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!

Dad, where’s my fish?

For some strange reason I’ve had less time to go to the Decoy Hide recently – but Jen allows me a little self-indulgence once in a while!

This photo summarises the last couple of months on the lake. I was concentrating on the little egret, before it was photobombed by a grebe carrying fish for its chick!

Photobomb by a grebe while I was focussinhg on the little egret!

For once I had the sense to follow the grebe and was rewarded by one of my better feeding sequences.

Meanwhile I was less successful with the little egret photos because I kept on over-exposing – a flaw in a number of my photos this time!

Little egret picking prey off the lake surface

If you’ve ever tried to have a quiet romantic moment with your spouse and then one of your kids bursts in, you’ll feel some sympathy with one of the grebe pairs. They were going through a courtship ritual – in itself very unusual for midsummer, which made me wonder whether they were thinking of a second brood – only to be interrupted by little ‘un clearly wondering what on earth they were up to!

Ever tried to have a queit romantic moment with your spouse when the little one bursts in?

Mummy? Daddy? What are you up to? I’m hungry and need feeding!

Feeding the chicks was the consistent theme throughout the last couple of months – the only difference being the size of the chicks. However there has also been a change in the numbers of chicks: both of the closer pairs started with three but by mid-July were down to two, which conveniently meant that each parent could focus on one chick. The number of herons and egrets around makes me suspect the fate of the other chicks.

Eager chick, eager parent

The family of four opposite the hide

The third pair at the far end of the lake finally had chicks around the beginning of July – but I never saw them afterwards. Given the size of the lake I may simply not have seen them, but as I saw the parents a few times, I fear the herons may have had their way.

The third grebe pair with their two chicks

By mid-August there was only one nearly adult-sized chick left. This could mean one of two things: it could have been a disastrous few weeks for the grebes,or the bigger chicks may have flown elsewhere. I don’t know enough about grebe chicks to know when they disperse – but as they were already easily old enough to dive for protection some while back I am less sure they were gobbled up. In my experience grebes rarely fly, but of the five grebe flights I’ve seen this year, four were on my trip to the lake last week – which leads me to think that the older chicks may just have taken wing and dispersed.

This grebe flew in to have its portrait taken last week

One of my bogey birds, photographically, has been the great white egrets – which are large enough to seem easy to get. My luck changed at the end of June, though, when one arrived close to the hide and started hunting.

This Great White Egret strode around outside the Decoy Hide…

…before striking suddenly

Last week an immature egret showed up close to the hide as well (which you can tell by the all-yellow bill).

Immature great white egret prowling around to the left of the hide

Immature great white egret prowling around to the left of the hide

Finally, a non-bird… I tend not to concentrate on the abundant dragon-flies,  but this four-spot chaser perched on a reed very close by.

Four-spotted chaser outside the Decoy Hide

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

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.

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