Weekend Away To Slimbridge & Somerset Levels - 18-20 February 2017

We departed promptly on our weekend trip to Slimbridge and the Somerset Levels, the 35 members and friends of the group having arrived in good time to get their cases stowed and themselves and their hand luggage duly seated/stored away. The journey down to Slimbridge was uneventful, helped by the Saturday start, which meant the traffic wasn’t too bad.


Having arrived, we split into smaller groups (Slimbridge isn’t the sort of place that you can go round in large groups!) and headed off to he various extremities of the reserve.


The walk out to the Holden Tower and the Dumbles goes past a number of hides, and it was here that an obliging Water Rail gave excellent views as it fed along the water’s edge. The fields to the right were good for a range of ducks, including Wigeon, Teal and Pintail, and there were up to 9 Common Cranes as well as a flock of European White-fronted Geese. Shelduck and Barnacle Geese were out on the estuary, and there was a good selection of gulls (and a handsome fox!) There were a few Bewick’s Swans in both areas, but their numbers increased later, in anticipation of the feed when the warden gave a commentary as he fed the wild birds in front of the observatory.

A walk through the collection took us to the South Lake, which had quite a variety of waders as well as ducks, including Gadwall, and Great Crested Grebe. Here there were sizeable flocks of Black-tailed Godwit and Dunlin, together with a few Oystercatchers, Avocet, Ruff and Snipe. They were quite mobile, taking to the air all too easily and flying off to other parts of the reserve. Some of them moved to the pools in front of the western hides, where there was a single Spotted Redshank in with a group of Redshank. They didn’t settle long here, as a Peregrine was perched on a post further out, eyeing up a potential meal. Raven was also observed in this area and Little Egret fed in the marshy ground nearby. The Kingfisher hide may not have provided views of a Kingfisher for everyone, but there was an obliging Cetti’s Warbler and a Little Grebe showed very well.


All too soon, it was time to leave and we headed south to our hotel in Weston-super-Mare, where we were efficiently checked in and were soon enjoying our evening meal. After a comfortable night, a brave few ventured out before breakfast, but there was little more than a few Oystercatchers on the beach. Our first stop of the day was at Aller Moor and it was as we were approaching our viewing point that we had a small mishap with the coach; the trees by the road had not been recently trimmed, and an overhanging branch caught on a mirror and sheared the pin which held it in place. Fortunately, the driver was able to improvise a solution later, so we were able to continue without calling out the coach equivalent of the AA! The Common Cranes we were hoping to see here were soon located, and by the time we left, we had counted around 14 birds. Scanning around revealed a number of other species including Stonechat, Redwing and Reed Bunting plus a distant flock of Mute Swans and one or two Grey Herons.

The main location for the day was the RSPB reserve at Ham Wall together with the neighbouring Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve, managed by Natural England. These two reserves are at the heart of the Somerset Levels and Moors Special Protection Area, an outstanding wetland created from land that had previously been used for peat extraction.


I think that most people went to Ham Wall first, and the first hour there was exceptional. Great White Egret was once a national rarity, but following in the footsteps of its smaller counterpart, the Little Egret, in recent years it has started both to increase in number and to remain for longer periods. This culminated in it breeding in the UK for the first time at Ham Wall just 5 years ago. At the first viewing point there were excellent views of one of these birds, but we didn’t stay too long as there were reports of two Glossy Ibis a little further down the track.


Glossy Ibis is another formerly rare large wading bird that has started to visit the UK in greater numbers, probably as a result of global warming. It attempted to breed for the first time at Frampton Marsh in Lincolnshire in 2014, the first recorded nesting attempt in Britain in modern times. We soon found the two birds, which showed very well, and it was interesting to observe their behaviour, picking up small sticks, which to all intents and purposes appeared to be early breeding activity. It surely can’t be long before they are also breeding in the Somerset Levels.


Our good fortune hadn’t finished there. Moving on to the new hide, it wasn’t long before a Bittern was spotted on the edge of the reeds. This normally shy bird remained in view for a few minutes before quietly slipping into the reeds, never to be seen again. More than half the group had made it to the hide by the time it disappeared, so it was a great opportunity for some to catch sight of this species for the first time. There was plenty more to see, with Marsh Harriers quartering the reedbed and Gadwall, Shoveler, Pochard and Tufted Duck feeding in the many areas of open water. The trees and bushes along the old railway track which now serves as the main route through the reserve were also worth looking at and held a variety of species including Great Spotted Woodpecker, Goldcrest, Chiffchaff and another obliging Cetti’s Warbler.


Moving to Shapwick Heath later in the day, two Kingfishers put on a great display, and on Noah’s Lake there were a couple of Whooper Swans along with the many Mute Swans and roosting Cormorants. However, the main attraction was the murmuration of Starlings as they came in to roost in the reeds. This was a real spectacle, with wave after wave of birds arriving from every direction and joining the swirling mass, twisting and turning in unison before dividing and rejoining the flock. There were reported to be hundreds of thousands of birds roosting, and we were in no position to argue with this estimate! It was getting quite dark by the time we returned to the coach, and there were a quite few heads nodding on the journey back to the hotel. After another excellent dinner, a few of the group hit the town – rumour has it that they needed the help of the local constabulary to find their way back home.


Our final day was spent on the coast, first visiting the estuaries of the rivers Brue and Parrett at Burnham-on-Sea. This area was a little disappointing compared to our previous visit, with just a few Redshank, Teal and Wigeon in the channels and some rather distant Curlew. The final destination for the trip was the new Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust reserve at Steart Marshes, created by breaching the sea wall surrounding what had been agricultural land, and allowing the seawater to flood in during high tides. We had another good selection of waders here with Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Avocet and Grey Plover on the brackish area, while Dunlin, a large flock of Golden Plover and a single Little Stint inhabited the freshwater marsh. Flocks of Goldfinch and Linnets moved between bushes and fields, watched over by the occasional Buzzard sitting motionless on a fence.

Soon, it was time to set off for home, and we had a remarkably good journey, the M6 being particularly free flowing for a weekday evening. As usual, many thanks are due to Barbara for all the work that she puts in during the year to ensure that we have a comfortable stay, to our driver for his cooperation in taking us to some out-of-the-way places, and to all members of the group who participated in ensuring that this was a really satisfying weekend.

Photos courtesy of Robert D


For more photos from the weekend away please visit Sandpiper’s Page click here

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