Wildlife surprises on Shapwick Heath

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Jen and Rachel on the replica of the Sweet Track at Shapwick Heath.

Just over a week ago Jen’s friend Rachel visited us from Vienna. They were discussing what to do, so I persuaded them that it would be a great treat to go on a walk on Shapwick Heath, ending at a bird hide. ūüôā This would give Rachel an experience of the Somerset Levels, by going through woodland and around marshland, and seeing the reconstructed Neolithic Sweet Track. The fact that some bird-watching might happen as well was of course pure coincidence… ahem…

When we arrived at the Decoy Hide,¬† I gave them a rather waffly introduction to the birds on the lake – many of which were wintering ducks. I also pointed out the great crested grebes, and said that they’re well known for an elaborate courtship ritual called the weed dance, which I had never seen before. Shortly afterwards, Jen noticed that a pair of them were looking amorously at each other. To my astonishment, about ten minutes later this pair rushed together with beaks full of weed, and performed the entire dance in full view of the hide!

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Great Crested Grebes doing the weed dance in front of the Decoy Hide on Shapwick Heath.

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Little egret fishing at Noah’s Lake on Shapwick Heath.

A few days later John Linney came down to visit from Cheltenham. This time we went to Noah’s Lake at the eastern end of Shapwick Heath: there seemed to be thousands of wigeon wintering on the lake, along with a small number of pintails and other species. We had a good sighting of a kingfisher fishing, though it sped away before I could photograph it. There was also a little egret fishing close to the hide, which provided a great photographic opportunity.

As we walked back to the car park we noticed a couple of mid-sized starling flocks flying over. Last week, with Jen and Rachel, we had watched the starlings roosting from Ham Wall, but they had moved away from where they had been earlier in the winter, where they had settled close to the¬†path,¬†to somewhere that looked about a mile distant: it was a bit of an anti-climax. I therefore hadn’t mentioned them to John and assumed that the flocks flying over were merely a splinter group. Then it dawned on me: the starlings were re-locating again, and had chosen Shapwick Heath! Indeed there was a small crowd coming in from Ham Wall with the same realisation. John and I turned back and¬†were almost too late for the best display: but what we saw was the best murmuration that I have seen since arriving in the area. John was delighted by what he saw – as indeed were the groups arriving from Ham Wall.

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Starlings on Shapwick Heath

Both of these experiences reminded me of the unpredictability of wildlife watching – which is a part of the essential charm of it as a pursuit!

Refreshment or burnout?

Jen and I have just been to an excellent Pastoral Refreshment Conference, an annual event at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire. It’s run by Living Leadership, an organisation which aims not only to train pastors, but to enable them to be able to sustain ministry over many years.

It’s an issue I’m passionate about because I’m all too aware of how often ministers burn out or fall into serious sin. For example, at a well-known Anglican church over the last twenty years, two associate ministers had to leave because of depression, two others through having affairs, and then the senior pastor had to leave, also because of an affair. I am convinced that ministers need to be living healthy, balanced lives – and failure to do so impairs our witess to the good news of the gospel, which is at the heart of what we do.

Mark Meynell, the speaker at the Pastoral Refreshment conference.

Mark Meynell, the speaker at the Pastoral Refreshment conference. (source)

The speaker for the conference was Mark Meynell, who was an associate pastor at All Souls, Langham Place. Jen had heard him speak regularly and had found his preaching to be particularly helpful. Then after some years Mark admitted that he had been suffering from depression throughout his time there, and some time after that resigned from his job.

Jen and I missed the first talk on the Wednesday evening (we were late!), but heard the evening session when Mark talked in detail about his depression. He described what it was that had triggered it, and how he coped (or didn’t) with the aftermath. It was a powerful session because he didn’t give easy answers, and shared honestly about the bleakness and blackness of the hardest times. (His blog describes some of this experience here).

At one point the next day, as Mark was describing the reality of being in depression, I wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to pull the series through: after all, the conference was about ‘refreshment’ rather than ‘depression’! I need not have feared because his talk on the final morning was both refreshing and very challenging. He didn’t join all the dots, but he’s writing a book that probably fills a few of the gaps.

Inferring somewhat, at some point Mark took a step of faith to believe that the gospel is true, even though he didn’t have the right feelings. A key verse for him is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “we live by faith, not by sight” (here) – in other words, if it’s true, it doesn’t matter what we feel. What the New Testament doesn’t offer Christians is an easy, struggle-free life – and Paul certainly doesn’t, either. When he talks about “light and momentary troubles” (here), he’s downplaying the ordeals that he describes in detail elsewhere (such as imprisonment, floggings and shipwrecks: here).

Towards the end, Mark played us a song by Steven Curtis Chapman which expressed his own battle after heart-rending tragedy.

After returning from the conference I came across a very moving interview with Chapman himself, a year and a half after his own tragedy. It’s a very powerful testimony (so much so that one of the interviewers struggles with his own emotions).

One of the most refreshing aspects of the conference was the willingness to tackle a difficult subject. The more healthily pastors can talk about issues like depression, the more easily we’ll be able to assist those going through similar experiences – but also, the more we’ll be enabled to take preventive steps for ourselves.

A red start to a few days around Mousehole

Andrew – Jen’s bro – booked us all in for a few days in Mousehole over the New Year weekend. I was much looking forward to this anyway – but when an Eastern Black Redstart turned up there about ten days’ previously, I started to get a little twitchy…

I don’t normally take that much interest in sub-species but this one is a bit different… it’s much prettier (and redder) than the normal European black redstart, which is present in small numbers in the UK throughout the year; but, more notably, as it breeds in central Asia and winters in the Middle East, it shouldn’t normally be here – so why a small handful have turned up in the UK this winter is anyone’s guess. [A good guide to the black redstart subspecies is here: ref.]

Thus the first morning we were in Mousehole I headed down to the beach where it was residing (having briefly seen it the previous night), and spent a couple of hours trying to get some good photos.

Eastern black redstart, on the rocks at Mousehole.

Eastern black redstart, on the rocks at Mousehole.

Eastern black redstart in Mousehole, peering up to the top of the wall of the garden it also frequented.

Eastern black redstart in Mousehole, peering up to the top of the wall of the garden it also frequented.

As we did during the summer, Jen and I also went in search of some of the ancient archaeoloigcal remains in the area. One of these is the Tregiffian Burial chamber from around the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. This type is unique to the area, with around a hundred on the Scilly Isles (eg here) and only about a dozen in west Cornwall. It’s bizarrely close to the B3315!

Tregiffian Entrance Grave - similar to ones found in the Scillies

Tregiffian Entrance Grave – similar to ones found in the Scillies

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Rachel’s amazing Thomas the Tank Engine cake for George. Photo by Andrew.

Jen and I had a windswept coastal walk near Porthgwarra on the Saturday morning. We started near the Minack open air theatre, and passed St Levan’s holy well: this is one of the more impressively natural of the wells that I’ve seen, and lies close to the ruined foundations of an early Comish church. Later that day, we had another windy trip to Land’s End with Andrew & Rachel, Sophie & George in the afternoon. Not exactly photogenic weather conditions – but an attack of the flu later on put paid to other chances!

Despite this, it was great to be able to spend a few days with Jen’s family. We celebrated George’s second birthday on the Saturday, so Rachel cooked an amazing Thomas the Tank Engine cake for him!

Jen near Porthgwarra

Jen near Porthgwarra

Jen with Rachel, Sophie, Andrew and George, blown around by the wind at Land's End

Jen with Rachel, Sophie, Andrew and George, blown around by the wind at Land’s End

We did however manage a little bird-watching on the morning of our return…. I’d like to say that the photo of this whimbrel took lots of careful thought with the lighting, shadows and reflections on the beach – but it was just luck…

Whimbrel on the beach at Penzance

Whimbrel on the beach at Penzance

The end of the rope

Some stories just don’t seem to die.

It was Christmas morning in Chilton Polden. I’d just ended the service when Chris Lush came up to the front, armed with a package – and, explaining it to the congregation, presented it to me… It was the end of the bell-rope that I’d pulled off during the installation back in May – and now suitably mounted, framed and captioned!

The end of the bell rope...

The end of the bell rope…

Jack Bevins’ reflection on the incident

In the meantime, one of our friends from Worcestershire (Jack Bevins) had given some creative thought to the same event…

For some reason, I think I may not have heard the last of that incident!

Christmas Praise!

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be part of the All Souls Orchestra in their most recent concert, Christmas Praise.

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The orchestra during rehearsals

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The violinists working hard during the concert

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Philip Griffiths performing ‘Long Time Ago in Bethlehem’. Philip is a Guinness World Record-Holder as the longest cast member in the same production (26 years in ‘Phantom of the Opera’)

When I lived in London (2006-2015)¬†I was a member of All Souls Orchestra, the orchestra of All Souls Church, Langham Place in central London, which was founded over 40 years ago and is still led and conducted by the irrepressible Noel Tredinnick. I benefitted hugely from being a part of the orchestra, both in terms of improving my technical ability, and also in terms of my appreciation of music as one of God’s great gifts.¬†The orchestra¬†plays at¬†a¬†service in All Souls each month, as well as doing¬†several concerts annually, both in London, around the country, and even¬†internationally.

For the Christmas Praise event, we were joined by West End Has Faith, a group of Christian singers and actors who work in some of the shows in the West End of London who want to share their faith. The programme was varied, including traditional carols, dramatised songs from musicals and popular modern songs, as well as a bit of Bizet and some Gilbert and Sullivan!

The concert went very well and was, as ever, a great way of praising God and of sharing the wonder and hope of the Christmas story with those who came to hear it.

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Benjamin Isaacs and Tabitha Webb as Joseph and Mary in Nativity (which was co-written by Tabitha)

We were very fortunate in that regard to have Nathan Morgan-Locke with us, who gave a really moving talk in several parts, taking us from the excitement of sharing presents on Christmas morning¬†to the fact that the most important present exchange is the one that can happen between us and God. God gives us himself – in the form of Christ¬†– and if we accept this gift, we can give ourselves in return to God. But it’s not an equal exchange; he contrasted the¬†perfection of Christ with what we can offer, which seems like a¬†sack of rubbish in¬†comparison. As a result of that exchange we get to experience the real God and enjoy life with him.

Nathan has also been involved in developing Life Explored, an exciting new 7-session course developed by Christianity Explored Ministries, which aims to look at happiness and where it can be found.

Lasting Happiness is like the Loch Ness Monster. Most of us are convinced that it doesn’t really exist, but we like the idea that it might. We can go looking for it, but don’t get your hopes up because we all have to settle eventually. When it comes to short term happiness we’re all believers. We’ve known the joy of relationships, holidays and achievements. But lasting happiness is a different story. So why is lasting happiness so elusive? It’s often because we’re looking in the wrong places. Psalm 16 v. 11 says, “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” The lasting happiness we’re looking for is found in God himself.’¬†Description of Life Explored taken from their publicity.

Nathan Morgan Locke

Nathan Morgan Locke explaining the Christmas story

It was wonderful to be able to play in the orchestra again. Much of what we play is available to download from the orchestra’s website, and an example of one of Noel’s recent arrangements¬†is shown below.

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Excerpt from conductor’s score of ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’

If you are interested…:

  • If you would like¬†to hear highlights of the concert, you can listen to the¬†broadcast at 3pm-5pm on Christmas Day and at 10pm-midnight on Boxing Day 2016 both on¬†Premier Christian Radio.
  • In addition, Noel has recently recorded an hour-long programme in which he plays some of the highlights from¬†the All Souls Orchestra archives, and which you can listen to here.
  • For those in Somerset or southwest England,¬†the orchestra is coming to Lee Abbey in Devon on 10-12 March 2017. More details can be found here.
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The orchestra at the end of the concert

The photographs in this post were taken by friends of the orchestra and were obtained from the All Souls Orchestra Facebook page, where the appropriate credits can be found.

The starlings and the reedbed

One thing which had intrigued me about the starlings roosting in the reeds at Ham Wall was how they did so: did they perch, one starling per reed, in an orderly manner? And if so, did they perch sideways, and was it at the top or the bottom? A couple of weeks ago I found out. slightly unexpectedly.

I was watching one evening from one of the hides, thinking it would provide a better photographic backdrop, but I wasn’t particularly close. Then something spooked them, and they ended up settling just opposite the hide. I discovered that the reeds became thick with starlings, and bent under the sheer weight of them – far more chaotically than I had ever realised!

A section of reedbed, before and after the starlings arrived, taken from the same spot. (Confusingly, the lower photo, despite being lighter, was actually quite a bit later than the first photo).

A section of reedbed, before and after the starlings arrived, taken from the same spot. (Confusingly, the lower photo, despite being lighter, was actually quite a bit later than the first photo).

It had been quite a spectacular roosting already. An early shot that evening appeared to epitomise the area: starling flocks crossing one way while a Great White Egret flew in the other – and Glastonbury Tor in the background. Later it was amazing to see just how many starlings flew in to roost – a couple of times it looked like there were rivers of starlings flying over.

Starlings going to roost while a Great White Egret flies serenely across.

Starlings going to roost while a Great White Egret flies serenely across: Glastonbury Tor in the background.

A river of starlings flows over

A river of starlings flows over

A bedraggled buzzard and a flock of lapwings

My mother arrived for a few days at the end of last week so, as the weather was forecast to deteriorate, we decided to go for a drive around the levels for her to get a feel for the area. What I wasn’t expecting was much in the way of wildlife. I was wrong.

First of all mum noticed a buzzard on a fence post – nothing unusual in that, except that it didn’t move when we parked next to it and I got the camera out. Normally a buzzard would take one disdainful look at the birder and fly off magnificently: this one stayed close by for several minutes. Looking at the photographs it looks like it had had a thorough soaking from the recent rain storm, which explains why it seemed to be hanging its wings out to dry – and why for a bird of prey it looks oddly vulnerable.

A bedraggled buzzard near Westhay, hanging its wings out slightly

A bedraggled buzzard near Westhay, hanging its wings out slightly

Having said that, it still had a keen eye for potential prey…

It still wasn't going to miss a moment looking for potential prey...

It still wasn’t going to miss a moment looking for potential prey…

We drove on a little further when I noticed a field full of lapwings – I did a U-turn so that I could stop by the side of the road. Although I’ve seen large flocks of them in nature reserves, seeing them here was completely unexpected – and they chose a photogenic backdrop as well!

Lawpings near Westhay

Lawpings near Westhay

Lawpings near Westhay

Lawpings near Westhay

We then proceeded on along the Westhay Moor Drove, and a couple of the other lanes to make a circuit before going back to the Vicarage.

A couple of days later we had a more regular experience with birdwatching: seeing the starling murmuration at Ham Wall. Sunday’s show was much the best that I’ve seen.

Starling  murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starling murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starling  murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starling murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.