Shapwick Heath in the snow

The heavy fall of snow in Somerset last Thursday – over 6 inches deep (15cm) in the front garden of the Vicarage – was timed just perfectly for Jen and myself. As the roads were almost impassable, we took advantage of our free Friday to go for a seven-mile walk. Our route, starting along the back lane to Buscott, enabled us to walk through the Shapwick Heath nature reserve from the east end, taking in a couple of bird hides on the way, before returning to the village along the main road.

We were surprised to find that the canal (aka South Drain) was frozen over, while the much shallower Meare Heath scrape (on the right below) was only half covered.

The Tower Hide on Shapwick Heath.

Pied wagtail with spider

Unsurprisingly, the wildlife was struggling to cope. There was an endearing pied wagtail at the entrance which was alternately hopping around us, and being blown around by the wind. Shortly after we encountered it, it did succeed in finding a dead spider by a gatepost which it made short work of.

I’d expected to see a bevy of wildlife photographers on the reserve taking advantage of the unusual conditions, but in fact there were none. Not only were the narrow approach roads treacherous in themselves, but the yawning rhynes could have easily swallowed a few cars in their gaping maws. We trod on virgin snow on the way to two of the hides, at Noah’s Lake and the Decoy Lake.

I’d expected to see something surprising on the journey, and I found it at Noah’s Lake. The wigeon, of which there were hundreds, were lined up, shoulder to shoulder on the edge of the ice. Normally they would have been swimming in the lake – perhaps, paradoxically, this was the least cold part of the area?

The wigeon, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder on the edge of the ice at Noah’s Lake.

The wigeon were lined up carefully along the margin of the ice

Wigeon on a frozen Noah’s Lake – and only wigeon!

Saying that we were breaking virgin snow is perhaps a little inaccurate, as we noticed on the way down to the Decoy Hide. We were only the first humans… There were plenty of tracks on the path down, that were tantalising hints of the animal life lurking in the woods. Not being skilled in reading tracks, I can only guess at what might have caused them.

Tracks on the way to the Decoy Hide

The Decoy lake itself was suitably cold and wintry! The tor was just visible, a ghostly shape visible through the mist. Much of the lake was covered in ice, particularly at the margins where it was thickest, although the area nearest the hide was free of ice.

Glastonbury tor visible from an icy Decoy Lake

On our way back to Shapwick from the reserve, we passed a stream that seemed to epitomise the coldness of the day… Nevertheless, when we returned to the Vicarage, we were very glad to have made full use of the day.

Snow, ice and a frozen stream between Shapwick and the nature reserve.


The fudge duck at Ham Wall

Seeing a ferruginous duck at Ham Wall brought back memories from when I was about 8 on a family holiday in Scotland. It’s a distinctively-coloured duck which normally lives in south-eastern Europe, but a handful come to the UK each year.

Dad had previously been very excited to see a black-throated diver, which didn’t interest me at all. But a bit later he was also thrilled to see a Ferruginous Duck – pointing out to me the unusual colouring. For some reason that did catch my interest, and the event has stayed in my mind since then.

I’ve wanted to see another one ever since – and dipped ignominiously a few years ago (apparently a female was in full view but I hadn’t recognised it). Thus when a drake showed up a couple of days ago at Ham Wall, I had to go.

Ferruginous Duck with coot and female mallard

I arrived in the hide at about 10.30 to find an array of birders already there. It was all quiet. One guy smiled and pointed into his telescope – and there it was, in full view. He also showed me where to view with my binoculars, and I was able to watch it for about an hour. With its colour it’s not hard to see why it’s called ‘ferruginous’ – the white tail end is also very characteristic.

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck with gadwall

On my way back towards the car I stopped off at the first viewing platform as there were plenty of birds to see. The unexpected bonus was to see the glossy ibis: it’s been at Ham Wall for a couple of years but although I’d seen it several times, I’d never had as good views as I had today. The lighting was reasonably good and the photos below capture something of their iridescence – which leads to their ‘glossy’ name.

Glossy ibis at Ham Wall

Glossy ibis at Ham Wall

An obliging woodpecker – and the day I took Jen on a twitch…

There’s a green woodpecker that turns up on the back lawn at the Vicarage occasionally, and yesterday afternoon it appeared again. Because of the slightly odd construction of the covered area between the kitchen and garage, there’s a convenient half fence that allows me to photograph birds in the garden unnoticed. I used that for the woodpecker, as it bounced around the lawn energetically. Unfortunately it was soon heading exactly in the right line for my cover to no longer work, so that the moment it caught sight of me it flew off agitatedly. Nevertheless I secured a couple of reasonable snaps…

Green woodpecker at Shapwick Vicarage

Green woodpecker at Shapwick Vicarage

One of the local specialities is the number of bearded tits which frequent the nature reserves: dozens of pairs nested at Ham Wall this year. They are notoriously rather elusive, and until last month I hadn’t had a good sighting of one. However, elusiveness does not equate to shyness – a point I hadn’t realised until I was told about the boardwalk on the way to the Island Hide at Westhay. This is where seed is put out for them, which they eat in full view of the birdwatchers around.

Bearded tits at Westhay Nature Reserve

Bearded tits at Westhay Nature Reserve

Obviously a better photograph would be to catch one in a more natural environment – but as this was my first proper sighting of them, I’m content for the time being!

Meanwhile, last month a mega rarity showed up in South Wales, near Abergavenny – in the quarries around Pwll Du. This was a common rock thrush, a bird which breeds on rocky mountain slopes in southern Europe, but should winter south of the Sahara. Why an adult male should head in the opposite direction is something of a mystery. I persuaded Jen that a cold, grey, drizzly day wouldn’t dampen the excitement of seeing such a rare bird – or at least, I persuaded Jen to tolerate my enthusiasm on the matter! We arrived the day after the bird first showed up: over the next few weeks it became bolder and more amenable to photography, but while we were there it was fairly distant even while clearly visible. I did at least manage a few decent record shots!

Common rock thrush, Pwll Du

Common rock thrush, Pwll Du

There’s a nice account of John Marsh’s discovery of the bird here – he’d actually been looking for ring ouzels when he stumbled across it. Unfortunately the bird disappeared a few days ago – I say ‘unfortunately’ because the weather is turning cold, and the bird’s capacity to be sensible and go south rather than north seems a bit limited.

After spending an hour or so admiring the rock thrush and wishing it had got closer, we decided to go for a walk up one of the nearby hills. We chose Blorenge, the hill that overlooks Abergavenny: it is next to Pwll Du and was walkable within the time available. It was cold and damp, shrouded in fog and boggy on the top – but we enjoyed it!

Looking a bit damp on the top of Blorenge

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


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!


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


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.


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