Good cameras on mobiles now leave you with no excuse. Get out there and take some great photos.
The floods have returned to the levels, and whilst this is very unwelcome for many of those living and farming in the area, the conditions are more attractive for many wading and aquatic birds. Ducks and geese will relish the additional opportunities. However, birds such as barn owls and kestrels, that depend on hunting small mammals, are struggling to find suitable prey. The area around Kings Sedgemoor now has huge flocks of several thousand lapwing, along with a smaller number of golden plover. A small group of black tailed godwits will usually be seen amongst them. Snipe are exquisitely camouflaged, and hard to spot on the ground, but small flocks will be seen racing through the sky in tight formation, before dropping down to disappear back into the foliage. Wigeon, teal and shoveler form huge noisy flocks on the open water. If a potential threat, such as a peregrine, passes over, all the small ducks, plus lapwing golden plover and godwits, will take to the air in a vast aerial melee, making it more difficult for the raptor to pick a target. As the day moves on, the sky will fill with starlings heading for their roost to the north. As they pass over, you will hear the murmuration, a unique sound, a great whisper across the land.
Some signs of early growth can be seen; snowdrops push their way through wet ground, and other bulbs will soon follow. With continuing mild weather, bumblebees seek out any winter flowering shrubs. On sunny days thrushes, great tits and robins will sing to establish their new territories. This is the time of year to put up nest boxes; birds will be scouting for suitable sites, and this will give them time to get used to a changes in their landscape.
Marsh harriers and hen harrier
Our resident marsh harriers are much in evidence hunting over the moorland and reed beds. Large birds of prey with characteristic markings, the adult female mainly chocolate brown with a creamy yellow cap to the head, the adult male has stronger markings with pale underwings, black wing tips, and brown body, with brown, white and black overwings. They fly with their wings in a shallow V, and are larger than other harriers, the female being larger than the male, as with many hawk species. Both have long tails. During the winter we are very lucky to see a few pairs of migrant hen harrier, slightly smaller than the marsh harrier, the adult female is streaky brown with a distinctive white base to the tail, juvenile birds are almost identical in appearance to the female. The male is an unmistakable striking bird, largely very pale grey, with black wing tips and white base to tail. Harriers survive largely by catching small birds and rodents. The native hen harrier has been hunted to near extinction in the UK, so it is a very rare sight indeed.
Winter mists and frosts provide good opportunities for the photographer. Close ups of dewy cobwebs or vegetation make good subjects. Frost transforms leaves and grasses, especially when sparkling in the bright winter sun. The Somerset landscape is particularly good for misty views, the river valleys are prone to fill with fog toward the day's end, creating beautiful atmospheric scenes. The flooded moors punctuated with pollarded willows provide iconic images of the Somerset levels. The light is generally more interesting early and late, when the sun is low, which helps to define the landscape by casting shadows. The colours at sunrise and sunset are deeper, and often create spectacular effects across the Somerset countryside. Digital photography can get as technical as you want, but the important thing is to develop an eye for the composition, and an appreciation of the colours and shapes. Now that we all have camera phones in our pockets there is every opportunity.
All photographs © Chris Chappell
Lapwings and Golden Plovers