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.


Romance and trash talk in Grebe World

It was early morning by the lake, and there was a hail shower. It wasn’t the sunny start that was forecast, so I sat back and thought, “no chance of the birds doing anything in this weather”. Then I looked across the lake and saw a pair of grebes in the middle of an intense courtship ritual. Even in the hail! But there was a phase of it that I’d never noticed before and was really impressive.

It started out as a normal courtship ritual…

Then one of them (the male?) shot off, turned round, and showed his wings in a magnificent pose.

The female then approached. Although she looks deferential here, in reality she’s just beginning to dive underneath.

They then finish the display with more courtship celebrations.

It was the triumphalist pose that particularly impressed me. It’s been called the ‘cat-display’, which seems an odd choice of name – but I’d not been aware of it until it was so dramatically displayed in the hail.

Dawn had in fact been much clearer and I’d gone in anticipation of a fine morning.

Sunrise towards the Tor from the Decoy Lake.

The Little Grebes revealed themselves more often by their whinnying calls from deep within reedbeds, but one individual showed itself in the morning sun before dashing off, running across the lake surface (a good trick it you’re small enough and fast enough).

Little Grebe in the morning sun.

Cloudy skies really don’t bring out the vivid colouration – but the advantage is that muted colours are easier to photograph: white feathers are otherwise easily overexposed.

Great crested grebe portrait.

Towards the end of the month I decided to go in the afternoon, on the basis that the lighting would be better. But again I was thwarted by sunshine that was only intermittent, and birds that seemed quite elusive. Nevertheless, a pair of little grebes swam across, showing off the finery of their breeding colours.

Little grebes in breeding plumage

By now there were three pairs of Great Crested Grebes on the lake, but none of them were being co-operative as far as I was concerned! They looked like they’d done their work for the day – that is, until the end, when I had begun to pack up, having removed the camera mount. The pair nearest the hide (but mostly obscured by reeds), swam into the middle and began to display. I then saw another pair had arrived from the far side, and was also displaying, and yet another was performing strange antics in front. I didn’t know which to look at.

It was only when I looked at the photos that I began to understand what had happened. With three pairs of grebes on the central part of the lake at the same time, the displays may have been more about territory than romance. In the photos below, the foreground grebe was expressing displeasure – and probably asserting his territorial boundary.

One pair of grebes is about to start displaying, while another one shows his displeasure.

“OK, lovebirds, watch what I’m doing… this is the boundary of my territory… you wouldn’t want to come to any harm, would you?”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the woods, there was plenty happening there as well. I’ve managed to secure a couple of decent Long-tailed tit photos. This may not seem much of a feat as they are common enough – but they are a difficult bird to photograph because they move very fast, and I’ve regularly failed before.

Long-tailed tit by the Decoy lake

I also came across a wintering chiffchaff, trying to find food in frosty ground, which was probably wondering why it hadn’t migrated south in the autumn.

Wintering chiffchaff, by a stream near the Decoy Lake.

The Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath

Prehistoric trackways, woodland, and a bird hide overlooking a lake: these are some of the reasons why one of my favourite spots around here is the Decoy Lake at the west end of Shapwick Heath.

I initially came across it some years ago on my first trip here – a futile quest to see otters – but even then realised that this particular lake is a good spot for the charismatic great crested grebe. The various routes to it are attractive, either through deciduous woodland or alongside a large reedbed. The woodland also contains a re-constructed trackway that was built around 1500BC, but next to the lake itself is the site of an even older trackway, dated by analysis of the tree-rings to 3607BC. This is the Sweet Track, named after the peat worker, Ray Sweet, who discovered it in 1970.

This year I’ve decided to focus particularly on this patch, and particularly the grebes – partly because my days of chasing rarities are receding 🙂 and partly because it is (for me) a new focus for the birdwatching.

Plenty of ducks wintered on the Decoy Lake this year: pintail at top left, shoveler top middle, the other four are gadwall.

I hadn’t quite realised before that the decoy lake is a good site for wintering ducks. Early in January there were large numbers – surprisingly many shovelers (characterised by their massive bills), and a few of the elegant pintails. The next time I went, towards the end of the month, I was surprised to see very few ducks and wondered where the others had gone. An hour or so later, as we neared sunset, small flocks of shovelers and teal splashed down, and the overall numbers were closer to the previous visit.

It’s easy to overlook tufted ducks as they’re quite common, but this group shows their handsomeness!

These teals splashed down on the lake in the late afternoon.

Great crested grebe with a male gadwall

As for grebes, though, things seemed a bit forlorn. Last year around February I counted up to seven adult great-crested grebes, so when I didn’t see any at the start of my first visit in January, I was a bit concerned. Eventually one emerged from a reedbed in the middle of the lake. I was distinctly relieved! I later saw a second one with different plumage. A couple of weeks later, though, there really was only one – but this one (right, with gadwall) was still in winter plumage, unlike the one below, photographed on the previous visit ten days earlier, had plumage which was more advanced towards breeding. I wondered what had happened to the other one.

I began to hope that the one or two grebes wintering here would be joined by others migrating in from elsewhere, otherwise there’d be much less to photograph and blog! I’d have to wait to February to begin to find out.

Great crested grebe on the decoy lake

A grey winter’s day on the Decoy Lake, looking north from the hide, with a grebe at front left.

Three humbugs, with spashes of yellow and red

About ten days’ ago I bumped into Sue Sellick in Shapwick village: had I seen the grebes from the Decoy Hide on the Heath recently? A pair had nested close to the hide, and their three chicks were still young enough to be hitching rides on their parents’ backs. I hadn’t, but I persuaded Jen that we really should go. They were just outside the hide and very photogenic!

Great crested Grebe at Shapwick Heath with a humbug hitching a ride.

The parents took it in turns to carry their chicks while the other went fishing.

The chicks seemed to have insatiable appetites…

There were three little humbugs in all, though usually only one showed at any one time.

Family portrait on a sunny afternoon…

A few days previously I went to Harnhill, in Cirencester, for three days’ retreat. While there I went on a walk over the fields towards Ampney Crucis – and I heard many yellowhammers singing, for the first time in ages. This may be because I’ve not been in typical yellowhammer habitat in a long time, but it’s a nationally red-listed species, meaning that it is endangered because of a serious recent population decline. I was determined to get a good photo, and having spotted a favourite perch of one pair, I went back a couple of times to do so.

Yellowhammer near Harnhill, Cirencester

At the end of last week, while Jen was still in London, I went up one of the coombs on the edge of the Quantocks to try to see redstarts. I wasn’t particularly hopeful of much more than a distant sighting, and in the lower part of the valley the lack of birdsong didn’t improve my outlook. Halfway up, I happened to turn around, just in time to see a flash of red tail feathers fly across the path. It was indeed a redstart! After hanging around for a while I realised I was close to the nest site, and found myself watching both parents while they were feeding their young. Although my camera ended up malfunctioning, it was my best sighting of redstarts, and my first photographic sequence of the male was at least halfway decent!

Redstart in the Quantocks

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 majestic kingfisher

One of the lesser-known hides here – Canada Lake – is brilliant for kingfishers. Having decided to visit more of the reserves in the area, I’d gone to see what was there, and after a while noticed a couple of them zipping around the near side of the lake. A branch next to the hide had been deliberately placed as a perch for them, but they seemed to be using one closer to the water’s edge, and on the wrong side of the reeds from where I was sat; but then, just before I was about to leave, one landed on the branch. Watching and photographing it made me realise, yet again, what magnificent birds they are.

Kingfisher at the Canada Lake hide

Kingfisher from the Canada Lake hide

Kingfisher at the Canada Lake hide: I was lucky that the lighting was just right for the photos - as long as she looked in the right direction!

Kingfisher from the Canada Lake hide: I was lucky that the lighting was just right for the photos – as long as she looked in the right direction!

Kingfisher at the Canada Lake hide: magificent he may be, but you wouldn't want to be on the wrong end of that bill...

Kingfisher from the Canada Lake hide: magificent she may be, but you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of that bill…

And then she was off...

And then she was off…