Trip Report 1-3 February 2019
TRIP REPORT: 1st-3rd February 2019
Tour Leaders: Stephen Moss & Graeme Mitchell
Guests: Sue and Tom , Eunice and Roy, Margaret and Richard
Friday 1st February
After a night of weather warnings and snowfalls across much of the West Country, we were rather concerned that the start of our trip might be delayed. But fortunately everyone made it to Walls Farm in good time, and by early afternoon the roads had cleared and we decided to continue with our planned itinerary.
A short drive took us over the Isle of Wedmore and down onto Tealham and Tadham Moors – the ‘proper’ Somerset Levels. Despite a bitter wind we made several stops, and saw a dozen Snipe, flocks of Lapwings, ‘springs’ of Teal, at least two Kestrels and a small flock of Skylarks. Then as we headed away towards Ham Wall we came across first a Little Egret and then no fewer than ten Cattle Egrets, conveniently feeding in a muddy area right next to the road. Excellent views (without even having to get out of the van) meant the differences between the two species were easy to note: the Cattle Egrets’ shorter neck and more hunched appearance, short yellow bill, grey (not black) legs and the first hint of orange on its crown, signifying the start of the breeding season.
Buoyed by this sighting we headed down to the RSPB reserve at Ham Wall, where we saw several Marsh Harriers almost as soon as we arrived. We walked along the disused railway track towards the first viewing platform, seeing various species of duck, Snipe and Little Grebe en route, and hearing Great Tit singing; and from the viewing platform itself we saw Gadwall, Wigeon, Shoveler, Teal, Mallard, Tufted Duck and Pochard, as well Great Crested Grebe, Grey Heron and our first Great White Egret – the third egret species in less than an hour! On the pool opposite (Loxton’s Marsh) we saw groups of Coots and Gadwall – the theory being that Gadwall take advantage of the Coots’ hard work by stealing their food!
Now that the days were getting longer, we had time to stroll out to the new(ish) Avalon Hide, where we were the only occupants: seeing Reed Bunting, Dunnock and Great Spotted Woodpecker on the way, and several Marsh Harriers from the hide itself. We then headed into Natural England’s Shapwick and Meare Heaths reserve, where we immediately came across three very obliging Bullfinches (two males and a female) feeding alongside the path, two or three Sparrowhawks over Meare Heath, and more Great White Egrets.
We then took up our positions to see the spectacular Starling roost – unfortunately no-one had told the Starlings, and although a few flocks did pass right over our heads (from about 4.42pm), the major murmuration failed to appear – underlining the fickle nature of nature! As we began to shiver in the cold, we had to be content with calling Water Rails and Cetti’s Warblers, a flock of 40 Canada Geese arriving on Noah’s Lake, and several Great White Egrets (now almost being taken for granted!), as well as a rather beautiful ‘Red Sky at Night’, betokening a better day tomorrow, weather-wise. Driving back over Tadham and Tealham Moors, past three Roe Deer, and Snipe, Mallard and Lapwing being flushed, we suspected we had missed our chance of any owls, when a Barn Owl appeared to the right of the van as we entered the village of Blackford – a great end to a very good day’s birding; in turn followed by Kay’s splendid and very convivial meal!
Saturday 2nd February
Saturday dawned clear, cold but sunny with a light breeze, as we headed westwards through Bridgwater to the WWT reserve at Steart Marshes. We walked along an icy path to the Quantock Hide (seeing a flock of Golden Plover along the way). From the hide there were fewer birds than usual, but still plenty of Teal, Shoveler, Wigeon and our first Shelduck. Graeme then spotted two of the three long staying Spoonbills out to the left of the hide, and we all had good views; as we also did of the large female Peregrine sitting on the ground in front of the hide, looking as if she had just eaten a large meal – which she probably had! On the walk back we came across flocks of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits, and a pair of Stonechats; another male Stonechat showed much better in the car park.
After a short but rather unproductive coffee spot at Wall Common (the tide was very low, and it looked as if you could walk to Wales via Steep Holm without getting your feet wet!) we managed to get brief but very good views of the Kingfisher that Graeme had spotted along the way in. It was feeding along the only unfrozen piece of water in the area.
We then headed inland to Aller Moor, near the hamlet of Stathe, where we immediately found a flock of no fewer than thirteen Cranes (11 adults, 2 young) in our regular spot – getting lovely views through the scope of these magnificent and stately birds. There were also flocks of Lapwings and Golden Plovers with the sheep, and five Roe Deer (enjoying a rest as they lay on the ground) behind them. This was followed by a well-deserved lunch (and some sampling of the local ales and ciders) at our other usual spot, King Alfred’s Inn at Burrowbridge, just by Burrow Mump.
Our post-lunch visit to Greylake produced the expected wonderful views of ducks – hundreds of Teal and Wigeon and smaller numbers of Pintail, Shoveler, Mallard and Gadwall, along with a few Snipe – the highlight for many was the incredible scope-views of the mauve sheen on the male Shoveler’s head. We also saw a Marsh Harrier, 2 Great White Egrets, 3 Roe Deer and, in the car park, Reed Buntings, House Sparrows and Chaffinches.
Next stop was the Somerset Wildlife Trust reserve at Catcott Lows, though not before our second Kingfisher of the day (also spotted by the eagle-eyed Graeme) just beforehand. From the hide, at least 20 Pintail, lots of Wigeon, and two more Roe Deer. Then we headed for Sally’s café at the Avalon Marshes Visitor Centre, to fortify ourselves with tea and cake before another go at the Starlings…
We arrived at Ham Wall at 4pm, and met the Somerset Bird Recorder Julian Thomas in the car park. We strolled down the railway track to the first viewing platform, with a single Lesser Redpoll along the way; from the platform itself we saw more Marsh Harriers and Buzzards, five Pintail, Little and Great White Egrets and a lone Black-tailed Godwit that flew in and fed at the back of the pool. Time was pressing, so we walked to the second viewing platform, to join a large crowd including our friendly rivals Naturetrek, led by Simon Breeze and Dominic Couzens. Dominic spotted a passing Sparrowhawk, while Graeme countered with four Cattle Egrets flying past! The first Starlings appeared at the back of the reserve at 4.48pm (a few minutes later than yesterday, perhaps because of the much brighter conditions), while several Marsh Harriers floated overhead as if eyeing up a potential meal.
Over the next 20 minutes (especially from about 5pm) Starling numbers built until there were hundreds of thousands swarming around above the trees; although they were fairly distant throughout the numbers were huge, and the crowd went home reasonably happy! We drove back again across the moors, and once again saw nothing of note until just before Blackford village, when two Barn Owls appeared in exactly the same place as yesterday, swooped about with each other for a few seconds and then drifted away.
Sunday 3rd February
Another fine start to the day, with sunshine and very little breeze; and the news that overnight the guests had heard the regular Tawny Owl and heard – and seen – a Green Woodpecker, adding two species to the list!
We drove the short distance down to the Brue Estuary – our coastal patch – where the tide was already well out (high tide being 5.50 am). The walk out to the River Parrett started off a bit quiet (apart from singing Dunnock, two Redshanks swimming in the water and the usual Feral Pigeons on the ‘clyce’); but a male Stonechat livened things up by perching nicely in front of us on a gate. Reaching the Parrett, we saw small flocks of Skylarks, Linnets and Goldfinches along the damp, grassy foreshore, and two Little Egrets.
We then reached the estuary of the River Parrett, where we had great views of the snow-covered Quantocks and Hinkley Point to our left, and Steep Holm and Cardiff to our right – what a contrast! Across the Parrett there were the usual Cormorants, Shelduck, Redshank, Curlew and a few Great Black-backed Gulls, along with at least six Avocets feeding along the foreshore (with a few Dunlin). Stephen also spotted another large female Peregrine (the same as the one at Steart?) On this side, we got good views of a Grey Plover (just after Graeme had noted that there weren’t any!), before Stephen walked into the muddy area by the Brue to flush about 20 Snipe (but alas no Jack Snipe); we also saw a male Kestrel. Tom also spotted a Fox!
Our usual stop-off at King’s Wood Car Park was shortened by the huge number of cars (the place is very popular with dog-walkers and families, especially on a Sunday), so we didn’t manage to see any interesting birds there (apart from a single Long-tailed Tit who appeared to have become separated from his family). So we headed up to Cheddar reservoir, where we had our usual views of the very reliable male Mandarin with the motley crew of Mallards and domestic ducks; lots of Great Crested Grebes, Coots, Pochard and Tufted Ducks; and Common Gull on a buoy.
Our final stop, in Cheddar Gorge, produced our first Coal Tits and Grey Wagtail of the trip, lots of Jackdaws, and a single Feral Goat outside the cheese shop – where plenty of cheese was bought – bringing to an end a very successful, enjoyable and above all weather-friendly trip!
TOTAL SPECIES: 84