Tour Report 6th - 9th May

Tour Leaders: Stephen Moss & Graeme Mitchell


Monday 6th May

As it was such a lovely late afternoon, Graeme suggested a quick extra visit as an introduction to the Levels, so at 5pm we boarded our trusty vehicle ‘Thunderbird One’ and dropped down on to the low-lying Tealham and Tadham Moors, below Wedmore.

These are not nature reserves; however, their low-intensity farming regime makes them very good for birdlife. Our first bird was a most wonderful Yellow Wagtail – almost 'canary yellow' in colour. There were many Skylarks singing around us, and just when we were about to move on we noticed a second Yellow Wagtail, sitting on a gatepost, at which point a descending Skylark promptly parachuted in to dislodge the wagtail from its post.

Further along the moors there were Grey Herons and two Little Egrets.

We stopped briefly to listen to the chattering of the herons on their nests in high oak trees, but now the leaf-canopy obscured any views other than one or two flying in. In scrub we also heard Willow Warbler and Whitethroat. We could have stayed longer, but Kay’s supper was waiting!

 Tuesday 7th May

 We made an early start (around 7.30) to revisit Tealham and Tadham Moors, this time in search of a particular rare and elusive species. Having stopped at Jack’s Drove we scanned around and Graeme picked out our target species: a Short-eared Owl perched on a fence post and giving very good ‘scope views’, showing its frosty grey plumage and staring yellow eyes. While we were watching the owl, a Hobby flew past, Goldfinches and Skylarks sang and a single Meadow Pipit gave close views. Then the owl took off and gave us great views as it hunted low over the marshy ground in search of voles, while we also saw a Roe Deer.

Short eared owl

Short eared owl

 We then moved onto the RSPB’s flagship reserve at Ham Wall, just as the sun started to come out. In the car park we heard booming Bittern, Wren, Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Reed Warbler, and our first (of many) Great White Egrets, whose long legs trailing behind made it look like “a swan flying backwards”.

 Walking slowly along the disused railway line which crosses the reserve, we added Garden Warbler, Cetti’s Warbler and Whitethroat to our ‘warbler list’, getting great views of the former as it sat out and sang its rapid, warbling song which sounds rather like a Skylark in its pitch and rhythm. A Hobby briefly flew overhead as the sun began to come out, while the first Swifts also began to appear, along with brief views of two Kingfishers – always a lovely bird to see.

 From the first viewing platform we watched a pair of Great Crested Grebes with four newly-hatched chicks, a pair of Lapwings, more singing Garden Warblers, a Sedge Warbler, more Great White Egrets, a pair of Greylag Geese with goslings, and our first (male) Marsh Harrier. Walking down to the Avalon Hide, we heard a Goldcrest, saw a Roe Deer buck crouched down in the reeds (impersonating a bittern!) and saw a Treecreeper in the wood between the path and the hide. At the hide itself we enjoyed views of Buzzard, male and female Marsh Harriers; and on the way back, three Hobbies, a fly-past from a flock of Black-tailed Godwits, and various dragonflies and butterflies.

 From 12 noon, at Stathe, just south of Burrow Bridge, we heard Sedge Warblers and Whitethroats, and then the distant honking of our main target species, the Crane. We walked along the path and finally got reasonable (though distant) views of three Cranes feeding in a field; these (originally reintroduced) birds are now breeding here so are well-established, but it is always good to come across them as they can be hard to find in this huge area. On the way back to the van we had great views of a perched Cuckoo as it called persistently. Then we stopped off at the Alfred Monument at Athelney where we saw the usual Stock Doves.

 After a fine lunch at the King Alfred Inn, next to Burrow Mump, we headed back north to RSPB Greylake, where the usual House Sparrows and Dunnock were in the car park. Walking down to the hide we heard Reed and Sedge Warblers (later getting a great view of a Reed Warbler). From the hide itself, a fine breeding plumage Little Grebe, male Shoveler, Redshank, distant Marsh Harriers (being harassed by Lapwings) and a splendid Grass Snake swimming just in front; also brief views of a Yellow Wagtail and a Raven passing overhead.

At the Somerset Wildlife Trust reserve of Catcott Lows, the sun came out again to produce a flock of Black-tailed Godwit, several Little Egrets, a fine Greenshank, two male Wigeons, and a nesting Coot.

 Wednesday 8th May

 We drove via Bridgwater to the new Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Steart Marshes, on the other side of the River Parrett. Much sunnier than we expected after overnight rain, the birds were out in force: a lovely singing male Sedge Warbler, several Marsh Harriers, a male Reed Bunting, Linnets and Long-tailed Tits.

From the Quantock Hide we enjoyed close-up views of at least 30 nesting pairs of Avocets, whose elegance contrasting with frantic, noisy activity always makes then wonderfully entertaining. They didn’t disappoint: flying up into the air to defend their eggs and chicks against marauding Carrion Crows (and a passing Marsh Harrier). We also saw some young Avocet chicks, a nesting Oystercatcher, and a delightful Little Ringed Plover, also sitting on eggs on the island right next to the hide, while its mate fed nearby. In the distance there were Shelducks, and a splendid male Peregrine attacking a Buzzard before landing on the ground, giving distant but very good scope views.

 From the main hide, as heavy rain passed through, we saw flocks of Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls, House Martins, Swallows, a single Sand Martin, and a feral (or escaped) Bar-headed Goose, which should be in the Himalayas!

 At nearby Wall Common, an hour or so after high tide, the sun came out again and we saw lots of low-flying Swallows and singing Skylarks. At the sea we flushed about a dozen Whimbrel and a single Curlew, while flocks of Dunlin swirled around in the distance towards Burnham-On-Sea, pursued by a young male Peregrine. Back in the car park we had food scope views of Linnets and another singing Sedge Warbler, before we headed off.

 Having reached the Quantocks just before lunch, we took a short walk along Hodder’s Combe, one of the magical valleys that run along the sides of the hillsides. By now it was starting to rain, yet we still heard (and briefly saw) a Goldcrest, Chiffchaff and Blackcap, amongst the commoner songbirds. A single Wood Warbler perched above our heads and sang.

After a fine lunch at the Plough, the rain had set in, but we still decided to brave the walk back up the path along the Combe, where we came across a Treecreeper, Goldcrest, several more singing Wood Warblers; and after much persistence, a male Common Redstart and male Pied Flycatcher, doing a spot of flycatching – though sadly they remained fairly hard to see – as well as brief views of a Grey Wagtail along the stream, and heard several Cuckoos. But even though the birds (and weather!) did not perhaps perform as well as we might have hoped, the stunning woodland scenery more than made up for this. A return to the Plough for a warming beverage ended another fine day in the field.

Wood Warbler

Wood Warbler

 Thursday 9th May

We started our final morning at West Huntspill church, in more cool, chilly and damp weather – but our moods were lightened by excellent close views of the nesting Cattle Egrets, Little Egrets and Grey Herons (with well-grown chicks) in the nearby heronry. It is still a huge surprise to see such exotic birds as the egrets actually breeding here; a real tribute to the conservation organisations that have helped them.

After a brief visit to the 13th century church, we then drove up the A38 (“the longest country lane in England”) to King’s Wood, Cheddar, where we saw our first Coal Tit and brief views of a Nuthatch. A drive through medieval Axbridge to Cheddar Reservoir, where we had a welcome coffee-stop, and managed to see very distant Black Tern and Arctic Tern over the other side, Great Crested Grebes and hundreds of Swallows and House Martins. But the weather was getting worse, so we repaired to Cheddar Town Centre, where we walked along the lower part of the gorge and had excellent views of two Grey Wagtails, as they perched on the roof of the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company! As the rain began to set in – again – we decided to call it a day and return to Walls Farm, where the tour ended. Our total of 93 species, heard and seen, was the highest total recorded on any of our tours so far, despite the weather!






Graeme Mitchell