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.

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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)

A common grebe – and some other feathers and fur

Having trailed down to Ham Wall last week for a rare grebe, I have to admit that the two common grebe species in this country are more impressive in appearance. I took advantage of a couple of rare days of sunshine and went to Upton Warren, a reserve about half an hour away, beyond Droitwich. A pair of great crested species appear to be nesting near one of the hides, so I spent a while there.

Great crested grebe

Great crested grebe

The grebe pair briefly tantalised those of us in the hide, as they looked like they might do the weed dance – which I would love to see. For a stunning image of this dance, take a look at one by a photographer chum from Blackpool here.

These great crested grebes tantalised for a while but didn't get onto the weed dance.

These great crested grebes tantalised for a while but didn’t get onto the weed dance.

Although I’d gone to look at water birds, I was also captivated by a vocal pair of dunnocks that were flitting around. Every so often they settled on a log pile for a few seconds… so that for an hour I kept kicking myself for missing them, until I got used to their pattern of movements to be able to anticipate what they might do.

This dunnock was showy and vocal - but never settled anywhere for long.

This dunnock was showy and vocal – but never settled anywhere for long.

Snipe are rather common but elusive waders, and I’m almost embarrassed by the number of photos I have of this one bird… but I like this brief interaction with a vociferous coot. The snipe was unmoved.

A snipe is unmoved by a vociferous coot

A snipe is unmoved by a vociferous coot

And, er, then there was ratty…

If it wasn't ratty you'd think it was cute...

If it wasn’t ratty you’d think it was cute…

School days

St. Aidan’s, Darlington. Image from http://www.bbcl.co.uk/.

As it was Schools’ Week at Cranmer, Phil Morton and I spent three days at St. Aidan’s in Darlington. Three years ago it was a failing school, locally reputed to be the worst in the country. Now with a visionary leadership team and having moved into an architecturally impressive £16m new building, it is being transformed into a school with a real buzz in the air.

We were guests of the chaplain, Sally Milner, who enabled us to chat with staff and students. Most revealing were the conversations with some of the year 11s. Asked what had changed most at the school, every single one said either ‘behaviour’ or ‘discipline’. It was striking how they enjoyed having a disciplined environment. In fact, both Phil and I were impressed by the air of calm in the school.

We led an assembly one morning – based around a ten-minute tour of the universe! Then Phil used Psalm 8 to say that the same God who created this magnifient universe is the same God who loves and cares for each individual person in the room. We also enjoyed a couple of “Grill-a-Christian” sessions with two of the year 7 classes – both classes were lively and engaged.

The evidence

Wildlife antics

On Tuesday I came back from St. Aidan’s to find that the bird feeder had fallen off – having little doubt as to the culprit, I thought “Poor squirrel, it must have had a shock”. I then observed the bag of bird seed whch I had carelessly left under an open window.

I present the evidence in the image at left. Note the pile of sunflower seed husks on the floor (lower arrow). Next, note the small hole carefully nibbled in the side of the bag (red circle). Finally, observe the slightly open window (top arrow).

Clearly, while I had been gone, a squirrel had got into my room, sat on the floor, enjoyed a pleasant meal and, when it was replete, departed whence it came. I rest my case.

Sedge warbler, really giving it the chirp, and a linnet who thinks he’s more handsome.

On Saturday morning I made an early start, as I wanted to see how the Great Crested Grebes had done which I’d seen before. Having parked in a side road, I was immediately drawn to activity in the nearby bramble hedge – in particular a very loud, rasping warbler. My identification skills are not great, and for me warblers are at the limit, so I decided to take a photograph for later study. As I did so I noticed a flurry and found myself snapping a female linnet instead. The male posed on a nearby stem moments later. I’d never seen a linnet before – but this one was not difficult to identify! (Back home I discovered that the warbler was ‘just’ a sedge – but I’m unlikely to forget it in a hurry)

The Great Crested Grebe family: three chicks, one hitching a ride.