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Monday, 31 December 2018

My Top 100 photo's of 2018, plus a month by month guide to my eventful nature year!

So another year comes to an end, and it's time to look back at 2018 and my own personal nature highlights, plus a collection of my favourite 100 photo's taken during the year!
   As usual, it's taken a long time to whittle the pics down to 100, the first draft had over 200, so I've had to be ruthless!
  First I will post a month to month guide to what has been quite an eventful year for me, nature-wise!
Unsurprisingly, I will start with January and go through to December as I'm a predictable kind of guy! :D


The year started in it's usual way, with a walk around my Somerset village to see as many birds as I could to get my new 'Year list' off to a decent start! I wanted to beat the previous years record of 151 species, and by the end of the year I had done just that, registering a none-to shabby haul of 162 species. Other people will have numbers into the 300s, but these are proper 'twitchers' with too much money and time on their hands! ;)
  Most of these birds were seen in and around Somerset only, as I went about my days!

January highlights included my first visit to Bowling Green Marsh in Devon, where I saw my first Avocets on the mud-flats!
Great birds seen during the month included Hawfinch, Red Breasted Merganser, Black Redstart and my first ever Green Winged Teal.
 I also managed to photograph a stooping Peregrine Falcon at RSPB Greylake in Somerset that proved very popular on my social media accounts and was used by the BBC on theirs!


The most notable 'highlight' of February was actually a major lowlight! My Sigma 150-600mm lens developed a fault and would not focus on my Nikon D500 camera.
Instead I used my old Nikon 70-300mm VR lens for a while, and it was actually a blessing in disguise when I used it to capture a Black Redstart in flight about to catch a fly at Brean Down in Somerset! This would eventually be voted by my 15,000 Twitter followers as their favourite photo I'd taken of the year!

Good birds seen during the month included Ring Necked Duck, Bewicks Swan and Water Rail.


March was all about 'The Beast from the East'!
An Icy Arctic blast that hit the UK covering everywhere in a blanket of snow and ice for a few days, even the Somerset Levels where I live, a lowland place that usually escapes any snow!
 My garden had visits from Fieldfares and Redwings (Pic Below) for the first time ever! As the snows had come late in the year, these Winter visiting Thrushes had already eaten the vast berry larder our Islands provide and their other form of food, invertebrates etc in the fields and farmland were inaccessible due to the widespread snow-covering. So they made their way to gardens desperately looking for food, and many people all over the Country were rewarded with views of these beautiful birds that they'd never normally get!

Notable birds of the month included Brambling, Pink Footed Goose and Little Owl.


A big highlight of April was photographing a Jackdaw with a sub-lingual oral fistula at Woolacombe in Devon (Pic below)! I was contacted by a student of Dr Jim Reynolds of Birmingham University, who studies this phenomenon, and he put me in touch with Dr Reynolds. According to him, this is the first record of the condition in a Corvid! (Crow species)
A sub-lingual oral fistula is where the skin & muscle of the lower mandible is missing causing the tongue to protrude through the opening & often outside the mouth cavity permanently!
So that was a one in a million photo I managed!


This was the month of Garden Warblers (Pic below)! They were singing everywhere at RSPB Ham Wall in Somerset, but they're very secretive and usually sing from deep in cover! I did get lucky and grab a few shots however. Another highlight of the month was walking with my family at Hodders Combe on the beautiful Quantock Hills in Somerset. I saw and photographed more Garden Warblers, plus 3 classic Oak Wood species, Pied Flycatcher, Redstart and Wood Warbler!


 June offered me my first '15 minutes of fame' for the year!
I had photographed an Albino House Sparrow in my Somerset village (Pic below) and posted it here on my blog. Someone from ITV had seen it and contacted me.
ITV West Country News featured my photo with my name on their bulletins, then I was contacted by BBC Somerset radio to give an interview about the mega rare bird!
    My photo's also featured in in the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph, plus got repeated online all over the world, including South Korea!

 I also took part in the 'Eyes on the Levels' nature weekend on the Somerset Levels, organised by Richard Tweedy and Alison Everitt. My photo's were included in an exhibition of nature photography at Shapwick Church, along with some other local wildlife photographers including Kim Hemmings, Chris Hooper, Andrew Kirby and Colin Lawrence. It was a great success and proved quite popular, no doubt in no small part to the delicious cakes on offer for visitors! :D
 Another great June highlight was a rare Red Footed Falcon at Isle Brewers in Somerset. It was found and originally photographed by Laurie Burn and posted on my Somerset Nature Photography Facebook group, though he mis-identified it as a Hobby! People quickly informed him it was in fact a much rarer Red Footed Falcon (Pic below) and soon lots of birders were descending on this tiny Levels village to see this remarkably confiding bird of prey as it hunted Dragonflies on the wing. Magical!

A baby Water Rail walking about in full view at RSPB Greylake was also a wonderful unusual sighting! Quite a month!

June was also the month of the Puffin!!
July brought my first ever visit to stunning Skomer Island off the glorious Pembrokeshire Coast in South Wales, with huge thanks to Justin Hawkins who invited me along! (Not The Darkness front man!)
This was probably the greatest wildlife day of my whole life! The amount of seabirds, especially Puffins on the island and in the surrounding sea was incredible to witness, and the sound was just as magical! The weather was glorious and I got so many photo's, especially of the adorable Puffins, the real stars of the Island! I also saw my first ever Choughs, amazing birds! The only downside was that the 5 hours on the Island shot by like lightning! It was wonderful to see many Razorbills (Pic below) and Guillimots too!


I liked Pembrokeshire so much, I took my family to Solva near St Davids for a few days break later in the month, and they loved this beautiful part of the Wales coast as much as I did!
  We visited gorgeous Marloes Sands (Pic below), the most beautiful beach I've ever been to, even beating Woolacombe Sands  which I've always loved! It was a glorious sunny day, the water was shimmering and the coastline and rock formations were prehistoric looking, I half expected a dinosaur to run round the beach from the neighbouring coves! It's also only accessible after a half mile walk from a National Trust car park, so the beach wasn't packed like you would expect such a gorgeous place to be in the Summer holidays!
A Peregrine Falcon flew low over head, and the grassy clifftops were alive with butterflies including Painted Ladies, Common Blues and Wall Browns!
A gorgeous place!

  One day we walked to St Davids Head, a barren and beautiful part of the Pembrokeshire coast, and got caught in a rainstorm! I had to strip to my boxers and use my clothes to cover my expensive camera and lens, before preceding to walk the mile or so back to the car-park, half naked and sopping wet! Luckily the camera equipment survived!
It was worth the funny looks I was getting...
  The pic below shows my other half Nick with our Flat Coated Retriever, Charm, before the torrential rain set in!

Other July bird highlights were young Peregrine Falcons at the Avon Gorge near Bristol and views of Sandwich Terns, Little Terns and Mediterranean Gulls at Chesil Beach in Dorset.


August brought my 2nd '15 minutes of fame' of the year!
I'd posted pictures of a Common Seal far up the River Parrett on the Somerset Levels that had been found by Milly Burt, a follower of my Facebook Nature page, who messaged me to inform me. I went out and found the Seal near Burrowbridge, and took some photo's, plus a little bit of video.
The following day, things went crazy! I was receiving messages and phone calls all day long about the Seal! A picture agency wanted me to licence my Seal photos to them, and a Video agency wanted me to licence the Seal video to them. I was also contacted by both the BBC local TV news team and the ITV West Country TV news team, wanting to run the story and use my pics and video!

  I also had both BBC Radio Somerset and BBC Radio Bristol wanting to interview me for their drivetime shows that afternoon! Now, I'm not the greatest talker in the world and I hate my voice, so this idea filled me with dread! However, I was interviewed by BBC Radio Somerset a couple of months ago about the rare Albino House Sparrow that I had photographed in my village, and that hadn't gone too badly, so I agreed to do both of them!
This was way out of my comfort zone, but I enjoyed talking to the presenters, Laura Rawlings and Charlie Taylor, and I only stumbled on my words a couple of times!!
   My Seal story was even mentioned in The Sun national newspaper!

Another memorable August moment was when my friend and workmate Geoff Head found a poorly Marsh Harrier at RSPB Greylake. He phoned me for help and I took a box and some gloves to him and he bravely caught the bird, throwing a towel I'd brought along over it and putting it carefully in the box (Pic below). We then took it to the nearby Secret World Wildlife Rescue Centre.
Unfortunately the bird died there 2 days later, very sad news, but we had tried our best to save it...


September was Grey Phalarope month! Lots of these rare Arctic waders were blown to our shores during the months storms, and one in particular at the Huntspill seawall in Somerset put on a real show! These birds are not afraid of humans, they have probably never seen people before being blown to the UK! As a result I lay down by a puddle that this delightful little wader was swimming and hunting flies on the waters surface of, and took some very close photos and video! At times it was swimming so close that I couldn't even focus on it!!
  One of my photos was shared on the BBC Earths official Twitter account, and since then they have kindly shared quite a few of my pictures!

Other September highlights included a very rare Short Toed Lark (Pic below), also at Huntspill, Hen Harrier, Little Gull, Black Tern and Yellow Legged Gull, plus an extremely close encounter with a very confiding Kestrel at Brean Down!

 I also organised the first get-together of my Somerset Nature Photography Group at RSPB Ham Wall which was a big success! It was so good to meet other local nature lovers!


October was the month I finally produced my first ever bird calendar (Pic below)!
I hadn't realised the hard work involved, nor predicted how popular it would be!
I sent calendars all around the world, and praise for it was universal!
I was truly humbled. Liking a photo and commenting on it is one thing, spending money to own it is something different altogether! I thank everybody who ordered one or more and hope to produce more for next year! :)

Bird wise, nothing could beat the gorgeous Bearded Tits at Westhay Moor in Somerset. They attract a regular amount of birders and photographers, and I managed to get one of my favourite shots of the year of a male in flight!


This month was all about WWT Steart Marshes in Somerset, and of 2 bird species in particular....Short Eared Owls (Pic below)  and Spoonbills!
 The Owls were hunting regularly near the road in broad daylight, to the delight of all the assembled nature photographers and birders. I managed some of my best ever Short Eared Owl shots!
 There were also 3 Spoonbills at the reserve, at Otterhampton Marsh, and one evening I managed to photograph them close to the hide, fishing for shrimps etc in their regular side to side bill motion! I was later contacted by the the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve manager, who asked to use my photo's on their new information boards, to be installed early 2019. :)

I was also contacted by BBC Somerset presenter Charlie Taylor who asked me to go on his early evening show to talk about my photography and how I use social media. This was my 4th radio interview of the year, and I was feeling more confident. I'd been asked to go on radio shows many times over the last few years, including ones in Australia and America, but always politely declined as I have very little confidence in my ability to speak under pressure, and I also hate my voice!
  However, stepping outside my comfort zone this year was quite enlightening, and besides, what is the worst that can happen? You sound like a numpty.....who really cares?!
     Below is the full radio interview!


Finally to December. There were no rare birds during this month, but the common birds I photographed in flight at RSPB Greylake attracted a lot of attention, including Great Tits (Pic below), Blue Tits and Chaffinches! Again a news agency contacted me and one photo of an aggressive Robin attacking a Great Tit was used in a National Newspaper, the Daily Express!

 Another surprisingly popular shot was of a Blue Tit flying away, it's detailed little feet trailing behind it, showing clearly the little pads to aid grip! It quickly became one of my most popular shots ever, attracting 5766 'likes' to date, including, bizarrely, from George Galloway!

Finally I held a progessive poll on my Twitter of my personal favourite 16 shots of the year, and via the original rounds, the semi-final and final, my most popular shot of 2018 was not the Blue Tit feet, but the Black Redstart after the fly, taken way back in January! The incoming Puffin was a close second, and former Housemartins guitarists Stan Cullimores own personal favourite of my photo's!


So that was my very eventful nature photography year!

In addition, my social media accountants continued to grow healthily, and I've been followed by some great people and organisations, both well known and not well known, including journalist, author and Radio 4 presenter Isabel Hardman, aforementioned former popstar and current writer/blogger Stan Cullimore, writer of 'The Thick of it; 'Peep Show' and many others Simon Blackwell, former X-Factor star Kitty Brucknell to name but a few, plus the official accounts of  BBC Springwatch, Natural England, BBC Wildlife Mag, various wildlife Trusts, including Somerset, Essex and Yorkshire, BirdGuides,  well known Conservationist Mark Avery, Birdlife International, Rare Bird Alert , WWT Steart Marshes, Avon British Trust for Ornithology, many radio presenters such as Suzi Mann, ITV Wales  weather presenter Ruth Wignall , artists, bloggers, journalists and many more!

I'm even followed by someone I have not exactly got on well with, Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner, who has invited me to the North Yorks Moors to see for myself what goes on in countryside managed for Grouse shooting. I'm not sure I will take him up on his offer...

But by far the most important people, the ordinary every day Twitter and Facebook users, who interact and support me and my work, and encourage me with their generosity and kindness!
 Thank you so much to all of you!!

I also tried my hand at a little bit of nature video, and my YouTube account became my focus for a while. I hope to do some more filming in 2019!

So now, if you managed to read through the 'War and Peace' novel I've just spent hours writing, I finally present you with my 100 favourite pictures taken this year, In no particular order, but starting with the photo voted number one by my wonderful Twitter followers.....

Enjoy.....and I wish a very happy and prosperous New Year to all of you! :D

MY TOP 100 PHOTO'S OF 2018

I think that's 100.....