Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Somerset Levels: Ham Walls, Meare and Shapwick Heaths; 13 January 2014

 (Leaders Lucy and Phillip Delve)

While carrying umbrellas in anticipation of forecast showers, twelve members gathered at Ashcott Corner car park in glorious sunshine. Before we set off for the Ham Walls RSPB reserve, two distant Great White Egrets flew by, sunlit against a dark stormy sky. Then from the old railway embankment on Ham Wall, we were treated to sustained views of a Lesser Redpoll feeing in a birch tree; the colours of its yellow bill and red forehead enhanced in the sunshine. Also sunlit, the male wildfowl were equally magnificent including brightly coloured Shoveler, Teal, Wigeon and Great Crested Grebes. Most of our group missed a fast disappearing Bittern, however one member was rewarded with a better view as he tarried when the group moved on. Taking the short walkway to the newly opened hide in the main reed bed afforded the rest of us with 360 degree viewing. From here we watched of two distant Marsh Harriers for several minutes. Snipe, however, were not so easy to spot in the short cut reeds near the main track, but they stayed in situ for clear telescope views and eventually showed us their distinctive long bills. Bird songs and calls accompanied us on our morning walk including Water Rail, Cettis Warbler and Chiffchaff, Bulfinch, Goldcrest and Chaffinch. Spring is only just around the corner!

After taking lunch sheltered in our cars while heavy shower passed over, we headed to Meare Heath. En route we came across a noisy flock of Lesser Redpoll feeding on Alder cones. Our pace quickened in another rain shower, but by the time we reached the bridge the rain had stopped, the sun appeared with dramatic lighting of the reeds and trees and a female Marsh Harrier. Noah’s hide offered shelter from another cloud burst. The lake here was teeming with wildfowl including a number of Pintail. Birds were calling constantly, including the soft “tinkling” noise of Teal, the rather croaky quacking of Gadwall and the whistles of the Wigeon.

Finally, around 3.45pm, we made our way towards Shapwick Heath. The air was still, the sky a black/purple hue with small patches of blue around a sinking sun. First small groups of Starlings arrived, then larger groups forming swaying waves across the sky, sometimes grouping together like billowing black speckled clouds, swirling and flickering. Skimming the reeds then rising again, their wings making a whooshing sound. Down they went but rose again in a thunder-clap. Through binoculars you could see starlings all the way to the far horizon. Many birds were now beginning to settle in the reeds but then would suddenly start up with a whoosh of wings, a black mass across the reeds again. Eventually, the small trees within the reed bed changed appearance; bare branches becoming black with roosting birds. The starling “soundscape” changed from whooshing wings to chatter and squeaks before culminating in a crescendo like the sound of cascading water. From comments by those experiencing their first large starling roost, I am sure they will be back again for at least one annual winter visit, to marvel at this truly spectacular avian event.

Lucy Delve


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Photos by John Garrett