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 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

The butcher bird and the starling spectacular

Great grey shrike at Hopwood

Great grey shrike at Hopwood

Some places just don’t seem likely birding hotspots… such as junction 2 of the M42! Yet just north of there, in a plantation just west of Hopwood, a butcher-bird has taken residence – aka a great grey shrike.

Shrikes hunt large insects and small animals; and if they catch too much, they store their prey by impaling them on the spikes of thorn bushes. Hence their colloquial name of butcher birds.

Despite this antisocial behaviour, they’re photogenic birds, and guaranteed to draw birders from some distance around. While I was watching, the shrike remained fairly distant, but it did come close enough to be within range of a decent photograph.

The starlings at Grimley have continued to put on some spectacular displays. It’s quite hard to decide which end of the pools to watch them from. Standing by the barn at the south end, I was underneath the murmuration several times as they passed over, so that it was a full immersion experience into Starling World.

Watching the starlings passing overhead was phenomenal

Watching the starlings passing overhead was phenomenal. Anyone want to count them?!

However, from the northern end, they are more distant but more visually stunning – especially when the starling cloud divided and merged, divided and re-merged.

Starlings over Grimley Camp Lane Pools

Starlings over Grimley Camp Lane Pools

Starlings over Grimley Camp Lane Pools

Starlings over Grimley Camp Lane Pools

Starlings over Grimley Camp Lane Pools

Starlings over Grimley Camp Lane Pools (Hallow Church is at lower right)

A few days ago, just before the display got going properly, I did catch sight of one of the reasons why the starlings behave in this way: a sparrowhawk cruising over the area. This particular group of starlings seemed to pass above.

It's his fault: notice the sparrowhawk lower right.

It’s his fault: notice the sparrowhawk lower right.

A cloud of starlings is a potential source of dinner for a hawk, so the murmuration is designed to confuse predators as to exactly where they are settling for the night.

Starlings at Grimley

Last night I received the kind of message that would galvanise anyone with an interest in wildlife. Helen Pargeter wrote:

If you would like to see a Starling Murmuration on land we rent at Grimley, do get back to me. You would need to be here around 4.30 tomorrow and I will drive us there. Trevor and I watched them for at least half an hour tonight…tens of thousands of starlings. Amazing sight.

It was on Sunday when the starlings first gathered for their evening roost there –  apparently the first time this has happened there in living memory. So this evening I found myself at Camp Lane pools with Helen, her sister Sheila, and Sheila’s grandson Max, watching the starlings arrive, swoop, rise, fall, spread and contract: it was almost like watching smoke billowing.

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley (from the north end on Friday)

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley (from the north end on Friday)

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley – with Trevor & Helen’s sheep!

Exactly why starlings murmurate is unclear, but it is probably to avoid predators. In winter, starlings tend to congregate in large flocks as they roost: there’s greater safety in numbers. Nevertheless, such large flocks attract watching sparrrowhawks, so the fast-flying, ever-changing shape of the murmuration is believed to confuse predators as to exactly where they are about to roost. Indeed, when they dropped into the reeds to roost this evening, it was sudden and without warning.

I will need to experiment a bit to improve the photography, but these few should give a reasonable for the event!

Sunrise in Wichenford

Meanwhile – on the theme of natural wonders – here’s a sunrise pic from the back garden a few days ago.

Sunrise in Wichenford

Sunrise in Wichenford