Here follows a belated report on a restful eleven day stay in a tent Somerset. Confined as we are to school holidays by my beloved’s employment, late July and early August is not the best time for birding. All the tweets are doing very little tweeting and are mainly hidden in the thick foliage. Wrens seemed to be the notable exception to the rule, belting forth in full song wherever we went. There is also a close relationship between campsites and Goldfinches, as usual, we saw loads of them. Being surrounded by farmland and old barns, Swallows were plentiful over the site.
En route to our camp site, we visited my sister in Reading, which must be developing as one of the best the Red Kite hotspots in the country. Kites fly low over their garden most days and the record count is 13 in view at the same time. This is an impressive gathering, given that the horizon from their garden is truncated by surrounding trees and other houses. We saw plenty, but only up to three at any one time. Their wild cries carry far across the town, competing with the ever present hum from the M4.
We had further sightings of Red Kites on the M4 towards Newbury, but none further west, where Buzzards were ever present.
Our camp site was near to Cheddar Gorge, in which we had brilliant views of a Peregrine family. We saw at least two juveniles. I will never tire of watching these magnificent birds, with their wild cries and powerful swooping flight. The Gorge is a spectacular location, that provides a perfect location for getting close views of the Peregrines, both in flight and sitting on the rocks and trees.
Ham Wall RSPB reserve on the Somerset Levels gave us the first glimpse of Great White Egrets, nesting at Shapwick Heath, which is joined to Ham Wall. There was also a juvenile male Marsh Harrier showing well.
Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve is an excellent mixture of woodland, wet marsh and open water, well known for its large number of dragonfly species. This year, two pairs of Great White Egrets have bred. We saw at least four adults and one young bird. There were lots of Little Egrets, so comparison between both species was very easy. I briefly saw a Bittern, which is one of the target species for the future development of Ham Wall.
Although seeing one of Britain’s latest breeding colonists was a great pleasure and they are a truly graceful and elegant bird, it was an increasingly widespread breeder that drew most of our attention. Two Hobbies quartered the open water hawking dragonflies. Their ability apparently to turn at right angles when at full speed is remarkable. As with the Peregrines, this was no fleeting view from distance; they performed just in front of the hide. I thought one man was going to disappear through the narrow window in his efforts get a shot with his monster lens!
We briefly saw a Kingfisher. There is little by way of nesting banks at Ham Wall and Shapwick, so the Kingfishers have taken to the woods and found a nesting site in the base of an uprooted tree.
It was very noticeable that, whilst there were large numbers of adult water birds, particularly Mute Swans, we saw few young, apart from Moorhens and Coots. We saw only one family of Swans at Shapwick. This was repeated at Chew Valley Lake, one of the best places in the country for Great Crested Grebes. At Chew Valley we saw over 50 adult Mute Swans and only two young. We saw over 60 Great Crested Grebes and no young. It seems that the wet weather has drastically affected some waterside nesters. Happily, Swans and Grebes live quite a long time, so this is just a blip in their fortunes.
We visited Wells, where there is a large Swifts population, aided by the widespread use of pantiles. Wells is England’s smallest city and very attractive.
Beyond Bridgewater, at Steart Point, the water authority is developing new flood meadows. This involves creating new retaining banks and the removal of some existing sea defences. Some of the land will be new salt marsh and other areas will become new fresh water marsh. It is already a promising area; we saw a number of waders, a Little Egret and a large number of Shelducks.
We saw just over 60 species and it is obvious that visiting the same area earlier in the breeding season would produce a very impressive list. The Somerset Levels and surrounding area provides a very wide range of habitat and some of the most spectacular wetland in the UK. One day, when we eventually retire, a return visit in May/June will be high on the agenda.