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

Romance and trash talk in Grebe World

It was early morning by the lake, and there was a hail shower. It wasn’t the sunny start that was forecast, so I sat back and thought, “no chance of the birds doing anything in this weather”. Then I looked across the lake and saw a pair of grebes in the middle of an intense courtship ritual. Even in the hail! But there was a phase of it that I’d never noticed before and was really impressive.

It started out as a normal courtship ritual…

Then one of them (the male?) shot off, turned round, and showed his wings in a magnificent pose.

The female then approached. Although she looks deferential here, in reality she’s just beginning to dive underneath.

They then finish the display with more courtship celebrations.

It was the triumphalist pose that particularly impressed me. It’s been called the ‘cat-display’, which seems an odd choice of name – but I’d not been aware of it until it was so dramatically displayed in the hail.

Dawn had in fact been much clearer and I’d gone in anticipation of a fine morning.

Sunrise towards the Tor from the Decoy Lake.

The Little Grebes revealed themselves more often by their whinnying calls from deep within reedbeds, but one individual showed itself in the morning sun before dashing off, running across the lake surface (a good trick it you’re small enough and fast enough).

Little Grebe in the morning sun.

Cloudy skies really don’t bring out the vivid colouration – but the advantage is that muted colours are easier to photograph: white feathers are otherwise easily overexposed.

Great crested grebe portrait.

Towards the end of the month I decided to go in the afternoon, on the basis that the lighting would be better. But again I was thwarted by sunshine that was only intermittent, and birds that seemed quite elusive. Nevertheless, a pair of little grebes swam across, showing off the finery of their breeding colours.

Little grebes in breeding plumage

By now there were three pairs of Great Crested Grebes on the lake, but none of them were being co-operative as far as I was concerned! They looked like they’d done their work for the day – that is, until the end, when I had begun to pack up, having removed the camera mount. The pair nearest the hide (but mostly obscured by reeds), swam into the middle and began to display. I then saw another pair had arrived from the far side, and was also displaying, and yet another was performing strange antics in front. I didn’t know which to look at.

It was only when I looked at the photos that I began to understand what had happened. With three pairs of grebes on the central part of the lake at the same time, the displays may have been more about territory than romance. In the photos below, the foreground grebe was expressing displeasure – and probably asserting his territorial boundary.

One pair of grebes is about to start displaying, while another one shows his displeasure.

“OK, lovebirds, watch what I’m doing… this is the boundary of my territory… you wouldn’t want to come to any harm, would you?”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the woods, there was plenty happening there as well. I’ve managed to secure a couple of decent Long-tailed tit photos. This may not seem much of a feat as they are common enough – but they are a difficult bird to photograph because they move very fast, and I’ve regularly failed before.

Long-tailed tit by the Decoy lake

I also came across a wintering chiffchaff, trying to find food in frosty ground, which was probably wondering why it hadn’t migrated south in the autumn.

Wintering chiffchaff, by a stream near the Decoy Lake.

The Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath

Prehistoric trackways, woodland, and a bird hide overlooking a lake: these are some of the reasons why one of my favourite spots around here is the Decoy Lake at the west end of Shapwick Heath.

I initially came across it some years ago on my first trip here – a futile quest to see otters – but even then realised that this particular lake is a good spot for the charismatic great crested grebe. The various routes to it are attractive, either through deciduous woodland or alongside a large reedbed. The woodland also contains a re-constructed trackway that was built around 1500BC, but next to the lake itself is the site of an even older trackway, dated by analysis of the tree-rings to 3607BC. This is the Sweet Track, named after the peat worker, Ray Sweet, who discovered it in 1970.

This year I’ve decided to focus particularly on this patch, and particularly the grebes – partly because my days of chasing rarities are receding 🙂 and partly because it is (for me) a new focus for the birdwatching.

Plenty of ducks wintered on the Decoy Lake this year: pintail at top left, shoveler top middle, the other four are gadwall.

I hadn’t quite realised before that the decoy lake is a good site for wintering ducks. Early in January there were large numbers – surprisingly many shovelers (characterised by their massive bills), and a few of the elegant pintails. The next time I went, towards the end of the month, I was surprised to see very few ducks and wondered where the others had gone. An hour or so later, as we neared sunset, small flocks of shovelers and teal splashed down, and the overall numbers were closer to the previous visit.

It’s easy to overlook tufted ducks as they’re quite common, but this group shows their handsomeness!

These teals splashed down on the lake in the late afternoon.

Great crested grebe with a male gadwall

As for grebes, though, things seemed a bit forlorn. Last year around February I counted up to seven adult great-crested grebes, so when I didn’t see any at the start of my first visit in January, I was a bit concerned. Eventually one emerged from a reedbed in the middle of the lake. I was distinctly relieved! I later saw a second one with different plumage. A couple of weeks later, though, there really was only one – but this one (right, with gadwall) was still in winter plumage, unlike the one below, photographed on the previous visit ten days earlier, had plumage which was more advanced towards breeding. I wondered what had happened to the other one.

I began to hope that the one or two grebes wintering here would be joined by others migrating in from elsewhere, otherwise there’d be much less to photograph and blog! I’d have to wait to February to begin to find out.

Great crested grebe on the decoy lake

A grey winter’s day on the Decoy Lake, looking north from the hide, with a grebe at front left.

Opportunistic egrets

In the Somerset Levels, you don’t necessarily need to go the reserves to see interesting wildlife.

About ten days’ ago I was driving to Burtle church along the road from Westhay, and saw a large number of white birds in a field; as I got closer I realised they were not gulls but egrets – about 40 in all. Then I discovered that the closest ones were cattle egrets – a species which is nationally rare but, having bred at Ham Wall this summer, not uncommon around here.

I came back later that afternoon with binoculars and found only little egrets, so I was worried I’d mis-identified them. But the following day, both little and cattle egrets were present, about 20 of each.

However, it was what they did when they found that a digger was dredging peaty soil from the rhyne (ditch) that was most intriguing…

Herons and egrets amassing around near the digger for fresh peat

While the dredger was at work, several grey herons flew in. Very sensible, you might think – except that, although they breed colonially, they hunt as solitary birds, and really don’t seem to like each other’s company most of the time. But here there were six of them, all waiting for the rich pickings from the stream bed. Meanwhile, the little egrets – a more gregarious species – got to work on the peat dredged previously. In an adjacent field were the cattle egrets.

Cattle egret with frog

The egrets were usually in fields either side of Burtle Road between Westhay and the peat works. Both fields are saturated after the recent rains – the stubble field to the south especially so. While they were probably probing for invertebrates most of the time, one cattle egret caught a frog – which seemed to be an awkward beakful judging by the length of time it took to consume it, but there was only ever going to be one winner.

The next day, driving up to Westhay from Shapwick, I noticed the cattle egrets living up to their name. They were dodging the feet of some bullocks, in order to feed on the invertebrates in the churned-up mud.

Cattle egrets near Westhay on the road from Shapwick

If you’re gloing to dodge between the hooves, you need to know what he’s thinking…

I had less luck when I wanted to show Jen the egrets: just a single little egret. Instead, a large flock of winter thrushes – redwings and fieldfares – enjoyed the feast.

The glossy ibis

As well as the cattle egrets there was a glossy ibis around as well – probably the same one that has been at Ham Wall for most of the past two years. I’ve seen the ibis several times over the last couple of years but only once had a good sighting – but this week I had a far better view from closer range. 

The interesting thing about this particular bird is that it is present all year round. Most glossy ibises migrate to winter in Africa, but this one, along with a handful of others elsewhere in the UK, seems well adapted to winter conditions here.

It would be easy to think that the ibis and the egrets co-existed amicably, as they stride along together, probing the ground for prey  – but it became clear that their company was more one of sufferance than congeniality. When an egret got too close to the ibis, it was rounded on and hissed at. With that, order was restored.

An altercation between the ibis and an egret that got too close. While the ibis hissed, the egret stretched itself to full height.

The glossy ibis with one of the little egrets

Much as it’s exciting to see these species in the UK, they are hardly rare globally. Cattle egrets are regarded as the most widespread of all bird species, and the glossy ibis is also very widespread. Nevertheless – they are an exotic enhancement to the wildlife of this area!

The fields either side of the Burtle road from Westhay (the edge of which is in the distance). The stubble field to the south of the road is on the right in this photo. Even wth the rhynes (drainage ditches) the field is saturated…well, this is the Somerset Levels!

A couple of winter birding trips

Black redstart (female) at Brean Down cove

A few days ago, I took a quick trip to Brean Down cove, to look for a female black redstart that is wintering there. For a while I thought that I was going to miss out, but then she suddenly appeared, very close by. In the normal course I’d have been very satisfied with the photos I took at that point.

I decided to explore some of the rest of the cove and happened to notice a grey heron looking alert on a rock islet on the edge of the shore, so I spent a few minutes trying to capture the scene.

Heron at Brean Down Cove

On my way back I looked for the redstart again in a rather vague and half-hearted way – but then she suddenly appeared, on the end of a nearby branch that had been washed up, even closer than before. I’ve ended up concluding that she was checking me out! I was particularly delighted because this is definitely one of the best photos I’ve taken of a small bird.

Female black redstart at Brean Down cove

On my day off, Jen and I went up to Slimbridge. We knew it would be cold, but I’d forgotten what it was like to have an icy blast blowing in off the Severn estuary!

Many of the Bewick’s swans have arrived for the winter: they are much smaller than our native mute swans, with yellow-and-black bills rather than orange-and-black. They’ve had an astonishing journey to get here, as they breed on the arctic tundra of northern Siberia. Sadly they are declining in numbers all across Europe: 29,000 in 1995, dropping to 18,000 in 2010; there are far fewer at Slimbridge now than there were ten years ago. It’s not hard to work out one of the biggest causes of the decline: of those that are in the UK, 40% carry gunshot. (Their story on the WWT site here.)

Bewicks swans at Slimbridge

We saw several Bewick’s swans on the Rushy pen, where there was also a scarce wader – a Little Stint, which is indeed very diminutive.

Little stint at Slimbridge

The fudge duck at Ham Wall

Seeing a ferruginous duck at Ham Wall brought back memories from when I was about 8 on a family holiday in Scotland. It’s a distinctively-coloured duck which normally lives in south-eastern Europe, but a handful come to the UK each year.

Dad had previously been very excited to see a black-throated diver, which didn’t interest me at all. But a bit later he was also thrilled to see a Ferruginous Duck – pointing out to me the unusual colouring. For some reason that did catch my interest, and the event has stayed in my mind since then.

I’ve wanted to see another one ever since – and dipped ignominiously a few years ago (apparently a female was in full view but I hadn’t recognised it). Thus when a drake showed up a couple of days ago at Ham Wall, I had to go.

Ferruginous Duck with coot and female mallard

I arrived in the hide at about 10.30 to find an array of birders already there. It was all quiet. One guy smiled and pointed into his telescope – and there it was, in full view. He also showed me where to view with my binoculars, and I was able to watch it for about an hour. With its colour it’s not hard to see why it’s called ‘ferruginous’ – the white tail end is also very characteristic.

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck with gadwall

On my way back towards the car I stopped off at the first viewing platform as there were plenty of birds to see. The unexpected bonus was to see the glossy ibis: it’s been at Ham Wall for a couple of years but although I’d seen it several times, I’d never had as good views as I had today. The lighting was reasonably good and the photos below capture something of their iridescence – which leads to their ‘glossy’ name.

Glossy ibis at Ham Wall

Glossy ibis at Ham Wall

An obliging woodpecker – and the day I took Jen on a twitch…

There’s a green woodpecker that turns up on the back lawn at the Vicarage occasionally, and yesterday afternoon it appeared again. Because of the slightly odd construction of the covered area between the kitchen and garage, there’s a convenient half fence that allows me to photograph birds in the garden unnoticed. I used that for the woodpecker, as it bounced around the lawn energetically. Unfortunately it was soon heading exactly in the right line for my cover to no longer work, so that the moment it caught sight of me it flew off agitatedly. Nevertheless I secured a couple of reasonable snaps…

Green woodpecker at Shapwick Vicarage

Green woodpecker at Shapwick Vicarage

One of the local specialities is the number of bearded tits which frequent the nature reserves: dozens of pairs nested at Ham Wall this year. They are notoriously rather elusive, and until last month I hadn’t had a good sighting of one. However, elusiveness does not equate to shyness – a point I hadn’t realised until I was told about the boardwalk on the way to the Island Hide at Westhay. This is where seed is put out for them, which they eat in full view of the birdwatchers around.

Bearded tits at Westhay Nature Reserve

Bearded tits at Westhay Nature Reserve

Obviously a better photograph would be to catch one in a more natural environment – but as this was my first proper sighting of them, I’m content for the time being!

Meanwhile, last month a mega rarity showed up in South Wales, near Abergavenny – in the quarries around Pwll Du. This was a common rock thrush, a bird which breeds on rocky mountain slopes in southern Europe, but should winter south of the Sahara. Why an adult male should head in the opposite direction is something of a mystery. I persuaded Jen that a cold, grey, drizzly day wouldn’t dampen the excitement of seeing such a rare bird – or at least, I persuaded Jen to tolerate my enthusiasm on the matter! We arrived the day after the bird first showed up: over the next few weeks it became bolder and more amenable to photography, but while we were there it was fairly distant even while clearly visible. I did at least manage a few decent record shots!

Common rock thrush, Pwll Du

Common rock thrush, Pwll Du

There’s a nice account of John Marsh’s discovery of the bird here – he’d actually been looking for ring ouzels when he stumbled across it. Unfortunately the bird disappeared a few days ago – I say ‘unfortunately’ because the weather is turning cold, and the bird’s capacity to be sensible and go south rather than north seems a bit limited.

After spending an hour or so admiring the rock thrush and wishing it had got closer, we decided to go for a walk up one of the nearby hills. We chose Blorenge, the hill that overlooks Abergavenny: it is next to Pwll Du and was walkable within the time available. It was cold and damp, shrouded in fog and boggy on the top – but we enjoyed it!

Looking a bit damp on the top of Blorenge