For the last few years, at about this time of year I have been fortunate enough to be able to get down to Devon and Somerset, for photographing birds around the reserves I love down that way. But this year other holidays (such as Lindos) have meant no south-west trip. Having seen pied flycatchers at Gilfach Farm, not seeing them at Yarner Wood (Dartmoor, Devon) wasn't so bad, but I still yearned to revisit the Somerset Levels for the hobbies and bitterns.
Hence, the alarm went off at 5am on Saturday morning, and about 8:30am, I was parking up at Ashcott Corner, ready to stroll around RSPB Ham Wall, and if time allowed later, Shapwick Heath. It was breezy but the sun was shining on arrival, and the walk along the path to Ham Wall was lovely - the air filled with the songs of warblers, and within minutes of reaching the reserve, the unmistakeable sound of booming bitterns.
Apparently there was a ring-necked duck on site, but I failed to see it, and I was more interested in scurrying off around the lakes in search of bitterns and hobbies. The reserve was almost infested with dragonflies - I've never seen so many, though a more knowledgeable observer pointed out that the larger dragonflies were almost all four-spotted chasers, as can be seen in the shot below.
The bitterns were booming away frequently, but my attention had diverted to cuckoos calling. Twice, one skimmed the tops of the reeds and landed in a tree, just that bit too far off for a shot, and typically against the sun. Moving to a location where the perching point was lit better, I waited and hoped. No good - waited for a good hour and the bird failed to return, and I was about to move off when a pair of bitterns rose up above the reeds, with one chasing the other.
I had seen this sort of behaviour before, but this lasted longer and was much closer to me. They circled over-head, crying out at each other as they soared around the sky. Like last time, I had the big lens rigged up on a tripod, and took most shots with that, but when the birds went right over-head, I swapped to my hand-held 100-400mm lens, to avoid doing myself an injury.
It was rather tricky though, to retain both birds in the shot, and also to get a focus lock that would keep at least one of them sharp.
Eventually, they dropped down and vanished again into the vast reedbeds, not to be seen (by me) again that day. So I turned my focus back to the cuckoos, which numbered three. Along the path from where I had been stood was a dead tree, and was again favoured by one of the male birds. I relocated there and hoped for better fortune.
I was in luck, as one landed in the tree, but agonisingly, the wrong side of a group of branches, so it wasn't a clean shot. Moving to attempt for a clearer line, spooked the bird and it flew off. And so began several failed attempts to get an unobstructed view of the bird, over the course of about an hour.
I was about to abandon the plan when one landed in another tree behind me, and as before, when I moved, it flew. But this time not far, and to a perch that was obscured by a tree. Hence I was able to approach, drop the tripod to a level giving me a clear view, and take a few shots.
I don't think the bird could see me, but the sound of the shutter meant it looked over towards me, after each burst of its call.
Eventually, it thought better of the noise, or perhaps it spotted me, and flew off, but I'd achieved some shots at last.
I'd also achieved something else, less pleasant. The reserve is quite overgrown in places, with stinging nettles and thistles, which is great for caterpillars etc, I guess. But not great for standing by, and I'd almost got used to being stung or spiked by them, when I was taking pics. Hence, when my legs felt irritated when photographing the cuckoo, I wasn't overly bothered.
Until I looked down that is. And saw a sea of red ants, up both legs to about knee-height! I wasn't being stung or spiked, but being bitten!
I had to perform a sort of Red Indian war dance, or perhaps a Morris Dance, which involved lots of leg-slapping and shaking, to get rid of them from my trousers, socks and within my boots. Must have been very amusing to watch, though not for me, and my legs itched for hours after.
A surprising aspect of the trip, compared to the last time I was there, was the lack of hobbies. I saw just one, throughout the whole day. I'm sure there were more around, but not close enough to interest me for a photo. I had hoped that Shapwick Heath would be better, but it wasn't. In fact, the reserves were really rather quiet in that respect.
At Shapwick Heath, I spent some time in the hide overlooking the main lake, listening to the constant cries of young cormorants, watching occasional flights from warblers, and even more rare, were the bitterns, out looking for food. One even strolled across a gap in the reeds in front of us, but was too quick and well hidden to allow us any chance of a photo.
A final visit to the hide on the other side of the canal yielded a good view of a male marsh harrier, quartering the reedbeds, but by now the cloud had covered the skies and the wind had got a lot stronger.
With tired red eyes, I thought it was probably best to head back home, wishing I was heading the other direction on the M5, as is usually the case. Ah well, maybe next year.