world-class birwatching sites
Such is the diversity of birdlife and wildlife in Somerset it is not surprising that the UK’s main conservation bodies have flagship nature reserves across the county.
Depending on the weather, tide times, and what birds are around we will visit a mix of the best of these reserves. The RSPB’s Ham Wall and Natural England’s award-winning Avalon Marshes both renowned for their vast reedbed and marshland complex feature in our excursions, along with the Wildfowl Trust’s new reserve and viewing platforms at Steart Marshes which complements the Bridgwater Bay National Nature Reserve.
Of course our favourite birdwatching sites are our own personal ‘patches’.
Stephen and Graeme have two ‘patches’ which they know with an intimacy that can only come by birdwatching the same site week in, week out; through all the varying seasons of the year. We will be happy to share our knowledge and anecdotes from two very special and very different birdwatching habitats.
Somerset is now the best place in Britain to see – and get great views of – some of the country’s most sought-after bird species and spectacles. What you will see depends, of course, on the time of year, but here are some of the highlights…
The Avalon Marshes are now the heron capital of Britain, with up to seven species breeding here. All year round, great white and little egrets float over the reedbeds, or fish in the watery ditches known as rhynes. In spring and summer, they are joined by flocks of the smaller cattle egret, and the rare and elusive little bittern and night heron. Bitterns, too, are often glimpsed as they fly low over the reeds – though they are easiest to see in late spring when they are feeding their young.
Other waterbirds include the reintroduced flock of cranes in the southern part of the levels, which can be seen all year round; the occasional glossy ibis; and commoner – but still beautiful – species such as great crested and little grebes, and a wide selection of ducks – teal, wigeon and shoveler in winter and garganey in spring. Nearby Cheddar Reservoir provides a winter wildfowl bonanza: with vast flocks of coots, goldeneye and goosander, and the possibility of rarer divers and grebes.
In spring, Somerset resounds with birdsong: up to a dozen different kinds of warblers joining the resident chorus. Local woods are home to woodpeckers, nuthatch, treecreeper and marsh tit, while cuckoos call on the marshes, as elegant hobbies hunt for dragonflies in the blue skies above. And from November to February, you can see the greatest bird spectacle of all: the murmuration of up to half a million starlings as they come in to roost at dusk. This often attracts predators including peregrine and merlin, while marsh harrier is now a common sight all year round.
But the lovely thing about birding in Somerset is that almost anything can and does turn up. Recent sightings on Graeme and Stephen’s local patches have included red-backed shrike, wryneck, water pipit, barn owl, jack snipe, bearded tit, Mediterranean gull, grey phalarope and a warbler so rare that we can’t even tell you its name – but we might be able to show you! Elsewhere in the county, we’ve caught up with hawfinch, dipper, white stork, Iceland gull, yellow-browed warbler and collared pratincole – you never quite know what will be next!
Finally, let’s not forget the other wildlife on offer here in Somerset: roe deer and badgers are common, while in spring and summer the marshes and hills are home to a wide range of butterflies and dragonflies, including large blue, hairy dragonfly and scarce chaser. Weather permitting, our spring and summer trips will keep a close lookout for these dazzling creatures.