Thursday 23 March 2023

Oriole Birding - Forest of Dean & Somerset Tour - Day 4 - 16th March 2023

I opened the curtains at 6.30 and was greeted by some splendid roof top Feral Pigeons going about their business and even took some pictures of the Ferns on the tiles that included a fine Polypody sp and the scarce Rustyback. When we came out of the hotel we suddenly realised that the majestic Wells Cathedral was literally across the road and after a quick snap (and a Raven overhead) we set off for the Avalon Marshes. 

Feral Pigeon - so smart but ignored

Rustyback - Ceterach officinarum

Polypody sp

Wells Cathedral 

A Sparrowhawk was added on the way and we soon turned off towards Sharpham and wiggled our way through the lane of active peat works and packing plants (surely their days are numbered?) and parked up by the pit I had been sent to.   A immature female Lesser Scaup had been around for weeks (in fact arriving just two days after I was last down here) and she had been on this particular pit for some time now.  A singing Chiffchaff greeted us as we got out of the bus and Pochard and Great Crested Grebe were new for the trip.  I scanned the small numbers of Tufted Duck and Pochard present and found her after about ten minutes.  Thankfully she was close enough that I could talk the crew through the features of this difficult age and plumage.  In fact it was only the second one I had seen, the rest being males of one age or another.  It was a new bird for three of the group.  Great White Egrets drifted around and the fields were full of Mute Swans along with a few Canada and Greylag Geese. 

1w f Lesser Scaup

1w f Lesser Scaup

Pleased with the early success we continued the circuit and found our selves at Ham Wall. The two Glossy Ibis had been generally very hit and miss so we were very happy to find them almost immediately on the main flood.  It was good job that I checked through a gap when I had a chance as they were soon spooked by a Marsh Harrier and we never saw them again!  With a little bit of sun on them they were even actually living up to their name with green wings and a rich vinous hue to their bodies.  There were more Great Whites and Little Egrets and the Cormorants were on nests in the stunted dead trees.

Common Buzzard

Glossy Ibises - Andy Buck

Cetti’s Warblers were very vocal and there were a few more Chiffchaffs and we all had good views of several foraging birds with their pumping tails.  A couple of half hearted Reed Buntings sang and a male Stonechat  hunted from the channel side vegetation where a full breeding plumage Great White Egret stalked the margins.

Stonechat - Andy Buck

Chiffchaff - a very pale billed bird - Andy Buck

Chiffchaff - Andy Buck

Great White Egret

We veered off and down towards the Avalon tower hide negotiating our way past the posturing Robins guarding the bridge! It was a bit muddy in places with a Vicar of Dibley-esque puddle to be avoided on the way.  Water Rails were vocal and Great Crested and Little Grebes could be heard.


The Barn Owls had obviously been using the hide but we found clean seats and settled in for a Bittern watch. There were Marsh Harriers, Egrets, wildfowl and invisible Water Rails but no Bitterns till a minute before we were going to leave when two lads from Norfolk walked in, sat down and said ‘ Bittern climbing the reeds…’ It lingered just long enough to raise the bins before a very nice flap across to the next stand of reeds.  The steely blue cere of this male was visible even in flight!

Marsh Harrier

Bittern - Andy Buck - he was quick off the mark!

Bittern - Andy Buck

Bittern - Andy Buck

We thanked the Norfolk Wildlife Trust lads and headed back for lunch in the car park before part two took us across the road onto the Shapwick Heath side.  We walked as far as Noah Lake which I had not been to before hearing the booming of Bitterns both sides of the path on the way.  Noah’s was teaming with Wigeon along with a few other dabblers but it was the clouds of Sand Martins skimming the service that we had come to find and were not disappointed.  I have seen a handful of March birds before but nothing on this scale.  Tiny flies were evident and they were zooming close to the water after morsels.  It was wonderful to just close your eyes and hear the buzzing of this epic traveller as they revelled in the available food.


Andy and the Egret

Sand Martins hawking amongst the duck

I scanned for the Ring-necked Duck but there were only a few Tufted Ducks and Lesser Black-backs predominated over Herring and Black-headed Gulls.  I could see a couple of low Heron nests in a stunted tree and several Great White platforms stacked up high in the Phragmites.

We crossed over to the adjacent Seventy Acres Hide with the reverberating sound of a close Bittern sucking in air before letting it out in four long ooom-baaaahs.  We sat in the hide and saw nothing; came back out and he did it again! 

Lords and Ladies were pushing through in big clumps and I found some scarlet Elf Cups on rotting logs; my first for some years.  Bullfinches called in the Alder Carr and it was just crying out for a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Elf Cup

Lords and Ladies

Cotoptriche marginea


Dave and Margaret - the former in full ornithological battle mode 

We opted to retrace our steps to Ham Wall and then drive around to the other end of Shapwick. It rained all the way but thankfully let up once again when we stopped by the bridge.  The trail took us through the trees and we could once again here Bitterns along with ‘kipping’ Water Rails and clucking Moorhens.  Chiffchaffs were singing well and a huge cob Mute Swan sat defiantly by the path.  If you will pardon the phrase, he had the biggest knob I have ever seen on one.

Mute Swan  - Andy Buck

Mute Swan 

The North Kent posse were coming the other way but had not seen the Ring-necked Duck on Decoy Lake but we pressed on and spent a wonderful time out of the light rain watching the pit.  I checked all the Tufties but there was no RND and it would appear that there are large bits of invisible water between here and Noah Lake beyond.  Great Crested Grebes were cruising in pairs but were not displaying and seven Great White Egret nests could be seen in the reeds with adults moving in and out all the time.  

Great White Egrets

Great White Egret

The duck on the pool to our right were very agitated and rarely stayed long but I initially did not equate the high pitched piping with the threat that they could see.  I suddenly remembered what Otter was meant to sound like and told the crew to keep their eye open.  Almost immediately one swam across a small gap followed by what I presume was a large calling cub.

Otter - Andy Buck

The call felt like it was getting closer and then one appeared on the main lake and swam strongly away from us along the reed margin before disappearing into the next section.  Everyone got great views.

The walk back allowed us to cut across using the line of the Neolithic Sweet Track  which has been dated to 3807 BC using dendrochronology.  It was a swampy microcosm of Levels life, teaming with Mosses and Lichens (some of which I have named with help from more knowledgeable friends) along with Grasses and Ferns. I can only imagine the clouds on summer insects in here.  It was a magical place.

A Peltigera species of Lichen - possibly P didactyla or P membranacea - cheers Bob

Peltigera species of Lichen - possibly P didactyla or P membranacea

Cladonia sp

Old Candle Snuff fungi

Common Tamarisk-Moss - Thuidium tamariscinium

Bank Haircap-Moss - possibly  Polytrichastrum formosum

Scarlet Elf Cups again

With the weather closing back in I opted for no more walking in the grim conditions and instead decided to have a drive up toward the Westhay Moor reserve primarily to see if I could find any Cattle Egrets. Great Whites were encountered in the fields with the many Mute Swans and a few Fieldfare and Starlings were roving around.

Two Little Egrets caused a momentary stir in a field and ten Grey Herons were sat hunched and dejected along a single ditch.  Amazingly as I got to the farm on North Chine Drove where I saw two back in January I could immediately see a smattering of white around the cattle.  I pulled over and we all stood under the tail gate of the van to scope the white blobs.  There were seven Little Egrets and 23 Cattle Egrets all poking around the hooves of their bovine friends.  Success.

Cattle Egrets - Andy Buck

Cattle Egrets - Andy Buck

Cattle Egrets

Cattle Egrets

The day was done and we drove back to Wells in the increasing rain with happy but tired smiles.  My walk back to the Swan from Silver Street gave me two Kingfishers on the Bishop’s moat and a steady trickle of Pied Wagtails headed off to roost somewhere in the town.  I had a quick look at the walls alongside the path and with Enid’s later help added Maidenhair Spleenwort to the Fern list and a very lush Bryophyte that may be Cypress-leaved Plait Moss.  Dinner was a fine affair once again, momentarily disrupted by Nigel Kennedy walking by to join friends for dinner. A quick Google showed he was playing in the Cathedral the following two evenings.

Cypress-leaved Plait Moss – Hypnum cupresseforme

Maidenhair Spleenwort 

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