One of the harbingers of autumn

If I had to choose one animal activity to photograph in preference to any other, it would have to be birds in flight. Big or small, they demonstrate a mastery of a substance that we humans barely notice. They make the complexity of flying appear effortless and I can’t help wondering in what other ways they experience the air. How much more intimate must the experience be to sense the movement of air over your wings, feel the lift under them, subtly adjust the primaries and fall out of the sky with no apparent effort.

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I’d gone down to Shapwick NNR late on Saturday afternoon to try and see the wonderfully exotic Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus a recent visitor from Spain which has been on the reserves since early August. Predictably there was no sign, but as a passing birder helpfully informed me “If you’d been here half an hour ago mate, it was just over there and showing really well in the sun”. An hour later with the sun now very low the Ibis returned and started feeding as far away from me as it was possible to be and in the shade of the trees that hung over the bank. I’ve been doing this long enough now to know when I’m beaten so turned my attention to a gregarious flock of Black-tailed Godwits Limosa limosa islandica, that had recently arrived from Iceland. They over-winter on the reserves and are a sure sign that autumn is on the way. They were a welcome distraction from Ibis watching and gave me plenty of opportunities to admire their flying skills whilst trying to anticipate their next move. Of the many shots taken that afternoon I did manage two that were reasonably well framed and in focus.

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I hadn’t appreciated that a bloke with a long lens is automatically assumed to be an authority on whatever is floating, flapping or bobbing about in front of him. Ten minutes after I had arrived I had a birdwatcher on either side of me debating whether the infinitesimally small brown blob in the shadowy distance was a Wood Sandpiper or Green Sandpiper and looking to me for a judgement. It all hangs on a small creamy stripe from the bill, over the eye to the back of the neck, apparently, (Wood Sandpiper, not Green Sandpiper) and a slight difference in size. I could only just make out that it was in fact a bird and not a rat, let alone what sub-species it might be, added to which my species knowledge is at best sketchy. I am getting better all the time (one reason for the blog), but I can still have my wife Jill, the naturalist, in fits of giggles by either completely miss-naming something: the chamomile/comfrey incident still makes me blush or by conjoining two names into one, thus inventing a completely new species. With no clear judgement forthcoming from the ignorant bloke with the long lens, the birdwatchers moved off together none the wiser but clearly bonding.

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Last Dragonflies of the Summer

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It carried on raining heavily here yesterday afternoon, so I didn’t get out with the camera as planned. Millie, Jill, the Puppy and I had to content ourselves with a slippery walk through the woods after work. I don’t mind working in the rain, in fact I rather like it, but you have to have a purpose and yesterday afternoon I couldn’t think of one. Seduced by tea and a warm office I contented myself with an afternoon spent catching up on emails and going through some more of the images from last month. September in our part of Somerset was a glorious month most of which I viewed through the office window whilst ploughing through a pile of work all marked ‘Urgent’. However I did manage to sneak out into the garden and the woods occasionally with the camera and on one of these brief escapes from work I was surrounded by a host of large dragonflies. We get them in the garden all the time from June through to September but never in these numbers; this was a host of biblical proportions. From the lime green spots and large size I think that they were Southern Hawkers which the books describe as hunting well away from water often in woodland and being probably the most curious of dragonflies. I had several exploring my head that afternoon, so I can personally vouch for their curiosity and I was in woodland.

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These are fast flying predators often catching their insect prey mid-air and they are also capable of flying backwards. I assume that the species got the Hawker name because of the similarity between their hunting methods and those of the hobbies who predate them. Early this summer I managed to photograph a hobby having an inflight snack and I’ve included the images at the bottom of this post. The bird was at distance over a lake, so apologies for the quality.

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There were four Hobbys hawking the North Lake at Westhay Reserve climbing high into the sky until they were just dots and then gliding down over the lake at speed. In the last image the wing segments and carapace are discarded – the ultimate fast food.

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Sparrowhawk in the rain

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We’ve had torrential rain all morning which dashed any plans I had to get outdoors with a camera. Our kitchen looks out across the garden at tree height and just as we were sitting down to a soupy lunch our regular Sparrowhawk dropped in. His behaviour is always rather odd. He flies to the tree where the small birds feed – the small birds that vanished immediately he turned up and who have no plans to return until he has gone. He sits on the same branch looking fed-up for twenty minutes or so and then flies off. He is clearly predating the birds as we regularly find the remains further down the garden and we’ve been in the garden when he has taken a small bird so we are confident it is him that’s predating. The kestrels will take small birds but they tend to hunt further up the hill beyond the woods and the local Buzzards aren’t interested. The experience of a Sparrowhawk flying over your head at full tilt before smacking into the hedge your standing next to is difficult to describe – think crossbow bolt and your probably close. Quite what the perching behaviour represents is a mystery. If anyone has an answer I’d be delighted to read it. I managed to get through the side door and get off a couple of shots without disturbing him. Hopefully the weather will improve enough this afternoon for me, the terrier and the camera to go walkabout.