Spring on the Somerset Levels (albeit without much sun!)

Yesterday I finally got the chance to get back down to one of my favourite wildlife-spotting areas, the Somerset Levels. Could have spent all day there but sadly had to limit myself to visiting just two places (still good going though!) – Shapwick Heath NNR and RSPB Ham Wall. These are two great wetland reserves which form part of the ‘Avalon Marshes’, a
lovely area close to Glastonbury and with views of Glastonbury Tor.

View over Shapwick Heath

I’m always struck by just how different the British countryside can be in different seasons, and as this is the first chance I’ve had to go down to the Levels since February it felt like a very different place to when I last went. Back in the winter, it was all about flocks of wildfowl and huge, million-strong starling murmurations; this time, it was about bird song, migrants, dragonflies, wildflowers and the breeding season being in full swing.

Dragonflies and hobbies

Although it was a bit of a grey day, the sun did make a brief appearance, bringing out hordes of dragonflies, damselflies, bees and other insects (some intent on eating me, it seemed!). And with the dragonflies came one of the fantastic birds I’d gone in the hope of seeing – the hobby. These agile birds of prey hawk for insects and small birds in the air, and can often be seen transferring dragonfly prey to their beak in mid-flight. Sadly, I
didn’t manage to spot a rare red-footed falcon that had been hanging around the area during the week, but the hobbies were still a treat – though a bit too speedy for my camera skills!

Dragonfly, Shapwick Heath

Hobby hawking for insects
Hobby hawking for insects - not the best photo, but they're pretty speedy!

It was also great to hear a couple of cuckoos and to hear several bitterns ‘booming’ – good to know these species are doing well on the reserves. I have yet to actually SEE a bittern though – a challenge for another day!

Fledglings galore

There was also plenty of evidence of breeding activity – I managed to spot fledgling reed warblers and blackcaps (one being fed an enormous dragonfly by its dad, which it struggled for several minutes to swallow), and also this adorable little coal tit.

Fledgling coal tit
Fledgling coal tit, busy shouting "FEED ME!!!"

The waterfowl had young too, with a quite well-developed mallard family, some stripy great crested grebe young, and, as you can see in my last post, a young moorhen that made a quick snack for a pair of gulls…

Mallard family
Mallard family having a wash
Great crested grebe and young
Great crested grebe with young


Although it didn’t seem to be the best time of day or the best weather for lots of bird song, I was still able to identify lots of different species. The day really belonged to the willow warblers – their sweet, descending songs seemed to be everywhere and one even gave me some lovely views of it singing. There were also plenty of reed warblers, blackcaps and
the explosive songs of the cetti’s warbler, and I also managed to hear a snipe and a water rail calling from the reeds. Oh, and there were marsh frogs calling too! Plus plenty of swifts and swallows about.

Reed warbler
Reed warbler

For anyone’s who’s interested, the full species list from the day is below, although it’s probably not complete as I may have forgotten a few. Overall, I was really pleased that I managed to identify all but one call I heard (assuming I got them all correct, anyway!). Less than a year ago I wouldn’t have been able to get even half of those species by sound alone – it’s been well worth the time I’ve spent  listening to bird sound CDs and then getting outside and putting the ID skills into practice! 🙂

Bird species list from Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall reserves, 29th May 2011:

Blue tit, great tit, coal tit, long-tailed tit, willow warbler, reed warbler, sedge warbler (?), Cetti’s warbler, chiffchaff, mute swan, mallard, coot, moorhen, hobby, grey heron, cuckoo, swift, swallow, house martin, house sparrow, blackcap, garden warbler, bullfinch, wren, blackbird, carrion crow, wood pigeon, song thrush, cormorant, lesser black-backed gull,
buzzard, sparrowhawk, snipe, water rail, great-crested grebe, little grebe (?), pheasant, chaffinch, greenfinch, goldcrest, goldfinch, whitethroat, bittern, robin, tufted duck, black-headed gull, little egret, great spotted woodpecker.

Glowworm larva
Glowworm larva (Lampyris noctiluca)
Pineapple weed
Pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea) - so named because it smells of pineapples!

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