The Patch


All keen birdwatchers have a ‘Patch’. A patch of ground where one goes regularly to watch birds. A place to study the change in seasons and how the birdlife shares the habitat throughout the year.

We are lucky, we have two ‘Patches’ - one in the heart of the Somerset Levels, a classic mixture of blocks of reed beds, water and mixed woodland. The other is coastal, a wild strip of tidal margin and river estuaries. It is at the meeting of two rivers; the Brue and the Parrett, as they flow into Bridgewater Bay National Nature Reserve on the southern side of the Bristol Channel.

We know them as ‘The Patch’ and ‘The Brue’.

I have no doubt that they will feature in many if not all of our Somerset Birdwatching Holiday itineraries in some way or other. There may well be more attractive places in Somerset to watch birds, or reserves with a higher species count, however that’s not the point; they are special to us. They are full of stories and anecdotes, of special sightings and the heartache of the one that got away.

On Sunday 7th January I parked up by the Patch in bright sunshine, but bitterly cold. Not much wind. A beautiful winter’s day, and a great day to start my birdwatching year in Somerset.

There appeared to be nothing stirring at all – total silence.

Often that is the way, it would be so easy to say ‘Oh, there’s nothing here, let’s try elsewhere’. Then a large dark shape of a buzzard takes off from a low branch from the large oak that acts as guardian at the entrance to the Patch. A pair of Bullfinches flit ahead of me down the path and disappear into the bushes. Have you ever just seen one Bullfinch? I haven’t – always a pair. They are quite a romantic little bird really – always Mr and Mrs together.  Through the trees on some open water was two adult mute swans with three full-size cygnets from last summer – a good sign that at least half of their brood might survived their first winter.

A gang of Gadwall explode out of the water, then all goes quiet again.

At the first bend in the track I meet a lady walking her dog. An unusual occurrence, as in all the time I’ve been going round the Patch I can count on one hand the number of times I have met anybody else, and one of those was Michael Eavis of Glastonbury Festival fame.

‘I’ve just seen a woodcock disappear into the birch trees’. She sounded quite pleased with herself.

I said I’d look out for it.

Then she continued. ‘It is such a special and secret place down here, you hardly ever see anyone here.’

I gave her a knowing nod.

On down the long drive of a mix of large oaks, willow and birch. All is quiet save for the tittering of long-tailed tits, and the clicking of wrens and robins.

On either side beyond the tree-line are large swathes of dense reed bed. In the bright low winter sunshine the seed-heads of the sedges simmered like gold. All was quiet. Then a squeal like a piglet indicating that lurking somewhere was a water rail, and a hundred yards further on a cetti’s warbler burst into song from the depths.

The badgers had been busy over Christmas, digging up roots in the soft peaty soil.

In the wider expanses of water there were wonderful mirrored reflections of trees and branches stock still in the breathless air.

Down on the main South Drain, a large dredged drainage channel that at one time was the Huntsbill River, and may well become it again further downstream, a kingfisher’s blur of azure and orange shot past. It always lifts the heart when you see a kingfisher. A fleeting flash of colour warms the cockles every time, especially on a cold winter’s day.

Looking back over the reed beds I can see that there has been much work done in cutting large blocks of reeds and clearing out wider stretches of open water to attract more birdlife. The Somerset Wildlife Trust boys have been busy over the winter. It will be interesting to see how the reed beds spring back into life and evolve as the year goes by.

A large raptor flies overhead and glides effortlessly, at first through the trees then out over the main reed bed. I can see the long wings and the ‘floaty’ flight of a harrier, and when the sun catches the bird I can clearly see the grey on the head and back indicating that it’s the male. Such a great bird to see.

Heading back to the car I scan the open water one last time and see a moorhen bumbling away and a solitary grey heron siting motionless as only a heron can.

My walk was over in an hour. What at first might have appeared to have nothing on offer turned into an excellent first ‘Patch’ of the year.

If you don’t look, you don’t see.

Graeme Mitchell