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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!