Black-headed Gulls

Two adult gulls were enjoying a spot of sun bathing when this first winter juvenile decided to drop in.

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Early Morning at Cheddar Reservoir

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This beautiful Great Crested Grebe was hunting very early on Sunday morning. The reservoir, and much of the Somerset Levels, was covered in a thick blanket of mist which muted sound and reduced the light to an almost monochrome state. We sat as close as possible to the waters edge and watched this one diving for breakfast, hoping that it might surface with another pike. Sadly the best it could find was a couple of minnows.

Little Egret at Steart Point

We spent Sunday wandering around the Somerset levels with the dogs and ended up at Steart Point National Nature Reserve on the south western edge of the Severn Estuary, below Bridgwater. The reserve consists largely of tidal mudflats and saltmarsh, sandflats and shingle ridges and is home to large numbers of wintering and passage waders and waterfowl.

We had not set out with a specific plan and so arrived late in the day and at low tide so the feeding wildfowl were far out on the mud flats and impossible to observe properly. This was our first visit and so we decided to quietly explore the area; discovering in the process enormous quantities of blackberries, something our Labrador Will is partial to, and finally settled in one of the hides overlooking the mudflats to watch for passing bird life. The dogs are well trained and settled down for a nap whilst we stared out across a vast empty landscape.

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Far off across mudflats we noticed a Little Egret hunting. It ducked, hopped and spun as it hunted fish. The distance from the hide was considerable and the light was beginning to fall so these are not of the finest detail, but I offer them simply because the bird was beautiful and alone in the landscape.

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Great Crested Grebe at Cheddar Reservoir

Because of the heavy and continuous rain we didn’t take our dogs up onto the peak this morning, deciding instead to walk them at Cheddar reservoir in the afternoon when the rain had cleared. Fortunately I took the camera and a telephoto lens; never, never, ever leave your camera at home. The reservoir is home to a healthy population of these delightfully elegant waterbirds. Sadly, as with the Little Egrets, they were hunted for their feathers (and ornate head plumes), leading to their virtual extermination in the UK in the 19th century. What we didn’t realise was how ambitious they could be when it came to prey fish. This one has an immature pike in its beak. They dive to feed and also to escape, preferring this to flying. But this one has chosen to paddle madly to avoid having its prize stolen by another Grebe. The 4th, 5th, 10th and 11th images show just how determined the would-be thief was to steal the pike.

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Little Egret at Litton Reservoir

Despite the efforts of mankind and the climate to eradicate these beautiful creatures from our shores, the Little Egret seems to be making a successful comeback.  We see these medium-sized all-white herons, with their distinctive yellow feet and black legs regularly on the levels. This one was hunting around the Victorian reservoirs at Litton and despite my best efforts, proved difficult to photograph. According to Birds Britannica… “the species is still most common as an autumn and winter visitor to sites in south-west England, like the Exe and Tamar estuaries.” In Britain it was a rare vagrant from its 16th century disappearance until the late twentieth century, and did not breed here. There are now small breeding groups in England and Ireland; the first being recorded on Brownsea Island, Dorset in 1996. Since then it has been moving northwards and was recorded as breeding in Berkshire for the first time in 2007.

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The Little Egret was probably common across much of England in the 15th century, but became extinct through a combination of over-hunting in the late mediaeval period and climate change at the start of the Little Ice Age. The inclusion of 1,000 egrets, among numerous other birds, in the banquet to celebrate the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York at Cawood Castle in 1465 indicates the presence of a sizeable population in northern England at the time, and they are also listed in the coronation feast of King Henry VI in 1429. They had disappeared by the mid 16th century, when William Gowreley, ‘yeoman purveyor to the Kinges mowthe’, “had to send further south” for egrets.

Further declines occurred throughout Europe as the plumes of the Little Egret and other egrets were in demand for decorating hats. They had been used for this purpose since at least the 17th century but in the 19th century it became a major craze and the number of egret skins passing through dealers reached into the millions. Egret farms were set up where the birds could be plucked without being killed but most of the supply was obtained by hunting, which reduced the population of the species to dangerously low levels and stimulated the establishment of Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889.

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By the 1950s, the Little Egret had become restricted to southern Europe, and conservation laws protecting the species were introduced. This allowed the population to rebounded strongly; over the next few decades it became increasingly common in western France and later on the north coast. It bred in the Netherlands in 1979 with further breeding from the 1990s onward.

Persuasive Burglar

We have spent a week walking in the beautiful Elan Valley in Mid Wales. Despite seeing herons, kingfishers, kites, buzzards and a goshawk we were never close enough to get a good photograph. On our last day we were exploring in the pine woods above Garreg-ddu dam when we discovered these beautiful insects. Rhyssa Persuasoria (which translates as Persuasive Burglar) is a parasitic species and the largest ichneumon fly (or wasp) in Britain, and one of the largest in Europe.

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Also known as the Sabre Wasp or Giant Ichneumon it is common throughout Europe, Australasia, the Near East and North Africa. We had never seen one before and were amazed by it’s size and beauty. The females can grow to over 40mm plus another 40mm for the ovipositor and despite their fearsome appearance they are completely harmless to humans. But to the larvae of the Wood Wasp, Horntail, Longhorn Beetle or Great Capricorn Beetle this creature is your worst nightmare. Wikipedia describes the predatory behaviour of the female as follows:

The female searches for hosts, which live within fallen timber or other trees. She may detect them through the smell of their faeces, which are sometimes contaminated by fungi, or by sensing their vibrations within the wood. When she finds the right spot she drills deep into wood (which can be inches thick) by its hair thin ovipositor by rotating the two halves backwards and forwards very rapidly. She lays her egg which is deformed into a slender, threadlike shape, on larvae living in the timber, which become a food supply and an incubator for the egg, until it is fully grown. It keeps it’s victim alive as long as possible. Dead larvae rot quickly, and this ruins the meal and the rhyssa persuasoria cannot grow. First the parasitoid eats the fat bodies of the larva, then the digestive organs, keeping the heart and central nervous system intact for as long as possible. Finally, these are consumed as well and the long-suffering victim dies, leaving an empty caterpillar shell in which the victorious insect may choose to pupate.

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We watched them hunting for several hours and managed, with the help of a small reflector, to get this picture of the female drilling down into the wood. If you see them in your garden or in the house, please treat them kindly.

Red Kite at Bwlch Nant y Arian

The Red Kite feeding station at Bwlch Nant y Arian in Wales is a wonderful way to see these beautiful raptors close up. This is a joint project between the Forestry Commission of Wales and the RSPB. Strictly speaking these are not raptors in the ‘Wild’ as they fly in to be fed. But given that this species was persecuted to extinction in England, Scotland and most of Wales it is an amazing privilege to be able to stand at the lake edge and watch these huge birds in flight. Successfully photographing them on the wing is all together another matter… this one was benefiting from a food mugging out of shot.

I am going back to Wales in September and part of the plan is to photograph them in the mountains. Well that’s the plan………….

More information on Red Kites here: http://www.redkites.co.uk

More information on Bwlch Nant y Arian here: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/bwlchnantyrarian

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