Friday, 31 May 2013

31st May

We look all set for another wonderful weekend on the Avalon Marshes, the weather's looking perfect and the wildlife is out in force!

At this time of year there is an almost constant cacophony of sound coming from the reedbeds and pools, leaving nay visitors confused as to it's source. The culprit is calling Marsh Frogs, the largest European frog, though not  native to the UK. Marsh Frogs were introduced accidentally to kent in the early 1900's and have since spread across the country, living permanently in wet habitats, unline our native frog which spends most of the year on dry land.
Interestingly, there has been some debate over the identity of the frogs on the Avalon Marshes, with some herpetologists suggesting that they could actually be Edible, or maybe even Pool Frogs. Identification between the species seems to be somewhat difficult with individuals being highly variable.
Either way, they're a fascinating creature to have around, and being so loud they certainly make themselves an integral part of the landscape. There is also the added bonus that they provide a great food source for Herons, Bitterns, and Egrets, which goes some way to explaining why we have so many here.

The highlight of the day for me was seeing several Banded Demoiselles at Shapwick Heath NNR, the first ones of the year. None posed for a photo, but i'm sure i'll get something in the coming months, they really are a stunning little damselfly, one of my favourites.
Another Swift photo, still not quite got the shot i'm after

Great-crested Grebe
 The best bird of the day on the Avalon Marshes was an unseasonal male Hen Harrier flying west over Meare Heath, unfortunately I was at Ham Wall at the time.

Monday, 27 May 2013

27th May

 The number of Hobbies on the Avalon Marshes may have dropped a bit, (down from a high of c53 to c20 today), but they're still putting on a great show. It was quite blustery this morning so with the insects not flying too high, the Hobbies were putting in a few low passes overhead at Ham Wall RSPB.

Whilst pointing the camera in the air into good light, a few other things gave photo opportunities:


Black-tailed Godwits
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Sunday, 26 May 2013

26th May

Another glorious spring day on the Avalon Marshes with much the same birds as yesterday; Bittern, Hobby, Marsh Harrier, Great White Egret and Bearded Tit all seen well. No Cranes today though.
The damselflies are truly a sight to behold at the moment. In the early mornings before they all lift up high, up to 5 species are hanging around lines of nettles and long grass on the edge of paths in their thousands. The spiders are making the most of this food source and are catching many in their nets, creating epic battles of life and death every few metres along the pathways. It's not quite lions and wildebeest in the Masai Mara, but it's still a fascinating struggle to watch.

Damselfly carnage!

This Red-eyed Damselfly has avoided the spiders webs for now

Little Egret

Spotted Flycatcher, now back on territory


Saturday, 25 May 2013

25th May

The bank holiday weekend got off to a flier with a great calm, sunny day today, and plenty of birds too.
Highlight of the day was 2 Cranes which circled over the Avalon Marshes for an hour, their unique 'bugling' call carrying far in the still air.
3 Drake Garganey together at Ham Wall RSPB was a nice sign that some of these great birds are staying for the whole summer, and 3 Wigeon are also appearing to be summering, most unusual for this Scandinavian nesting duck.
The usual 25-30 Black-tailed Godwits on Meare Heath were accompanied today by a Bar-tailed Godwit.
Hobbies are here in good numbers still, I had a max. of 26 but there were probably a few more about.
Common Crane

Bittern- plenty of feeding flights today

Hobby- a low one over the car park while watching Cranes

Swift about to catch a fly

Whitethroat- seem to be everywhere right now
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Wednesday, 22 May 2013

22nd May

Apologies for the lack of updates over the last week, i've been quite busy with admin stuff, and when i've managed to get out onto the reserves the light has always been poor so good photos have been hard to come by. 
So, what's about? Well, migration is slowly coming to a close, there's been a few migrant waders, a flock of 8 Turnstone at Shapwick Heath NNR being the pick of the bunch along with a few tardy Whimbrel, Ringed Plover and Dunlin. Most birds are settled on breeding grounds now, so it wont be until August that we get to witness the full extent of the miracle of migration again.
Our breeding birds are definitely settled, there's a slight lull in activity at the moment as territories have been established, and females are keeping their heads down incubating eggs. Any moment now though, chicks will start to hatch out and there will be an explosion of activity as hungry young mouths demand feeding. 
Possibly the worst photo ever taken of a Bearded Tit!
This male was carrying food back to a nest
This Blue Tit showed much better, looking for insects in reed stems
in much the same manner as a Bearded Tit

Bittern in the evening gloom

This drake Garganey has been showing well a Shapwick Heath
most mornings this week

Saturday, 18 May 2013

18th May

It was another superb sunny day on the Avalon Marshes today, and dragonflies are out in force!

Four-spotted Chaser, my first of the year
Hairy Dragonfly

Huge numbers of damselflies have hatched recently, so many that
this Blue-tailed and Azure had to share the same blade of grass!

The increase in invertebrates has seen a corresponding increase in Hobbies, with over 50 across the Avalon Marshes today, Noah's Lake at Shapwick Heath NNR seems to be attracting the biggest numbers. A Red Kite and a Peregrine were also over Shapwick, and a Garganey and a Bearded Tit at Ham Wall RSPB.

Just outside the Avalon Marshes, a BLACK STORK was reported flying SSW over Woolavington this afternoon (per SOS message board)

Friday, 17 May 2013

17th May

The Avalon Marshes are really buzzing right now! I had a very enjoyable morning out on Shapwick Heath NNR, the hoped-for migrant waders were in short supply (just 1 Ringed Plover and 20 Black-tailed Godwits) but local summer wildlife is almost out in full force now. 
There has clearly been a big hatch of odonata recently, as walking through dewy grass this morning, Blue-tailed and Azure Damselflies were flickering up everywhere.

Blue-tailed Damselfly
 Higher up, plenty of Hobbies are feeding on the flying insects, often giving superb low flyovers

And there's a constant background sound of singing Reed Warblers. I don't think there's any spot on the reserve where you can't hear several of these from.
Reed Warbler taking a break from singing to check me out

And of course, it's rare for a day to go by without something un-expected making an appearance. Today the surprise came in the form of a Red Kite that drifted over with a few thermalling Buzzards.
The wings on this bird look a bit strange as it is moulting a few of its flight feathers. Old, worn feathers are replaced with new ones, and this is done symmetrically on each wing so as to have minimum effect on aerodynamics.
Red Kite
Also seen on the Avalon Marshes today: A Crane was at Catcott Lows this morning. Apparently it was not bearing a colour-ring from the Great Crane Project and so was most likely a wild bird

Thursday, 16 May 2013

16th May

I spent most of the day Bittern monitoring on Shapwick Heath NNR, of course, most of my attention was focussed on the Bitterns, but when you're sat in a reedbed for several hours its impossible not to notice a few other things:

Hobbies reached their highest count of the year, with 28 overhead at one time
including these 2 together

This male Bearded Tit gave great views but never showed his whole self at one time

Damselflies: i'll try and identify them later!

Reed Warblers were singing all over the place

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

15th May: Prehistoric trackway reconstruction

Today I was volunteering on Shapwick Heath NNR, helping to re-construct a section of prehistoric trackway. Thousands of years ago, when the Avalon Marshes were much wetter than they are today, wooden trackways were used by the local people to connect the islands of dryer ground. Some of these trackways have been found preserved in the peat, and now an effort is being made to re-construct some of them to demonstrate how our ancestors used this landscape.
It was a very fun and interesting day, using basic tools not dissimilar to the bronze aged tools used to make the originals, and it was great to learn a bit more about the fascinating and rich heritage of the area. The site chosen for the re-construction was in the wet woodland at the West end of the reserve near Decoy Hide, near where the 'Sweet Track' was first discovered. The plan is to make sections of the different styles of pre-historic pathways found in the area, and allow visitors to use them to get a glimpse of what life here would've been like thousands of years ago, and to aid exploration of an intriguing and rare habitat.
The wet, boggy woodland the trackway passes through 
The section we were making today was a replica of the 'Meare Heath Trackway', a relatively advanced  style of trackway using solid planks of wood that sit on top of sleepers that are staked into the ground.

The re-construction

A lovely little frog in one of the ditches

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

14th May: Otters

Having only seen a few subtle signs of their presence over the last few weeks, I was delighted to bump into a pair of Otters on Shapwick Heath NNR early this morning. They crossed the main path in front of me in the drizzly half-light and disappeared into the South Drain straight away. I plonked myself down into the grass alongside the drain and hoped that they hadn't seen me and would come my way, I wasn't disappointed! After a quick look at the far bank they slid back into the water and swum right past me, either totally oblivious, or simply not bothered by my presence. This was the closest i've ever been to Otters on the Avalon Marshes, it was over all too briefly, but was absolute magic.

One of the pair was missing an eye! It seemed healthy enough otherwise though
so its injury doesn't seem to harm its ability to catch fish

The onset of rain made birding a bit difficult; the Wood Sandpiper was still on Meare Heath, and a Common Tern was on Noah's, but the avian highlight was vast numbers of Swifts, Swallows, and Sand and House Martins feeding low over the reedbeds.

just a few Swallows

Raptor Persecution in Somerset?

I have been sent this sequence of photographs of a 1st summer Marsh Harrier, taken at Greylake last weekend. The bird shows damage to its flight feathers and legs consistent with shotgun injuries that I have observed in Malta, where many migrant raptors are targeted by hunters.

This bird was first seen as a juvenile at Greylake last November and was suspected to be one of the offspring from successful nests on the Avalon Marshes. Back then it had outer primaries on the left wing snapped, a classic shotgun injury, and it has been seen at several sites around the area since then, it appears that one of the damaged primaries has since dropped off. When it was seen last weekend, it was also missing some inner primaries from its right wing, and one leg was dangling, again 'classic' shotgun injuries. This suggests that it has been shot at again recently, causing more damage.
The feather injury it sustained from the first incident clearly did not actually harm the bird that much, as it is still alive now, but this new injury to its leg could really impact its ability to hunt, and thus is potentially life threatening.

Large birds often have gaps showing in their wings as they moult and replace worn feathers, so this is not necessarily an indication of being shot. However feathers being snapped up, and missing feathers not being symmetrical on each wing, is something that is only likely to have occurred as a result of shooting.

I find it absolutely sickening that raptor persecution is possibly taking place in Somerset in this day and age, there is no excuse whatsoever for this. Thanks to a considerable conservation effort, Marsh Harriers are slowly returning to the Somerset Levels having been extirpated in the 20th century by a combination of habitat loss and persecution. With a naturally high mortality rate of young birds, the deliberate killing of even 1 bird a year will seriously slow re-colonisation. Aside from population level concerns, the suffering caused to individual birds is shocking and un-acceptable.

Obviously it is vey difficult to prove that raptor persecution is taking place, and even harder to catch who-ever is doing it. It is thus vital that all incidents are reported in the hope that a pattern can be established that could give some clues as to where shootings are taking place. The RSPB have a reporting form HERE on their website for reporting wildlife crime incidents. If you see a protected species showing injuries you suspect were caused by shooting, please report it to them. If you are not sure, or don't want to report it yourself, feel free to e-mail me at If possible, a photograph showing a suspected injury would be incredibly useful.

I saw the same bird this morning at Ham Wall RSPB, so it is moving around a bit. It would be very interesting to hear of other sightings of this bird (it is quite distinctive!) in order to see if it is surviving its injuries.
A bit more distant here, but the dangling leg and feather damage is still visible