Some wildlife highlights

I thought I’d share a few wildlife highlights from the past few months. While none of them merit a blog post on their own, each reflect the beauty of the area.

Blue tit dismembering a bullrush

I was waiting for a grebe to re-appear at the Tor View hide at Ham Wall, when another photographer drew my attention to a blue tit dismembering a bullrush.

Blue tit dismembering a bullrush

I don’t often pay attention to gulls, but this wintering black-headed gull was quite photogenic.

A black-headed gull – not a bird I’d usually photograph but in this setting was quite beautiful.

I had a very pleasant morning birdwatching with Laurie Burn – but despite our best efforts, this reed bunting was our best photographic target.

Reed Bunting on a, erm, grassy plant…

I can’t take any credit for this otter sighting – and it was a short and rather fleeting visit – but any otter sighting makes a trip worthwhile!

So it’s not about the photo but about the animal – otter at Ham Wall

I wasn’t trying to take a photo of a chaffinch at this point – I was merely trying to turn the car around in a gateway – but there it was, in its best breeding finery!

Local chaffinch

There has been a tawny owl roosting in the Poldens over the winter. I’ve enjoyed trying to photograph well it’s watchful if soporific gaze.

Tawny Owl at a local roost

Tawny Owl at a local roost

Tawny Owl at a local roost

Last week I decided to catch a couple of hours at Noah’s Lake on Shapwick Heath. As I approached the reserve I realised there was a small but significant problem: it was shrouded in fog! Nevertheless I ploughed on – and was very glad I did so.

This image may be a marmite photo – but I like the minimalist feel of the foggy lake with the courting grebes in the foreground.

A foggy Noah’s Lake: courting grebes in a minimalist setting!

I probably don’t give enough attention to the commoner ducks… but this tufted duck was perfectly situated on very still water!

Tufted duck on a very calm Noah’s Lake

Cetti’s warblers are one of the harder birds to photograph: they’re easy to hear with their loud, metallic, explosive song, but they usually skulk low in reedbeds and are hard to spot, even fleetingly. They are a bit more showy in spring, though, and this one landed on front of the hide for enough seconds for me to take 4 photos, before it was off.

Cetti’s Wabler at Noah’s Lake

There was a pair of very showy Great Crested Grebes near the hide, which grabbed my attention for a while!

Great crested grebe at Noah’s Lake

Great crested grebe at Noah’s Lake

Great crested grebe at Noah’s Lake

There’s been a flock of cattle egrets in the area for a while now. Some of them are hanging around a herd of cattle on the Levels below Mudgley. When I went there with Mum, the cattle had gone elsewhere but the egrets were running around a rather attractive pasture. Compared to the majestic Great White Egrets, cattle egrets are quite comical in the way they dash around: but if I were a small animal, I wouldn’t want to encounter the beaks of either.

Cattle egrets at Mudgley – very characterful in a beautiful setting!

Cattle egrets at Mudgley – very characterful in a beautiful setting!

Romance, grebe-style

Great crested grebes have a wonderful courtship ritual, often called the weed dance. I’ve been keen to get a good photographic sequence of them doing this for at least a couple of years, and have been thwarted by the usual problems, such as their being too far away, or being partially obscured behind a reed-bed.

Earlier this month I got lucky. As I arrived at Ham Wall, I had a sense that I needed to avoid stopping off at the first viewing platform (which I would usually do) and head straight for the blinds on Walton Heath, on the way to the Tor View Hide.

I arrived just as two grebes were engaging in the head-shaking preliminaries. Then they both dived away from each other (a good sign), before they both surfaced with beakfuls of weed. Then, they rose up, chest-to-chest, feet pattering rapidly on the surface to keep afloat, heads shaking from side to side.

In case you are wondering “Why the weed?” – they’ll use similar material to build a nest. It’s as if they’re saying to each other breathlessly, “Darling, let’s make a nest together!”.

One problem I had was that the angle of the Sun was not ideal so the lighting is quite contrasty in these photos – I’ve done my best to optimise the images, more than I would normally. One advantage of the lighting, though, is that it does show up the water splashes rather nicely.

From walking the nature reserves to caring for Creation

When I mention to Christian friends that I visit the local nature reserves, I sometimes get a response that leaves me slightly wrong-footed. They may say something like, “How good it is that you can get out into open and worship God there!”. It’s a lovely thought, and I do do that occasionally – but when I go watching wildlife, I’m primarily focussed on watching wildlife and not on worshipping God.

It’s quite hard to pray when there’s a photogenic egret just in front…

The reality is that I find it far easier to worship God when I can focus on doing just that, and not being distracted by other things. Otherwise the praying can be a bit like “Lord, I just want to commit to you… hang a sec, Lord, an egret’s just landed in front of me, where’s my camera, back in a mo…”

The more I watch wildlife, though, the more I realise that I can’t ignore the global issues that affect the animals and birds themselves. A small example was given in my recent blog post about Great White Egrets, but it’s a far bigger problem.

The latest information from the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission is that 13% of bird species, 25% of mammals, 33% of reef-building corals, 34% of conifers and 41% of amphibians are threatened with extinction. There are a range of issues that contribute to these depressing statistics: three major ones are pollution, invasive species and global warming. So what should we do about it?

Vine growing up the side of one of the church’s buildings in Martley; we also had one in Wichenford that grew through from next door.

Although global warming has been widely known about for thirty years, I have to admit that my response then was somewhat bone-headed. I even tried to be a Climate Change denier. My argument was that we really don’t know enough about the Sun’s behaviour and its effect on the Earth to rule it out as the cause. This was a weak argument at best and has since been ruled out – but what eventually convinced me was that it’s not just global warming that’s the problem: there’s atmospheric pollution, for example, which is itself a major cause of global warming. It’s effectively the smoking gun. (I remember the discussion that made me wake up to this, and wish I’d had the guts to admit it.)

Despite realising the seriousness of global warming and related issues for at least twenty years, I have to admit that until recently I haven’t done much about it, apart from using energy-saving light-bulbs and driving a fuel-efficient car. Getting married to Jen has made a substantial difference in that area – she’s much more naturally conscientious than I am about acting on what she believes in. We’ve therefore recently decided to adopt a flexitarian diet, which is designed to be environmentally sustainable without going vegetarian. A major part of it is to reduce the amount of red meat that we consume: animal products (and especially red meat) have a much bigger environmental impact than plant products.

Last autumn, I did a series of talks here called ‘Eyes on God’s Creation’, which was intended to be a follow-up to the wildlife weekend back in June. One of the talks was on climate change, for which we had a really good outside speaker. To my surprise we had half the numbers for that than for the previous two talks. While I was reflecting on this afterwards, one person seemed to put her finger on it: climate change makes us feel bad – that we ought to be doing more than we are – and we tend not to like hearing it.

This has led me to begin to write a Lent course on Creation Care. The purpose of Lent is to look at those areas of our lives that are not pleasing to God: if it makes us feel bad, well, that’s part of the reason for the season. While we’ll often do Lent in a way that’s quite personal – which is really valuable and important in itself – looking at environmental issues forces us to see ourselves as part of a society that is causing global ecological problems.

There are several challenges: to make the course relevant environmentally, while being accessible and not too stodgy; and to engage with scripture in a meaningful way that isn’t contrived. We’ll have to see how well this works!

Ladybird encounters

Suppose you want to see a species you’ve never seen before, what would you do? The first step would inevitably involve stepping out into the wilds – of which we have plenty around here. What you wouldn’t think of doing is just sitting at home reading “New Scientist”; or putting your socks on after a shower.

More of that in a moment… meanwhile, my first unexpected encounter was a bit more normal and occurred while I was tidying the border under the long wall in the back garden. The “Rabbit’s Ears” (aka Lambs’ ears) had a lot of dead and wrinkled foliage which looked in need of being cleared up. As I did so I discovered several 7-spot ladybirds. This was exciting because the last few occasions I’ve seen ladybirds they’ve all turned out to be Harlequins, the cannibalistic invaders from the east. I rushed indoors to grab my camera, and then spent a few minutes trying to photograph them. This was more difficult than I expected – they kept moving more quickly than I could focus and react. I realise now that I was probably disturbing their preferred wintering environment – namely, curled dead leaves, of which there had been plenty until I cleared them away. Hmmm – the benefit of hindsight…

Seven-spot ladybird – on “Rabbit’s ears”
Seven-spot ladybird – on “Rabbit’s ears”

A few days later I was in the dining room filling in time waiting for lunch while Jen was feeding Joshua upstairs – or at least that’s my excuse for sitting and reading “New Scientist” for a while. Out from under it emerged a ladybird that I’d never seen before. While I rushed away to find a camera to photograph it, it disappeared. A couple days later, however, it re-emerged, this time on the wrapping of a pack of avocados. This provided an unusual context for doing wildlife photography! Going onto the UK Ladybird Survey website, I discovered that it’s a ten-spot ladybird.

Ten-spot ladybird – not in its natural environment!
Ten-spot ladybird – complete with instructions on how to scoop an avocado

That was bizarre enough – stranger though was what happened last week when I was putting my socks on after having had an early morning shower – and on my foot there was crawling another ladybird I had never seen before. I have the photographic evidence of this incident as my iPhone was within reach – but I can’t quite bring myself to post a high-resolution photo of my toes on the blog! Nevertheless I was able to transport it downstairs and also to grab my camera for a quick session. It turns out that this is another form of the 10-spot ladybird.

Ten-spot ladybird. (I should have scrubbed my hands better after gardening!)

Ten-spot ladybirds, it turns out, are found in quite wide-ranging array of habitats, but prefer deciduous trees and especially sycamore and lime. As it happens, there is a line of lime trees along the side of the Vicarage adjacent to Main Road, which is probably their normal home. The recent storms resulted in one of these trees snapping and falling, and the health of the others is a bit questionable as well, unfortunately. Quite how they ended up indoors does seem somewhat mysterious though, especially appearing in the way that they did.

After photographing them, I carried each outside to a thick bush, which seemed a much better environment for them.

Two-spot ladybird at Shapwick Church

Update 24 March: The good news is that I saw a 2-spot ladybird at Shapwick Church yesterday. It somehow appeared at Messy Church on a brush that was being used for glue… fortunately it walked in the right direction and the two girls there were keen to save it. I carried it out on a tissue.

The bad news is that we’ve had several Harlequin ladybirds at the Vicarage… and then at Burtle Church there was a large colony of them that had been wintering. Note the two commonest forms:ones with about 19 spots on an orange background, and those with two or four orange spots on ablack background.

Harlequin ladybirds in a rarely-used part of Burtle Church

Stumbling along the trail of the Great White Egret

A decade ago, Great White Egrets were a notable rarity. Now they are a regular breeder in the Somerset Levels. The story of this change is fascinating, but it’s one that requires a Europe-wide scope: it’s not just a national phenomenon. Meanwhile, I’ve found that they have presented a photographic challenge which I’ve often failed: despite being large and very visible I’ve had trouble getting decent photographs of them. Over the past fortnight a couple of showy egrets at Ham Wall have changed that.

My first encounter with a Great White Egret was about nine years ago, when I went with my mother to a nature reserve (Ashleworth Ham) a few miles from Cheltenham.They had only recently started breeding in north-west France (in the Loire valley), some distance from their stronghold in SE Europe. This particular individual had been colour-ringed as a nestling, so that its movements were able to be tracked (so it’s known that a few days later it dropped into Catcott Lows, just a couple of miles from here in Shapwick). What intrigued me at the time was the rather different hunting style of the egret compared to Grey Herons – purposeful search-and-pursue rather than sit-and-wait.

Portrait of a Great White Egret, prowling. (Ham Wall 2019)

A couple of years later I happened to spend a week at the New Wine conference near Shepton Mallet. On the day off in the middle of the week I headed off to Shapwick Heath. I had a vague hope of seeing the Great White Egrets that had just started breeding. I was lucky because while I was there I noticed a couple of birders along the track peering into the reeds, and they pointed out the chicks that had been born recently. This was the second of the two pairs that bred successfully on the reserve, which were the first to be born in the UK.

Great White Egret – prowling and alert.

Since moving to Shapwick in 2016, I’ve been amazed how common it is to see Great White Egrets around here – so much so that it’s now rare to go to Ham Wall or Shapwick Heath and not see one. It certainly helps that they are large, showy and fly around a lot; much easier to see than,say, the fairly common water rails that are cryptically-coloured and skulk around the reedbeds out of sight.

I’ve been spotted…

When Jen and I went to Austria a couple of years ago to visit Rachel Olney, we had a day trip to Lake Neusiedl – and I was almost disappointed to find that the Great White Egret was fairly common there. What I failed to realise was that this location has a notable role for the species.

Although it’s found on all five continents (admittedly in low numbers), within Europe this was as far west as it ventured – until very recently. It had been recorded there as far back as 1682, but an increase in hunting in the 19th century led to its disappearance from the area. However, changes in legislation led to protection for its breeding areas, so it was able to return, and in the 1940s there were about 100 pairs around Lake Neusiedl.

The expansion of its range since then has been quite dramatic. It first started to breed in the Netherlands in 1978, but for about 15 years this was an isolated (but successful) western outpost. Its arrival as a breeding bird in France was in 1994, where there are now probably over 200 pairs, and it was from here that the bird came which my mother and I saw. Its first breeding in the UK on Shapwick Heath in 2012, which I saw by chance, is one of a number of remarkable breeding successes for the bird reserves of the Somerset Levels over the last few years, but in the same year first breeding also occurred in Belgium, Germany and Sweden.

The exact cause of this expansion of its range is unclear – whether it is global warming, or reduced hunting pressure, or whether it just happens to have broken through to a new range of suitable territories – or maybe a combination of these reasons. [ref] It does however appear to be very recent. By contrast, another bird which has recently started breeding in the UK – the spoonbill – was well known and often shot in Tudor England, so it appears that they are reclaiming territory from which they had previously been hunted out.

Ham Wall 2019: Herons and egrets usually don’t like each other that much, so it was a surprise when the heron imposed itself that the egret didn’t depart. They also provide a nice size comparison!

Nevertheless, by last summer I felt that these egrets were my bogey birds, photographically. Yes it was easy to see them – but they were usually too far away to be able to photograph well. Also their whiteness posed a problem: I would invariably over-expose. It took me a long time to realise by how much I had to under-expose in order to be able get a decent photo of these or the other egrets around. (I now routinely under-expose by two whole stops.) However, I did have a couple of encounters at the Decoy Hide that led to some decent photos.

The last couple of weeks have changed that with a couple of showy egrets at Ham Wall – one on the way to the Tor View Hide, one from the Avalon Hide.

Great white egret preening – or answering the phone?

In the previous week, an egret landed on the bank of the canal (South Drain) running through the reserve, and I was lining up a photo when it flew off. For once I was able to track it – and the results were much better than I had expected.

Great white egret in flight over Ham Wall

Great white egret in flight over Ham Wall

Great white egret in flight over Ham Wall

One of the curiosities of my observations of the Great White Egret is that I’ve only rarely set out to look for the species – one of these being the first one, the Ashleworth Ham trip in 2010. Since then I’ve almost stumbled across it as I observed the other birds of the area – perhaps taking it for granted, as it’s quite easy to see. But, as I have discovered, the story associated with the species is fascinating and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Birding catch-up

For one or two reasons (one of which is small, cries a lot and is growing fast), I’ve done less birding than usual – but I’ve still managed a few bird photos. Sometimes this has been via a visit to a reserve;at other times we’re going for a walk and then – “hang on Jen, hold the baby, there’s a dipper / kestrel / wagtail over there”.

In August the three of us went to Watersmeet, just over the border into north Devon near Lynmouth. While we walked along the riverbank path, I caught sight of a very obliging dipper – which was very much a ‘hold the baby’ moment!


Dipper near Watersmeet

It soon flew off to a more distant boulder.


Dipper near Watersmeet

In the middle of September, Jen and I went for a walk through the Westhay reserve towards Mudgley one evening. On the way we had a lovely view of a roe deer in the evening Sun.


Roe deer at the Westhay nature reserve

Last month I went to Ham Wall on a day organised by Carl Bovis, an outstanding wildlife photographer who (amongst other things) runs the Somerset Nature Photography group on Facebook. He was also one of the exhibitors at the Eyes on Wildlife weekend!

During the day I finally managed to get a good photo of a cormorant: they’re not exactly pretty birds and generally just look black, and they tend to take a lesser priority than other birds (such as grebes), but this time the lighting was just right to make it look interesting.


Cormorant at Ham Wall

I spent much of the morning hanging out with Chris Hooper and Les Moxon – they’re far better photographers than I am! – but it was enjoyable spending time with them and learning from them. We spent a while at the Tor View hide where a Little Grebe provided much entertainment with its continual activity.


Little Grebe at Ham Wall


Little Grebe at Ham Wall


Some of the wildlife photographers at Ham Wall from the Somerset Nature Photography group. Neil & Jan Fearnley; Chris Hooper; Les Moxon; Carl Bovis.

About three weeks later I went down to Ham Wall for an afternoon trip, and although the weather was good it was less productive photographically… except for some Iberian Water Frogs. As their name implies, they’re an introduced species but they have a certain froggy charm to them – and provide a tasty morsel for the local bitterns and egrets…


Iberian Water Frogs at Ham Wall

While we were in Cornwall, on our trip to the Lizard Peninsula last week, we came across a very obliging kestrel perched on top of a pole (and it was Jen who spotted it before I did!). I was photographing it for about five minutes before it flew off to a nearby fence-post. Although this new perch provided a view of more of the bird, the lighting wasn’t nearly as good as before – as a comparison of the two photos will show.


Kestrel on the Lizard Peninsula


Kestrel on the Lizard Peninsula

Moles and drought – plus a little owl

Just over a week ago, the three of us were going with Katie, a friend from London, along the back lane from Shapwick to Ashcott. I was focusing on Joshua so, if Katie hadn’t exclaimed, would have completely missed an unusual sight: a mole sprinting – as much as a mole can sprint – along the side of the lane. It crossed over and dived into a roadside ditch, just before a van drove past.

For once I managed to think quickly enough and realised that my iPhone was the best chance I had of recording the event.

Mole running along the back road from Shapwick to Ashcott

My delight at seeing a live mole for the first time in my life was tempered by the realisation that its running along the road – as opposed to going along a deep tunnel underground – was almost certainly a reaction to the drought.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that this is happening quite widely. On the Mammal Society’s Facebook page one member (“Bog Myrtle”) reported having come across four dead moles in her travels in West Dorset, and another came across two near Bristol – in both cases, in places where previously they hadn’t encountered any. A local Somerset photographer recently obtained a shot of a fox with a mole in its mouth. It’s not possible to quantify such anecdotal evidence but it does suggest that many moles are suffering badly because of the drought.

Mole running along the back road from Shapwick to Ashcott

I tried a little Internet research but couldn’t get much further than rather general statements. I read that in drought moles are known to head above ground in search of water. I also read that they go down to their deepest burrows, to find worms which have responded to drought by digging deeper. This is a little contradictory and I’m left with a feeling that there’s some guesswork going on.

Seeing this particular mole has prompted me to ask some obvious questions. What if the drought is so long that the worms descend below a mole’s deepest burrows? And what if the ground is so dry and hard that a mole can’t excavate any deeper? Would that not impel a mole in desperation to head in the opposite direction, up out of its network of burrows to find somewhere – anywhere – with food? Even if that meant sprinting along tarmac? And, more importantly, once it does that – what are its chances of survival?

I could easily have missed it, but I haven’t found evidence of research about the effect of drought on moles. This region could present a good one to study because there’s an interesting contrast between the dry Polden Hills, where this mole was running, and the marshy fields a mile away in the Levels, which remain moist not far below the surface. The weather conditions would be almost identical. Maybe this could be a potential project for a field biologist?!

Little Owl near Moorlinch

On a more cheerful note, Jen and I encountered a little owl near Moorlinch a few weeks back. I chanced upon it again a couple of weeks later and, as I happened to have a camera with me, stopped to photograph it. As these were my first decent photographs of an owl, I was well pleased. Nevertheless, I decided that it was worth trying for better photos… so a week later I obtained a pass out from Jen 🙂 and headed back to the Moorlinch area. I did a couple of circuits of the area, and drew a blank. Then I noticed a familiar shape on the top of a small barn, and gradually approached closer. It was a very obliging bird as by the end I’m sure it saw me directly, but didn’t fly off.

Little Owl near Moorlinch

Little Owl near Moorlinch

Little Owl near Moorlinch