Friday, 29 March 2013

29th March: Footpath Surveying

This afternoon I was checking out some local footpaths for the Avalon Marshes partnership. The plan is to use the existing network of public footpaths to create a range of interesting circular routes that explore the best that the area has to offer. Over the years though, some of the footpaths have fallen into a state of disrepair in places, so a team of volunteers is testing out the routes to see what improvements need to be made before they are promoted (to locals and visitors to the area). The route I was on today was generally in very good nick, just a couple of disc markers needed to help anyone not familiar with the area to find their way. It was nice to look at a few spots that I wouldn't normally visit, and also see a few interesting birds. Some fresh peat workings held a very noisy and active flock of 40 Pied Wagtails along with 1 Grey Wagtail, which made the whole walk worthwhile.

Wagtail heaven!

It was a lovely fresh morning today on Shapwick and Ham Wall, and it was nice to take a few photos in some sunshine!


Sand Martin

Canada Geese

Thursday, 28 March 2013

28th March: Shapwick NNR Mire Restoration

Today I joined the Natural England Shapwick volunteers for their weekly work party, helping to restore a patch of the rare habitat of lowland mire, a Biodiversity Action Plan habitat. The patch we were working on has fallen into a bad state since drainage from nearby agricultural land had caused it to dry out, allowing gorse scrub to take over. The gorse had been cut earlier in the winter, and our task today was to burn the cut material. It is hoped that once all the scrub has been removed from the site, a grazing regime involving Highland Cattle and Bagot Goats (a rare breed) will control scrub encroachment and allow rare plants to flourish.

Conservation in Action!

Here's a few wildlife photos from the last few days. It's a strange time on the Avalon Marshes at the moment, a few summer migrants are arriving, and our winter visitors are slowly moving off, but nothing is really keen to move in big numbers because of the cold weather. Hopefully the next few days and weeks should see some big changes in the species of birds we're seeing.

Little Egret


5 Great White and 1 Little Egret

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Still singing- Pied Billed Grebe

Roe Deer enjoying the morning sunshine

Wigeon- numbers starting to drop as they head North

Monday, 25 March 2013

25th March: Spring?

The last few days on the Avalon Marshes (and everywhere else in the country by the sounds of it) have been bitterly cold. The exposed landscape here gives no shelter from the biting Easterly wind, and birding hasn't exactly been pleasant.
Amazingly though, Sumer migrants are starting to arrive in the country. There's been up to 50 Sand Martins over Noah's Lake at Shapwick, and dozens of Chiffchaff feeding along the edges of waterways, where there seems to be insect food available. The first Willow Warbler of the year was with Chiffchaffs near the Meare Heath bridge this morning. I was worrying over its chances of survival when it spectacularly plucked a gert fat juicy green caterpillar from nowhere, tough little beggars they are, they'll be alright.
In the afternoon I took a trip down to Catcott Lows for the first time in ages. The water levels in front of the hide had dropped a lot and the remaining muddy slop was covered in Wigeon, Teal, Pintail and Shoveler. It was Egret central down there too with 16 Littles and 1 Great White.
Little Egrets having a bad hair day
There was a pair of Marsh Harriers floating around the back of the reserve for some time, and eventually one came in for an opportunistic scout of the feeding birds. It didn't manage to catch anything unawares but caused a rather spectacular colourful explosion of ducks as everything panicked and took to the air.

Marsh Harrier

Pintail and Wigeon

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

20th March: Another Somerset first!!

Hot on the heels of the county's first record of Pied-billed Grebe, news broke today of another new species for the Somerset bird list. A White-throated Sparrow was present in a back garden in Churchstanton, near Taunton, between 23rd January and 3rd March. White-throated Sparrow is a rare vagrant to Europe from North America, where it is a common bird that migrates up and down the continent in large numbers. It is during  these migrations that birds can veer off course and end up on the wrong side of the Atlantic. This bird probably got lost on its Southward migration last Autumn, and had been hiding un-noticed somewhere in the West-country until moving to a birders garden in the new year.
Apparently the bird was only visible from one position inside the house, so it is understandable that the owners didn't want to release the news until the bird had gone. It's disappointing for somerset birders to have had such a rare bird under our noses for so long, but at the same time it's a great reminder of what else there could be out there waiting to be discovered!

Of course, the bird could still be in the county in someone else's  garden, so keep your eyes open. If you're not sure what to look for, heres a couple of not-very-good photos of them in Canada from a few years back.

The weather has caused a reduction in my birding effort on the Avalon Marshes over the last few days, with foggy mornings and rainy afternoons. A quick look this morning revealed 2 Redshank and 14 Black-tailed Godwit on the lagoon at Meare Heath, 3 Black-necked Grebe still on Noah's Lake, and the  Pied-billed Grebe was singing loudly, but not seen, at Ham Wall.

Monday, 18 March 2013

18th March: Godwit results

Many thanks to the guys at the University of Iceland for getting back to me so quickly with the details of yesterdays colour ringed Black-tailed Godwit. It was ringed as an adult female in Iceland back in July 2011, and was seen at Cley, Norfolk a few days later. The sighting of it at Shapwick was the first record of it since then, so it was well worth sending the record in, to confirm that it is still alive!
There were just 8 Black-tailed Godwit at Shapwick first thing this morning, but the colour ringed bird had moved on. It could well still be in the area though and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it back in the next few days. 

This male Marsh Harrier was bringing in material to its nest site

Check out the size difference between the Little and Great White Egrets!

Over at Ham Wall, the Pied-billed Grebe was still showing well, as was the Ring-necked Duck.
There was a notable increase in Chiffchaffs with at least 6 on view or audible at one point, the first pulse of passerine migrants. A Sand Martin also passed through on its way North.

One of the Chiffchaffs

Sunday, 17 March 2013

17th March: First colour ringed Godwit

Yesterday I saw a Black-tailed Godwit with colour rings briefly at the back of the drained lagoon at Shapwick Heath, but couldn't see the combination as the legs were mostly under the water. Luckily the bird was still there this morning and showing off its bling nicely. A quick bit of googling reveals it to be  (unsurprisingly) from an Icelandic ringing project. I've sent the details off to the co-ordinator of the scheme, so hopefully will soon have the details of the birds life history. It was one of 12 Black-tailed Godwits on the scrape this morning, along with a Redshank, waders are clearly on the move now, and i'll be keeping a close eye on that lagoon to see what else drops in.

The colour-ringed Godwit
Colour ringing is a great method of discovering the life history of a bird. Unlike conventional ringing (where birds are fitted with a small single ring engraved with a unique code, which can only be read if the bird is retrapped by another ringer), birds are fitted with a unique combination of colour rings, which can be read by an observer in the field. This obviously allows for may more opportunities for the bird to be recorded. Mark Grantham of the British Trust for Ornithology has written an excellent piece on the subject here on the Birdguides website.
One of the ever-present Great White Egrets

I finally managed to catch up with the Black-necked Grebes that have moving around the Avalon Marshes reserves. It was a surprise to see 3 together though, I think theres only been 2 recorded so far this winter.
3 distant Black-necked Grebes
Over at Ham Wall RSPB, the Pied-billed Grebe was still showing well, a month after it first turned up. It was calling frequently, presumably desperately looking for a mate.

Pied-biled Grebe mid-call

Saturday, 16 March 2013

16th March: Scaup at Ham Wall

Heavy rain showers  made birding on the Avalon Marshes a rather unpleasant experience today, but as usual, there was something to reward effort. A female Greater Scaup was with Tufted Ducks briefly and distantly in front of the 2nd viewing platform at Ham Wall RSPB. Scaup are an uncommon bird in Somerset, as they tend to winter at sea when they are not on their breeding grounds in Scandinavia. Those that do stray inland often choose deep water sites like Cheddar Reservoir, rather than the shallower waters of the Somerset Levels. As far as I can remember, this is the first i've seen on the levels.

Ducks of the Aythya genus are notoriously prone to hybridisation muddying the waters of identification but i'm confident that this is the 'real deal'. The bird shows an extensive white area around the base of the bill (often somewhat restricted in Scaup X Tufted Duck Hybrids), had greyish tones to the back and flanks, had a smoothly rounded head (without any Tufted Duck style peak), and though a bit too distant to be sure, seemed to only have a small amount of black on the nail of the bill. The bill pattern is often regarded as a clincher, so hopefully tomorrow it will be back, and a bit closer, to check this.

Heavily cropped Scaup

Female Pochard

The view from the shelter of the Meare Heath hide

16th March: Bittern population Booming

A survey by staff and volunteers early on Thursday morning recorded an incredible 35 booming Bitterns on the Avalon Marshes reserves. This is further confirmation that the organisations involved, the RSPB, Natural England and Somerset Wildlife Trust, have done a fantastic job in creating and managing reedbed habitats in the area, so well done to them.
Back in 1997, there were only 11 booming Bitterns in the entire United Kingdom, this survey recorded 16 on Ham Wall alone!

This is why Bittern populations are measured by listening for 'booming' males , they're not the easiest birds to see!

Friday, 15 March 2013

15th March: First Godwits

We managed a few hours down at the Avalon Marshes today before the rain set in. Highlight of the morning was 4 Black-tailed Godwit on the drained lagoon at Shapwick, the first ones of the year there I believe. They didn't hang around long though, and flew off in the direction of Catcott. The lagoon is usually underwater during the winter but is drained in the spring to provide a muddy feeding place for migrant wading birds such as these. Black-tailed Godwits spend the winter mainly on the coasts of Western Europe, and move up to inland breeding sites in Northern Europe in the Spring, stopping to refuel and rest at sites like Shapwick. These birds are the 'vanguard' of the movement, and later in the spring, there should be a constant presence of Black-tailed Godwits (maybe up to 100 birds) and other waders stopping off on their journeys. The birds today were still in their drab brown winter plumage, soon though they will moult into an eye-catching orangey breeding garb. In all plumages they show a striking white bar on the upperwing in flight.

Black-tailed Godwits

5 Great White Egrets were also present on the scrape
Over at Ham Wall, none of the recent rarities were on show during our quick look, but some common finches showed well.

Male Chaffinch on the path
 A pair of Lesser Redpoll were feeding in the small drainage ditch alongside the main path, picking fallen Alder seeds from the surface of the water.

Lesser Redpoll

Thursday, 14 March 2013

14th March

It was a beautiful morning on the Avalon Marshes today, a crisp layer of frost, clear blue skies, and not a breath of wind, a welcome change from recent weeks.
The water at Ham Wall RSPB was mostly frozen, forcing good numbers of ducks out into open water. The Pied-billed Grebe had managed to find a small ice-free area in its favoured spot close in front of the second viewing platform, and showed nicely. While watching this, we noticed the drake Ring-necked Duck in with a load of Pochard and Tufted Duck, in another clear patch towards the back edge of this flooded area.

Grey Herons had also been forced out into more visible areas, and several were feeding on the grassy footpaths, something they frequently do when their preferred wet areas are frozen. Of course, feeding on paths means they frequently get disturbed by people walking along, so there were often birds flying low around the reserve looking for a quiet spot.

Grey Heron

The ducks were also very mobile, flying from one patch of clear water to the next, often low overhead.

Drake Pochard

We had a quick look at the drained lagoon at Shapwick Heath, where only one Great-white Egret was present (along with one Little). A pair of Mistle Thrushes flew over, making their presence known by their loud rattling call, like one of those old wooden football rattles.

Mistle Thrush
After breakfast and watching a recording of the cricket back at home (congratulations to Somerset player Nick Compton for his second consecutive century for England by the way!), it was back out to enjoy the sunshine, at Somerset Wildlife Trusts' Westhay Moor.

It really felt like spring here, with a nice warmth from the sun, and various birds displaying and singing. A pair of Buzzards were noisily mewing at each other, and a Marsh Harrier was quatering the reedbed.

Common Buzzard

Marsh Harrier
The best thing about Westhay is that the hides are located right in the middle of the reed bed, so you really are down in the habitat, giving opportunities to get very close to the birds if you sit and wait long enough. Great Crested Grebes are very common here and one swum right across the front of the North Hide. 
Great Crested Grebe

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

13th March: Return to The Levels

After a couple of weeks away over in East Somerset, i'm back in Westhay and very much looking forward to the onset of spring on the Somerset Levels (though it didn't feel all that imminent with the snow flurries throughout the day!).

First task upon returning was to head down to the Avalon Marshes complex to see some of the quality birds present there at the moment.

5 Great White Egrets were on the drained lagoon at Shapwick Heath NNR. A colour-ringed adult, just starting to come into breeding plumage was fishing on its own on one side of the lagoon, while these 4 seemed to be trying to get some shelter from the wind on the edge of the reedbed. The two central birds had straw coloured bills with dark tips, a sign of young birds, so are possibly the birds hatched on-site last summer in the first british breeding record of the species. The other two looked to be adults in non-breeding plumage.

Great-white Egrets

Next stop was back over the east side of the road to Ham Wall RSPB. The drake Ring-necked Duck was showing nicely, though a little distantly at the far end of the reserve. Even in the gloom, the white 'spur' in front of the grey flanks shone out, as did the bill pattern, particularly the white ring around the base of the bill. Ring-necked Duck is an American species, similar to our Tufted Duck. This bird probably crossed the Atlantic and arrived in Europe last autumn having taken a wrong turn whilst migrating south through the Americas. It is often the case that birds arrive on our side of 'the pond' and remain undetected through the winter, and it is only when they move about in the spring and end up on a well watched site such as Ham Wall  that they get discovered by birders.
Ring-necked Duck
The Pied-billed Grebe was still on the newly flooded area in front of the second viewing platform. it looks very comfortable here, and hopefully will stay a bit longer.

Pied-billed Grebe
A nice sign of spring was this male Goldcrest, which was displaying, and flashing the orange centre of its crest stripe, even as it fed constantly. In cold weather such as we are having at the moment, small birds like this need to keep continuously searching for food, even if they may have other priorities on their minds.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Pied-billed Grebe

 The Somerset birding year got off to a flying start in February with the discovery on Ham Wall of the first county record of Pied-billed Grebe, an american relative of the Little Grebe, which is a common resident on the Avalon Marshes. The bird was first seen by an RSPB volunteer manning one of the viewing platforms, but it was too late for any other birders to see the bird before dusk.

At dawn the next morning, an expectant crowd of birders from Somerset and further afield had gathered in the hope of seeing the bird, but thick fog meant that the area it had been feeding in wasn't visible.

The anxiously waiting twitchers
At 8:30am the fog had just about lifted enough to see the reedy channels favoured by the bird the previous day, and it wasn't long before it was spotted through the gloom

The Pied-billed Grebe continued to show well as it moved around the newly flooded area, frequently diving and catching small fish. Eventually, the fog burned off, giving much clearer views, though the bird had moved a bit further out onto the water by this time, a bi too distant for good photos with my camera setup, but still giving excellent scope views

One of the resident male Marsh Harriers provided some welcome entertainment during periods when the Pied-billed Grebe was hiding behind the reeds.

The Pied-billed Grebe obviously likes the habitat at Ham Walls, as it is still present now, 3 weeks after it was first seen. It has been seen calling and displaying so is apparently looking for a mate. Given the rarity of the species in the UK it is almost impossible that it will find another Pied-billed Grebe, but previous vagrants have been known to hybridise with Little Grebes. It would certainly make an interesting addition to the breeding birds of the Avalon Marshes if it happens!