Trip reports

Somerset May 2013

Adult bittern wading in reedbed at Lee Valley Country Park

Friday, 6 September 2013

Sixteen group members joined our five day trip to Somerset on Monday 20 May, which we began with a visit to the Gloucestershire County Council's site at Crickley Hill near Birdlip on our way down. Crickley Hill is a small wooded site which sits atop a steep escarpment overlooking Gloucester and Cheltenham, just a few miles from the M5.

In parts the wood was quite dense and the bird song was a little sparse although we did pick out robin, blackcap, chiffchaff and willow warbler. Ascending the gentle slope to the top of the hill we heard the 'yaffling' call of a green woodpecker which some of the group later got very good views of.

On the return to the car park, we had buzzards displaying over a distant wood, a brief flypast by a sparrowhawk and a common whitethroat in the hedge. After just over two hours at Crickley Hill we departed for our hotel in Street and the start of the Somerset leg of the holiday.

Tuesday morning again saw us in woodland, this time at RSPB Swell Wood near Curry Revel. The reserve hosts an impressive heronry which, in recent years has attracted a few nesting little egrets, some of which we saw flying in to their nests. By mid May most young herons should be close to fledging and this was the case in Swell Wood.

Leaving the heronry hide and following a short circular path through the wood, the commoner woodland species were seen including at least three separate singing goldcrests. For a lucky few a spotted flycatcher put in an appearance; last year the wood held at least three. From the edge of the wood we had views over the vast expanse of wetland which is West Sedgemoor. The main birds were mute swans and Canada geese although we were to later learn that the wider Sedgemoor area had become the centre of crane activity in Somerset.

After calling at the Avalon Centre, we spent the afternoon at our first true Somerset Levels reserve - Meare Heath. In reality Meare Heath and Shapwick Heath are just different ends of the same wetland, while RSPB Ham Wall is accessed from the same car park as is Meare. The three sites are subtly different but are predominantly reed bed habitats managed by RSPB, Somerset Wildlife Trust and Natural England. Heath in this part of the world refers to wetlands, not to the dry lowland heaths we are used to at Skipwith or Allerthorpe.

The swifts were flying low and flying amongst them were hobby. At one point we counted four perched in trees at the far end of Noah's Lake and we were to see more whenever we were on the levels. Passing the reeds we heard reed and sedge warbler. Chiffchaff, willow warbler, garden warbler and blackcap sang from the scrub and woods, but the noisiest warbler, with its short but explosive song, was the Cetti's warbler. Every wetland seemed to hold these difficult to see, but noisy and exciting warblers.

As expected, marsh harriers quartered the reeds and bitterns boomed from within. A shallow pool provided views of ten black-tailed godwits in varying degrees of orange. With the mallard and teal around the pool was a male garganey with the striking white eye-stripe on its purple head. At Noah's Pool we were able to watch both little and great white egrets and see those delicate, flowing plumes which made these birds targets for the millinery trade in the late 19th Centaury and which lead the good ladies of Didsbury to set up the early RSPB. The 2012 breeding by the great white egrets is believed to be the first ever in the UK. Unlike some returning wetland species there are no historic records of the great white ever having bred here before.

On Wednesday morning we moved out of the Levels and headed to the massive Bristol Water reservoir at Chew Valley, where there is a visitor centre, café and optics shop. A footpath leads beside the lake from the shop to a wooded area. While watching the wildfowl on the lake, we became aware of three large corvids. The first thought was carrion crow, but they were too large, had massive bills and we could hear a 'chonking' call. These were ravens. Great birds to see.

After lunch at the café we drove back onto the Levels and to RSPB Ham Wall. Again we were entertained by marsh harriers quartering the reeds as we walked along another section of the old railway embankment. Amongst a wider selection of wildfowl we added the only teal, wigeon and little grebes of the trip which seems strange given how much open water we visited.

On Thursday we returned to the levels to complete the triumvirate of top class reserves with a visit to Shapwick Heath. We walked in from the Avalon Centre and made our way to the only hide on this part of the reserve walking though first damp woodland and then past some magnificent oaks. Here a pair of garden warblers became increasingly agitated by our presence suggesting a nest nearby. It was a little quiet on the pool in front of the hide but the walk back provided tantalising squeals of water rail and repeated brief views of cuckoo. Later in the morning a lucky few had a fly past from a brown cuckoo, a rare colour aberration found only in females. We also saw a very large swirl of swifts, estimated to be a few hundred in number, again feeding low over the reeds. Throughout the holiday the impression I gained was that there were more reed warblers than sedge warblers in the wetlands. In our area it tends to be the reverse.

The afternoon was spent at Greylake Marsh, an open, wet meadows habitat with some reeds and pools. From the only hide we had very good views of a pair of yellow wagtails and a drumming snipe. We were also joined by Becky Thorne and her son. Becky works for the RSPB and is based at their farm at Sedgemoor. She very kindly explained the history and management of the reserve while we sheltered from a heavy downpour. Although we saw less than thirty species here it was a chance to enjoy a slightly different aspect of the Levels

On Friday we headed along the M5 to the world famous Wildfowl & Wetland Trust reserve at Slimbridge. Our aim was to see the pair of cranes which were nesting there. A frantic search revealed a crane at Rushy Hide, but standing towards the back, preening. A lucky few caught a glimpse of the head of the second bird on the nest.

After seeing the cranes the group split up to spread over the reserve, many moving off to the massive, double decked Zeiss hide at the southern end of the site. This affords views over a wet field and the Severn Estuary. Here we found avocets, a recent addition to the Gloucester breeding bird list, and had two more cranes fly in.

After three hours we left Slimbridge at 1.15 pm and made good progress home, arriving in Beverley at 7.00pm. The holiday produced a Somerset and Gloucestershire list of 93 species and, thanks in the main part to Linda Bosworth, a wild flower list of over 60. We travelled with Phoenix Travel on a Bus King coach and stayed at The Wessex Hotel in Street.

David Woodmansey