Birdwatching Magazine Tour Report 10th -13th May

Tour Leaders: Stephen Moss & Graeme Mitchell


Friday 10th May

 A rather sharp shower welcomed our group to Walls Farm, which if anything cleared the air and left magnificently clear weather for the next three days. An additional pre-supper birdwatch was suggested by Graeme and was taken up by most of the party, so we went down to Tealham and Tadham Moors, low-lying, non-intensively farmed pastures below the Isle of Wedmore.

All was quiet, aside from a wonderful collection of singing Skylarks, one of which rather obligingly settled on a perch just by the edge of the road giving us excellent views.

There were some distant views of two Little Egrets, a cock Pheasant and hawking Swallows. We stopped briefly by a heronry, but again all was quiet save for a plaintive singing Willow Warbler, and any Grey Herons that might still be on their nest were obscured by the leaf canopy which was now completely unfurled.

Kay’s supper beckoned, so we did not linger.

 Saturday 11th May

 The day dawned bright, sunny but rather cool, after bad weather for the previous few days. An early start saw us out on Tealham and Tadham Moors, an area of unimproved (i.e. wildlife-friendly) farmland which floods in winter and remains damp throughout spring and summer, providing ideal breeding habitat. Skylarks were singing everywhere, along with a single Meadow Pipit, while a male Marsh Harrier (the first of many today!) flew past in the distance.

 We then headed down to the RSPB’s flagship reserve at Ham Wall, and walked along the disused railway line that now serves as a footpath and vantage-point to look across this vast area of reedbeds and pools, lined with vegetation – ideal for warblers. We had eight target species to see, and immediately heard Willow Warbler and Blackcap, swiftly followed by chuntering Reed Warbler, scratchy Whitethroat, repetitive Chiffchaff and a loud and unmistakable Cetti’s. Graeme also spotted a Cuckoo perched on a willow stump across the reedbed, and Swifts overhead. A pair of Little Grebes and a Jay was followed by our first (again, of many) Great White Egrets – our logo and speciality bird of the Avalon Marshes.

We managed to sort out the difference in song between Blackcap (tuneful, melodic, like a speeded-up Robin) and Garden Warbler (a more continuous, evenly-paced and rapid warble, whose rhythm is rather like that of a Skylark) – helped by a very obliging Garden Warbler which sat right out and gave excellent scope views as it sang. From the first viewing platform we saw Great Crested Grebes with four chicks, Greylag Geese with goslings, Tufted Duck, Pochard and a singing Sedge Warbler – our eighth target species by 9.15 am! Our first Hobby briefly appeared, but headed straight into the woods.

We crossed the drain and headed down to the Avalon Hide, taking advantage of one of our party’s entomological knowledge with sightings of Four-spotted Chaser and Hairy Dragonfly, and the scarce (and hard to identify) Variable Damselfly. At the hide itself we had more sightings of Hobbies and Marsh Harriers, lots more Swifts, Great Crested Grebe on the nest and lots of Buzzards soaring in the thermals, followed by a closer sighting of a Hobby from just outside the hide, soaring with a Buzzard and our only Sparrowhawk of the trip.

On the way back we saw and heard more Garden Warblers, singing Dunnock, several Hobbies and a brief view of a Cetti’s Warbler and Chiffchaff in the car park.

We then crossed the road into Shapwick and Meare Heaths (Natural England reserve), where some of us had brief views of a flying Bittern, along with Green-veined and Large White butterflies.

Monsignor Cetti

Monsignor Cetti

Heading up to Noah’s Lake Hide, we heard a close Cetti’s, and saw seven distant Hobbies and a close female Marsh Harrier fly-past, along with one Coot on its nest while its mate gathered nesting material in the form of pieces of reed. We then had prolonged views of a Bittern as it flew across the lake – a real excitement for some of us – and a Jay (and even more Hobbies) on the way back.

 After a fine lunch at King Alfred’s Inn, Burrowbridge we took a short drive alongside the River Parrett to Stathe Farm. Crossing the river bridge, Stephen immediately spotted four adult Cranes feeding in a distant field.

Despite the heat haze the views were pretty good, and we headed off satisfied to visit the King Alfred Memorial site at Athelney. As well as a very obliging pair of Stock Doves, showing off their key identification features while perched and in flight, we also enjoyed watching a pair of Swallows with a newly-fledged youngster – very early indeed!

We then retraced our route back to the north (seeing a Raven en route), stopping off at RSPB Greylake where we saw House Sparrows and singing Dunnock, and had views of Sedge and Reed Warblers, our first Kestrel hovering, a very close Roe Deer and a Hobby that perched briefly on a post. By the car park, Stephen noticed a newly-emerged Banded Demoiselle damselfly (very early, and our eight Odonata species of the day).

 For our final stop, we popped into Catcott Lows, where the recent clearance of vegetation to create pools and islands has hugely improved the visibility from the main hide. We were rewarded with a flock of at least 60 Black-tailed Godwits of the islandica race (roughly three-quarters in their orange breeding garb), which as their scientific name suggests were heading back to Iceland to breed. They were accompanied by at least eight Whimbrels (some of which headed off, making their distinctive seven-note call), one Ruff, one Greenshank and a Dunlin in full breeding plumage – also all migrants. There were also Gadwall, two male Wigeon, two Little Egrets, a hovering Kestrel and a pair of Greylag Geese with goslings, along with a Teal as we drove out – an excellent end to a fine day on the Avalon Marshes, followed by Kay’s splendid supper back at Walls Farm.

Black tailed godwits

Black tailed godwits

 Sunday 12th May

 A fine, sunny and calm day – ideal for birding after the bad weather of the previous week – saw us on a brief visit to West Huntspill church and Rectory. The heronry in the holm oak here was in full swing, with several pairs of Grey Herons with well-grown young, at least 20 pairs of Little Egrets, and our target bird – at least three Cattle Egrets in their breeding finery, with orange plumes on their head and shoulders and a yellow bill. A really fine sight, especially as the owners of the adjacent property kindly allowed us into their garden where we could get much better views of the birds.

The sound – a chorus of Rooks, Jackdaws and the herons and egrets – was unforgettable, as was our brief visit to the beautiful 13th-century church next to the heronry, where Stephen recited the opening of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Church Going’. A walk around the churchyard itself was peaceful but not very productive – just singing Chiffchaff and Blackcap.

After this wonderful start we headed through Bridgwater to the relatively new WWT reserve at Steart Marshes. As always here, the car park provided great birding – excellent views of singing make Reed Bunting and Sedge Warbler. We then walked down to the Quantock Hide, past more singing warblers and buntings (including one Reed Bunting with an oddly tuneful song).

The hide provides a wonderful spectacle: at least 30 breeding pairs of Avocets, many with young chicks, a pair of Little Ringed Plovers (showing off that bright yellow eye-ring), a pair of Oystercatchers each feeding their two chicks, plenty of Shelducks and gulls, including a Great Black-backed, and a distant Stock Dove, but no sign of last week’s feral Bar-headed Goose.

We took the short drive to Wall Common where, while drinking our coffee, we saw a pair of Wall Brown butterflies (the second sighting here), male Linnet and Sedge Warbler. The common itself was packed with Skylarks, while on a rising tide (1.5 hours before high water) we saw half-a-dozen Little Egrets, a Curlew, Dunlin, and two Whimbrels. On the way to the second car park we saw a male Wheatear and heard a singing Lesser Whitethroat from the patch of nettles, but sadly (and predictably) it refused to show itself and then fell silent!

After a fine lunch at the Plough in Holford, on the edge of the Quantocks, we took a walk up Hodder’s Combe. What a contrast to last week’s dismal day: the sun was shining, and the birds (and horse riders, walkers and cyclists!) were out in force. Soon after entering the combe we had close views of a singing Wood Warbler, a real highlight for all of us as it sang its plaintive song followed by the ‘spinning coin’ climax.

Where the woods opened up and the stream became more visible we came across a splendid pair of Grey Wagtails flitting up and down from the water to the trees, swiftly followed by Coal Tit, a Goldcrest feeding its young, Speckled Wood and Holly Blue butterflies, a singing male Redstart and a Pied Flycatcher perched above its nestbox, giving great views. We saw another male Redstart (briefly), and a second Pied Flycatcher, before heading back down the combe.

 En route to Lydeard Hill we saw a male Stonechat; at the hill itself we enjoyed views of Willow Warbler, Stonechat, Mistle Thrush, a pair of Bullfinches and a Meadow Pipit, ending our visit with fabulous views to the east, with Hinkley Point, Bridgwater Bay, Steep Holm and Flat Holm, Brean Down, Brent Knoll and even a very distant Mark Church spread out before us! By the end of the day we had broken our (newly-made) record of species seen, with a running total of 95!

 Monday 13th May

Another lovely sunny day, and even before breakfast, we had managed male Bullfinch and Green Woodpecker in the garden at Walls Farm; afterwards we popped up the A38 to King’s Wood, Cheddar, which is on the southern edge of the Mendips and marks the boundary between Somerset proper and ‘North Somerset’. Almost as soon as we entered the wood, we heard the distinctive trilling call of a Nuthatch, which we then saw well just above our heads – moving up and down the branches and giving great views.

Moving into the wood, Stephen heard an unusual call, which turned out to be a newly-arrived Spotted Flycatcher – the first of the year for any of us. This was followed by a close-up view of a Treecreeper. We did climb right up to the top, smelling the wild garlic on the way, where we saw a Whitethroat, heard a Mistle Thrush and had great views south towards Glastonbury Tor – as well as Cheddar Reservoir, our next destination.

Unfortunately, the reservoir proved to be almost entirely devoid of birdlife, apart from Mallards, a few Cormorants and distant Great Crested Grebes, so we drove into Cheddar for the usual Grey Wagtails (two this time) and a chance to buy some traditionally-made mature Cheddar cheese.

Our final destination was Graeme and Stephen’s ‘coastal patch’, the ‘Three Rivers’ (Huntspill, Parrett and Brue). A quick stop on the bridge across the Huntspill produced singing Reed Warbler and Whitethroat, and a Buzzard overhead (the first of several), before we drove along to the sluice itself, where we got a new view across to where we were yesterday. It was still several hours before high tide, so there were extensive areas of mud with few birds – apart from some Shelduck and distant Curlews – until one of the party spotted a female Marsh Harrier (only the second we have ever seen here) flying up the Parrett.

We then walked along the ‘sea wall’, hearing a Pheasant calling, and finding a Whimbrel, Kestrel, a pair of Oystercatchers on the path, several Little Egrets and four soaring Buzzards. We returned to the car park where, true to form, we finally found our 99th and final bird : a splendidly bright and singing male Greenfinch! A fine end to a fine trip – in terms of weather, company and especially birds!




Graeme Mitchell