Opportunistic egrets

In the Somerset Levels, you don’t necessarily need to go the reserves to see interesting wildlife.

About ten days’ ago I was driving to Burtle church along the road from Westhay, and saw a large number of white birds in a field; as I got closer I realised they were not gulls but egrets – about 40 in all. Then I discovered that the closest ones were cattle egrets – a species which is nationally rare but, having bred at Ham Wall this summer, not uncommon around here.

I came back later that afternoon with binoculars and found only little egrets, so I was worried I’d mis-identified them. But the following day, both little and cattle egrets were present, about 20 of each.

However, it was what they did when they found that a digger was dredging peaty soil from the rhyne (ditch) that was most intriguing…

Herons and egrets amassing around near the digger for fresh peat

While the dredger was at work, several grey herons flew in. Very sensible, you might think – except that, although they breed colonially, they hunt as solitary birds, and really don’t seem to like each other’s company most of the time. But here there were six of them, all waiting for the rich pickings from the stream bed. Meanwhile, the little egrets – a more gregarious species – got to work on the peat dredged previously. In an adjacent field were the cattle egrets.

Cattle egret with frog

The egrets were usually in fields either side of Burtle Road between Westhay and the peat works. Both fields are saturated after the recent rains – the stubble field to the south especially so. While they were probably probing for invertebrates most of the time, one cattle egret caught a frog – which seemed to be an awkward beakful judging by the length of time it took to consume it, but there was only ever going to be one winner.

The next day, driving up to Westhay from Shapwick, I noticed the cattle egrets living up to their name. They were dodging the feet of some bullocks, in order to feed on the invertebrates in the churned-up mud.

Cattle egrets near Westhay on the road from Shapwick

If you’re gloing to dodge between the hooves, you need to know what he’s thinking…

I had less luck when I wanted to show Jen the egrets: just a single little egret. Instead, a large flock of winter thrushes – redwings and fieldfares – enjoyed the feast.

The glossy ibis

As well as the cattle egrets there was a glossy ibis around as well – probably the same one that has been at Ham Wall for most of the past two years. I’ve seen the ibis several times over the last couple of years but only once had a good sighting – but this week I had a far better view from closer range. 

The interesting thing about this particular bird is that it is present all year round. Most glossy ibises migrate to winter in Africa, but this one, along with a handful of others elsewhere in the UK, seems well adapted to winter conditions here.

It would be easy to think that the ibis and the egrets co-existed amicably, as they stride along together, probing the ground for prey  – but it became clear that their company was more one of sufferance than congeniality. When an egret got too close to the ibis, it was rounded on and hissed at. With that, order was restored.

An altercation between the ibis and an egret that got too close. While the ibis hissed, the egret stretched itself to full height.

The glossy ibis with one of the little egrets

Much as it’s exciting to see these species in the UK, they are hardly rare globally. Cattle egrets are regarded as the most widespread of all bird species, and the glossy ibis is also very widespread. Nevertheless – they are an exotic enhancement to the wildlife of this area!

The fields either side of the Burtle road from Westhay (the edge of which is in the distance). The stubble field to the south of the road is on the right in this photo. Even wth the rhynes (drainage ditches) the field is saturated…well, this is the Somerset Levels!

A couple of winter birding trips

Black redstart (female) at Brean Down cove

A few days ago, I took a quick trip to Brean Down cove, to look for a female black redstart that is wintering there. For a while I thought that I was going to miss out, but then she suddenly appeared, very close by. In the normal course I’d have been very satisfied with the photos I took at that point.

I decided to explore some of the rest of the cove and happened to notice a grey heron looking alert on a rock islet on the edge of the shore, so I spent a few minutes trying to capture the scene.

Heron at Brean Down Cove

On my way back I looked for the redstart again in a rather vague and half-hearted way – but then she suddenly appeared, on the end of a nearby branch that had been washed up, even closer than before. I’ve ended up concluding that she was checking me out! I was particularly delighted because this is definitely one of the best photos I’ve taken of a small bird.

Female black redstart at Brean Down cove

On my day off, Jen and I went up to Slimbridge. We knew it would be cold, but I’d forgotten what it was like to have an icy blast blowing in off the Severn estuary!

Many of the Bewick’s swans have arrived for the winter: they are much smaller than our native mute swans, with yellow-and-black bills rather than orange-and-black. They’ve had an astonishing journey to get here, as they breed on the arctic tundra of northern Siberia. Sadly they are declining in numbers all across Europe: 29,000 in 1995, dropping to 18,000 in 2010; there are far fewer at Slimbridge now than there were ten years ago. It’s not hard to work out one of the biggest causes of the decline: of those that are in the UK, 40% carry gunshot. (Their story on the WWT site here.)

Bewicks swans at Slimbridge

We saw several Bewick’s swans on the Rushy pen, where there was also a scarce wader – a Little Stint, which is indeed very diminutive.

Little stint at Slimbridge

Keep clear of that beak…

On the bank holiday Monday, while Jen was preparing for a debate, I went down to the Avalon Marshes in Somerset for a birding trip. Despite the disappearance of a rare bird I’d hoped to see, it was a great trip, because of the richness and diversity of the wildlife there.

Ham Wall

The Ham Wall nature reserve – with Glastonbury Tor in the background.

Ham Wall and the neighbouring reserves are well known for hobbies: small, agile falcons that specialise in catching large insects. Even so, spring is particularly good for them here as it is a staging post on their migration: many of them congregate over the marshes to fatten up before dispersing to other parts of the country. At one point there were a couple of dozen in the air at the same time. It was a spectacular sight!

Neither my photography skills nor my camera were up to photographing the fast-flying hobbies, but the lighting was excellent for an obliging great-crested grebe.

Great crested grebe at Ham Wall

Great crested grebe at Ham Wall

In the afternoon I went across the road to Shapwick Heath – the next reserve along – and spent some time at the hide above Noah’s Lake. It’s a location where odd things seem to happen: I once saw a bat descend from the hide around midday, do a couple of circuits skimming the water immediately in front of the hide, and then return to the roof from which it had come.

Little egret preening

Little egret preening

This time the entertainment surrounded a little egret and a grey heron, which had the same ideas about which three perches were the best hunting spots. The egret would pick first, but then would be ejected a little later by the much larger heron.

The hide was almost directly above one of these perches, which afforded remarkable views of both birds. Although heron normally fly off when spotted by humans, this one was unfazed by those in the hide… and besides, the lake was chock full of fish so there was plenty of reason not to be too fussy about spectators…

Not sure I'd want to get too close to that beak...

Not sure I’d want to get too close to that beak… grey heron at Shapwick Heath

There was plenty of roach in the lake, as there had been at Ham Wall. Getting a whole fish down the gullet seemed a difficult manoeuvre for both heron and grebe, but the end result was the same for both birds (and both fish).

Roach was on the menu

Roach was on the menu for both the heron and the grebe

The mysteries of Ardnamurchan

What’s the most westerly place on the British mainland? No – it’s not Land’s End; it’s Ardnamurchan Point, half a degree further over at 6.2°W. This small fact is like the area itself: it ought to be well known, but isn’t.

It’s the most prominent part of the peninsula south-west of Fort William. The easiest way to get there is to take the short ferry ride across Loch Linnhe, just north of Glencoe. Although the journey is less than half a mile, it takes one to a land that feels more like the Outer Hebrides than mainland Scotland.

The area is remote – and spectacularly beautiful. It was only mildly surprising to discover that the reclusive wildlife writer, Mike Tomkies, lived here, on the shore of Loch Shiel, a long lake with limited access by road. The area is a stronghold for the Scottish wildcat – with which Tomkies was intimately involved (here).

Loch Doile

Loch Doile

The main village, Strontian, houses about 350 people (similar to Wichenford). This might make it seem like any other small and inconspicuous village – but it is one of only two sites in the world to have a naturally occurring element named after it (strontium). This is another fact about the area that one feels should be better known.

My main motivation for the trip was to see the local wildlife, and it was good to be joined by Dave Doughty for it. One of the highlights was a dawn trip around Loch Sunart. Driving on the road west of Strontian at 5.30, we chanced upon an animal trying to cross the road… it wasn’t an otter, as we’d first thought, but with a white bib and bounding gait it could only be a pine marten. It took a while for it to find a way through, but it entertained us for a couple of minutes before doing so. (I was so excited to see it I completely forgot to take any photographs! Duh!)

Cloudy morning at Loch Sunart

Cloudy morning at Loch Sunart

Shortly after we arrived at the Garbh Eilean wildlife hide, Dave spotted an otter swimming along, nose just above the water line, diving a couple of times as well. We hoped  it would land on one of the islands in front of the hide – instead of which it swam behind and we lost sight of it.

Towards the end of the week we went on a widlife safari, guided by the irrepressible Hamza Yassin of West Highland Tours. He’s a professional wildlife photographer who is partly employed as a tour guide by the local laird. We soon regretted not doing the safari earlier in the week, such was his detailed knowledge of the local area.

I enthused about seeing the pine marten. Hamza was unsurprised by the sighting. He explained that here they are as common as the fox would be down south – and are doing so well that they threaten the survival of the wildcat. Wildlife conservation isn’t always straightforward…

My own attempts at photography were much more limited than I had expected – partly due to the weather, partly because the birdlife was much less obliging than I’d hoped. There was an abundance of herons, which is not exactly an unusual species further south! However, they are usually quite difficult to photograph as they are very alert to human presence, so when I saw one on the lakeside from the car I stopped to take a snap. But the heron had other things in mind than standing and posing…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.