Monday, 30 December 2013


I've mostly been away from the Avalon Marshes lately due to work, but being back for a week of intensive birding over Christmas was most enjoyable. The water levels across the Somerset Levels are extremely high at the moment, making the landscape look very different, and with winter visitors very much in abundance.

Catcott Lows is probably the best spot for winter birding, as large flocks of ducks and waders have filled the flooded meadow close in front of the hide. Wigeon and Teal make up the majority of the numbers, but other duck species and a few waders are also present. Raptors like Marsh Harriers and Peregrines are frequently making visits to try and pick off a straggler, and every time they arrive, the air fills with noisy panicking wildfowl, a real spectacle.
Black-tailed Godwits


Wigeon and Shoveler
On Shapwick Heath the changes are more subtle. Noah's Lake is holding good numbers of ducks, swans and geese, with up to 10 Whooper Swans being particularly nice to see. The deeper water is not as good for fishing herons and egrets as it was in the summer, with these birds moving out and spreading over the wet fields nearby. The resident Great White Egrets, so easy to see earlier in the year are now only offering fleeting glimpses.
Whooper Swans
Great White Egret
 Kingfishers are as abundant as ever:

I should be more active again next year, and hope to get a program of guided walks up and running, i'll post more details here in due time.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Return to Somerset

I'm now back in Somerset after my time counting migrant birds in Israel. Needless to say, I had a wonderful time during the raptor count, but the icing on the cake was provided with a whistle-stop tour of the Dead Sea and Judean Desert (which you can read about here).

It was a pleasure to get back to the Avalon Marshes after my time away, I always appreciate how green and lush our countryside is after going abroad. October is generally regarded as a quite time here, birding in inland Somerset is really all about breeding and wintering birds, and being away from coast, we don't see so much migration in the Spring and Autumn periods. There is still plenty of birds about though as a lot of species stay resident all through the year thanks to our mild climate.

It's been very wet and windy this last week which hasn't made birding easy. The best, but also the most frustrating (non) sighting was a Yellow-browed Warbler I heard calling on Wednesday. It was deep in a small wood on the other side of the South Drain from my position on Shapwick Heath NNR so I never stood chance of seeing it. Nice to know there was one there though. Other unusual visitors around at the moment are 2 Glossy Ibis, a sporadic visitor from Southern Europe who are currently hanging out at Ham Wall RSPB, most frequently from the 2nd viewing platform.

Noahs Lake rainbow

1 of the 2 Glossy Ibis at Ham Wall

Great White Egret


Whooper Swan

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

As the lack of updates on this website suggests, i'm currently away from the Avalon Marshes. I'm spending 5 weeks in Israel working on the Northern Valleys Raptor Count, monitoring the migration of soaring birds through the country. I'll be posting regular updates and photos on my 'travel blog': 

It's not all about Raptors, here's a Blue-cheeked Bee Eater

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Great White Egrets (and others) successful on the Avalon Marshes again

The Avalon Marshes Partnership has released news of the breeding success of various species in the marshes this summer. These totals are testament to the skill, knowledge and effort put in to managing these sites by the RSPB, Natural England, Somerset Wildlife Trust and the Hawk and Owl Trust, they really do a superb job!

As mentioned on here previously, a pair of Little Bitterns raised at least 2 young at Ham Wall RSPB, and at least 3 male birds were seen on site. Hopefully, next year those birds will bring some more females back from their wintering grounds in Africa, and the species can really get established in the area.

The final tally for Marsh Harriers was 13 young fledged from 4 nests, an astonishingly high productivity rate. The total for Eurasian (or 'Big') Bitterns was 33 booming males, a fantastic high count, confirming the marshes as one of the species strongholds in Britain.

Perhaps the most welcome news though, was that 2 pairs of Great White Egret fledged 5 young between them (2 from Shapwick Heath NNR, and 3 from Ham Wall RSPB). It was a relief to see that last years breeding, the first ever in the UK wasn't just a one off, and the species is now well set to colonise Somerset, and hopefully spread out into the rest of the country.

I was fortunate enough to be involved with the protection and monitoring of one of the nests as a volunteer, during which time I was able to witness some fascinating behaviour and take a few photos.

Displaying bird

A pair seeing of an intruder (centre bird)

Adult in full breeding plumage

Reeds being bought in during nest-building

Intruder being seen off again one early morning

Adults swapping over incubating duties

Adult coming in for the first swap-over of the day one dawn
All photos copyright Joe Cockram. Please contact me if you wish to use them in any way

Friday, 9 August 2013

9th August

Amidst the summer-y sight of recently fledged birds and massed insects, there was faint but distinct hint of autumn on the Avalon Marshes today in the form of a Pintail, the first i've seen here since April, forming the vanguard of our huge flocks of wintering wildfowl. A pair of Garganey alongside it at the 2nd viewing platform at Ham Wall RSPB were much more seasonal, and Greenshank and 2 Green Sandpipers were standard for early wader passage.

Young Little Grebe
A few Great White Egrets were scattered around various locations, these two birds both showing just a small back bill tip as remnants of breeding plumage

Dragonflies seem to be doing as well as the butterflies this year, with several different species patrolling the edges of paths and ditches.
Black-tailed Skimmer
Southern Hawker

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

7th August: Mid-summer Update

After a bit of time away, I'm back on the Avalon Marshes for a short while. I've spent most of the past month working elsewhere, but also found time for a visit to the fantastic Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire, you can see some pictures on my other blog.

I was greeted with some truly excellent news on my return. The birds here have had an outstanding breeding season. 2 recently fledged Great White Egret juveniles have been seen at Shapwick Heath NNR, and earlier this week, 2 Little Bittern juveniles were seen at Ham Wall RSPB, and there are A LOT of juvenile Marsh Harriers about, with a final count hopefully available soon!

In the last few days on the marshes i've seen plenty of young Reed Warblers, Coots, Little and Great Crested Grebes, Grey Herons etc. etc. so it seems as though our commoner species have done well too, which is a great relief after a few poor years recently thanks to wet weather.

As for migrants, the 2nd viewing platform at Ham Wall is the place to be, with Green Sandpipers, Greenshank, Ruff and Dunlin all present on-and-off, though sometimes difficult to pick out behind vegetation. Wader numbers should slowly rise over the the coming weeks, hopefully the rain will hold off to leave some mud for them to feed on.

Insects seem to be doing well too, numbers of damselflies and Four-spotted Chasers are down from when I left, but this is to be expected as their flight-season closes, but they have been replaced with many Brown and Southern Hawkers. Butterflies are back in force too after last years dismal showing. Small Tortoiseshells are swarming over seemingly every thistle, buddliea and comfrey flower I see, and yesterday on Ham Wall I saw my first Silver-washed Fritillary and Clouded Yellow of the year.
One of many juvenile Marsh Harriers

Silver-washed Fritillary

Brown Hawker
Unfortunately after this week, i'm going to be away again for some time, mostly for rather boring work, but also what promises to be a fantastic 5 weeks in the Middle East (which i'll reveal more about at the time). I'll be back on the Avalon Marshes towards the end of Autumn though, and am very much looking forward to leading walks and tours over the winter. The marshes in winter are absolutely brim-full of waders, wildfowl and raptors, not to mention the Starlings, check back here for all the latest news!

Saturday, 29 June 2013

29th June: The South Drain

I finally saw a Little Bittern at Ham Wall RSPB today, getting a reasonable flight view this morning, I happened to be scanning the reeds with bins when it popped up so got a relatively prolonged look. There seems to have been a significant increase in activity, with at least 6 sightings today, much more than before, so maybe the eggs have hatched. The best bet for seeing them is to stand at the marked viewpoint and simply wait, try and find out from others where a bird was last seen dropping into and scan that area with binoculars as much as you can. Be prepared to wait several hours without any luck, and be aware that the bird flies so quick and low that often half the people at the watchpoint won't get onto the bird before it drops in.

On my way back, I noticed the South Drain looking particularly nice, and peering over the bridge I could see that it was absolutely chock full of wildlife:
The South Drain
Loads of Rudd
I had a bit fo fun trying to photograph Dragonflies in flight. An Emperor was holding territory on a short section of water so gave plenty of opportunities as it cruised back and forth, awesome beasties!

While watching the Dragons, a big old Grass Snake swam a short distance along the bank on the far side before disappearing down a little side channel

I'm away from the Marshes for the next 6 weeks or so, so I won't be able to post any of my own sightings or photos. I'll try and update on any particularly interesting news I hear from the area though, and if anyone gets any photos they would like to share on here, feel free to e-mail them to me at, and i'll post them up (fully credited of course).

Unfortunately this also means that I won't be running any guided walks or tours for the time being, but if you are interested in joining me from early August onwards, do get in touch and i'll see what I can do.

Happy Marshing!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

23rd June

Very windy on the Avalon Marshes today, and thus not a whole lot of birds to see or photograph. I was volunteering on the Little Bittern watch yesterday morning, didn't see the birds, but a family party of Bearded Tits were good entertainment, feeding in the reeds in front of the LB watchpoint and then flying over the path. As juvenile Bearded Tits start to fledge from the nest over the next few weeks, they should become easier to see as feeding groups rove around the reedbeds, listen out for their 'pinging' call.

Great White Egret on Meare Heath today

Friday, 21 June 2013

21st June: Wildflower Meadow

This afternoon I took a look around the Canada Farm area of Shapwick Heath NNR. The meadows here are mown for hay late in the summer, allowing wildflowers to set seed. Harvesting the hay removes nutrients from the soil, creating high plant diversity as no one species can become dominant. The meadows are a delight to see at this time of year, awash with colour, and absolutely crawling with insect life. If only all farmland could be like this.....

Beautiful meadow

Southern Marsh Orchid

Bog Cotton
Ragged Robin
Yellow Flag Iris

A quick visit to Ham Wall RSPB produced the obligatory fly-over Bittern, along with 3 Garganey, 1 Green Sandpiper and 1 Common Tern


Monday, 17 June 2013

17th June

The weekend was fairly quiet on the Avalon Marshes, which is to be expected at this time of year really. Migration is at its lowest flow of the year, so it's a matter of enjoying the antics of our resident breeding birds rather than looking out for new arrivals. Bitterns and Marsh Harriers are very active and easy to see right now, with regular flights between feeding areas and nests, keeping hungry mouths fed.
Despite this, theres often something surprising seen each day. On arrival at Ham Wall RSPB today, a pair of Common Terns were loafing around on the rafts in front of the Walton Heath screens. At this time of year, it is likely that these birds have failed a nesting attempt and moved on from wherever they were previously. Fingers crossed that they'll find our Tern nesting raft and have a go here. They eventually started some courtship behaviour, which is promising.

Courtship feeding

Looking very proud of their raft, could do with a clean though!

Giving a young Black-headed Gull some grief. The gull has already lost its
lower mandible somehow
While watching the terns, I was astonished to see an Otter pop its head up right in front of me .I had time to fire of one shot before it ducked back under the water and disappeared.

Still a few Hobbies around