SLIMBRIDGE & SOMERSET LEVELS WEEKEND

A group of 34 members and friends boarded the coach at the Guild, all looking forward to this new location for a weekend trip. The organisers had gone through considerable anguish on the days leading up to our departure, as each weather forecast seemed to change the whereabouts of the expected snowfall, but we were able to set out with some confidence as the latest forecast on Thursday evening had shown the snow clouds stopping short of the south west, with the additional prospect of a bright day for Saturday.

We duly arrived at Slimbridge and the party broke into smaller groups to visit the various hides, the wildfowl collection, and the well stocked restaurant! The star attractions at this time of year are the Bewick’s Swans and the European White-fronted Geese and these were seen well, though the numbers were down on ‘normal’ years. Although winter conditions were now quite harsh across Russia and continental Europe (and Slimbridge wasn’t too warm either!) the mild weather in early winter had meant that many of the birds had stayed in places like Holland rather than taking the extra flight over to the UK.

A number of Bitterns had been seen over the previous weeks, so an early visit for many was to the hide where one had been most recently and reliably reported. However, despite various visits during the course of the day, the nearest that any of our party got to seeing the Bittern was when they arrived in the hide only to be given instructions on where the bird was as it walked out of sight into the reeds, never to be seen again! They can be extremely frustrating birds.

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There was more luck elsewhere. A very obliging Water Rail fed beneath one of the feeders, a Peregrine sat on a log out on the saltings, a Lesser Scaup gave good views early on, and both Barnacle Geese and a single Egyptian Goose were feeding in the surrounding fields. Liz photographed the Mandarin Duck (right).

Most people gathered at the Rushy Pen to see the swans and other waterfowl being fed, and this provided a great opportunity to get really close views of the Bewick’s, as well as Pintail, Tufted, Pochard & Shelduck, all in fine plumage at this time of year, while the chap who was distributing the grain kept us all informed with his commentary.

That evening, we settled into our comfortable hotel in Weston-super-Mare and we were just completing dinner when Elvis appeared (well a fairly convincing look-alike!) to provide the entertainment in the lounge next door. He obviously made an impression, as a number of members of the party joined him to dance the night away – and Betty made such an effect on him that he presented her with a garland at the end of the evening, which she proudly wore to breakfast the following morning.

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The weather at Slimbridge had been a bit mixed, but Saturday dawned bright and clear, and it was to stay like that for the rest of the day. Those who ventured out before breakfast were greeted with a very cold morning and a few Oystercatchers and Gulls on the beach. Our first target for the day was to try to see the flock of Common Cranes (left) that had been released on the levels over the last two years, and, having negotiated some narrow lanes, we eventually caught sight of birds flying, but they were behind trees and only visible through a gap in the trees when they landed. Having moved further along the lane, we were able to stop opposite one of the feeding stations where 34 birds (33 released and one wild bird) gave excellent views, and all the party were able to spend time looking through the telescopes at these magnificent birds. For further information on the Great Crane Project, why not take a look at the website http://www.thegreatcraneproject.org.uk.

From there, we moved on to the Avalon Marshes Centre which was to be our base for the rest of the day. The two reserves of Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall provide a huge area of reed bed and open water, mixed in with wet woodland, grazing marsh and fen. Much of the open water was covered in ice, and this concentrated the birds, giving good views of Gadwall, Wigeon and Shoveler as well as Little and Great Crested Grebes. Three Whooper Swans were watched feeding from one of the hides which also provided views of another two Water Rails, running across the ice between stands of reeds and feeding in the channel. A number of birds of prey were in evidence, some perhaps anticipating the opportunities that the Starling roost would provide later in the day; Marsh Harrier, Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel & Merlin were all seen hunting over the reeds. One of the star attractions were two Great White Egrets, seen on both reserves at different times, and these elegant herons gave excellent views as they fed in the shallow pools close to the track at Ham Wall.

There were plenty of small birds too, with a nice mixed flock of Redpolls & Siskin in with Treecreeper, Long-tailed and other Tits. A Chiffchaff fed along the banks of the drain, Cetti’s Warblers were singing from deep within overhanging bushes (so no one managed to catch sight of one), and many of the group got fine views of Kingfishers as they crossed and re-crossed the channels as they hunted for fish.

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The highlight for many was the huge flocks of Starlings (right) flying in to roost as dusk approached, the noise from their wings clearly audible as they went low overhead. They provided a terrific spectacle as the massed flocks swirled to and fro, ever watchful for the raptors and forming constantly changing patterns, before diving down into the reeds for the night. It was during this period of excitement that the only Bittern of the trip was seen as it flew low over the reeds before dropping out of sight, and the day ended with the calls of Tawny Owls as we headed back to the coach in the fading light. The Levels had really lived up to expectations.

Following another excellent dinner and convivial conversation, we set out on Sunday morning to do some birding along the coast. Our first stop was at Burnham-on-Sea, where the River Parrott drains the marshes and levels into Bridgewater Bay and the Bristol Channel. Amongst the roosting Redshank and Turnstone were a couple of Spotted Redshank, their fine, long two-toned beaks showing well once they decided to stop snoozing. As the tide receded, Curlew, Grey Plover, Black-tailed Godwits and Dunlin probed the mud, while massed ranks of Oystercatchers still rested on a spit offshore.

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A Mediterranean Gull was spotted in with the Black-headed Gulls flying down river, but one of the best sightings was made by the group members who weren’t able to walk far; they found a really tame Snow Bunting (left) feeding along the tide line, and the whole group were able to get close views (and photographs) of this lovely passerine as it moved unconcerned amongst the rocks and tidal debris.

A short coach ride later (and after a stop at some well-maintained toilets, always a good find on any trip) we arrived at Brean Cove, nestling below Brean Down, and hit a problem – how to turn the coach round in the restricted space available! We left Martin to ponder over this while we looked for the Black Redstarts that had been reported in the area, and after a short while, they were found close to the beach, moving between the rocks and occasionally flying up to the headland. A Stonechat also provided distant views as it perched on the fence above the cove. It was with considerable relief that we returned to the coach just in time to see Martin completing his manoeuvres, having discovered that the gate to the turning area wasn’t actually locked after all! A final stop down the coast at Berrow provided everyone with fantastic views of a pair of Blackcaps as they fed unconcerned in the Sea Buckthorn, allowing us to compare the black-capped male with the female with her red-brown cap. A short walk across the golf course brought us to the shore where 5 Sanderling ran backwards and forwards across the sand, little bundles of energy in constant motion.

Cheddar Reservoir was the final port of call, and the sun, which had deserted us earlier in the day, shone brightly on the Mendips, providing a fitting back-drop to the ducks, grebes and gulls on the water. No new species for the trip were seen, but it provided a good opportunity for some to catch up with the smart male Goldeneye, the displaying Great Crested Grebes and the Common Gulls, swimming amongst the large number of birds on view.

So we set off for home, having had a very successful trip, many of the members of the group having been introduced to this area for the first time. Thanks are due to all those who made the trip possible, and perhaps if we visit again in a few years time, we will hear the sound of wild cranes, breeding on the levels for the first time in 400 years.

Brian D

Note Liz M and Robert provided a range of photographs from which I included the four above. Bob.

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