Somerset Levels: 14th-17th January, 2016
Weather: Very cold. Mostly clear skies, with slight cloud.
Birds: 65 species seen, including approx 2.5 million Starlings.
Plus: Hare; Roe Deer.
A mainly agricultural region, the Somerset Levels spans around 160,000 acres between the Quantock and Mendip Hills. This ancient habitat is a magical expanse of seasonally inundated lowlands, wetlands and moors. Willow and teasel grow commercially, while peat is extracted on a large scale. It supports a vast variety of plant and bird species and includes 32 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, of which 12 are also Special Protection Areas. Glastonbury Tor, Deer Leap, Cheddar Gorge and Wookey plus the internationally famous Starling Murmuration make for a breathtaking visit.
I was suffering from 'Naturetrek trip withdrawal', so it was time for another outing. Although it was January and cold(ish), I decided to take a short break in the UK and so opted for the Somerset Levels. I had always wanted to see and experience the famous Starling Murmuration for myself. You know what they say, if you're born round, you don't die square! I had also persuaded my birdie pal and sometime drinking companion, Barry, to accompany me. Mainly because he had a car! It was to be life in the fast lane for us!
He picked me up at the Station around 10am and we took a leisurely drive down to Wells, our base for the holiday. There was plenty of cloud when we departed, but, thankfully, it brightened up considerably by the time we arrived. The Swan is a very lovely three star Hotel, situated opposite the imposing, but magnificent Cathedral. While checking-in at Reception Barry immediately fell in love with the resident cat, which padded quietly past him. However, it looked to me like it had lyin' eyes.
It was still mid-afternoon and so we decided to have a walk around the town. It was a tad cold, so we started to look for a suitable hostelry. Unfortunately, they all seemed to be closed, so we headed back to the Hotel and had a few beers and some lunch, before changing for dinner.
We met our Tour Guides for the trip, David and Dave. I idly wondered if Naturetrek had a policy of only hiring TGs that were named David. We also met the rest of the tour party. David and Dave gave us a quick introduction and outlined a few details of the visit. Then they tried to gauge the birding experience of the Group, with a quick test.
'What's this bird, then?' Dave asked us, holding up a photo of a Teal. There were a few blank looks.
I had assured Barry on the drive down that we wouldn't have to make any formal introductions and so was slightly embarrassed when we had to do just that, as well as taking a guess at the photo. Barry was not happy. Well, it’s never happened before!
We then headed into the restaurant for a lovely 3-course dinner, followed by further information regarding the next few days. Early to bed.
I arose at 6am, for a 7am breakfast. A lovely fry-up, including Black Pudding! I much prefer English breakfasts, rather than the continental-type. They really set you up for the day.
We then proceeded to have a fantastic day, visiting several places. First up, was a visit to RSPB Greylake. One of four RSPB reserves in the County, it's located on the main Taunton to Glastonbury road and is midway between the villages of Othery and Greinton. The fields at Greylake used to be arable farmland, before their conversion to a wetland area by the RSPB and are now an excellent location for bird watching.
We spied a Great Spotted Woodpecker, on a nut feeder, in the parking area, as we arrived. A few Reed Buntings were flying around the seed feeders. A slow stroll down the trail eventually brought us to a couple of Hides. Just before we entered the first Hide, Dave flushed out a lovely Goldcrest, which gave everyone some excellent views. Even earlier than that, David spotted a Hare, statuesque-like, sitting about 30 metres away, behind a tuft of grass.
We looked out over the adjacent fields and lagoons to see over 50,000 wildfowl, including Wigeon; Gadwall; Teal; Shoveler; Pintail and Mallard. It was quite a spectacle. Several Common Snipe were hunkered down against some grassy tussocks, only metres away from us.
However, if we thought the sight of all these birds was something to behold, the next sight took our collective breath away. Several Marsh Harriers and a pair of Peregrine Falcons turned up and proceeded to cause havoc. Nearly everything went up and we were treated to a truly magical sight of most of the wildfowl taking flight. A veritable Duck Murmuration!
One of the Daves spotted one of the Falcons landing over to our right, with what appeared to be her dinner. The, smaller, male landed nearby and looked on as his partner consumed her catch. The Harriers continued to scare everything, while effortlessly gliding around the area.
Everyone had smiles on their faces, as we drove to RSPB Dewlands Farm, which is the RSPB HQ in the area. Here we met Dion, one of the RSPB volunteers. He took us out, on a very muddy track, to show us very distant views of much the same birds, over a very large field. We were in another Hide, a converted barn. It was also home to a pair of nesting Kestrels. One of them had to be flushed out as we arrived.
We then drove to a remote field, at a place called Aller More, where we had distant views of over 40 Common Cranes. They form part of the Great Crane Project in the area and are a national success story. To the right of them, were several Black-tailed Godwits and Dunlin, all asleep in the middle of the lagoon.
We then broke for a very nice pub lunch, situated near Burrowbridge. The King Alfred was one of those charming olde-worlde pubs. Both Barry and I had chosen hot soup, to warm us up. The temperature gauge was hovering around the zero mark.
All the food on the trip was excellent and, with three meals a day, no one was going to go hungry. However, we did have to pre-order both lunches and dinners, which proved to be quite a memory test, when the time came. Barry had brought a few Mars Bars with him, as well, in case of emergency!
With everyone well fed and watered, we headed off to a place called King's Sedgemoor Drain, an artificial drainage channel, which diverts the River Cary along the southern flank of the Polden Hills, to discharge into the River Parrett at Dunball. Here we not only found my first Snowdrops of the season, but also Great White Egrets on show, together with several Stonechats.
However, in winter the days are short and so we had to head off to see the first of three sightings of Murmuration. Starling Murmurations are notoriously difficult to find, as they tend to move about, from area to area, as each roost becomes polluted by droppings. However, both Daves were armed with some inside information and drove us to NNR Shapwick Heath. We didn’t actually visit the Reserve – we were in the area for the Starlings.
We headed up another very muddy track, beside a canal, passing more Snowdrops and then my first Daffodils of the season, to wait for the action. About 30 minutes later, just before dusk, the first Starlings started to arrive. There was to be no heartache tonight. Initially, just a few flocks of about a hundred or so. But then the heavy mob arrived, in flocks of hundreds of thousands. Soon, they were all flying around - a murmuration - entertaining the hundred or so people that were privileged and lucky enough to be present.
And it was quite a spectacle. It's difficult to imagine the scene, if you haven't seen it. TV and photographs couldn't do it justice. It wasn't just the sight, but the sound as well, the murmuration, as over a million birds ‘swooshed’ overhead.
They seemed to wave effortlessly though the air, back and forth. How none of them collided with one another was a mystery. And still they came in, flock after flock, every few seconds. Most people, me included, were trying to capture the scene on camera. Difficult, when they were everywhere.
Then they slowly started to drift lower and lower, each trying to pick out a reed to spend the night. Finally, they performed their last magic trick - the 'waterfall' as the birds fell into the reeds, where they started chattering away to each other. Looking through my Bins, all I could see was a black mass, writhing to and fro, as the last birds settled down for the night.
It must surely rank as one of Mother Nature's best and most magnificent sights, an extraordinary display of precision aerial acrobatics. If we had big smiles on our faces earlier, they had broadened even more now.
With aching backs, well mine anyway, we returned to the mini-buses and drove back to our Hotel. We were all still buzzing during dinner and, afterwards we were invited to rise up early the next morning, to witness the opposite. Did anyone wish to go? Hmm, let me think.
The alarm call went off at 5.45am. Unusually, for me, I leapt out of bed instantly and was soon raring to go. At 6.30, we headed off. We knew where the birds had roosted for the night and so we made a beeline for Canada Farm. We were in place and waiting, with baited breath.
It was very cold standing there. However, we were all wearing several layers and the anticipation of the sights to come seemed to keep the cold away. I had also brought my magic scarf with me.
Daves MkI&II prepared us as to what we could expect. It still blew our minds. First, we could again hear the sounds of tens of thousands of birds waking up and calling out to each other. Then the huge black, roiling mass started to thrash about, followed by groups of about a quarter of a million birds suddenly flying up and away. Group after group soon followed as masses of Starlings flew up and dispersed. It was all over after about 15 minutes. Another unbelievably breathtaking sight.
One of our group asked a good question. Why do they do it? Nobody knows for sure, but the current thinking is that Starlings group together for safety. Predators such as Peregrine Falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands. They also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas. Well, it sounded logical to me.
Unfortunately, the Starling population has fallen by over 80% in recent years, meaning they are now on the critical list of UK birds most at risk. The belief is that the decline is due to the loss of permanent pasture, increased use of farm chemicals and a shortage of food and nesting sites in many parts of the UK. So, the thought that sights like this might eventually disappear is too gloomy to imagine.
We were back at the hotel by 8.20, for a much-needed breakfast. Thank God and Saint George for black pudding. Damn the diet, I thought, I wanted to take it to the limit.
At around 9.30 we headed off to SWT Westhay Moor - 'The Marshes of Avalon' - 260-odd acres of beautiful NNR, with shimmering lakes and reed beds. We were here to see either Bittern or Bearded Tit, which were some of the specialities of the County. Unfortunately it was to be our only failure of the trip, as we saw neither bird, despite our TGs best efforts to entice them out.
In fact, there wasn't very much about at all. On a cold, crisp morning, all we saw were passerines, notably Reed Bunting. We did see a distant Kingfisher, perched up on one of the reed stems, at the back of the lagoon. One of the regulars there said that he had seen a Bittern flying over the reedbeds earlier, but it never reappeared. Several Common Snipe flew around the lagoon whilst we were sitting in the Tower Hide. However, there wasn't a lot else. It was eerily quiet, sitting there in the cold. Unfortunately, we did see a few dog-walkers.
Therefore, we moved on to a place called SWT Catcott Lows. A wetland habitat, it is around thirty acres of former industrial peat-diggings, where you can see Somerset’s iconic Glastonbury Tor in the distance.
There were quite a few wildfowl here, as well, although not in the numbers seen at Greylake. However, they were a little closer and gave us some great views. Especially the two male Pintails. We all had great views of the birds and their wonderful plumage, looking through the scopes. Also out there and a little nearer, was a male Stonechat, perching high up on the stems, forever on the look out for food or foe.
Just outside the Hide we could see a party of Long-tailed Tits and another Goldcrest. Chiffchaff could be heard calling. A little later a Marsh Harrier flew over, causing the birds some concern, but it didn't seem interested in them. It did put up several Common Snipe, which flew up and away. Another Great White Egret could be seen, out to our left, while a pair of Roe Deer could be seen out to the right. However, it was the wonderful colours of the wildfowl, especially the Teal, which impressed the most.
We had another Pub Lunch, with both Barry and I enjoying another hot soup. This time accompanied by a beer. I think the name of this pub was The Crown, but I'm not too sure. It was another historic-looking one, with plenty of character. The landlord was quite a character, too. There was also a roaring fire, which went down well with everyone.
RSPB Ham Wall was up next. Although part of the Reserve was closed for essential maintenance works to Ashcott Railway Bridge. This is a newly created wetland, of over 200 hectares and lies in the northern part of the Somerset levels. One of the largest reedbed establishment sites in the country, the reserve is now a rich patchwork of wet scrub and open water, with peripheral grassland and woodland.
We were again hoping to see Bittern and Bearded Tit, but they continued to remain elusive. We walked down yet another muddy track and looked out over the lake. Here we saw plenty of wildfowl again. All the dabbling ducks, including Gadwall, Shoveler, Teal and Wigeon were again present, but, this time, some of the diving ducks were present, including Tufted Duck, with accompanying Great Crested Grebe.
We also spotted another Great White Egret. Somerset is the best place in the UK to see these birds, as there are thought to be over 30 of them around the area. They started to nest and breed in the UK back in 2012 and are now starting to establish themselves in the same way that their cousins, the Little Egret, did a few decades ago.
I would have liked to have stayed a little longer, to try and spot a Bittern. However, a few of the group needed the toilets and were tempted (bribed?) by a cup of hot chocolate and a macaroon at 'Amy's Place'.
‘Amy’s’ was situated near Canada Farm and so we soon headed off to view the Starling Murmuration again. Well, it would have been rude not to! It looked like it was to be another one of these nights
We stood in the same place, by the farm, as we had earlier in the morning. There were almost as many people here as last night. Dave had said that, as the clouds were coming in, the birds would probably roost a little earlier this evening. He was right! Not long after we had arrived, the first large groups turned up. Soon, we were looking up at over two million birds murmuring right above us.
It must be the ultimate winter spectacle. We had a panoramic view and in seemingly every direction you looked there were birds. The sky was nearly black with them. They were arriving from all points of the compass. And the sound was again unbelievable.
Then it became even better. A Peregrine Falcon could be seen flying above them. This, of course, panicked the Starlings and they started to coagulate even closer together, like a shoal of fish fleeing a shark. Nobody was sure if the Falcon had made a successful kill. Nevertheless we were all delighted as we saw large, dark shapes form in the sky, in an effort to avoid the predator. It was just utterly magical!
Although Barry didn't seem to be too impressed! He was obviously the new kid in town. Maybe he was fed up with me constantly shouting out, 'Starlings to the South West, Sir, thousands of them!' On the other hand, maybe he was getting cold, hungry and tired - he hadn't slept well down here. It was probably the thought of a beer, more like!
Not long after, we did head back. Although this sadly marked the end of our trip. We arrived back at the Hotel and everyone seemed to depart very quickly, before we could say ‘goodbye’. I guess buses needed to be caught and most people wanted to get away. Barry and I had opted to stay another night, as he didn't particularly want to drive back in the dark.
We chose to have our dinner in one of the pubs, The Crown. Instead of the three-course meal of recent evenings, I settled for Ham, Egg and Chips, washed down with a couple of pints of Butcombe bitter. We soon made our way back to the Hotel, for another pint - 'one for the road!'
By now Barry was flagging and so we retired to our rooms for the night. I told him to take it easy, as we had a long journey home tomorrow. There was a bit of confusion the next morning, as we checked-out. Barry had seemingly already paid but hadn't actually given them his credit card. A mystery. Even the cat looked puzzled.
A few hours later Barry dropped me off and I arrived home just after 1pm. I felt a bit like after the thrill is gone. Only a short trip but the 'Murmuration' will live with me forever.
Another fantastic trip. Great birds; great people; great place. Hotel Cat is optional.
'Every day, 74 more species become extinct.'
More Somerset Levels photos - and a photobook - can be seen HERE!
For more of my photos please visit my Flickr site.