Getting lucky on Brean Down – and meeting another long-lost cousin

Jen’s family visited us in Shapwick for the spring half term. As the weather forecast looked dull and grey, we decided to take a chance of seeing something from Brean Down – the offshoot from the Mendips that sticks out into the sea. We got lucky – because we had a hot sunny day there while Shapwick’s weather remained as grey as predicted.

View from Brean Down across to Weston-super-Mare

Jen at the end of Brean Down lookimg across to Steep Holm.

Rachael jumping off the trig point

I confidently told Rachael that it was a short ten minute walk from the beach to the top and an equally short stroll to the far end. An hour later, as we were starting back from the far end of Brean Down, I realised I’d badly underestimated the timings! Andrew returned to the car and brought the lunch up to the top,where we had a picnic.

My attempts at capturing the fun photographically weren’t particularly successful – except for this one of Rachael jumping off the trig point, which was very fortuitous as I barely had enough time to swing the camera in the right direction!

At Brean Down trig point with Jen, Andrew, George,Sophie and Rachael,wth Margaret in front. Steep Holm in the background.

After we got back down to the beach, there were odd fog conditions – really a sea fret that rolled in. All this served to emphasise how lucky we had been on the top of the hill.

A sea fret at Brean Down beach.

Foggy Brean Down beach

On the Saturday I went to London to go to a Men’s Convention at Westminster Central Hall, and also to meet another long-lost cousin, Claire Whiteley – Sue’s sister, whom I met a few weeks ago, and who coincidentally arrived in the UK from Australia at a similar time. I’ve been in Facebook contact with Claire for a while, so it was great to finally meet. We met in central London and had a quick lunch at an Asian restaurant, before walking up to Trafalgar Square looking for a cafe. We eventually found a rather ornate one close to the square – which did serve good coffee!

Claire_Rich_1678lg

Coffee with Claire at a cafe near Trafalgar Square

The search for sainfoin with a long lost cousin

Jen and I recently spent the day with a long-lost cousin, Sue Whiteley… ok, she’s a second cousin… ok, she wasn’t technically ‘lost’ but in Australia… but it was really great to meet a family member whom I’d not not met before. She’s the grand-daughter of my maternal grandfather’s brother Sam (did you follow that ok?!).

Sue with the sainfoin seed and some hay that includes sainfoin.

Sue was on her first trip to the UK. One of her aims was to find some sainfoin seed, a legume that is good fodder for horses, but which is difficult to obtain in Australia. It’s not that common in the UK either but is sold by Cotswold Seeds, a grain merchant in Moreton-in-Marsh. They market sainfoin as one of the plants used for their herbal leys, which offer a much more biodiverse set of plants than the average grassy field, and much greater health benefits for livestock. Reading their page on sainfoin, it seems like it’s a ruminant’s superfood.

We then went in search of a research farm owned by Cotswold Seeds which is growing sainfoin with Timothy, a type of grass which is a companion plant.

Sainfoin growing

On our way back through Chipping Norton we came across a meadow full of buttercups, which is somehow a more natural yellow than the rather garish oilseed rape. I was sufficiently impressed with this sight to want to focus exclusively on the buttercups… so I did…

Jen and Sue in a field in Chipping Norton.

Buttercup meadow in Chipping Norton

Since then I’ve noticed large numbers of fields with similar arrays of buttercups – so I wonder whether this is an unusually good year for them – or whether this is a common sight which I’ve not noticed before?

A couple of weeks ago three of Jen’s students arrived from London – Laura and Waruj (from Thailand), who are first year PhD students, and Mengke, an MRes student from China. It was great to be able to get to know them – having heard about them from Jen! – and to be able to show them around rural Somerset. On the Saturday afternoon we went to Kilve, where we enjoyed the cream teas of the Chantry Tea Gardens, before walking along the cliff-top above the impressive rocky beach that characterises the area.

Laura, Mengke, Waruj and Jen at East Quantoxhead

Lunch at the Vicarage with Jen, Mengke, Laura and Waruj

About a month ago Jen and I went with our good friends Jack and Alison and Brandon to the Haynes Motor Museum near Yeovil. We were both much more absorbed by the exhibits than we’d expected!

Is it the speed or the yellowness?

The Motor Museum this year, Silverstone next? Maybe not…

The Teän adventure

One of the highlights of our recent trip to the Scillies was being able to go to Teän, an uninhabited island in the northern part of the group. It’s easily seen from many parts of the Scillies, but isn’t easy to get to in the normal course – unless you’re part of an organised trip, as we were, or have your own boat, which we don’t(!).

The approach to the island is quite impressive as one goes fairly close to a number of other uninhabited islands.

St Helen’s, Round Island lighthouse, and the beginning of Teän

Teän from the sea as we approached it, with Round Island lighthouse visible to the left.

As there is no quay on the island, the landing has to be by boat, by disembarking onto an inflatable dinghy which does the final part of the journey to shore.

Landing on the island via inflatable.

Landing on the beach on Teän.

When we landed, we were surprised by the amount of natural beach debris there was, presumably allowed to accumulate undisturbed by humans and their animals. Jen quickly acquired an impressive handful!

Jen easily acquired some interesting finds from the landing beach.

What was more depressing was the amount of plastic and other waste that had washed onto the island, and reflected the growing problem that’s being recognised locally as well as globally.

Remains of St Theona’s chapel in front and to the right. The wall is more recent.

As well as enjoying being on a deserted island, I was very keen to see the place where St Theona had had her dwelling. She was a Celtic hermit living in about the 8th century. At that time the island was connected to St Martin’s at low tide and would have been a bit less isolated than now; but despite that it still reflects the desire of Celtic mystics to seek out and live in desert places.

Ruins of the chapel and adjacent buildings on Teän.

The other location known for it’s Celtic hermitage is St Helen’s, an island we weren’t able to get to because of the weather, but easily seen to the west of Teän.

St Helen’s and Round Island Lighthouse viewed from Teän.

St Helen’s from Teän

The chapel of St Elidius on St Helen’s – probably the low stone wall just visible above the shoreline left of centre. (Click to enlarge)

After we’d got back to St Mary’s, Jen and I spend some time poring over the photos of St Helen’s to see if we could see the chapel of St Elidius, the 7th century Celtic monk who was a hermit there. By correlating the information on maps with the photos, we’re fairly sure it’s the low stone wall just above the shoreline to the left of centre in the photo to the right.

As Teän has one of the higher hills in the Scillies, it also has one of the best views. The panorama below takes in a 180-degree view from Tresco on the left, past St Helen’s and Round Island (with lighthouse), to White Island and St Martin’s to the right.

Panorama from the Teän main hilltop – from Tresco on the far left to St Martin’s on the far right. Click to enlarge!

View from the top of Teän – St Helen’s and the Round Island lighthouse being the obvious island landmarks.

It was a very memorable trip – and if we get the chance to go again, we’re keen to go to some of the other uninhabited islands.

Why bother nesting if you can keep winding up the oppo?

Rapid changes are taking place on the Decoy Lake on Shapwick Heath. Lily pads, hidden throughout winter, are appearing all over in readiness for their summer profusion. Swallows are frequently sweeping over the lake, scooping the abundant insects – whereas a fortnight ago, they were only just starting to appear from their migration.

Grebe in threat mode, heading for…

Meanwhile, every time I think I’ve sussed out the grebe territories, something happens to show how little I’ve understood. Towards the end of March, I thought there were two pairs, one near the hide to the right and one at the far end. Just before Easter I found that a new grebe had settled in to the left of the hide. Actually I’d thought there was a pair there but one of them (probably the male!) headed off to the far end, and as far as I could tell was consorting with another female. I wished – as I have many times – that I could tell them apart… are these two grebes ones that were around earlier in the year, or are they a new pair from elsewhere?

…another grebe, in threat mode. This one is from the hide pair.

I therefore often find myself resorting to counting the grebes – which you might think would be simple… except that they dive below the surface, lurk in reedbeds, turn up unexpectedly far outside their territories – and occasionally do completely unexpected things like flying…

While the ducks on the lake frequently fly around, dramatically splashing down onto the water, the grebes stay on (or under) the lake whenever possible – so much so that when one took off and flew I was really surprised! It flies elegantly – as it does everything else – and did so more strongly than I expected.

Last week’s grebe count was the highest yet. Now there appear to be four pairs. Admittedly I only saw six at one time – all heading for the central part of the lake in front and to the left of the hide, which provoked the predictable territorial shenanigans – but only four of them were paired up and the other two seemed to have partners at other times.

The hide pair give the impression of being the least flappable, but with a rather flexible interpretation of what constitutes the boundary to their territory. This provokes a reaction from whichever neighbour they were winding up, making it appear that the other grebes were the tetchy ones.

What’s striking about this lot is how far behind they are compared to the other sites in the area. At Easter on Ham Wall, the grebes were already well into the nesting phase. Recent posts from the Westhay reserve show that not only have they finished nesting, but they have chicks as well!

I have seen signs of nest-building only twice, fleetingly, at the Decoy Lake. It might be that the grebes are nesting deep within the reedbeds with plenty of material close by for the building, and don’t feel the need to wave reeds in front of my lens to prove that they’re doing it. I am fairly sure the hide pair have a nest in the reeds, with eggs, and were swapping over the incubation duties.

Great crested grebe at Shapwick Heath – one of the hide pair, looking elegant

Meanwhile, I’m keen to experiment a bit with camera angles, because lower angles tend to produce better shots. This is easier said than done, though, because it’s quite hard to find suitable vantage points unobscured by vegetation! The image below is a case in point, as it was taken peering through a gap between twigs and branches, and isn’t a particularly low angle, either.

Great Crested Grebe at the back of the Decoy Lake

There is one big advantage though of hunkering behind trees wondering whether you can get a clear sightline: the birds don’t see you so easily. These little grebes are often vocal but rarely seen, but on this occasion swam close to where I was crouching, oblivious to my being there.

LIttle grebes at the back of Shapwick Heath, oblivious to my lurking near them.

I probably don’t give the resident ducks enough respect, so I’ll finish with a couple of photos of them in a feeble attempt to redress the balance a bit.

Pochard on the Decoy Lake

Gadwall on the Decoy Lake

Indulging the island cravings in the Scillies

Jen and I may be developing a serious case of nesiophilia (according to the dictionary, the inordinate fondness and hungering for islands). Going to the Scillies in the first place feeds the condition – but small islands cut off by the tide offer plenty of opportunities to indulge it still further.

Take, for example, Toll’s Island on the north-east corner of St. Mary’s… we had to cross to it as soon as we saw it, and I soon began speculating about how much fun it would be to camp on it when the tide is in.

Tolls Island, on the north-east side of St . Mary’s

Gugh, the much larger tidal island east of St Agnes, has a similar attraction. Jen wanted to stand in the middle of the bar just as the tide was receding. The only trouble was, the tide didn’t recede evenly, and still washed intermittently across the bar after we thought it had fallen enough, so Jen found herself running to avoid the sea washing over and into her boots! (She wasn’t quite quick enough though!!). A picture from later on in the day shows how much the sea level had fallen in a few hours.

The tide hadn’t cleared the sandbar to Gugh quite as completely as we’d thought.

This really was low tide on the Gugh bar!

We stayed on St Mary’s for the eight days we were there, and walked most of the coastline on the Saturday. It’s a photogenic island in itself, especially with views across to the other ones.

Round Island Lighthouse from the Town Beach.

We visited Bryher on one of the days, partly because there was a wildlife walk during  the afternoon. The channel across to Tresco is particularly photogenic – both to the north (from one stretch of moorland to another) and to the much lusher south.

The view across to northern Tresco from Shipman Head Down on Bryher

Looking south to Tresco from Bryher’s Shipman Head Down

My idea of a wildlife walk generally involves birds and mammals, so I was surprised to be enthused about lichens by the excellent leader from the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, Darren Hart. The moorland on Bryher has lots of lichen – which indicates a good air quality. In particular, the golden hair lichen is restricted to only a few places in the south-west of the UK, which are fortunate to have relatively clean air.

Golden hair lichen on Bryher – rare in the UK, and an indicator of clean air

a native 7-spot ladybird on Bryher

While on this walk I was very excited to see a 7-spot ladybird. I should not be excited about this, but the spread of the invasive Harlequin has meant that seeing a native 7-spot was an event. Six years ago when the species was spreading I heard stories about it cannibalising our native species. I didn’t believe it – until the first one I saw in Cheltenham was, grotesquely, doing exactly that to a native 2-spot. Since then, the only species I have seen has been the Harlequin – until last week when I saw a 7-spot on Bryher.

One island we were keen to visit more thoroughly was St Martin’s, which tends to get overlooked, but has a quiet charm of its own – definitely helped by an outstanding bakery! We decided to explore the eastern and northern coasts. As we approached the daymark in the north-east corner, a group there were about to take a photograph of themselves – so it made far more sense for me to take theirs and for them to return the favour!

Jen and me at the daymark on St Martin’s.

Panorama of the St Martin’s coast from near the daymark in the north-east corner.

Iceland Gull off The Garrison on St Mary’s

The bird-watching during the trip as a whole was less exciting than I was expecting, and I was not anticipating the most notable bird being a gull! I’d seen reports of a couple of juvenile Iceland gulls at Porthloo on St Marys, so saw my first one there – but then found another by chance just off The Garrison at Morning Point. Its whiteness meant that even with my relatively low interest in gulls, I couldn’t really miss it!

Jen: “Do I look fat?”
Me: “Yes. That’s because you’re preggers”

We were keen to take a photo of Jen being preggers, and had several goes at doing so. We eventually realised that a deliberately posed one would look better than one that was meant to look natural while Jen was holding an unnatural pose! We took this one on our walk around the Garrison, shortly after encountering the Iceland Gull.

My attempts at wildlife photography were more limited than I expected but the trip around the Garrison was more fruitful – partly because of an obliging meadow pipit and a couple of showy song thrushes – which are renowned for their approachability compared to the mainland. So I’ll finish with those!

Being stared at by a Meadow pipit

Song thrush on St Mary’s. Getting down to the thrush’s level helped with this photo.

Territorial battles on the Decoy Lake

Although chasing rare birds is fun, it’s not practical for me these days 🙂 ! So I’ve been watching the grebes on the Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath for a few weeks now, and I’m finding that I’m learning much more than I’d expected. I’m learning to read their behaviour – of which there has been plenty this month.

By the end of February, I reckoned I had sussed out the territories on the lake. The pair that had been there through the winter had the pick of the sites, and chose the area to the left of the hide. One of them (the male?) was notable for defending his patch whenever threatened. To the right of the hide was a more recent pair that quite often invaded the left pair’s territory, with predictable consequences. The boundary between the two seemed to be from the left hand side of the hide to the tor, given the point at which hostilities would begin and end. In the distance, towards the tor and to the left-side of the lake, was another pair which didn’t seem to interact much with the two nearer pairs, and may well have held the whole of the far end of the lake – but were too far away for me to be sure.

Then came the snow. When Jen and I visited the hide on the snowy Friday, it seemed as if there was only one pair on the lake, and given where they emerged from this was probably the pair from the right of the hide – although I was slightly puzzled as this would mean that the wintering pair, despite holding on through the winter, had left.

One grebe pair remained during the snow.

After the snow left the other grebes returned – though apparently not all of them. A few days later I only saw one grebe at the far end: I presumed the other was hidden in or behind the various reed beds. I confidently explained the three territories to a couple who were visiting the hide for the first time – honestly, they seemed genuinely interested! – but the knowledge I was boasting of was no longer true. After they left, I happened to see that there were two pairs on the far left side, with only a few metres separating them, simultaneously doing courtship displays. This was clearly about territory as much as romance. I wish I’d been able to photograph this but they were too distant for a good photo.

The closer of the pairs then chased the other pair off – my next surprise was that the more distant of the two didn’t retreat into the distance, as I’d expected, but across the lake and back to area just to the right of the hide. In fact, as soon as they crossed the line from the hide to the tor, the male (presumably) changed from fleeing to defending. This can be see in the photo below if you click to enlarge.

The tor with grebes in the foreground. The left of the pair has just turned round to repel another grebe which had chased them off.

I discovered later that this was only one skirmish in a longer-running battle. By the time I returned the following week, order had been restored – but there had been a dramatic shift in territories, and I can only infer what had happened. The pair which was based to the right of the hide now seemed to have the freedom of the near half of the lake. Towards the far end of the lake, to the left, another pair was bobbing on the lake, calmly asleep.

What battles had taken place? Who had won? And which grebe was where? The simplest assumption may be that the wintering grebes, to the left of the lake, had been ousted, and they may have then settled at the back of the lake, territory that had been vacated by one of the earlier grebes not returning after the snow. I would have to interview the grebes themselves to produce a more reliable picture!

The advantage of this new arrangement, from my perspective anyway, is that the hide pair are freer to live their lives in front of the hide, without being chased off by the other pair. Take, for example, one extraordinary attempt at fishing….

Ambition

Oh blast

How on earth the grebe thought it would swallow that size of fish beats me! – and I was hardly surprised when it dropped its potential prize.

The grebes have been amorous all month and would regularly re-unite after a long separation of, say, half an hour, with prodigious headshaking and neck-bending.

The hide pair in the midst of one of their frequent courtship rituals.

I’ve not yet seen a full weed-dance this year in clear view – but came close last week.

Much splashing accompanied the grebes coming together.

“Darling, you’re so romantic, you’ve brought me weed!”

Only one of the pair had brought weed, so the dance ended fairly quickly.

Earlier this week I saw a territorial encounter between two of the grebes, on the far left of the lake, near where the two pairs had been displaying previously, and which confirmed my suspicions about the new territories.

Two of the grebes on the lake square up to each other.

It was only when I looked at the photos below carefully that I realised how far the left grebe had advanced, and how far the right grebe had had to back-paddle! I expected a full-blown fight but the left grebe dived away. He returned to his base, to the right of his hide, and a bit later he and his mate surveyed the territory where the stand-off had taken place, while the grebe that retreated remained a short way off, affecting a lack of interest. The re-configured territories are as I suspected: the hide pair now has the full width of the lake near the hide.

Much as I’m biased towards the grebes, there’s been plenty of other interesting wildlife on the lake. Earlier in the month another birder told me three whooper swans had been seen on the lake the previous evening – had I seen them? I hadn’t, and as we chatted over the next half hour, there was no sign of them. A few minutes after he left, two whooper swans swam in from the back of the lake – why they hadn’t already left for northern Europe was unclear.

Whooper swan passes one of the grebe pairs.

Whooper swans on the Decoy Lake

However, it makes sense to end this post with a couple of grebe portraits.

Great crested grebe on the Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath

Great crested grebe on the Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath

 

Spiralling around at Slimbridge

When Jen and I went with my mother to Slimbridge, I wasn’t expecting a great afternoon of photography. Perhaps it is better to have low expectations! – in fact, the weather turned out to be ideal (unlike the rather showery forecast), and the wildlife was unusually co-operative. It started with some rather showy pintails – a rather classy and elegant duck – which were close to the hides on the Rushy Pen.

Pintail looking elegant at Slimbridge

We then went along the walkway to the Holden Tower, stopping off at the hides along the way. The showpiece hides at Slimbridge are, unfortunately, known for being distant from the birds – but this was not the case for those along the walkway which were adjacent to a couple of flooded fields. While in one, a Little Grebe swam into view just below where we were sat. These birds are often elusive, heard more readily than seen – for example, the ones on Shapwick Heath tend to lurk in the reedbeds, But this one, having no reedbeds to skulk in, was very showy.

This Little Grebe swam into view just below us and stationed itself there for a while.

Little Grebe at Slimbridge

Eventually the Little Grebe swam further out into the floodwater where it proceeded to dive frequently. Meanwhile a couple of shovelers were spiralling around each other. I ignored this strange behaviour until I realised that I was missing something really interesting. This is a deliberate feeding strategy, designed to stir up debris at the bottom to near the surface of the water, which they could then sift for food. In the photos below, notice the wake from the shovelers which spirals outward from them as they rotate around each other.

Spiralling shovelers at Slimbridge

Spiralling shovelers at Slimbridge

The one slight frustration was a group of redshanks and wigeons, which were beautifully arranged, and ideally illuminated by the cloudy sun – but they wouldn’t smile for the camera when I wanted them to!

Smile,please? Redshanks and wigeons being unco-operative