Tuesday 16 January 2024

The Somerset Levels 6th-7th January 2024

A www.blueeyedbirder.com adventure:

Somerset beckoned on the 5th and living in Lowestoft does add one little travelling headache with an extra three or so hours on the journey but it all went smoothly and there was even time to stop once again on Salisbury Plain to look for the Great Bustards.

No luck this time but there were Red Kites drifting effortlessly across the landscape with hoards of Rooks and Jackdaws, odd dotted pairs of Stonechats and several Corn Buntings ‘plipping’ there way from one field to another.  Roe Deer fed quietly in the margins and there were several Buzzards and Kestrels too.  The route from here went over the top through Warminster and once the gear was dropped off in the Glastonbury Travelodge there was still time for a twilight drive to check out the road conditions prior to meeting the guests the next day.  A lovely dinner was had with Martin and Hazel in Langport – one day I will see the view from the house over the flooded Sedgemoor in daylight. Two Barn Owls ghosted over the road on the way back and a Tawny Owl came up of the verge near Ham Wall.

6th January:

It was clear and bright the next morning and the posse convened in the Greylake carpark.  The light was superb but the two hides were taken up entirely by the big lens brigade who were stood and sat in front of every port. Trying to use the scope to scan the assembled duck for the drake Baikal Teal was very tricky to say the least and I had to resort to peaking around the sides. One chap very kindly got up to allow a couple of my party to sit and watch for which I thanked him.



The dabblers were, as usual, wonderfully close and gleaming in the sunshine. A wave of ducky whistles, plips, plops and quacks mingled with the calls of agitated Lapwings and conversational Golden Plovers.  There were 40 Dunlin with the Plovers and Snipe fidgeted around the Reedmace margins.

Golden Plovers


Five Great White Egrets were striding across the flooded meadows and Marsh Harriers and Buzzards were out hunting. Chiffchaffs and Cetti’s Warblers were busy feeding in the Reeds and Willows and a young Otter was heard piping but never came into views, unlike a Water Rail which crept out to feed around the base of a coppiced Willow stool.  Other squealed all around us.

We were on the way back along the flooded paths when I picked up two Cranes flying in. They landed and postured and much bugling ensued causing an invisible second pair to join in.  The male was noticeably bigger and the red crown was puffed up and glowing.

The sound followed us back and it is probably one of my most loved bird sounds.  I do need to see them.  I tend to close my eyes and let the sound drift across and through me.

With Cranes safely seen I opted to not go down to Swell Wood to the south and instead headed straight for Ham Wall.  The good light was actually problematical and I could not find the two Ring-necked Ducks as the view was always into the sun and reeds but it was still a pleasant pre lunch walk with four Great White Egrets, hoards of Gadwall and a pair of Great Crested Grebes that were already engaged in some rudimentary display.

Great White Egret

Great Crested Grebes

Siskins were feeding in the Alders and a couple of Lesser Redpolls bounced over but I could not find Bullfinch this time although Goldcrests were found in song and showed well while we were being molested by the local Robins.

During lunch I investigated the Teasels (again) in the car park and every head I looked in contained a moth grub and fortuitously I took some shots of the back end as it disappeared into its seed hole which revealed a lack of anal cones (apparently!) making it Endothenia gentianeana.

Endothenia gentianeana.

Endothenia gentianeana - oooo! no anal cones

Now, at this point, if I had looked at my RBA messages I would have seen that there was a female Baikal Teal showing nicely just down the road and we would still have been back in time for the Starlings but I did not and therefore a second one eluded us!

However, our early walk down onto Shapwick Heath and Noah Lake was productive with a pair of Stonechats, several more Great White Egrets and a huge number Wigeon and Pintail trying to stay in the middle of the lake as dusk fell.  There were no Cattle Egrets.  

Displaying Pintail 

A Kingfisher flashed by and perched up, allowing scope views and at that point a large dog Otter surfaced just below the hide, saw (heard more likely) us, slapped its tail and disappeared in trail of bubbles.

Great White Egret

Back on the main track a huge crowd was amassing for the hoped for Starling event and by the time the first waves started to snake their way across the pinkening sky there were literally hundreds strung out for at least half a mile.

The birds arrived on cue and although there were no Peregrines to stir them up into twisting swirling shapes, it was still a wondrous sight.  Most dropped out of view to the north of the reedbed but it was too early for them to have dropped in to roost and I had a feeling that they would all appear once again.  Many people packed up at this point and walked back while there was still some light and then missed out of the astonishing spectacle of every bird taking to the air from a hidden field to fill the sky with a blanket of Starlings that looked like a mad experiment of avian pointillism which at times literally blacked out the sky beyond.

There was still not a sound from the hundreds of thousands of swirling birds and then the word was given to descend and they crashed down into the reedbed in front of us in an undulating wave of birds and sound.  I closed my eyes once again, listening to the avian thunder of countless birds breaking like Cornish rollers into their reedbed roost. 

The crashing waves

And then at another unheard signal the off switch was flicked and the reedbed returned once again to silence.  We walked back in the gloom and stopped to put the scope on Jupiter and four of its moons.  A few other people stopped and looked – all were blown away.  Two Woodcock came out of the Blackthorn thicket as we neared the car park as a fine way to round up a splendid day on the Levels.

7th January:

The next morning was bright once again and we soon met up in the car park at Westhay Moor where a walk down the flooded road was our mission.  Redwings and Fieldfares came out of the flooded woodland and hedges and Siskins and Lesser Redpolls dangled from the Alders while Cetti’s Warblers and Chiffchaffs foraged with Robins and Wrens lower down.  Our quarry was a particular flooded field and it was impossible to miss it as it was covered in white birds.  

Some were Black-headed and Common Gulls but most were Egrets.  There were 11 Little Egrets and five stately Great Whites but most were Cattle Egrets and we counted at least 450.  It was quite a spectacle and not one I ever thought I would see in the UK.  Many were just loafing around but every now and then a large group would get up and move to a feeding area over the hedge.  A quick count would see us with a hundred birds foraging in just this one group – more than all the Cattle Egrets I have probably ever seen in the UK added up.

Simply ridiculous

Oh and let’s not forget the three Glossy Ibis that were busy pulling up lengthy worms from the pasture not 30m away.  How things change.

Ibis and Egrets

We sloshed our way back down the road narrowly avoiding the road wrath of a scowling member of the clergy who did not want to slow down to allow us to step off the road.  Hopefully his Sunday sermon was less full of anti-ornithological fire and brimstone.  Cranes were heard somewhere beyond the trees.

A comfort stop at the Avalon centre very quickly became a coffee and bacon butty stop before circling around to Catcott Lows where the Baikal Teal had been seen the day before but typically it was absent but it was good to catch up with Graham Conduit who I only ever see in Lesvos and watch the gleaming wildfowl in front of the hide.  Unsurprisingly there were three Great White Egrets out front. 



A last stop back at Ham Wall for a late lunch and a final walk gave us lots more Tufted Ducks to sift trough but still no Ring-necked Ducks although we did pick up two Goosander.  The party disbanded leaving Karen and I stood up on the bridge for a final duck hunt.  Much to my delight I found the female RND tucked in to the reed edge.  The views were rubbish but enough to clinch the id. A male Bullfinch even then did the decent thing and landed in front of us for a fine finale.

We said our farewells and went our separates ways and Andrea and I then headed south down the M5 towards Paignton so that I could do a recce for a possible future trip extension.

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