Monday, 5 December 2016

A day in Somerset

It's 3.30 in the morning. It's late November and I have several pieces of uni work due in at the end of the week. Temperatures outside are below zero (as is the temperature inside the caravan), and there's not a cloud in the sky. Max Thompson and I hop into his swift BMW and we head off to pick up fellow birders and photographers Jack Burton, Calum Urquhart and Toby Phelps.

So what are we up to at this time in the morning? Well, with an utterly superb forecast and Max's knowledge of the levels, we're heading to Somerset with the prospects of one of the coolest winter bird spectacles to be found in the UK: a mass Starling emergence of over half a million birds! Setting off in the early hours of the morning gives us enough time to arrive at the superb Ham Wall reserve for sunrise, where we hope to cache in on the amazing event. It's not all about the Starlings though - the Somerset levels are teeming with all manner of marshland bird in the winter, with spectacular numbers of wildfowl and waders flocking to the area to spend the harsh months on its extensive marsh and reedbed habitats. 


Ham Wall RSPB reserve
the superb sunrise we were treated to at Ham Wall

With Friday's deadlines now passed and a period of slight respite ensuing with regards to uni work, I thought I would write a quick blog post on our day, as it was absolutely fantastic! You should definitely take a look at Max's blog from the trip too

So onto the trip: we arrived at Ham Wall at a little past 7am, and as we walked towards the reed beds, a background noise started to become evident, like the background sound of surf at the coast. This was the sound of 500, 000 Starlings waking up. 

As we approached the general area in which they were roosting, we made a decision as to where would be best to view the emergence. Cupping hands to ears to amplify the sound, we settled on a hide overlooking a small lagoon, and sat down to wait. The conditions were fantastic, with a heavy frost and a glowing orange-yellow light on the horizon as dawn awakened.

And then the emergence began...

Beginning with low-level movements of a few hundred birds through the reed beds, suddenly a huge flock would lift up in a great woosh, and a few thousand Starlings wheeled into the sky in a black cloud. The following twenty minutes was pretty spectacular, and hard to describe - Starling emergences aren't like roosts, where flocks gradually arrive, mill around and then pile into the reeds. When they head off for the morning, they simply all lift up in the space of ten minutes and fly around before dispersing in great masses...

It was an awesome sight, and I am currently processing the video footage from our day to give a more impactful impression of the event!

Once the Starlings had dispersed, we ambled back to the car and headed off to our next stop: Westhay Moor reserve. The sun was just rising as we walked back to the car, making for some ethereal scenes with the heavy frost...


Jack Burton and the pathway at Ham Wall reserve

Black-headed Gull in the sunrise

A rather nice sunrise

A selection of macro shots...

Somerset Wildlife Trust, Westhay Moor

We were hoping to get some close views of the regular visiting Bearded Tits at Westhay Moor, although unfortunately they didn't materialise in the end. Nevertheless, our day's bird list steadily crept past the 50 and 60 mark as a host of species made themselves apparent: Redwings, Fieldfares and Mistle Thrushes overhead, Marsh Harriers drifting over the reed beds, Cetti's Warblers and Water Rails exploding into song and squealing calls, and a host of wildfowl dabbling around in the lagoons. 

With no sign of the bearded tits in their usual haunt, we headed off for a wander and decided to take a look at the Mire. This area of boggy land looked pretty magical in the early morning light, and it was brilliant when we came across eight Jack Snipe and half a dozen Common Snipe whilst traipsing around. The distant calls of Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers rang out in the clear morning air, with small flocks of Linnets flying overhead. 

a frosty scene on the mire at Westhay Moor

RSPB Greylake

Our next stop was the superb marshes at Greylake, where a thousands and thousands of wildfowl and waders can be found a little later in the winter. We weren't at all disappointed with the diversity and number of birds present, even if it was a little quiet by Somerset standards! An hour in the hide scanning the marshes rewarded us with views of a few thousand Teals, which would periodically rise up in a great cluttered flock as a Marsh Harrier sidled past; hundreds of Wigeons, scores of Snipes, and flocks of Lapwings and Dunlins were amongst the other birds present. We also managed to pick out a couple of Water Pipits, and a distant Peregrine with bulging crop evidence of its recent hunting success!  

female Teal stretching its wing

a small part of one Teal flock

A cream-crown Marsh Harrier sent the Teal into a bit of a frenzy on this occasion!

Teal flock in slow-shutter

Exploring around

After Greylake, we made a few other stops around the levels, with Max showing us a few of his local haunts and great birding spots. It was fantastic to see the hawthorn-lined hedgerows overflowing with winter thrushes in places, the likes of Redwings and Fieldfares feasting on the bright red berries. Out on the levels, Toby picked up on a distant Crane, which was superb to watch through the scope when reminded of the amount of effort behind this species' reintroduction.

The marshes were teeming with Lapwings and more widfowl aggregation including thousands of Wigeon and Teal, with some smart Pintail hiding amongst them. A superb sight was when a Peregrine blasted in and sent a small flock of Teals into the air; it was then joined by THREE Marsh Harriers as they wheeled around in avoidance of the predator's talons. Great White Egrets were another great species to see - a bird that has truly settled in as a permanent resident in the reserves around Somerset.

Some more wintry scenes from the day... 

The roost: back to Ham Wall

As the light began to fade, we headed back to Ham Wall to witness the opposite of our morning's spectacle: Starlings heading to roost. This time we were stood amongst a hundred or so other people who had also come to see this amazing sight.

We headed back to the same viewing area, and waited. Slowly a couple of loose flocks started arriving, before black clouds developed in the distance and then flocks several thousand strong would pass overhead and contort into various shapes as they plunged into the reeds. Flock after flock arrived from every direction: sometimes thousands, sometimes hundreds of birds. Some more distant gatherings performed some murmurations, which I focussed on filming (to be revealed soon).   

We stayed well after sunset, watching as the clouds of starlings settled down for the night and moved around the reeds. The sound was awesome, and the shear volume hard to describe! A single Bittern rose up from one area of reeds and flew past, whilst Grey Herons stalked in the growing shadows...

Heading Home

Our last stop for the day, after a meal at Max's house and a search for night-time insects, was this rather magnificent Oak. I have been looking for a suitable tree to shoot against the night sky for sometime, and Max had promised me that he had the perfect Oak in mind - he didn't disappoint! The superb Oak tree stood atop a gentle hill, beneath a fantastic starry sky and the milky way...perfect for some night-time photography!

So there we are - another fantastic trip to Somerset and a total of 70 species recorded during the trip! Not bad for a winter's day. I hope to try and keep the blog a little more up to date over christmas, although the wok load as restricted time allowances for writing to a minimum over this semester! You can keep in touch with my photography at the following links too...

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