A record haul.



24th & 25th May 2018

 Tour Leaders: Stephen Moss & Graeme Mitchell

Guests: Bel Mooney & Robin Allison-Smith

Thursday 24th May

After green woodpecker in the garden and kestrel en route, we headed down to Tealham Moor, our first visit to the levels. Skylarks were singing all around us, and a sedge warbler chuntered from a nearby rhyne. On the wet meadows, studded with marsh marigolds in flower, pied wagtails came down to feed, along with a very brief view of a yellow wagtail, a buzzard perched on a post, and a few linnets flying up from the roadside verges.

Conscious of the time, though, we soon headed down to the real birding hotspot – the huge area of former peat diggings, reclaimed and turned into nature reserves, known collectively as the Avalon Marshes. Here, in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor, some of Britain’s rarest wetland birds breed in numbers never before known. Even from the car park, we spotted a great white egret – our largest species of heron – flying slowly over the reedbed. A sign of the wonders to come!

We then walked into the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve, following the disused railway line that used to run from Evercreech in the west to Highbridge in the east, via Glastonbury. Immediately we heard both the deep boom of a distant bittern and the classic call of the cuckoo – an increasingly rare sound nowadays. In the bushes alongside the path we heard, and had brief glimpses of, blackcap, garden warbler and willow warbler, each of which has recently returned from its winter-quarters (the blackcap in Spain of North Africa, the other two from south of the Sahara. Chiffchaff, Cetti’s, and reed warblers soon joined the chorus – so already we had heard seven different warbler species! Swifts were everywhere, hawking low for insects under the cloudy skies.

We then spotted the cuckoo, calling insistently from the top of a distant tree, and ma aged to get good scope views of this enigmatic bird. On the water, coots, tufted ducks and pochard dived for food, and we saw two different adult great crested grebes, each with a single, well-grown chick. Reed buntings were also singing – ‘eat my liquorice’ or ‘one, two, testing’, being useful mnemonics for their rather dull but persistent song! Having by now seen several little and great white egrets in flight, we then struck lucky with two sightings of bitterns, the second from the Avalon Hide, where we also watched a third great crested grebe on its nest, and heard little grebes, whinnying unseen like ponies! We also had great views of male marsh harriers hunting over the reedbed.

Walking back to the car park we saw a flock of 15 black-tailed godwits, which stop off here every spring on their way back to breed in Iceland; and Graeme glimpsed three ringed plovers. The final treat before breakfast was two bitterns giving us great views as they flew high over the reedbeds.

After a well-earned breakfast at the Swan in Wedmore, where we saw our only greenfinch of the day, and a few house martins, we headed over to Stephen and Graeme’s ‘home patch’ – a secret corner of the marshes run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust, called Westhay Heath. Between us we have now seen 100 different species of bird here in less than five years!

            On the peat diggings there was a pair of Canada Geese with several goslings, while the lake is home to a pair of mute swans with no fewer than nine newborn cygnets. Just along the path, Graeme spotted a treecreeper, and lots of warblers were singing, including garden, reed, willow, Cetti’s, blackcap and chiffchaff. A female marsh harrier flew past – one of many we would see during the day – and the only butterfly of the day (a speckled wood) was seen.

Reed buntings sang and water rails squealed from deep inside the reeds, a pheasant barked, two stock doves flew past and we heard (and briefly saw) a cuckoo. Dragonflies began to emerge as the temperatures rose, including lots of four-spotted chasers and a male scarce chaser – as its name suggests, a new colonist to this area. Common blue damselflies were everywhere! On the large lake adjacent to the reserve we saw a great white egret and a great crested grebe on its nest.

We then headed south, across the Polden Hills (via a perched kestrel), to the RSPB’s reserve at Greylake. Here we saw dunnock, reed bunting and lots of reed warblers, a moorhen, and a curlew. From the very comfortable hide we spotted shovelers, little grebe, two redshanks, two more curlews, lapwings, a marsh harrier and a real surprise: a red kite, which are quite scarce still in Somerset.

A refreshment break at the famous King Alfred’s Inn by Burrow Mump produced a flyover raven and a singing song thrush; we then headed down to the coast, just as the rain began, to Huntspill Sluice. A slightly damp walk produced a few more species: feral pigeons on the sluice, shelducks on the River Parrett, singing whitethroat (our eighth and final warbler of the day) a calling bullfinch and a swift overhead. We then visited the lovely 14th century church at West Huntspill, listened to the bizarre sounds of little egrets in the rectory heronry, and then we decided to call it a day and head home.

Friday 25th May

A later start, on another damp day, beginning at King’s Wood, on the Mendips. Having got away from the strimmers in the car park, we heard nuthatch in the canopy, listened to some explosively loud wrens, and saw a very tame robin along the path – all accompanied by the scent of wild garlic.

We then emerged out onto the open tops of Wavering Down, where the rain had mercifully stopped! Tree and meadow pipits called from low trees, several whitethroats sang, and a splendid male stonechat (later joined by a drabber female) called at us from the top of a bush – showing off his peachy-orange breast, dark brown head and white collar.

            Meanwhile the songs of several species of songbird floated up from the wood below, as we had great views over towards the Isle of Wedmore and our next destination, Cheddar Reservoir.

            Nestling below the Mendips, this man-made reservoir is always excellent for birds. Our very first sighting was the resident pair of Mandarin ducks – the stunningly colourful male alongside his more subtly beautiful female. There were also young pied wagtails, great crested grebes, a common tern and – oddly – a brood of seven unaccompanied mallard ducklings, looking rather vulnerable with so many crows in attendance.

            A quick walk up Cheddar Gorge produced excellent views of a male and female grey wagtail – rarely can a bird be so badly named! Also a red kite – our second of the trip – over the gorge itself (they must surely nest here soon) and, as we left, a kingfisher whizzed by.

            Even as we drove back to Walls Farm, though, the trip was not quite over: a young male sparrowhawk flew along the road beneath the tree canopy, twisting and turning as it showed off its incredibly acrobatic flight. A lovely end to what, despite the rather drab weather, was a really productive and enjoyable trip, in which we managed to see or hear a grand total of 84 species – a record haul for Somerset Birdwatching Holidays

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail

Graeme Mitchell