Trip Report 23-25 March 2018
Trip Report 23-25 March 2018
Tour Leaders: Stephen Moss & Graeme Mitchell
Guests: Helen Taylor and Anthea Bruges
Saturday 24th March
After breakfast, we took a walk around Graeme and Kay’s field at Walls Farm, listening to birdsong. The usual resident birds – Wren, Robin, Dunnock and Wood Pigeon – were singing, but our target was the first migrant to arrive: the tiny Chiffchaff. Sure enough, we located one singing which gave good views – a tiny greenish-yellow sprite hopping about and singing its own name! We also saw a Redwing, Jay, male and female Pied Wagtails perched on the fence, and took a good look at the rookery – complete with Rooks.
We then headed up to Cheddar Reservoir (Cheddar Tower car park), in the lee of the Mendip Hills with panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. Amongst the wintering flock of Coots were two special birds: Great Crested Grebes, many of which had paired up and were performing their courtship rituals; and a flock of six Goosanders – three males (mainly white with dark green heads), and three females (grey with chestnut heads and a shaggy crest). There were also Shovelers, Teal, Pochards and several species of gulls, including Black-headed in their adult breeding (with a brown hood) and immature (with a brown spot behind the eye) plumages.
Walking along the edge of the reservoir we looked down to the hedge line and saw a Green Woodpecker (and Stephen glimpsed a Treecreeper), while a Raven flew overhead calling. By now the drizzle had stopped and the sun was threatening to come out – but given the bitter northeasterly wind it certainly wasn’t warm!
A comfort stop (and cheese-buying) in Cheddar town centre produced a splendid Grey Wagtail (so mis-named, as it is lemon-yellow beneath) perched on a roof by the car park and singing; Graeme glimpsed a Dipper along the River Yeo, but sadly the rest of us missed it! We also saw Moorhen and a Coal Tit, singing its ‘pee-choo’ song from the top of a bush.
Driving across Nyland Moor we saw a flock of Fieldfares and a Pheasant, and then glimpsed a Sparrowhawk and Peregrine en route to Tadham and Tealham Moors, where we stopped to look at the heronry and saw one Heron taking in nesting material, heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming, and saw two more cock Pheasants. Then we had one of the unlikeliest sightings of the whole trip – a Mink, wandering up the lane by the minor crossroads. There was also a splendid Great White Egret, two Buzzards overhead, Meadow Pipits, a singing Skylark and a Little Egret feeding in the rhyne.
After a very nice lunch at the Swan in Wedmore, we reached RSPB Ham Wall by 2.45. There, on the path by the car park, was another Mink – seeing two in a day is put into perspective by the fact that I have only seen about half-a-dozen here in 12 years! The animal was being watched by renowned bird artist Ian Lewington and his partner Debs. Here, Great White Egrets are by far the commonest heron species, and we saw at least four (presumably two pairs) in a reedbed, all looking as if they were prospecting for nest sites.
Cetti’s Warblers and Water Rails called throughout our visit but were typically elusive; Little Grebes were also calling – a strange, high-pitched whinnying sound – a kind of avian ‘my little pony’! From the first Viewing Platform we saw a good selection of wintering ducks, including Wigeon, Shoveler, Gadwall, Teal and Tufted Ducks, as well as a Great Crested Grebe on a nest, Coots, Cormorants, a Little Egret, and about 20 Black-tailed Godwits (all in non-breeding plumage), which had stopped off on their way north to breed in Iceland.
On the second pool there were about 30 Lapwings, and as we walked down to the Avalon Hide we also heard a Bittern booming. From a viewing screen (to be a hide?) we saw Shovelers feeding in their characteristic way, rotating with their bills dipped in the water, and also at least three Pintails including a splendid male.
From the Avalon Hide we had great views of both male and female Marsh Harriers, in flight and perched in the same place (but at different times!) The male has a very pale yellowish head and an eyestripe, making him look a bit like a Lammergeier (a rare European vulture); the female is mainly brown with a pale crown and shoulders.
From the Tor View Hide (the other side of the path) we had good views of Teal, Shoveler, Tufted Duck and Pochard; the Little Grebes proved more elusive – but very noisy! There was also a Heron’s nest in the reeds. On the way out, we saw a brief glimpse of a Reed Bunting, and also Long-tailed Tits.
Our final walk today was into Shapwick and Meare Heath (Natural England reserve) on the other side of the road. Graeme glimpsed a pair of Bullfinches, but sadly they flew off. A female Marsh Harrier and a flock of Fieldfares were the last birds of the day, before we headed back to Walls Farm.
Sunday 25th March
A much nicer day, weather-wise, saw us heading off after breakfast to King’s Wood, near Axbridge, right on the birder with North Somerset and on the slopes of the Mendip Hills. The very first bird we heard was a Nuthatch: singing away with its resonant song, rather like that of a Green Woodpecker, which we also heard. Having had good views of this curious little bird (the only British species able to walk down as well as up a tree trunk!) we then came across a real surprise: at least two male Marsh Tits – only the second Stephen has ever seen in Somerset, and a first for Graeme. These sang their jaunty little song above our heads.
We also heard Robin, Goldfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and then a lovely Goldcrest – Britain’s smallest bird, weighing just 5 grams – which obligingly posed for us. Emerging into the open country of Wavering Down we saw at least five Ravens (possibly more) calling loudly to one another overhead, and showing their characteristic narrow, pointed wings, shaggy neck and wedge-shaped tail – as well as giving that unmistakable call. The open areas were full of Meadow Pipits – including one singing in its parachuting display, and one perched close by, enabling us to admire its slender shape and subtle but attractive plumage.
We then headed down to our second local patch, where three rivers – the Brue, Parrett and Huntspill – meet and come out into Bridgwater Bay. The tide was on the rise, pushing several hundred Redshanks, 20 Turnstones and a Dunlin up onto the banks to roost. We had come hoping to see migrants, and despite the northwesterly breeze one had made it through: a splendid male Wheatear, showing off his yellow-ochre and blue-grey plumage and dark ‘highwayman’s mask’ across his eyes. This perky little bird is the first to return from sub-Saharan Africa; but is at least a week later than usual.
Then, to our surprise, Stephen spotted another bird preening unobtrusively: a Water Pipit, the first he has ever seen on this patch. Through the scope the bird showed its blue-grey head, white stripe through the eye and pale, yellowish-buff around the throat, with no streaks – very different from the usual Meadow and Rock Pipits here. Water Pipits winter in Britain and then head back to the Alps and Pyrenees to breed – the only British species that goes south for the summer! On the Parrett itself, we saw Shelducks, Oystercatchers, Great Black-backed Gulls, Wigeon, Teal, Cormorants, before we called it a day and headed back at the end of the trip.
Thanks to Helen and Anthea for being such delightful and accommodating clients, and of course to Kay for her splendid cordon-bleu meals!
STEPHEN MOSS & GRAEME MITCHELL