The second part of my July holiday saw me spending just under a week in Somerset. My family have a holiday cottage in Roadwater, a village in West Somerset on the northern edge of the Exmoor National Park. I’ve been going there since I was born, and with my family roots partly being in Somerset & Bristol I am normally down that way a few times a year to visit family or to stay in the cottage.
Roadwater itself is quite good for birds. It is based in the the heart of a densely, mixed wooded valley, attracting a range of woodland species such as Siskin, much of the commoner warblers, Nuthatch, Green Woodpecker and many other species. Spotted Flycatcher breeds there, with at least 2 pairs seen during my visit. Roadwater’s location on the edge of the Exmoor National Park means it also gets a few upland based species such as Raven, with some lone individuals seen during my stay. The River Washford runs through the village, which holds Dipper fairly regularly and very occasionally the odd Kingfisher. That stay was the first time I’d connected with Kingfisher there; a tantalizing glimpse of azure bolting across the river at the back of the cottage on 8th July. This was a great relief to me as I had spent years looking for them. Over the years we’ve had other locally uncommon species such such as Red Kite, Marsh Tit, Little Owl and even Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker. Only my Dad has had the latter two, I was too young to be birding at the time. Below are a few pics of the Roadwater countryside .
Anyway, we had a full day’s birding in Somerset on 9th July. The summering Iberian Chiffchaff at Porlock was only 15 miles miles away, so this was our first port of call. The weather wasn’t promising; overcast with a few threatening rain showers in the distance. As we pulled up by the log pile in the woods at the start of the Porlock Toll Road – where the bird in question was favouring – my hopes weren’t altogether high. My worries that the bird wouldn’t be singing seemed be coming true, as it was nowehere to be seen nor heard after half an hour. My first Nuthatch of the year and a Spotted Flycatcher were of some consolation, but I was already giving up hope. With this being my only chance to connect, I was determined to see it and make sure I would not have to go through the pain of hearing about it showing well and singing on the next sunny day that came along, as would inevitably happen.
Twenty minutes passed and we had nearly given up. Dad decided to walk up the toll road a bit as a last resort. I stayed put just in case it started to sing, but too became curious and wandered up the road a little way. As I was walking up I was stopped in my tracks by a Bullfinch-esque descending, monosyllabic ‘heeoo’ call coming from the trees on the right hand side of the road. But this was no Bullfinch; it was higher pitched than said species and louder. I became aware that I was probably right by the Iberian Chiffchaff. The aforementioned call is typical of the Iberian Chiffchaff call, whilst collybita (Common Chiffchaff) has a familiar, ascending ‘huuit’ call. Dad was round the corner from me so I wasn’t able to alert him; I had to concentrate on 100% confirming and seeing the bird in question first.
I soon caught a glimpse of the Iberian Chiffchaff flitting into a bush very close to where I was standing. It was elusive for a minute, but I had a couple more glimpses as it continued to call. I then had it flying back into the trees again and heard two snippets of classic Iberian Chiffchaff song; a rising and falling trysyllabic ‘chiff-chiff sweet sweet tr-tr-tr’ , as opposed to the simple disyllabic ‘chiff-chaff’ of collybita. It stopped singing; I called Dad immediately.
It transpired that I’d got lucky. It didn’t sing for the remainder of our visit, and called twice in half an hour. Once again views were limited to rare glimpses; neither of us managed a view for more than a second. It was clear things weren’t going to improve so we left it there. Dad hadn’t heard it sing so he felt that wasn’t enough for him to say he’d had it. Having heard it sing myself and got a few glimpses at close quarters, I was able to confirm it and that was enough for me. For clips of this individual calling and singing + pics see: http://www.somersetbirder.co.uk/june12.htm
Whilst personally successful and relieved to have had it, I was frustrated as we drove to Shapwick Heath NNR near Glastonbury– it was hard graft and the reward of a few glimpses and one burst of song was minimal and I was disappointed Dad hadn’t heard it sing. Not exactly memorable. Shapwick and the adjacent Ham Wall RSPB (collectively known as Avalon Marshes) always bring me ceaseless joy though, and my visit there made me feel much better. It really is a wetland heaven there, so much so that it is currently home to the first breeding Great White Egrets in the UK, which I was hoping to see. Little Bittern bred there in 2009, and I had 2 Glossy Ibis there in 2011. In my eyes it is without doubt up there amongst the best reserves in the UK for birds.
We started at Shapwick, with the hope that the GWEs were on their favoured Noah’s Lake. This was not the case, though a Little Egret was present. There was plenty to keep us entertained during our time at Shapwick, the definite highlight of which was two Hobbies hawking over the woods at the back of Noah’s Lake for 10 minutes or so – a scarcity in Scotland and thus always personally delightful to see. Cracking birds too. A male Marsh Harrier passed over whilst we were here, and a Kingfisher was a lovely bonus flying up the creek by the path on the way back. When at Shapwick/Ham Wall I’m always struck by the density of warblers. That afternoon we managed: 20 Reed Warblers, 10 Sedge Warblers, 6 Cetti’s Warblers, 5 Garden Warblers, 15 Blackcaps, 10 Whitethroats and 10 Chiffchaffs. The numbers of commoner warblers there is just fantastic and hits you in the face; I’ve never seen so many warblers in one area.
We moved across to Ham Wall RSPB to check the lagoons there for GWE. There weren’t any from the first lagoons, so we made the long walk to the second set of lagoons. Success was had when within 5 minutes of stationing ourselves there a pair of Great White Egrets rose from the vast reedbed expanse, parting in opposite directions from one another in typically languid but mesmerisingly elegant flight. Awe-struck by their aerial beauty, I watched the male, still in breeding plumage with its all black bill, disappear to the east. The female, in non-breeding plumage with its largely orange bill (save the tip which was black, distinguishing it from any of its young), stayed in view for a while before submerging into the reeds.
The male flew back in eventually and submerged, but from then on neither of them flew back up from the reeds. We meandered back towards the car, stopping at the first lagoons again. A Bittern briefly in flight above the reeds was the definite highlight here, only my second of the year. At least 8 Great-crested Grebes, x2 moulting Pochards, x8 Gadwall and 5 Little Grebes (a pair and 3 young) were also present, the Little Grebe chicks quite something to see as they begged for food.
To round things off, we found the female Great White Egret fishing on the opposite lagoon. Fantastic, prolonged views of the bird were had as it displayed its fishing prowess down to 90ft, keeping stone still before going in for the kill. It’s pictured below. There aren’t many species that I admire more than GWEs, so this was a wonderful experience.
A taste of Iberia in Somerset? Yes, with Iberian Chiffchaff and Great White Egrets being the highlights and providing that taste!
Thanks for reading,