of my favourite birds. The trick is to catch them as they twist in the air, either to get maximum power for take-ff or effecting the same to slow down during the last stages of landing. 

Wigeon, Anas penelope                                         © robin williams

Wigeon, Anas penelope                                         © robin williams

A more general view of flight, with an out-of-focus indication of the numbers of duck showing at the bottom.

Wigeon, Anas penelope                                                                                                  © robin williams

December 22nd 2016. This morning started well with the arrival of a fine cock Pheasant. It is good to see one of these birds again. Some years back one stayed for a couple of winters, then vanished. It was so colourful feeding in front of the kitchen window and we sorely missed it.

Pheasant Phasianus colchicus m                        © robin williams 

On the way for our walk at Catcott, it was pleasing to see a good few Little egrets feeding in the roadside ditches and on nearby fields. When they took off - for they are remarkably scary creatures - the pictures show the twists and turns their wings take.

Little egret, Egretta garzetta                                © robin williams

Little egret, Egretta garzetta                                © robin williams

Catcott Lows was looking superb, no wind ruffling the surface, sparkling in the sunshine. A great many ducks were scattered over the water, mostly Wigeon but also a few Pintail Anas acuta, Common teal Anas crecca and more Shoveler. It all looked so peaceful but there was a roar of wings when some unseen predator passed over, the density of ducks far more than a casual estimate from first glances. There is a great sense of excitement when all this happens.

Wigeon, Anas penelope                                                                                                  © robin williams

mainly Wigeon, Anas penelope                           © robin williams

The sunlight, and its direction, was particularly kind to the Shoveler drakes preening in front. It brought out the rarely seen purple notes on the head, as well as the details of the extraordinary beak. 

Shoveler, Anas clypeata m                                   © robin williams

Shoveler, Anas clypeata m                                   © robin williams

Finally, just as I was about to leave, the expected sighting of a Marsh harrier occurred, far-off over the larger reed beds at the back. But it was behaving somewhat unusually. Instead of quartering the reeds low down, it was circling high up. Was it out to have a bit of fun in disturbing the ducks below, or searching seriously for prey from above? At lest two of these predators have station at the far side of the water and sightings are no uncommon.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f                   © robin williams

December 18th 2016. On looking through the various pictures taken in recent days, I came across these from Catcott which had been missed out, showing some of the variety of birds found there in winter. Birds of prey are an important part of the scene, with Marsh harriers Circus aeruginosus, Sparrow-hawks Accipiter nisus and Peregrine falcons frequently seen. Two of the latter have been particularly prominent recently and my picture shows evidence of their success in hunting - the part of the equation many people forget. Below, a picture of sleeping Wigeon, a favourite prey.

Peregine prey? Falco peregrinus                             robin williams

There were some lovely groups of Wigeon, all sleeping out in the middle of the water, looking perfectly content.

Wigeon Anas penelope                                                                                                   © robin williams

Numbers of Greylag geese kept on flying in during the time I was there, usually they are less seen than our Canada geese Branta canadensis, though there were none of these around today. Greylags are the very spirit of wild days, the endlessly fascinating and problem-prey of the old wildfowlers who spent a lifetime trying to realise and remember their ways. Peter Scott summoned up this better than anyone in his paintings of bright dawns on freezing estuaries.

Greylag geese Anser anser                                                                                            © robin williams

Lapwings were present in some numbers. These iconic birds of the open, wet moorlands have become less and less visible over the years. It is good to look out of the hide and see masses feeding nearby and hear the mass sound of their presence. In winter, they are near black and white birds, contrasty. In summer their amazing purple, orange and other subtle colours come to life. Seen close, they are jewels in their own right.

 Lapwings Vanellus vanellus                                                                                          © robin williams

December 17th 2016. A short but rewarding visit to Catcott Lows brought me a new bird, always worthy of notice. The place was full of duck, most asleep or very quiet. Even a distant Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus did not stir them into action. The exception to this was the large gathering of Lapwings. They lept up at the slightest provocation and kept up a loud and continuous volume of calls but it is so good to see so many, for they are by no means as numerous as in the past. There were no signs of Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria and only a single Black-tailed godwit Limosa limosa, both here in some numbers on past visits.

Lapwings Vanellus vanellus                                                                                          © robin williams

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus                                   © robin williams

The new bird was a Little gull, which I cannot recalling seeing before anywhere. Indeed I would not have this time if it had not been for a kind soul with a telescope pointing it out. Its pale colour, small size and distance made it difficult to see, let alone make an identification. Even when spotted, it was all too easy to lose it again as it swam around in and around the rush and grass clumps in the water. It never ceases to amaze me how many wanderers and exotica turn up at this patch of water among the moors. The pictures surprise me in view of the large magnification required to make a reasonable size on the screen. They are a tribute to the Nikon software and the sharpness of the lens already straining with a high ISO setting.

Little gull Larus minutus                                     © robin williams 

Little gull Larus minutus                                     © robin williams

December 14th 2016. Greylake was the target this morning, but it did not turn out as exciting as might have been expected in such near-perfect conditions, with brilliant sunlight and next to no wind. There were large numbers of ducks, but most were far-off and the majority sleeping or quietly feeding. However, a Marsh harrier came in over the far edge from the hide, disturbing bunches of duck before settling back in the distance. Then she came nearer and closer, sending streams of duck up into the air; though in fact she did not seem very interested in them. Not so much a picture of the harrier but its place in the setting of all the ducks.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f                                                                            © robin williams

After sitting silently for quite a while, I thought it might be more interesting at Catcott Lows, on the way home. On reaching there, it seemed that the same somnolence was affecting the duck. They were widely scattered, so nothing had been disturbing them. However, to the right of the hide, large numbers of Lapwings Vanellus vanellus were sitting on the higher patches of land showing above the shallow waters while, among them were numbers of Golden plover, a favourite bird. The gold shows up well among the black and white winter plumage of the Lapwings, a haze of almost gingery gold which strikes the eye immediately.

Golden plover Pluvialis apricaria                       © robin williams

December 13th 2016. A drive out to the Poldens and then beyond took me to both Greylake and Catcott reserves. The former was packed with duck but they were further away than hoped and places where waders might be expected held none. Eventually, a Marsh harrier started to quarter the reeds at the other side of the pond (lake?) then worked its way closer, setting clouds of Wigeon into the air. The ducks were panicked at first but soon seemed to ignore the stately harrier as it sailed on its way. Strangely, strings of ducks kept crossing its flight, apparently ignoring the predator.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f                   © robin williams

At Catcott Lows, the ducks were far fewer in number, mostly sleeping, and far off. But there were a great many Lapwings, with a few Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa feeding with them. They reminded me of the long lines of Lapwings we used to see on the moors for much of the winter, in the days long gone when they were present for much of the winter in huge numbers, lining up like soldiers on parade.

Lapwings Vanellus vanellus                                                                                         © robin williams

December 11th 2016. A simply glorious day and yet another visit to Catcott Lows, the sunshine brilliant and the sky a superb blue. I concentrated on portrait shots of Common teal, Shoveler and Wigeon drakes looking unbelievable in this light. It is marvellous to pick out the subtleties of barring on the flanks and the hard contrast of flight feathers in their finery. At first glance, these splendid  drakes are obvious in their slabs of pure colour but further, closer looks reveals much more subtle hues.

Common teal Anas crecca m                               © robin williams

Common teal Anas crecca m                               © robin williams

Common teal Anas crecca m                               © robin williams

Wigeon Anas penelope                                          © robin williams

Wigeon Anas penelope m                                     © robin williams

Shoveler Anas clypeata m                                    © robin williams

My final shots are of a Great white egret that started way back near out of sight but eventually came much closer. Many of the shots were characterless, in the harsh light which sucked out any detail in the white feathers, leaving a blank near-silhouette (but colourless, instead of the dark normally inferred by this term).

Great white egret Egretta alba                            © robin williams

December 8th 2016. I drove over Mendip in thick cloud this morning but on the return emerged in full sunshine, on dropping down to the Levels. Another walk with Maddie brought me back to Catcott Lows again - with all that is going on there, why go anywhere else? Another hour wa spent at the hide and it was well-rewarded. A couple of Marsh harriers Circus aeruginosus were present but so far away that photography was impossible. Apart from one brief foray, they spent the time sitting among the reeds, only head and shoulders visible, almost certainly two females with their white heads. Greylag geese were active much of the time, present in greater numbers than are usually found here. They are such splendid, solid creatures and fly with great power. No wonder, when you hear them, how they have always been thought of as the wildest of all creatures, best heard on the coast in a blustery dawn (see Peter Scott's descriptions of this).

Greylag geese, Anser anser                                  © robin williams

The godwits were back in much larger numbers. Some, as the previous group, feeding to the right, but other parties all over the area. Every so often, something would set the ducks and waders off and they would join together in much larger flocks, circling and circling at high speed before settling once again. 

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa                                                                           © robin williams

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa                                                                             © robin williams

Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa                                                                           © robin williams

December 7th 2016. Woke to a fine sunny morning, after a couple of dreadful, dreary, overcast days. More important, the thaw had had its magical effect at Catcott Lows and the ducks were out in force, no longer confined to a small stretch of distant ice-free water. At first it looked characterless, the ducks scattered widely, mostly sleeping, but soon this changed. Everyone there ventured that it was one of the best and most eventful of all. Black-tailed godwits were the first discovery, twenty or thirty feeding by a long spit of grass to the right of the hide though, looking into the brightness, exposure was tricky.

Black-tailed godwits, Limosa limosa                                                                           © robin williams

After that, we were wondering what a couple of people were doing out on the field by the pump house, when I noticed a buzzard perched between them and us. The bird lifted off the fence but flew only a few yards before settling again. Eventually, the two people climbed out of the enclosure and the bird flew right across the front of the hide, giving us some splendid views.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo                            © robin williams

Common buzzard Buteo buteo                            © robin williams

Common buzzard Buteo buteo                            © robin williams

Common buzzard Buteo buteo                           © robin williams

Common buzzard Buteo buteo                           © robin williams

From there, the bird took off across the water and circled up into the sky, sending the ducks panicking upwards with a roar of wings. But that was not the end, a Marsh harrier took much the same route as the buzzard, across the front. There were splendid views of it floating across, throwing itself on it side, twisting and jinking as only a harrier knows how. We watched it disturb the duck in waves as it quartered the area, only to be joined by a second bird as it passed towards the background. What a splendid time we had enjoyed.

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

December 4th 2016. Awoke to a cloudless sky, though little frost, but still very cold, the wind adding to the chill factor. I wanted to test the camera and try and make up for what was missed yesterday. The lanes had plenty of icy patches where trees or hedges shaded the road but Catcott Lows hide was reached about 10:30, just too late for the best images, but I did succeed in getting some useful shots. Jim and a couple of his friends were inside briefly and told me that the harrier had flown over the roof and landed in the grass in front, then repeated this. Unfortunately the bird, though close, was all but hidden by the grass. I stayed on for a while when the others left and was rewarded by the sight of the 'ringtail' coming towards me, mobbd by the usual crows, a fine sight against the blue of the sky.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus f                               © robin williams

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus f                               © robin williams

A  final treat came to sweeten the day, with a Wren landing on the fence in front.

Wren Troglodytes troglodytes                            © robin williams

December 3rd 2016. A deep blue sky this morning, extremely cold, turned to low cloud and poor light round lunchtime - but remained chillingly cold. After walking Maddie, I spent an hour in the hide at Catcott. I was chatting to Jim, who had been about to leave, his shutter closed and the camera lying on the shelf, when Ron sang out that there was a harrier in front. Up shutter, pick up the camera and start shooting at a fine female Hen harrier really close by. But, horror of horrors, I could only get the lens to focus briefly on one spot, while the bird twisted and turned, clearly out of focus. This continued; though there did not appear to be any reason. I checked various settings and concluded some software had gone caput, or even that the autofocus system had broken. One picture only at least show the shape and colouring of this splendid bird.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus f                               © robin williams

The others took splendid shots of this beautiful bird, known by all birdwatchers a a 'ringtail' from its white rump and widely-barred tail. When I got home I got out the manual and decided to search methodically through all the menus. Eventually I found the problem. Somehow the setting AF-C, allowing the lens to focus freely and the  shutter to open whenever the button was pressed, had been changed to AF-S, where the focus locked until released, after another press of the button. To make this change requires two buttons to be pressed simultaneously, so how could it have happened? The alteration has now been made and all is well, but at the expense of a near-wasted outing. The camera is a Nikon 7100, one of the most recent of Nikon marvels, with many advantages, but full of computer menus taking the place of what used to be dials or switches. My old Nikon D300, a superb but said-to-be-dated camera, though still in use, has the more important functions set on dials on the back that clearly indicate what is the focussing method in use, the selected metering and other often used settings - far more practical. Menu-based settings may be more in tune with modern computer-users but the actual determination of each can only be determined by going completely through the menu - time consuming and far from instinctive. I realise there are more innovations to be accomodated now, but do we need them all? I find myself using a limited number of vital settings, with many others unused and not necessary for the type of work I undertake. Has camera design regressed, must be a question that ought to be answered? It may seem very modern but is it as rapid in use or to make alterations out in the field?



Autumn 2016


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