Grebe chicks, a grass snake and an obliging little egret

There have been some rapid changes on the Decoy Lake during May and early June – although in the middle of May, little of that was visible. The grebes were quite calm, not engaging in territorial bouts – and generally seen singly rather than in pairs. I suspected that they were probably taking turns sitting on eggs, but as the nests were hidden, I had no way to confirm this.


Great crested grebe, looking elegant at the Decoy Hide

Meanwhile, there slithered into view a grass-snake, swimming from lily pad to lily pad, demonstrating why it’s also called a water snake.


Grass snake on the lily pads outside the Decoy Lake.

A week later I went in the early morning and soon discovered that major changes in the lives of the grebes had taken place: the two pairs nearest the hides had both had chicks. Unfortunately the bright sun from the direction of the tor meant that photography was very difficult, and decided to head off to Ham Wall instead.

A few days later I went with my mother to the Decoy Hide. As we walked along the woodland path to the hide, a buzzard swooped along the path and perched on a branch.


Buzzard at Shapwick Heath

On the lake, the grebe parents were entirely occupied in feeding their young.


The grebe parents were very busy feeding their chicks.

This should have led to some great photo opportunities, but for another growing problem – the lily pads, which look pretty, have been spreading rapidly across the lake, and it has become increasingly obvious that the grebes have been avoiding the areas covered by them. As the lilies cover the area in front of the hide, the grebes have retreated to the middle of the lake, which is still lily-free. Still, the sight of chicks riding on their parents was very cute!


The grebe family to the left of the hide


Feeding time for the grebe chicks – one of many!

Other species were also quite active. This pied wagtail flitted by, briefly.


Pied wagtail at the Decoy Lake

Seeing a Great White Egret float in was a lovely sight – although I was less enthusiastic when a grebe family, with their brood of chicks, swam close by – each of which would have been a tiny morsel for a hungry young egret. Fortunately the parents were alert enough to the danger to shepherd their young out of the way.


Lovely to see a young great white egret on the lake – until the grebe family was in danger of wandering a bit too close

By early June, the grebe chicks were too big to piggyback their parents so easily. The family to the left of the hide hung together much more obviously than the family directly in front, and offered many more ‘happy grebe family’ photo opportunities!

“I’m the king of the castle, you’re the dirty rascal!”

Grebe family to the left of the hide

Hobby at Shapwick Heath

In mid-June Jen and I went to the Decoy Hide for a short visit. We were entertained by three hobbies, hawking for dragonflies over the lake – one of which sat in a tree long enough for me to get some photos – although it was much too far away for any good photography (and is notable only because it’s my first photo of a hobby!).

Although the grebe pair to the left of the hide seemed the most cohesive family,it was the one in front where the most fishing was being done for the chicks. (The comparison may well be unfaiir: it may simply be that the grebe families did things at different times of day, and my relfections tend to be based on early afternoons).

There were many fish-laden trips to the chick.

The chick was very alert to the availability of more fish!

They looked very harmonious swimming side by side…

…but it was hard to avoid the conclusion that feeding the chick was a demanding process!

One of the photographic highlights recently was a little egret that flew in and perched on a nearby tree stump.

Little egret on the Decoy Lake

Little egret in alert pose

Little egret picking food off the lake surface


Reflecting on the “Eyes on Wildlife” weekend

The “Eyes on Wildlife” weekend (from June 15 to 17) was great fun, and many people seem to have enjoyed it.

Friday evening in Burtle Village Hall was a sell-out for the evening with Dominic Couzens, the well-known wildlife writer, who came to speak about “Birds Behaving Badly”. We’d expected to hear about bird behaviour, and there was plenty of that – what we hadn’t realised was how entertaining a speaker he is! He soon built up a good rapport with the audience.

We had a meal with the talk, and the combination worked for a relaxed and enjoyable evening. The first course was lasagna, after which Dominic did the first part of his talk. After dessert, and before the second half, I asked Dominic about his faith, and he gave us a really genuine and honest description of his journey: he’d been an atheist at school but it was the friendship of people at the Christian Union that made a real impact shortly after he arrived at university.

Dominic Couzens (front right) fielding questions at the Village Hall after a great talk and supper. Photo: Henry Routley

We learned a lot about bird behaviour! As an example: we learned that at a rookery in windy weather, the dominant birds took shelter low in the trees. However, in fine weather they perched higher up… so they weren’t pooped on by birds above them!

Huge thanks to the Burtle team for this led by Rosemary Tucker and ably helped by, amongst others, Jane Ponsillio, Rosie Tilbury and Sue Ball. Chris Mockridge also brought the audiovisual equipment.

Throughout the weekend, the photographic exhibition ran in Shapwick Church. Much as I like taking bird photos myself, the ones on display were in a different league – they were outstanding! The main displays were provided by Carl Bovis, James Cawte, Dan Hargreaves, Kim Hemmings, Chris Hooper, Andrew Kirby and Colin Lawrence. Their generous contributions were very much appreciated. Several of the photographers arrived on the Thursday afternoon and there was some enjoyable banter flying around: some of them had known of each other via Facebook forums but hadn’t previously met.

Some of the photographers who were exhibiting: Carl Bovis, Colin Lawrence, Andrew Kirby, and Chris Hooper, with Alison Everett who did so much to help make the event happen.

The wildlife photography exhibition just before opening time

For me, one of the most notable photos was one of a stoat running on ice at Greylake: Carl had seen it in the undergrowth, and had set his camera in expectation that it would run out. When it did, he was ready. From this I learned that the ability to anticipate what an animal will do next is a really important skill to learn!

Stoat on ice, by Carl Bovis

Another favourite of mine is an extraordinary action shot by Chris Hooper of two territorial grebes chasing each other. The intensity of the moment is highlighted by the open beak of the chasing grebe and the plume of spray to the left. Chris told me that the grebe fleeing wouldn’t give up and kept going back for more encounters!

Grebe chase, captured by Chris Hooper

The cafe that ran alongside the exhibition was a major part of its success. As Carl Bovis put it, it was due “no doubt in no small part to the delicious cakes on offer for visitors!” Light lunches were served, as well as fresh coffee, tea, scones and cakes – all of which helped to create a relaxed ambience.

Very many thanks to the Shapwick team led by Helen Wade, who was assisted by a large team, including Sue Sellick, Rosie Tilbury and Mary Tucker, as well as Rosemary & Chris Hargreaves, Brian Tilbury, Ann Cattermole, Jan Jones, Ken Wade, Kirsty Sellick, Jo Wright and my wife!

The café and exhibition in full swing

Some wildlife encountered at Muddy Church by the Decoy Lake!

On the Saturday afternoon, we had a Muddy Church – an outdoor variant on Messy Church. Over twenty primary-ages kids came with their parents. Fiona Livesley, our inspiring and indefatigable leader, had devised a really good set of activities for the children as they walked through woodland and meadow to the Decoy Lake. There, we had a picnic, before descending on the Decoy Hide in force – fortunately there were no birders there to disturb at the time!

Children and parents head towards the Decoy Lake on Shapwick Heath

There was an early start on Sunday for a couple of dozen folk, for a bird walk led by Alison Everett. We saw several Great White Egrets – now a regularly breeding colony in the Avalon Marshes having first bred only three years ago – and several Great Crested Grebes with their chicks. After the walk, we went for a full cooked breakfast at the Ashcott Village hall.

Freda Prime and Margaret Trimm and their team in Ashcott produced the full cooked breakfast for 24 on the Sunday morning, which would be a notable achievement for most people, except that it doesn’t quite beat the 70 to 100 they’ve cooked for at the Ashcott Big Breakfast!! They then hosted the evening at the playing field. Many thanks also to them.

The weekend concluded with two Celtic-style services, at Chilton Polden in the morning and on the playing field in Ashcott in the evening. There were two guest speakers: David Maggs, the diocesan environment adviser, and Caroline Pomeroy, the Director of Climate Stewards, both of whom encouraged us to think about and act on our responsibilities for climate and the environment. Rowena Steady led the music beautifully in the church services, and was joined by Andy Savage and the rest of Polden Praise in the evening.

One of the best aspects of the weekend is that it has been a great team effort of the Polden Wheel churches, and I’m indebted to the many who gave so much of their time and energy. I need to give a special mention to Alison Everett, an avid birder herself, who gave many hours for each of the events, particularly the exhibition and the bird walk, and her practical support has been invaluable.Her dedication to the weekend has been exceptional and greatly appreciated.

I hope the teams and all those who’ve visited enjoyed the weekend as much as I have!

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!


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.