Birdwatching Magazine Tour Report 18-21 July
Thursday 18th July
It was a bright, dry and breezy early evening when our guests arrived at Walls Farm: the emphasis here being the word ‘dry’ as the forecast for the next couple of days was to be wet. Fortunately, Somerset was not to turn out just as wet as Northern Ireland where the Open Golf Championship was going to endure challenging conditions over the same duration as our final ‘Spring/Summer’ birdwatching break.
So given it was a beautiful summer’s evening, Graeme fired up ‘Thunderbird 1’ and took our guests to Tealham and Tadham Moors as a gentle introduction to the Somerset Levels. At first there was little bird activity, however we all learned about ‘rhynes’ (field ditches) the ‘Isle of Wedmore’, and the various other Somerset landmarks that make it impossible to ever be truly lost in the county - wherever you are, you can always see one or two of the prominent county landmarks: Brent Knoll, Crook Peak, the Wells T.V. Mast, and last but not least, Glastonbury Tor.
At last we saw a bird, a hovering Kestrel, often a ‘bogey’ bird for our trips (golfing pun) After scanning for a while, we saw some Swifts flying over, and meadow pipits – the archetypal ‘LBJ’. Sadly, there were no ‘eagles’ (another golfing pun, sorry) or indeed ‘eaglets’ as a local farmer had recently called the large white herons he had in one of his fields! Fortunately, we were to see many more egrets over the next three days. We spied two large corvids in the distance which were more than likely Ravens, although sadly the strong breeze carried off their cronking call which would have positively identified them.
In the recent dry weather, many of the fields had been harvested for hay this year in addition to the usual wetter silage crop. We stopped at the far end of the moor road adjacent to our local heronry, now completely silent as all youngsters had long since fledged. The only birds we heard in this overgrown (or rather, this fine, if unintentional, example of rewilding) were some Willow Warblers and baby Whitethroats.
Skies were darkening as was Kay’s brow should we be late for her usual wonderful nibbles and supper, so we returned to Walls Farm to meet up with Stephen and a most convivial evening discussing our plans for the next few days birdwatching.
Friday 19th July
An early start saw us head out onto Tealham Moor, where despite the forecast of almost continuous rain, the weather was not too bad. Not too many birds – apart from the usual Skylarks and a brief view of a female Sparrowhawk hunting along the hedgerow – so we headed straight down to the RSPB showpiece reserve at Ham Wall.
July is much quieter, birdsong-wise, than the spring, but makes up for this with the presence of many newly-fledged chicks, often just out of the nest.
As we neared the first viewing platform, we enjoyed a fly-past of two magnificent Great White Egrets, showing off the custard-yellow bills of their non-breeding plumage. There were also good views of male and female Marsh Harriers – a real success story here on the Avalon Marshes, where there are now at least a dozen breeding birds, up from just one pair a decade or so ago. We also saw Little and Great Crested Grebes, the former uttering their horse-like whinnying call, while the latter were accompanied by well-grown chicks.
With rain imminent, heralded by flocks of Swifts, we headed for shelter in the Tor View Hide, where we enjoyed watching a Great Crested Grebe with one or two smaller chicks on its back. We dodged the rain as we headed across to the Avalon Hide, on the way enjoying close views of an unexpectedly confiding roebuck (male Roe Deer), which watched us back from the other side of the drain.
The Avalon Hide lived up to expectations, producing good views of Little and Great White Egrets, a brief Kingfisher and best of all, three views of (probably two individual) flying Bitterns, a first for at least one member of the group. From or near the hide we also saw broods of Reed and Sedge Warblers and Whitethroats, and several Reed Buntings; on our way back, we also caught up with Blackcap, Chiffchaff (pumping its tail) and a Willow Warbler – one of which was also singing. Warblers can be tricky this late in the season, but now that the youngsters are out of the nest, we managed to see most of the expected species. The main omission – which we did not hear for the whole trip – was Cetti’s.
After coffee in the car park, we headed south across the Polden Hills, to the River Parrett, where sadly we missed out on our target bird, the Crane – which are much trickier in summer than at other times of the year. After a swift stop at the Athelney Memorial to King Alfred the Great, we visited his local, the famous King Alfred’s Inn at Burrowbridge, for lunch – just in time to miss another downpour!
After lunch, we headed back north and back over the Poldens to Catcott; where there were a dozen or so Cattle Egrets, several right in front of the hide, including a pair in full spiky orange breeding garb feeding a well-grown youngster – proof of breeding again this year in Somerset! There were also several Little Egrets and broods of well-grown Greylag Geese.
Saturday 20th July
We drove (via Bridgwater) to Steart WWT reserve, on the west side of the River Parrett. The weather was much better than the forecast earlier in the week had suggested, and we headed straight to our favourite Quantock Hide, overlooking its eponymous hills.
Things had changed a lot since our last visit in mid-June, but with time and effort we found some very good birds. As well as the usual Shelducks and Black-headed Gulls, there were one or two Avocets, distant Dunlin and Common Sandpiper, Great Black-backed Gull and – a real surprise – seven Egyptian Geese asleep on one of the low islands. This was only the second time Graeme and I have seen this introduced wildfowl species in Somerset.
We had our usual coffee stop at Wall Common, catching up with Curlews and Ringed Plovers on the relatively high tideline, and a dozen or so Little Egrets over towards Hinkley Point. More of a surprise was a small flock of Sand Martins heading purposefully westwards along the coast.
After lunch at the Plough at Holford we again enjoyed much better weather than we expected on our walk up the beautiful Hodder’s Combe. Sadly the ‘western woodland trio’ of Wood Warbler, Redstart and Pied Flycatcher eluded us – it was rather late in the breeding season – but we did see Goldcrest (hover-gleaning for food), Coal Tit, Nuthatch, Siskin (a new bird for SBH trips) while Graeme also caught sight of a Spotted Flycatcher. We also witnessed a spectacular attack on the tit (and single Siskin) flock by a male Sparrowhawk, which twisted and turned through the tree canopy and grabbed an unfortunate victim, before flying off.
The little stream through the combe was far more productive, with several Grey Wagtails and a brief view of a Dipper, a Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly and best of all, a Golden-ringed Dragonfly hunting low over the water surface. So despite a relative lack of birds compared with the spring, the walk was still a memorable experience thanks to the stunning scenery.
On our way back we drove over the top of the Quantocks to Lydeard Hill, where as well as enjoying amazing views back towards the east (including Hinkley Point, Steep and Flat Holms, Bridgwater Bay, the Parrett Estuary and a distant Mark Church) we also caught up with two Redstarts (one youngster, one adult female) and a splendid male Stonechat.
Sunday 21st July
The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing dawned clear and dry, so we headed back to Tealham Moor, where we finally caught up (briefly) with a family party of Yellow Wagtails.
We then went back to the RSPB car park at Ham Wall, but this time headed west into the Natural England Shapwick Heath reserve. Lots of butterflies and dragonflies – including huge Emperors and Southern Hawkers – and from the hide at Noah’s Lake we saw lots of wildfowl including 120+ Mute Swans, but sadly no Hobbies.
Finally, we headed over to Cheddar where we bought some excellent cheese, then back to Walls Farm at the end of a highly enjoyable trip.
TOTAL SPECIES: 87