Trip report 8 - 10th February 2018
SOMERSET BIRDWATCHING HOLIDAYS TRIP REPORT 5:
8-10 February 2018
Tour Leaders: Stephen Moss & Graeme Mitchell
Guests: Philip & Debbie Cox
Thursday 8th February
After breakfast at Walls Farm, during which we saw and heard the usual garden birds, we headed up to Cheddar Reservoir (Cheddar Tower car park), which nestles in the lee of the Mendip Hills with panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. Immediately we saw the huge flock of several thousand Coots for which the site is famous, interspersed with Great Crested Grebes (almost all now in or coming into their full breeding plumage), Pochards (mostly handsome males), Tufted Ducks, Mallards, Cormorants and five species of gull, including Great Black-backed (a scarce sight inland, though often here) and Common Gull.
We then walked around the 2.4-mile perimeter, hearing the usual common songbirds – welcome signs of spring – together with a yaffling Green Woodpecker (heard but not seen). Two black-and-white species then appeared: Pied Wagtails around the water’s edge, and a splendid duo of male Goldeneyes, which in the absence of any brown-headed females had decided to display to one another. We got great views as one male threw his head back right over his back, while calling softly.
We spotted an elusive Goldcrest, and less elusive Redwings and a pair of Teal in a ditch to one side. Two Ravens flew overhead, calling, and on the other side, near the Axbridge entrance, we caught up with a pair of Mandarin Ducks, the male in his full breeding plumage with those lovely ‘sails’ on his back. Lots more Pochards, and a Black-headed Gull with his full brown hood.
A stop for the loo (and the purchase of mature Cheddar cheese!) in the nearby town centre produced a stunning male Grey Wagtail, still in his non-breeding plumage but showing lemon-yellow underparts and a dark smudge on the throat. He performed beautifully at close range.
Before lunch we drove slowly across Tealham and Tadham Moors, southwest of Wedmore, stopping at key places to scan the flooded fields. To our surprise, the first bird was a Green Sandpiper flying overhead, identified by its piping call and contrasting dark and white plumage. This was the first Stephen had ever seen in winter in Somerset (we usually get them in July/August as passage migrants). A scan produced lots of Mute Swans, Little and Great White Egrets (the first of many!), at least a thousand Lapwings and lots of Black-headed Gulls in the fields, a second Grey Wagtail, and female Kestrel hovering. We also saw several female Stonechats and Buzzards, before we repaired to the Swan in Wedmore for a satisfying lunch, having totted up almost 50 species already.
In the afternoon we visited the famous RSPB Ham Wall reserve, created from scratch from disused peat diggings less than 30 years ago, and now one of the best places to watch birds in the whole of southern Britain. It did not disappoint: lots of Snipe, winter duck – notably Shoveler, Wigeon and Teal – Water Rail and Little Grebe calling (the latter seen later), and two bonus birds from the first Viewing Platform: a flock of about 25 Black-tailed Godwits (usually only seen here in spring and autumn) and a Glossy Ibis, picked out by sharp-eyed Graeme as it skulked in the vegetation. The ibis (a lone bird since its companion disappeared last year) then flew closer and gave us great views. Two Great White Egrets also appeared.
Having discovered that the starling roost had split and was now in two locations, we decided to head into the adjacent Natural England reserve of Shapwick and Meare Heaths. As we walked along the old railway line we saw a male Marsh Harrier, and then from Noah’s Hide (the new and much enlarged one!) we were amazed to see a huge flock of Wigeon – as many as 5,000 birds in all. Amongst them was a single male Goldeneye and about 50 Pintail, as well as singing Cetti’s Warblers, and some more Great White Egrets and Marsh Harriers.
At 4.30pm on a cloudy day, it was time to head towards the Starling roost – or at least where we hoped it would be! We stopped halfway along the path, where we got a good view of the first birds arriving from the east at about 4.45. From these small beginnings, the next 20 minutes saw hundreds of thousands of Starlings flooding in from all directions and dropping down behind the trees to Canada Farm Lake at the western end of the Avalon Marshes. They were accompanied by at least eight Marsh Harriers floating overhead, a single Peregrine and then a real bonus bird – a stunning Merlin, which flew over the flock and then towards us, giving brief but very good views. Soon, the show was over, and soon after we wandered back; though not before seeing Gadwall and Tufted Ducks on the Meare Heath pool, and 6 Fieldfares also going to roost.
Friday 9th February
A chillier and windier day, which did not augur well for our first stop, at Holy Trinity Church in the town of Street. Our target birds were the flock of Hawfinches, part of the autumn 2017 invasion of these impressive birds from the continent. But again, Graeme’s skill at picking out the unusual produced the jackpot: a flock of 11 Hawfinches (our largest finch, with a massive bill) at the top of a bare tree. They then flew around the churchyard, showing off their noticeable pale wingbars and distinctive chunky shape.
Buoyed by our early success, we then headed south to Butleigh Moor, where we found three Little Egrets and another of our target species, six Bewick’s Swans just south of the road running across the moor. Despite having poked their beaks into the peaty soil to feed, we could see the black-and-yellow bill pattern of this delicate swan through the telescope.
For the rest of the morning we remained south of the Polden Hills, a low range that bisects the Somerset Levels into its northern and southern halves. This area is huge, so we stopped at key lookout places to scan. On Aller Moor, by the River Parrett we found a flock of 300+ Golden Plover (a bird now very scarce north of the Poldens) together with several hundred Fieldfares; also 2 Shelduck and – annoyingly – a model Crane designed to lure the real birds (and confuse birders!).
Despite looking at several places, a strengthening wind and even some sleet meant that we sadly failed to connect with the Cranes here – they may be big, but the place where they live is bigger, and they are very prone to wandering! Compensation came in the form of lots of Lapwings, Golden Plovers Fieldfares and Redwings and more Marsh Harriers hunting over the flatlands of West Sedgemoor. We also saw a male Stonechat – one of several of these charming little birds seen during the trip.
Just before lunch we popped into RSPB Greylake – a miniature version of the vast (and inaccessible) West Sedgemoor – where we had splendid close-up views of Snipe, Teal, Gadwall and Wigeon from the hide – and more Marsh Harriers. (Bear in mind that when I first came to Somerset a decade or so ago, Marsh harriers were a scarce visitor and occasional breeder – now they are seen almost anywhere!) Philip also spotted two Chiffchaffs in the reeds outside the hide, and we also saw Reed Buntings back at the car park, where the RSPB puts out seed feeders.
After lunch at the Duck in Burtle (following the Swan yesterday!) we visited Gold Corner, a spot where the River Huntspill broadens out. Lots of Wigeon, several Kestrels and the usual Collared Doves and House Sparrows, but sadly no Goosander.
Needing to get out of the wind, we headed down to the hide at Catcott Lows, seeing Great White Egret, Greylag and Canada Geese en route in Burtle, as well as a Raven’s nest on an electricity pylon. The hide produced hundreds of ducks – mainly Wigeon and Shoveler but also about 50 Pintail; more Marsh Harriers and yet another Great White Egret – they really are everywhere! We spent some time examining the delicate plumage of a posing Wigeon in the sun.
For our grand finale, we headed down to our local patch, a hidden corner of the Avalon Marshes rarely visited by other birders. We hoped to get a new angle on the Starling roost, but at first things were very quiet. However, the skies had cleared, and it was much lighter and sunnier than the previous night, so maybe we hadn’t missed the show. We did see (another) Great White Egret, three lovely Roe Deer, and fresh Badger activity along a wooded drove.
And then, just as we thought we might have missed it, the Starlings swirled right over our heads, then headed back across the drain towards Canada Farm. That was impressive enough, but suddenly – just after 5 pm – the flock returned, and then treated us to the very best display I have ever seen in my ten years of watching this roost. To add icing on the cake, two Peregrines (a small male and larger female) came in and prepared to attack the Starlings but seemed too confused to actually try!
As we walked back, bonuses included Wrens singing (at dusk), a female Sparrowhawk flushed from the woods, and best of all, after dusk had fallen (5.40pm) a wonderful Barn Owl hovering and hunting by a small lake. A great end to an unforgettable spectacle.
Saturday 10th February
The morning began as it meant to continue, with light rain. But our spirits were far from dampened as we headed out to our second patch – the ‘Three Rivers’ area from the Huntspill, via the Parrett to the Brue, opposite Steart Point. The usual Little Egrets, a Great Crested Grebe on the Huntspill, and then below the sluice some Wigeon, Teal and Redshank.
It was low tide, so small flocks of Avocets were feeding along the foreshore on both sides of the River Parrett, together with lots of tiny Dunlins. Despite the rain, a Skylark launched itself into the air above our heads and started to sing – the earliest we have ever heard it here – and we also saw more Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Linnets feeding along the grassy shore. Curlews drifted overhead – some calling – while flocks of Shelducks were on the river itself.
A close view of a male Stonechat was followed by Grey Plover and a close-up view of a Rock Pipit along the rocky shoreline, after which we took a walk out on the muddy area by the mouth of the Brue (wellies essential!). As expected, we flushed about 15 Common Snipe and then hit the jackpot (pun intended) with a single Jack Snipe which flew up from close by. After walking back to the car our tour concluded just before lunchtime.
A quick tally revealed that we had seen no fewer than 87 species, the highlights being Hawfinch, Jack Snipe, Avocet, Great White Egret, Merlin, Peregrine, incredible close-up views of Wigeon, and that lovely Barn Owl hovering at dusk. But of all these, the star bird was a common and much-maligned species, the humble Starling, which graced us with an unforgettable evening spectacle.
Thanks to Philip and Debbie for being such delightful and accommodating clients, and of course to Kay for her splendid cordon-bleu meals!
STEPHEN MOSS & GRAEME MITCHELL
ANNOTATED LIST OF BIRDS RECORDED (87 species)
Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Small numbers in fields en route.
Greylag Goose Anser anser One near Wedmore and a small flock near Burtle.
Canada Goose Branta canadensisFlock on River Parrett.
Mute Swan Cygnus olor Very common throughout the levels.
Bewick’s Swan Cygnus columbianus Flock of six on Butleigh Moor.
Shelduck Tadorna tadornaLots on River Parrett.
Gadwall Anas strepera Seen at Meare Heath and Ham Wall.
Wigeon Anas penelopeSeen at Greylake, Catcott Lows, Noah’s Lake (c5,000), Ham Wall, and on the coast – many thousands in total.
Mallard Anas platyrhynchosCommon, seen at all wetland sites
Shoveler Anas clypeataSeen at Noah’s Lake, Greylake, Catcott Lows, and Ham Wall.
Pintail Anas acuta50 at Catcott Lows and small numbers at Noah’s Lake.
Teal Anas creccaSeen at Cheddar Reservoir, Noah’s Lake, Catcott Lows and along the coast.
Pochard Aythya ferinaSeen at Cheddar Reservoir; Ham Wall.
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula Seen at Cheddar Reservoir, Noah’s Lake and Ham Wall.
Goldeneye Bucephala clangulaTwo drakes displaying at Cheddar Reservoir, one drake at Noah’s Lake.
Mandarin Aix galericulata A pair close by at Cheddar Reservoir.
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollisSeen and heard at Ham Wall.
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus Common at Cheddar Reservoir; also at Ham Wall, Noah’s Lake, and on River Huntspill.
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus One at Ham Wall, from first Viewing Platform.
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea Singles at various sites throughout.
Little Egret Egretta garzettaSeen at most wetland sites.
Great White Egret Ardea albaSeen throughout, including Tealham Moor, Ham Wall, Noah’s Lake, Greylake and near Canada Farm.
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo Seen at Cheddar Reservoir, Stolford, and Ham Wall/Shapwick & Meare Heaths.
Kestrel Falco tinnunculus Singles observed at several sites.
Peregrine Falco peregrinus One seen from Meare Heath track over Starling roost ; two near Canada Farm Starlings the nest evening.
Merlin Falco columbarius One with Starling flock, seen from Meare Heath track.
Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus Males and females seen at most wetland sites; at least eight with Starling roost from Meare Heath.
Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisusOne flushed after Starling roost.
Common Buzzard Buteo buteoSeen at most sites; often perched.
Water Rail Rallus aquaticusHeard at Ham Wall and Shapwick & Meare Heaths.
Moorhen Gallinula chloropus Odd birds seen at Ham Wall.
Coot Fulica atraVery common (2000+) at Cheddar reservoir; also seen at Noah’s Lake and Ham Wall.
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus A flock behind the sea wall on the coast.
Lapwing Vanellus vanellusSeen at most wetland sites and along the coast.
Golden Plover Pluvialis apricariaFlock of c300 on Aller Moor.
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarolaOne along River Parrett.
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinagoSeen at Ham Wall and along the coast.
Jack Snipe Lymnocryptes minutusOne flushed by mouth of Brue.
Dunlin Calidris alpinaFlocks of several hundred along the coast and up River Brue.
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus One flushed from rhyne on Tealham Moor; flew overhead, calling.
Redshank Tringa totanus Small numbers along the coast.
Curlew Numenius arquataSmall numbers along the coast.
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa25 at Ham Wall.
Avocet Recurvirostra avocetta Small numbers along the coast.
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus Common at Cheddar Reservoir, also seen elsewhere.
Common Gull Laurus canus Flock of five at Cheddar Reservoir.
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus Two at Cheddar Reservoir.
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus Several at Cheddar Reservoir; also flocks over Avalon Marshes at dusk.
Herring Gull Larus argentatus Common at most sites.
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia Small flocks around human habitations at several locations.
Woodpigeon Columba palumbus Common, seen daily.
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto Seen at various sites.
Barn Owl Tyto alba One hunting at dusk near Burtle.
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos majorSeveral heard at various sites.
Green Woodpecker Picus viridisHeard at Cheddar Reservoir.
Magpie Pica picaSeen throughout in small numbers.
Jay Garrulus garrulusOne at Meare Heath.
Jackdaw Coloeus monedulaCommon, seen throughout, often in flocks with other corvids.
Rook Corvus frugilegus Common in feeding flocks in fields.
Carrion Crow Corvus coroneCommon in feeding flocks in fields.
Raven Corvus corax Seen at Cheddar Reservoir, over Avalon Marshes and at a nest on an electricity pylon near Burtle.
Great Tit Parus major Common in suitable habitat throughout.
Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus Common in suitable habitat throughout.
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatusFlocks at various sites.
Cetti's Warbler Cettia cettiIndividuals singing at Ham Wall, Greylake and Shapwick & Meare Heaths.
Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita Two at Greylake, by hide.
Goldcrest Regulus regulusHeard at several locations; one seen briefly at Cheddar Reservoir.
Wren Troglodytes troglodytes Several heard singing, including two at dusk.
Starling Sturnus vulgaris Seen feeding in fields; excellent views of roost at Meare Heath/Canada Farm area on both nights. Perhaps 250,000 birds in all.
Blackbird Turdus merula Small numbers in suitable habitat throughout.
Fieldfare Turdus pilaris Seen in hedgerows and fields throughout, with large flocks around Aller Moor and West Sedgemoor.
Redwing Turdus iliacusSmall numbers in fields throughout, often with Fieldfares.
Song Thrush Turdus philomelos Small numbers in suitable habitat throughout.
Robin Erithacus rubecula A few seen (and some heard singing) throughout.
Stonechat Saxicola torquata Several seen at various locations, including males on Aller Moor and by River Parrett.
House Sparrow Passer domesticusSmall groups near human habitation throughout
Dunnock Prunella modularis A few singing and occasionally seen.
Skylark Alauda arvensis Several (including one singing) along coast.
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea Male by pool at bottom of Cheddar George
Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba yarrellii Common throughout.
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensisSmall flocks along and near coast.
Rock Pipit Anthus petrosusTwo along rocky foreshore of Rover Parrett.
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs Small numbers throughout.
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis Small flocks at various sites.
Linnet Carduelis cannabinaSmall flocks alongside River Parrett.
Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes Flock of 11 at Holy Trinity Churchyard, Street.
Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus Two on feeders at Greylake; two alongside River Parrett.