An otterly brilliant trip to Meare Heath

Black-winged stilt with black-tailed godwit at Meare Heath

A few days ago I went on a quick trip to Meare Heath and missed an otter by about 5 seconds. I couldn’t complain too much as I’d just seen a black-winged stilt that was on a one-day stopover before heading elsewhere – but I was still miffed.

This afternoon, after I’d completed my Easter ministerial duties, Jen and I were keen to plan an afternoon that would work both for my mother, and Andrew & Rachael and their kids. That’s how we ended up back at Meare Heath – the kids could wheel their way up and down the track, while I went with Jen and mum to the hide. (Ulterior motives? Surely not!)

We’d just got to the hide when one of the guys there pointed out an otter in the lagoon. I’d had a good sighting of one some months ago, but had not photographed it – so I realised this was my opportunity!

Otter in the lagoon at Meare Heath.

Otter in the lagoon at Meare Heath.

We were able to watch it continuously for about five minutes as it meandered across the shallow waters, hunting for prey. Eventually it caught a huge eel that looked as long as the otter itself.

The otter battling with the eel – though there was little doubt about the eventual winner.

Having won, the otter trots off into the reedbed.

Never having photographed an otter before, this was a wonderful encounter!

 

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. 🙂 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!

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!

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

Starlings and a Yellowlegs

This is starling season on the Somerset levels, as extraordinary numbers of starlings roost in the Avalon marshes. As I was about to take Jen to the airport early on Monday morning, three flocks flew straight over the Vicarage. I therefore decided to head out to Ham Wall this morning to see their dawn departure.

I arrived before sunrise and waited with one other birder. We could hear the starlings chattering, so we knew their departure was imminent. Then there was an extraordinary sound, like that of distant thunder – an aerial stampede as thousands upon thousands of pairs of wings took to flight, as the starlings rose over the reedbed.

The starlings emerge over the reedbed at Ham Wall

The starlings emerge over the reedbed at Ham Wall

A dense cloud of starlings

A dense cloud of starlings

They didn’t do much in the way of a murmuration but they were a spectacular sight nonetheless. After they departed, I continued to wander round the reserve, and my eye caught a couple of cormorants and a heron, which were doing their early morning ablutions.

Cormorants and a heron at sunrise

Cormorants and a heron at sunrise

A couple of weeks back an American wader, a Lesser Yellowlegs, spent a few days residing at Cheddar Reservoir. Every year a small number (perhaps 5 to 10) cross the Atlantic, perhaps having been blown off course on their autumn migration. The one at Cheddar conveniently remained close to the outer edge of the reservoir where it was easy to see and photograph.

Lesser Yellowlegs at Cheddar Reservoir

Lesser Yellowlegs at Cheddar Reservoir

Lesser Yellowlegs, feeding at Cheddar Reservoir

Lesser Yellowlegs, feeding at Cheddar Reservoir

It had stayed long enough that I was sure it was going to remain for the winter (they occasionally do) – but it left about ten days’ ago and hasn’t been seen since. It begs a couple of questions… Did it know roughly where it was – the wrong side of a very large herring pond? Did it try to head back across the Atlantic, or has it settled somewhere else, undetected?

Just an ordinary Saturday in the Polden Wheel… (ahem)

It’s good when great things happen in the parish and the vicar has little to do with them!

This morning started off with the Big Breakfast in Ashcott. It may not be a surprise to some of my readers that an event advertising ‘breakfast’ was going to be a big draw for me! It had been advertised as a charity fundraiser in the village so it was a real pleasure to walk into the hall and find it was effectively being run by the church’s core group! Freda Prime and Margaret Trim’s team cooked over 90 breakfasts between about 9 and 11 – about double what they were expecting!

The Big Breakfast in the Ashcott Village Hall

The Big Breakfast in the Ashcott Village Hall

About a month ago, Nigel Steady told me he’d booked the Christian singer/songwriter Paul Field, and asked whether it would be ok to use Shapwick Church? I was hardly going to say ‘no’ but was a bit worried about his organising a concert in one month flat. I needn’t have worried: this evening’s event was outstanding.

Paul Field in concert at Shapwick church

Paul Field in concert at Shapwick church

Paul Field has been campaigning on slavery and human trafficking issues, such as through the Stolen Lives project.

Over a career spanning forty years, Paul has worked with secular artists like Gloria Gaynor, Katie Melua and Rick Wakeman, as well as Christian singers like Cliff Richard, Natalie Grant and Rebecca St James. More recently he’s been involved with social issues like modern-day slavery and human trafficking. His concert included some powerful and challenging videos and songs that brought out the reality of slavery in the world today. For example, there are currently believed to be 21 million people enslaved worldwide, 13,000 of whom are in the UK [eg Free the Slaves stats]. This has led to his doing work for the Stolen Lives project, which featured in this concert.

This all contributed to a high-quality and very thought-provoking evening. For me personally it all contributed to a great weekend – not least in realising the gifts and talents of those in the parish!

Cuthbert and the otters

There’s a story about the Celtic hermit-monk, St Cuthbert, and a pair of otters, which is very endearing – but whose truth, until recently, I doubted. It’s told by Bede, his biographer and near-contemporary.

An icon of Cuthbert praying - with otters in attendance

An icon of Cuthbert praying – with otters in attendance (from Aidan Hart Sacred Icons)

Cuthbert lived as a monk on Lindisfarne in the 7th century, and soon acquired a reputation of great holiness. While visiting another monastic community he was known to slip outside in the middle of the night and return in the morning. A fellow monk wanted to find out what he did, so one night he followed him from a distance. He discovered that Cuthbert waded into the sea up to his neck. When morning came he returned, knelt on the beach, and prayed. While he did so, “two otters bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath, and tried to dry him with their fur. They finished, received his blessing, and slipped back to their watery home”.

It’s hardly surprising that Cuthbert had a reputation for closeness to nature! But when I frist read the story my thoughts were, “I wish this were true, but really, it’s too far-fetched; it must be pious legend.”

I thought the same about another story of Cuthbert – his association with crows – but that changed because of evidence from an unexpected source.

Cuthbert had sought greater solitude in later life and ended up on Inner Farne, a small, bleak island in the North Sea off the Northumbrian coast. Some ravens that shared the island decided that straw on the visitors’ house would make great nesting material. Cuthbert rebuked them – but they ignored him. So Cuthbert resorted to more drastic words: “In the name of Jesus Christ, depart forthwith!”. At this, the ravens departed.

Bede records what happened next: “Three days later, one of a pair of them returned, and finding Cuthbert digging, stood before him, with feathers outspread and head bowed low to its feet in a sign of grief. Using whatever signs it could to express contrition it very humbly asked pardon. When Cuthbert realised what it meant, he gave permission for them all to return. Back they came with a fitting gift – a lump of pig’s lard. Cuthbert would often show this to his visitors, inviting them to grease their shoes with it”.

Again a lovely story – but again one that my sceptical mind doubted severely.

Until I read a couple of articles on the BBC News website about crows bringing gifts. The one that really struck me was about a crow called Sheryl (geddit?!): “Sheryl brings me gifts. My first was presented to me with her wings splayed open and head bowed. I was very ceremoniously handed a yellow foam dart from a toy gun! She refused to take the dart back as she does when we play games. I felt truly honoured.”

What really struck me about the story is not just the fact that it brought the gift, but the gesture while doing so which evoked Bede’s description of Cuthbert’s raven. I suddenly realised that story had a ring of truth to it: he was accurately describing the bird’s behaviour. Whether the ravens were “repentant” in the way that Bede described is a little less clear- but perhaps the event itself is described accurately.

I wonder whether the same might be said of Cuthbert and the otters? Perhaps they did indeed play around his feet as described – but perhaps with less intention to warm him with their breath and dry him with their fur as the monk described? I’m realising that I may have underestimated the veracity of Bede’s ‘Life of Cuthbert’, which the story of the ravens unexpectedly reveals.

An otter sighting

I may have otters on the brain at the moment. I went for a birding trip last week to the new hide at Catcott Lows which overlooks a small, reed-lined lake. There was hardly a bird in sight, apart from a little egret on the far side and three little grebes in the middle. Then I became aware that there was a form in the water to my left – “What have we here?” I thought, as I saw the unmistakable shape of an otter swimming through. It cruised along, diving gracefully, emerging to swim further on and dive again. I watched it doing this for about five minutes before it disappeared. It was a stunning sighting!

The stories about Cuthbert are from “The Age of Bede”, Penguin (2004), p54 and p71