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

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.

Three humbugs, with spashes of yellow and red

About ten days’ ago I bumped into Sue Sellick in Shapwick village: had I seen the grebes from the Decoy Hide on the Heath recently? A pair had nested close to the hide, and their three chicks were still young enough to be hitching rides on their parents’ backs. I hadn’t, but I persuaded Jen that we really should go. They were just outside the hide and very photogenic!

Great crested Grebe at Shapwick Heath with a humbug hitching a ride.

The parents took it in turns to carry their chicks while the other went fishing.

The chicks seemed to have insatiable appetites…

There were three little humbugs in all, though usually only one showed at any one time.

Family portrait on a sunny afternoon…

A few days previously I went to Harnhill, in Cirencester, for three days’ retreat. While there I went on a walk over the fields towards Ampney Crucis – and I heard many yellowhammers singing, for the first time in ages. This may be because I’ve not been in typical yellowhammer habitat in a long time, but it’s a nationally red-listed species, meaning that it is endangered because of a serious recent population decline. I was determined to get a good photo, and having spotted a favourite perch of one pair, I went back a couple of times to do so.

Yellowhammer near Harnhill, Cirencester

At the end of last week, while Jen was still in London, I went up one of the coombs on the edge of the Quantocks to try to see redstarts. I wasn’t particularly hopeful of much more than a distant sighting, and in the lower part of the valley the lack of birdsong didn’t improve my outlook. Halfway up, I happened to turn around, just in time to see a flash of red tail feathers fly across the path. It was indeed a redstart! After hanging around for a while I realised I was close to the nest site, and found myself watching both parents while they were feeding their young. Although my camera ended up malfunctioning, it was my best sighting of redstarts, and my first photographic sequence of the male was at least halfway decent!

Redstart in the Quantocks

Wildlife surprises on Shapwick Heath

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Jen and Rachel on the replica of the Sweet Track at Shapwick Heath.

Just over a week ago Jen’s friend Rachel visited us from Vienna. They were discussing what to do, so I persuaded them that it would be a great treat to go on a walk on Shapwick Heath, ending at a bird hide. 🙂 This would give Rachel an experience of the Somerset Levels, by going through woodland and around marshland, and seeing the reconstructed Neolithic Sweet Track. The fact that some bird-watching might happen as well was of course pure coincidence… ahem…

When we arrived at the Decoy Hide,  I gave them a rather waffly introduction to the birds on the lake – many of which were wintering ducks. I also pointed out the great crested grebes, and said that they’re well known for an elaborate courtship ritual called the weed dance, which I had never seen before. Shortly afterwards, Jen noticed that a pair of them were looking amorously at each other. To my astonishment, about ten minutes later this pair rushed together with beaks full of weed, and performed the entire dance in full view of the hide!

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Great Crested Grebes doing the weed dance in front of the Decoy Hide on Shapwick Heath.

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Little egret fishing at Noah’s Lake on Shapwick Heath.

A few days later John Linney came down to visit from Cheltenham. This time we went to Noah’s Lake at the eastern end of Shapwick Heath: there seemed to be thousands of wigeon wintering on the lake, along with a small number of pintails and other species. We had a good sighting of a kingfisher fishing, though it sped away before I could photograph it. There was also a little egret fishing close to the hide, which provided a great photographic opportunity.

As we walked back to the car park we noticed a couple of mid-sized starling flocks flying over. Last week, with Jen and Rachel, we had watched the starlings roosting from Ham Wall, but they had moved away from where they had been earlier in the winter, where they had settled close to the path, to somewhere that looked about a mile distant: it was a bit of an anti-climax. I therefore hadn’t mentioned them to John and assumed that the flocks flying over were merely a splinter group. Then it dawned on me: the starlings were re-locating again, and had chosen Shapwick Heath! Indeed there was a small crowd coming in from Ham Wall with the same realisation. John and I turned back and were almost too late for the best display: but what we saw was the best murmuration that I have seen since arriving in the area. John was delighted by what he saw – as indeed were the groups arriving from Ham Wall.

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Starlings on Shapwick Heath

Both of these experiences reminded me of the unpredictability of wildlife watching – which is a part of the essential charm of it as a pursuit!

Keep clear of that beak…

On the bank holiday Monday, while Jen was preparing for a debate, I went down to the Avalon Marshes in Somerset for a birding trip. Despite the disappearance of a rare bird I’d hoped to see, it was a great trip, because of the richness and diversity of the wildlife there.

Ham Wall

The Ham Wall nature reserve – with Glastonbury Tor in the background.

Ham Wall and the neighbouring reserves are well known for hobbies: small, agile falcons that specialise in catching large insects. Even so, spring is particularly good for them here as it is a staging post on their migration: many of them congregate over the marshes to fatten up before dispersing to other parts of the country. At one point there were a couple of dozen in the air at the same time. It was a spectacular sight!

Neither my photography skills nor my camera were up to photographing the fast-flying hobbies, but the lighting was excellent for an obliging great-crested grebe.

Great crested grebe at Ham Wall

Great crested grebe at Ham Wall

In the afternoon I went across the road to Shapwick Heath – the next reserve along – and spent some time at the hide above Noah’s Lake. It’s a location where odd things seem to happen: I once saw a bat descend from the hide around midday, do a couple of circuits skimming the water immediately in front of the hide, and then return to the roof from which it had come.

Little egret preening

Little egret preening

This time the entertainment surrounded a little egret and a grey heron, which had the same ideas about which three perches were the best hunting spots. The egret would pick first, but then would be ejected a little later by the much larger heron.

The hide was almost directly above one of these perches, which afforded remarkable views of both birds. Although heron normally fly off when spotted by humans, this one was unfazed by those in the hide… and besides, the lake was chock full of fish so there was plenty of reason not to be too fussy about spectators…

Not sure I'd want to get too close to that beak...

Not sure I’d want to get too close to that beak… grey heron at Shapwick Heath

There was plenty of roach in the lake, as there had been at Ham Wall. Getting a whole fish down the gullet seemed a difficult manoeuvre for both heron and grebe, but the end result was the same for both birds (and both fish).

Roach was on the menu

Roach was on the menu for both the heron and the grebe

Floating on the air

Barn owl in a field on the route from Shipston

Barn owl in a field on the route from Shipston

Some of the greatest wildlife thrills are those that come unexpectedly. This afternoon, as I was driving back from Shipston-on-Stour – where I’d had a great day with Will & Anne Neale – I noticed, floating along the hedgerow by the side of the road, an unmistakable owl.

By the time I’d parked and got my camera out, it had flown further off, but remained just within range of binoculars and camera. For a few minutes I was able to watch and photograph it, before it lifted off and sailed over to a field further away.

Barn owl flying along the edge of a field on the route from Shipston

Barn owl flying along the edge of a field on the route from Shipston

Last week I went again to Upton Warren to photograph the courtship rituals of the great crested grebes. As luck would have it, they decided to do so on the far side of a reedbed, so I felt frustrated peering between bullrushes before they drifted out of view. When I downloaded the images, I suddenly realised that the bullrushes, far from being in the way, provided both context and that elusive quality, ‘atmosphere’.

An intimate moment: great crested grebes at Upton Warren

An intimate moment: great crested grebes at Upton Warren (click to enlarge)