Wednesday, 12 June 2013

3 Day Weekend: Somerset Levels

After missing out on a rare sunny Bank Holiday weekend, I was relieved to see good weather forecast for a few days over the last weekend, and after arranging to cash in on some of the time owed for the Monday off, I set about planning some trips out and about.

A favourite spot at this time of year (and sometimes a little earlier if the weather permits) are the Somerset Levels. There are two reserves either side of a narrow lane; Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall. Both provide chances of seeing marsh harriers, hobbies, cuckoos and also bitterns which breed there and as Dad hadn't seen or heard a bittern to date, it was here that we aimed for on the Saturday.

It was quite a shock to his system, getting up for a 6am pick-up but he was ready when I rocked up, and a trouble-free drive down the M5 lead to the car park in good time, to get a space before the crowds could gather. As is typical with the area at this time of year, the walk into Ham Wall was accompanied by a fabulous chorus of bird song; goldcrests, warblers, blackcaps, all manner of tits and the occasional annoyed-sounding heron drifting over.

Before we reached the main viewing platform, we found a small group of hopeful birders staring at the reeds on the reserve. Apparently there is a pair of little bitterns nesting, and had been seen at 5:15am! Don't think even I'd have got up early enough to see that. After it failed to reappear in the 5 mins we stood chatting, and neither did the otters or the kingfishers spotted that morning, we headed off to see what could be seen and heard around the reed beds. Stopping briefly at the main viewing platform, we saw a pair of great white egrets in the distance flying along. After the Grimley one, I didn't bother taking any pics.

With the little bitterns being such a prized bird on site, the RSPB had closed off quite a large area of the reserve to prevent disturbance, so we wandered around the open part, hoping to see something interesting. Didn't take long for Dad to hear his first bittern booming, and like me, he found it to be an amazing sound. Amusing too, when hearing one later which didn't seem to be too bothered to complete the full set of booms, with the last one sounding more like a depressed groan!

Along the side of the reeds are some pieces of corrugated metal, and I hoped that they might harbour some reptiles, warming beneath. The first two that I gently raised up, with Dad stood ready behind me with his camera, yielded nothing but ants, but the third one held a real treat. A slow-worm.

I've not seen one of these properly since the steps on Skomer, and back then we were carrying luggage so I couldn't get a photo. They're understandably shy and soon retreated to the safety of the undergrowth, but it was fab to see, and with my macro lens, I'd bagged a few shots of its head.

The distinctive call of a cuckoo tempted me to the far end of the lake, but it was in the woods beyond, and wouldn't come closer - seemed to be flying along the tree-line. And hobbies seemed to be scarce too. Dad had lagged behind somewhat and was behind a tree when a bittern flew over. Annoyed that he'd missed it, I suggested we walk around the pools to the main path where we'd have a good view of the reed beds. The vegetation was covered with numerous invertebrates, which became the focus of my macro gear while we waited for the birds to perform.

With nothing happening, I chose to tuck into a breakfast bar, which usually kick starts the action, and sure enough, one bite into it, I glanced up and spotted a bittern, flying over the trees towards us. Alerting Dad to it, we started firing off shots as it slowly approached, circled and started to drop down.

At this point, a second one rose from the reeds to join it.

They both circled briefly before one returned to the cover of the reeds and the other rose up and over our heads, beyond the trees behind us and out of sight. But by then we'd taken a good number of shots, and Dad had broken his duck on seeing bitterns as well as hearing them!

Wandering back to the main viewing area, after a bite to eat, we again hoped for a sighting of the little bitterns and again failed to see them. Over the road and into Shapwick Heath, where Cetti's warblers seemed to be in every patch of willow, though as with Ham Wall, they didn't sing out in the open. The hides by now were full with folks out enjoying the warm sunny day, and we plonked ourselves down on the benches along the main path, taking in views of whatever flew over, or crawled too close.

Bitterns were busy flying between the reed beds, as were marsh harriers, though after recent events in Norfolk, we chose to watch rather than photo these. It was mid afternoon already and with the breeze, heat of the sunshine, early start and quite a bit of walking, we were both feeling a bit knackered, so decided to call it a day. The drive home was quite a challenge as I was really tired, and had to call into some services for a Red Bull to wake me up. I soon washed that taste from my mouth on getting back, when we called into a local pub for a deserved pint. A great first day out.

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