Waxwing

Waxwing_at_Bathpool
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A group of these beautiful birds spent today feeding on mistletoe berries in an old cider orchard in Bathpool, just outside Taunton.

I had not seen a Waxwing before, so today was very exciting, particularly as the light was so good and there was the possibility of a good photograph. Waxwings in Somerset are, I think, a very rare event as the few that do make it across the North Sea are usually to be found along the east coast from East Anglia up to Scotland. For them to be this far west may well be due to the poor berry crop this winter. There normal diet when they are here is rowan, hawthorn, cotoneaster and rose. They may have been on the mistletoe because they couldn’t find anything more palatable.

According to the RSPB, birds that arrive in the UK are usually from Scandinavia and arctic Russia where they breed in spruce and pine trees of the Taiga. In winter, when their summer food of insects has gone, they rely on berries, and their winter distribution depends largely on the berry crops close to their breeding areas. In most years when local crops are good, they will move south and west, but not too far from the breeding areas, and only a small number will be seen in Britain. In poor berry years, large numbers of birds may move considerable distances and this is when we receive an influx in Britain.

It was so nice to be out in the sun again after so much rain.

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A Merry Christmas

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Somerset is fast becoming an inland sea. So with no snow forecast, just more rain and with mud everywhere, I’ve been driven indoors and have had to resort to found objects to pass the time. It has however given me the opportunity to experiment with focus stacking. For those that have not encountered this before (including me until a couple of weeks ago) it is a digital image processing technique which combines multiple images taken at different focus distances to give a resulting image with a greater depth of field than any of the individual source images. Which, in theory, makes it perfect for close-up and macro photography. The problem with it of course is getting your subject to co-operate and stay absolutely still for several minutes; which is why I offer up the humble Teasel, very prickly but absolutely static.

There are about 15 species of Teasel, Teazel or Teazle in the genus Dipsacus. All 15 are tall herbaceous biennial plants growing to 1–2.5 metres tall and are native to Europe, Asia and northern Africa.

The genus name is derived from the greek word for thirst, dipsa, and refers to the cup-like formation made where sessile leaves merge at the stem. (When I’ve finished wrapping presents and making mince pies I may have time to photograph the inside of a teasel head.) According to several sources the hollow cup-like formation allows rain water to collect and this may perform the function of preventing sap-sucking insects such as aphids from climbing the stem. I have no idea how this might work and can find no information that might explain it.

The cultivar Fuller’s Teasel was once widely used in textile processing, providing a natural comb for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on fabrics, particularly wool. It has stouter, recurved spines on the seed heads, making it ideal for the job. The dried flower heads were attached to spindles, wheels, or cylinders, sometimes called teasel frames, to raise the nap on fabrics; to tease the fibres. Some people who weave wool still prefer to use teasels for raising the nap, claiming that the results are better; in particular, if a teasel meets serious resistance in the fabric, it will break, whereas a metal tool would rip the cloth.

We plan to grow them in the garden next year; partly for their beauty, but mainly because they are an excellent source of summer nectar and pollen for insects and autumn seeds for birds.

Well that’s it until some time after the Queen’s Speech. I hope everyone has a wonderful time and I do hope it stops raining soon.

Bittern at Ham Wall

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Ham Wall is part of an internationally important wetland project just west of Glastonbury, on the Somerset Levels. Created from worked-out peat diggings it forms an extraordinarily beautiful habitat of reed beds, wet scrub, wet woodland and open water. It is home to a wide variety of birds, some rare, as well as marsh orchids, dragonflies, otters and water voles.

One of the rarest of the water birds and evidence of the success of the wetlands project is the Bittern. A member of the heron family, it is shy, secretive and difficult to see even when it hunts for fish along the waters edge with its pale buff brown plumage blending with the reeds behind. The Bittern was on the edge of extinction in the 1990s with a population of just 11 birds. The RSPB estimate the current population to be in the region of 100 birds so it is hardly out of danger. But projects like Ham Wall, Westhay, Lakenheath and their like are making a major contribution to the Bittern’s recovery.

Like so many of our most extraordinary birds it was once common across the UK and like many other birds that are now rare, or extinct, its numbers began to fall in the middle ages when it was hunted for the table; it was considered a delicacy at Tudor banquets. In the 18th and 19th centuries a rise in the popularity of taxidermy combined with the draining of England’s wetlands devastated the surviving population until in 1886 the Bittern had disappeared from Britain.

The 20th century saw the return of a small population which amounted to 60 birds by the 1950s. But by 1997 pollution had destroyed the habitats and the population crashed, again.

These are, hopefully, more enlightened times and the RSPB, with the assistance of European funding, has created a research programme that has revealed just how delicate the relationship between reed bed conditions and Bittern numbers are. Bitterns prefer wet reed beds, where they can fish easily without being seen. As water levels rise and fall over the seasons, large open wetlands allow mud to build up in small areas drying out the reed bed whilst new wet areas form as water channels change. This way the Bittern always has hunting and nesting areas. In closed wetland reserves there is little opportunity for this natural process to occur, so the RSPB along with the Somerset Wildlife Trust and Natural England are managing their sites so that they mimic the natural ebb and flow of a wild wetland.

Bitterns are polygamous, with one male having several females dotted through the reed beds and it is the male’s remarkable foghorn-like booming call as he declares dominion over his territory that makes this plump little heron such an iconic wetland species.

We were photographing a Great White Egret when this little chap appeared briefly. I had only enough time to swing the camera around and refocus. I was almost too excited to remember to press the shutter. Hopefully next time I will be more prepared and will be able to record more of this remarkable birds behaviour.

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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