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

Shapwick Heath in the snow

The heavy fall of snow in Somerset last Thursday – over 6 inches deep (15cm) in the front garden of the Vicarage – was timed just perfectly for Jen and myself. As the roads were almost impassable, we took advantage of our free Friday to go for a seven-mile walk. Our route, starting along the back lane to Buscott, enabled us to walk through the Shapwick Heath nature reserve from the east end, taking in a couple of bird hides on the way, before returning to the village along the main road.

We were surprised to find that the canal (aka South Drain) was frozen over, while the much shallower Meare Heath scrape (on the right below) was only half covered.

The Tower Hide on Shapwick Heath.

Pied wagtail with spider

Unsurprisingly, the wildlife was struggling to cope. There was an endearing pied wagtail at the entrance which was alternately hopping around us, and being blown around by the wind. Shortly after we encountered it, it did succeed in finding a dead spider by a gatepost which it made short work of.

I’d expected to see a bevy of wildlife photographers on the reserve taking advantage of the unusual conditions, but in fact there were none. Not only were the narrow approach roads treacherous in themselves, but the yawning rhynes could have easily swallowed a few cars in their gaping maws. We trod on virgin snow on the way to two of the hides, at Noah’s Lake and the Decoy Lake.

I’d expected to see something surprising on the journey, and I found it at Noah’s Lake. The wigeon, of which there were hundreds, were lined up, shoulder to shoulder on the edge of the ice. Normally they would have been swimming in the lake – perhaps, paradoxically, this was the least cold part of the area?

The wigeon, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder on the edge of the ice at Noah’s Lake.

The wigeon were lined up carefully along the margin of the ice

Wigeon on a frozen Noah’s Lake – and only wigeon!

Saying that we were breaking virgin snow is perhaps a little inaccurate, as we noticed on the way down to the Decoy Hide. We were only the first humans… There were plenty of tracks on the path down, that were tantalising hints of the animal life lurking in the woods. Not being skilled in reading tracks, I can only guess at what might have caused them.

Tracks on the way to the Decoy Hide

The Decoy lake itself was suitably cold and wintry! The tor was just visible, a ghostly shape visible through the mist. Much of the lake was covered in ice, particularly at the margins where it was thickest, although the area nearest the hide was free of ice.

Glastonbury tor visible from an icy Decoy Lake

On our way back to Shapwick from the reserve, we passed a stream that seemed to epitomise the coldness of the day… Nevertheless, when we returned to the Vicarage, we were very glad to have made full use of the day.

Snow, ice and a frozen stream between Shapwick and the nature reserve.

 

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.