I’ve rarely been in the position on New Year’s Day to get out for some proper birding. This New Year just gone was probably the first time I’d managed to do this. I had been in Somerset since 28th, and with birding during this period having previously been limited to taking the bins on a walk round Wimbleball Lake (producing 10 Gadwall, 25 Tufted Ducks, 3 Goldeneyes and 10 Little Grebes), we were due a full day’s birding. We were thus up bright and early, eager to embrace the new year and get out into the field for the first time.
The yearlister’s instinct always gets hold of me during the New Year period, albeit briefly, so we had our target birds right from the off and our movements that day planned in advance. It took a fair while to reach our first destination from Minehead; Hawkridge Reservoir. The reservoir was well concealed amongst a number of interweaving small country roads east of Nether Stowey and near the village of Spaxton, so we ended up being lost for at least 20 minutes before we eventually found it. On arriving at the reservoir we picked up a Raven overhead, as well as a posse of 6 Great-crested Grebes and a loquacious Green Woodpecker. Our target, bird – a Ring-necked Duck – would be amongst a posse of Tufted Ducks. It transpired that the Tufted Duck group – just 10 or so – were miles off and that the access from the car park we had stopped in was limited, so we drove down the road a bit to see if we could get any closer.
Luck was on our side, as we found a car park which placed us right in front of the flock in question.In the ideal conditions it didn’t take long to pick out the 1st winter drake Ring-necked Duck, which largely associated with the drake Tufties. What I had not quite anticipated was the extent to which the development of this bird’s plumage was retarded. Many of the distinguishing features which are normally visible on 1w drakes were not present on this individual. There was a complete absence of any pale subterminal band at the bill tip, and it was showing large areas of white at the base, both features aking to a juvenile bird. My estimation would be that this bird was in a trasitional phase between juvenile and 1st winter plumage (though very near the end of its moult), given that it showed a disinct peaked crown and the yellow iris of a 1st winter, yet also the aforementioned two features that are typical of a juvenile bird. Further subtle diagnostics were a very diffuse ring on the neck, and pale undertail coverts, quite unlike the UTCs of a female Tufty. At points we lost the bird, with its back turned, when it proved more tricky to pick out. Views of the bird in horizontal stance however emphasised the peaked crown and ‘S’ shaped flank panel. Had this bird been distant it would have been tricky to ID, without doubt. However, with views down to 15ft in the crisp sunlight we weren’t really faced with this problem. Certainly a very subtle individual that was great fun to analyse, and a fantastic start to the year.
Our next stop was the nearby Steart, a place that brings back lots of memories from being taken there several times as a young child. Steart Point sticks out into the Parrett Estuary and Bristol Channel near Bridgewater. Even though we knew the area fairly well, we had no idea how to get to Stockland Reach for our next target – Temminck’s Stint – which turned out to be in a flooded field at least a mile from the nearest car park. Reaching this flooded field saw us having to walk through a mud-bath for 20+ minutes before we finally came across the wind blown flood, in and around a field where construction was being done. There, hunkering down against the harsh wind, was sat a miniscule Temminck’s Stint. It looked tiny with the bare eyes even though it was only about 12ft away. Accompanied by a couple of Meadow Pipits, it fed incessantly in the mud created by the floods, oblivious to a small crowd of admirers. It wasn’t long to we had the bird to ourselves. What a beautiful bird, but how lonely and out of place it was, virtually in the back end of beyond. Around 20 minutes watching the bird allowed for some digiscoping opportunities, and I even managed to get a video, which display obvious diagnostics such as the neat pectoral band and yellowy legs. Given the location and that it was winter, watching it was an obscure experience, totally unlike watching one in the calm of spring. It represented only the second species of wader for the year, with Lapwing seen just seconds beforehand. A lovely bird and the undoubted highlight of the day. The Parrett Estuary allowed me to pick up on the majority of gull species, as well as a few other waders such as a 600-strong flock of Knot.
The plan had been to focus our efforts on the Westhay Moor/Mudgeley area in the Somerset Levels (near Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall) for a Cattle Egret, considering this would be a lifer if I connected. We had not anticipated that Steart would be so time consuming, so we were left with just over two hours before sundown to scour the Levels. With the absurd amounts of rainfall in recent times, the levels were like I’d never seen them before: miles and miles of flooding encompassing us on either side of the road, making islands out of woodlands, and the reflection of the clouds and submerged reeds mirroring themselves with perfect symmetry on the water in the crisp ‘evening’ sunlight. Given the vastness of these floods, this Cattle Egret could have been everywhere, so we found ourselves scouring fields on either side of the main road early on. It was on the back-road to Mudgeley that the colossal nature of the flooding hit home, as we found ourselves with only a narrow road seperating us from the water on either side…
We parked up by the above area of flooding, noticing plenty of activity around here. A Little Egret was lurking in the reedbeds and a few Teal and Wigeon were enjoying the floods, whilst parties of Redwing and Fieldfare passed over westwards, including at least 5 Mistle Thrushes. With no sign of the Cattle Egret after 10 minutes of searching the immediate area, we were about to move further along the road when a gun shot was fired in the distance, reverberating across the tranquil, flooded scene. Instantly whole waves of ducks emerged from the reeds and ascended into the air, including around 50 Teals and 75 Wigeon and 20 Mallards, but also to our delight a Great White Egret, which emerged above the distant line of trees in the second image. This evoked a scene of intense beauty, the languid flight of a Great White Egret amidst throngs of silhouetted Teal, Wigeon and winter thrushes in absolute frenzy, bombing it across the mill-pond like, flooded expanse. A pair of Sparrowhawk emerged from the tree line and took advantage of the havoc and 2 Grey Herons briefly joined the GWE as it headed determinedly westwards, not to be seen again. Within a couple of minutes, quietness descended on the floods once again, as if it was entirely birdless and nothing had happened.
Astounded by that fleeting moment of chaos, we moved on with the conclusion that we would not mind dipping on the Cattle Egret. We did dip in the end, but after that moving experience it didn’t really matter to me. Furthermore, we were provided with the surreal experience pictured below; another Great White Egret and 4 Little Egrets together on a small piece of grass in another area of flooding. We reveled in this unique experience for a good 15 minutes; an experience only the South West or Dungeness in Kent could offer. We returned to the same field at dusk, to find the Great White had disappeared. A couple of minutes later we had what was presumably the same bird over the very nearby Mudgeley village, but could possibly been have a third bird… To be safe though its best to say that we had at least 2 Great White Egrets and at least 10 Little Egrets in the Mudgeley/Westhay Moor area, testament to the unique, amazing birding experiences that the Somerset Levels can offer.
After a very successful and lastingly memorable New Year’s Day, a session at Dunster Beach on 2nd (just a mile or two from the house in Minehead) to see what I could muster was a much enjoyed contrast from the high-octane, previous day’s twitch oriented birding. It was relatively quiet, with the highlights being plenty of Curlews and Shelducks, a showy adult Peregrine and floods on golf course curiously holding up to 50 Wigeon, 20 Teal and 100 Canada Geese. By 4th we were back in Aberdeen, after what was an immensely enjoyable break from NE Scotland, with some great birding to boot. To finish up, below is a video of the Peregrine.
Thanks for reading,