Tuesday, 1 November 2016

25th October - RSPB Ham Wall, RSPB Greylake, & Shapwick Heath NNR, Somerset

The previous day saw some quite heavy rain, and we spent the day in Exeter, a chance for me to relive old memories.  This morning though the rain had moved on and it was misty, in places quite dense, and we set off along quite narrow country lanes, and of course we became stuck behind a truck that struggled in places to get along the lanes, fortunately nothing was coming the other way.  I was confused when we arrived at the car park at the RSPB reserve at Ham Wall in Somerset as everything seemed the wrong way around, and it wasn't until I realised that the last time we were here back in 2012, we had approached from completely the opposite direction.

From the new car park and welcome centre we headed out onto the main path that leads out into the reserve.  It was still misty, and everywhere was very damp and wet.  We crossed the main dyke where last time we had watched clouds of Starlings pouring into the fields to roost.  Today a pair of Mute Swans sat on the bank, everything was quiet and calm

As we walked along the side of a ditch a Kingfisher once again flew away from us and out of sight, we were not having much luck with these birds.  The path came to a view point that looked out over an open piece of water.  Here amongst the Coots, Wigeon and Shovelers we found our first Great White Egret of the day.  Ham Wall is one of their strongholds, and this year several pairs have bred here, are they to be like the Little Egret, with the population steadily increasing

Cormorants were also about, a group of three perched on a wooden bench with their wings out stretched to dry, and this one reflecting nicely in the still waters.

New to the reserve since we were last here is the large Avalon hide looking out on the marshes to the north.  We crossed the ditch and made our way along the far side.  Up from one of the many hidden pools came another Great White Egret, and it flew low over us.

The white plumage seems to hide the prehistoric look that all herons can have in flight.

We walked on a boardwalk to the hide past a small copse of trees where Long-tailed Tits were calling.  The hide was huge, but with difficult windows to open, and in fact to see out.  There were no benches just plastic patio chairs, and the initial feel was not that good.  There was also very little out on the marsh.  In front of us a large group of mallard fed, there were also plenty of Teal and Gadwall, and a few Wigeon pairs.

Another visitor to the hide who had been there when we arrived pointed out a great White Egret to the side of the hide, and this one was a little closer and gave some good views.

White birds are notoriously difficult to photograph due to the background almost being darker, and usually the dominant light.  As a result you need to under exposure to get the right picture.  This usually means trial and error, but these were not too bad.

We sat and waited, but nothing happened, the ducks continued to feed, there was the occaisional whale and squeal from the reeds, but the owners of the call, the Water Rails refused to show themselves.  Eventually we left the hide and walked back along the boardwalk past the copse.  The Long-tailed Tits had moved to the reeds, and if they hadn't given themselves away by their calls you could have been forgiven for thinking they were Bearded Tits as they flew across the tops of the reeds.

We then proceeded to walk around all of the designated paths.  We saw very briefly at least two Marsh Harriers, heard as they flew overhead a small flock of Siskins, and saw a few duck and grebes on the open water, but it was a rather disappointing.  In return we had very wet boots and feet from walking through quite long, and very wet grass.

After having some lunch and a cup of tea we decided to try our luck at RSPB Greylake.  This is a relatively new RSPB reserve, again on the Somerset Levels, but this time on more open grazing land divided by water ditches.  It reminded me a lot of the area and landscape around Stubb Mill in Norfolk, and it is no surprise that the target prize at this reserve are the Common Cranes.

There were no cranes, and indeed no sight of the recently reported Pallid Harrier.  A female Sparrowhawk did fly low across the marsh in front of the hide as I sat down, it scattering the teal from the ditches.  But other than tat the hides were very quiet.  A shame because the area looked good for harriers, short-eared and barn owl, but there was a lot of clearance work going on, and no doubt this contributed to the lack of birds.

However as we came out of the hide I noticed an orange shape in a tree, as I got closer the orange shape flew off!  Yet another Kingfisher, but this time Helen managed to find it again, sitting quite close on a reed mace head.

At last we were able to get some great views before it eventually flew off.

When we arrived we met a gentleman who told us about a hide at Canada Farm on the Shapwick Heath nature reserve.  He even took the time to show us on the map where to go, he said he had been there a couple of days previously, and had seen several Kingfishers and a couple of Otters.  So leaving Greylake we followed the directions and after a little detour we found the path to the hide, parked and walked down a good track, which was fortunate because our boots were still soaking wet.  As the path turned to the left we turned right to a small hide.  As we entered we were the only ones present, and as we opened up the windows, there in front of us was a Kingfisher.

Almost immediately it dived and caught a fish before we had the chance to settle in.  Having dispatched the fish it sat quite content watching the water.

Checking us out in the hide.

It stayed here for a good 15 minutes.

But always watchful for any opportunity

Then with that characteristic whistle it was off, back over the tree and around the island in front of the hide.  With this big attraction gone we now had the chance to take in our surroundings.  We were looking out over a large flooded area, away from us there were dead trees where the rising water had killed them.  Everything was calm as the mist began to rise, and the sun was making a breakthrough to warm things up.  The water itself was so still, providing mirror quality reflections.  The only noise was that of the Coots and Moorhens dabbling in the water, the odd call of a Crow, or a distant call of a Heron and the gentle rustling of the reeds in front of us as the breeze picked up.  It was quite magical, and clearly a hidden gem.

perched on the dead trees were several Cormorants, all sitting there with wings outstretched to dry them out.  Every so often one would fly across the lake, and in fact on one of these flights the Cormorant decided to come to the water in front of the hide.  It then fished close to the reeds, as it moved under water you could see the swirls and bubbles as it twisted and turned, finally surfacing to swallow a small fish.

Others came in to join it, but didn't stay long diving and swimming away, their sleek, sinewy bodies meaning that as they dived and swam they hardly disturbed the water providing some lovely reflections.

On the far distant side of the lake a male Marsh Harrier quartered the reeds, and was then joined by a single Buzzard.  Great-crested Grebes and Mute Swans could also be seen but much to far away to be properly enjoyed.

Another Marsh Harrier appeared, this time slightly closer it was a female, and it flew around the perched Cormorants who didn't seem to bothered, but the Harrier did upset a few Teal that flew off with a resounding splash that resonated in the silence.

Then once again the whistle of a Kingfisher, and it was back in the same perch.

But this time not for long as another whistle signaled the arrival of another which resulted in a chase around the island, and then a dash low across the water in front of us.  It gave me the chance to capture the sight we had been seeing up to now of a flash of electric blue as the Kingfisher sped away from us, again the reflection being caught in the still clear water.

Having seen the Kingfishers, our hope was now to find an Otter.  From the sightings book in the hide it seemed that they were regular and would appear close to the island in front of us.  Every so often the water would move and at one point there was a large splash but nothing that allowed us to say with hand on heart it was an Otter.

By now the sun was out, and catching the damp wood of the hide that would show steam as the sun dried the wood.  The air became full of dragonflies, both Common Darters and Southern Hawkers could be seen quartering the reeds, occasionally bumping the leaves to see what was hiding.  This tactic was also adopted by several large wasps.  The main prey could well be the Caddis Flies that were also appearing in front of the hide taking advantage of the sunshine.

The Common Darters were more prepared to settle on the warm wood of the hide, the hawkers just kept on hawking.

The Kingfisher kept returning to its perch in the tree to the left of the hide, but the tree was now back lit by the sun and it was impossible to get good photographs now.  The water also continued to erupt by the side of the island, and this time I saw what could have been an eel, or could have been the tail of something else, again nothing that could be confirmed.

On the far side of the lake, suddenly the ducks became agitated, and flew up and what I thought at first was a goose, but was strangely brown flew towards us.  It then became clear that the goose was in fact a Bittern, and we watched as it flew across the lake and into the reeds just beyond the island in front of us.

We continued to watch as the sun began to sink lower, and edge began to go off the temperature.  We were determined to see an Otter, and again the water erupted by the side of the island that wasn't a fish, but with no conclusive sighting.  We could only conclude that if it was an Otter it was surfacing well into the reeds to breathe.

The lake became even more idyllic as the sun dropped in the sky, there was still a little mist around, and that along with the slight autumnal colour in the distant trees made it look even better.

In the end we had to concede that we were not going to definitely see the Otters, and that we would have be satisfied with some wonderful views of Kingfisher, the Bittern, and a wonderful peaceful afternoon in the company of some great wildlife and magical conditions.  It was a shame that this location was not closer, but we felt privileged to have found it, and very grateful to the gentleman who had given us the tip.  A day that could have turned out to be disappointing had turned itself around with a wonderful afternoon.

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