Saturday, 12 March 2022

The Rooks Of Wick St Lawrence

I've just looked it up. I last did a rook nest count around the village on March 20th 2016. You can read about it here if you so wish. Rooks 2016

Back in 2016 I counted 33 nests around the village, predominantly within three distinct concentrations, one by the Village Hall [C in the map], one as you entered the village [E on the map] and one as you left by Cedar Farm [F on the map].  Today I headed off to count them again, and this time there were 31 nests. However they are now spread loosely around and away from the village. Only the trees on the entrance to the village [E] still holding nests in number. 

Rooks are often site faithful, with some large rookeries being occupied for centuries. There is not the extensive spread of trees here so numbers would always be low, but for reasons I can't explain they've spread out into new areas, often in quite low trees. So what's happened? Well I'm not sure, maybe its something and nothing, simply just a change. 

Location of rook nests in the village (after posting noted date incorrect should read 12.03.2022)

Wick St Lawrence is a tiny hamlet really only 8 miles from Weston Super Mare. Over the six years since 2016 a number of farm buildings have been converted to housing, but pretty much the village is as it was. Certainly this area is perfect for foraging with damp grassland of sheep and cattle farming making up the bulk of the farmland here on what is the northern areas of the Somerset Levels and Moors. It is low lying land, quite exposed but perfect for foraging, lots of tasty worms and other invertebrates then.

The biggest change in those 6 years is the lone nest in the trees next to the Village Hall. In 2016 there were a number of nests but as in the image above, today just that single nest. From memory I think there were no nests here last year. These are actually the tallest trees so maybe Wick St Lawrence rooks don't have a head for heights. What I find amazing though is that every single nest that had survived from last year around the village was blown out of trees after Storm Eunice. That was little over a month ago, and since then 31 nests have been fashioned, life goes on. Its to hope then that we don't get any more gales and the rooks can get on with raising young in peace. So here is my record of the rook count 2022.

A on the map = 3 nests in trees by Byfield Farm, a lot of activity there there today with jackdaws joining in.

B on the map. 9 nests here, the most in one place. This is a brand new location for nests and as hopefully the images shows these are not tall trees and right by the road. The rooks though were very active here, with at least one female on the nest.

The site B is very much on its own in terms of tree cover. Barn owl love this area too.

C on the map. As mentioned above these trees are next to the Village Hall and used to be a regular area for rook to nest in. Just this lone nest in 2022.

Trees around Cypress Farm - D on the map - also held 9 rook nests, but two of these to the left were actually quite a way distant. This is again a newish area for rook to nest in.

Above and below the only site that has remained constant in terms of activity - E on the map. What isn't obvious is that the trees where the rook nest are overhanging the lane, which itself is peppered with sticks which have fallen out, as I've encountered a few times over the years as they've bounced off the car while I was driving to and from home. Not a very peaceful site then with cars and tractors thundering underneath, but the rooks don't seem to mind.

Finally below - F on the map - just 2 nests by Cedar Farm. This used to be a hotspot for rook nests for a number of years, and a couple of years back a raven nest in the conifer. Just two then in 2022. The house, no longer part of the farm, was sold a couple of years ago and the new owners have cleared a lot of the garden. Not sure this has made any difference in the reduction in the number of nests, but could be a factor.

It is intriguing seeing the change over the years. On one hand the level of activity is about the same as in 2016, 33 nests then, 31 this year. The dispersal of the nests into smaller groups and in areas where the trees are quite small is quite interesting too. It seems to me that rook behaviour is changing, and certainly they seem less wary of humans now they are not shot at or persecuted as of the olden days. As many people will have noticed drive along a motorway and where there are trees, often quite young, you'll see nests, especially in and around service stations.  A few years ago research took place at Membury Services on the M4, as the rooks there seem to be changing their behaviour based on human activity - not least raiding the waste bins.

It is fascinating trying to work out what's going on. The image below is a good example of what intrigues me. This is the landscape beyond site B all the way to the Bristol Channel about a mile away. Nice wet long term grasslands, normally full of cattle and today hosting a lot of corvids feeding. In the middle distance are a number of tall trees both in the hedgerows and around farms, but not a single rook nest that I could see. 

I'll leave that as a question then - I'm sure the landscape could hold more rook territories and there is enough food, so I wonder why they don't also move over there? Maybe 30 pairs is all the landscape can hold for reasons that escape me. Interesting!

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Greenfinch Distraction

Sometimes the simplest of distractions bring the most complexity of joy. Not the best photograph I've ever taken but a quick snap (out the office window before it flies off) of a greenfinch on the feeders this morning. The second time I've seen a greenfinch in the garden this week, but the first time in many years.

As with many common birds in my childhood the greenfinch has suffered a dramatic decline in numbers, though unlike some other species where habitat loss or disturbance are at play this mournful songster has been hit by a parasitic disease known as trichomonosis. It's a common disease in other birds but began to be noticed in garden visitors around 2005-2006, with the thought being that increased bird feeding can accelerate the spread picked up from dirty garden feeders. Ironic really that we put food out for the birds, and inadvertently make them ill. 

What's for certain here in this area of Somerset is that I'd not seen a greenfinch around the house for many years, nor chaffinch come to that. Looking through my wildlife diaries, these two species were here regularly until around 2010. After that just the occasional sighting and in the case of the greenfinch that soulful song of theirs on a windless day, and so reminiscent of my childhood, simply disappeared.  Astonishing to comprehend that in my lifetime a species that when I was growing up used to be quite numerous in our Country Durham garden now languishes on a red list due to the severity of declining numbers.

The disease affects many other species; chaffinch as mentioned which has also suffered a 25% decline recently, sparrows, dunnocks and great tits, the latter of which I saw with physical signs of the disease last year. The parasite affects the throat and gullet and can be physically deforming with growths on the feet or beak. Affected birds struggle to eat, becoming emaciated and although not necessarily fatal and birds do recover, many die through poor condition, starvation or increased predation which in itself can spread the disease into birds of prey and then back into the food chain. 

All pretty miserable stuff, but today I managed to get a quick photograph of this greenfinch and it brought back the positives. I'd also noticed a couple of chaffinches in the garden recently, maybe then this disease is either less prevalent in this region, or those birds now returning are carrying a certain level of immunity.  I've still not heard a greenfinch calling, but only last week a 'pink pink' of a chaffinch could be heard. Later it's song drifted across the garden. As a child my parents had a permanent caravan which was surrounded by trees. There chaffinch were very common and that 'pink pink' sound they make when alarmed takes me right back to that time. Happy days with not a care in the world. Todays greenfinch looked in super condition, there's hope then others are lurking in the fields beyond the garden wall to bolster the numbers this spring. Spring is definitely arriving here with this newly constructed carrion crow nest in the back field too.

This carrion crow nest must be a quarter of a mile away from the house, but in the last few weeks I've been watching it being built twig by twig. They nested in the same tree last year with that nest being destroyed in the winter winds. This pair of crows use the fir tree at the bottom of my garden as a lookout post and I watch them fly back and forth to the nest, which I think is now complete. I get better views using my telescope and I've seen the female head poking over the rim in the last few days, though she wasn't there today so not sure if there are eggs in there yet as it is still a little early. I hope then they raise a good brood this year. Last year they raised four, who after fledging would noisily come to a neighbours roof to be fed by both parents. It was highly entertaining to sit and watch these youngsters scrabbling about on the roof, wings flapping as they slid and fell down the tiles before flapping back up to the ridge. Eventually though they got the idea and would sit on the roof ridge waiting for the parent to return which was always heralded by noisy squabbling. At night they roosted in the trees just beyond the house and stayed in the area until late autumn.

Spring is here, birds are returning, nests being built, something to look forward to and a welcome distraction as I gaze out of the office window before getting down to work. What better than a few minutes nature fix before the day begins.

Thursday, 3 March 2022

Singing Blackcap

Like many people at the moment I suspect, I'm up early listening to the news from Ukraine. This morning however I turned off the newsfeeds to listen to a blackcap singing. Not just any blackcap but the male which has been resident in the garden all winter. 

What I'm thinking now is with his starting to sing to set out his territory and attract a mate, will this chap and the female with him all winter, actually stay here to breed? UK wintering blackcap normally come from north-central Europe and return there to breed, being replaced by the north African blackcap who over-summer in the UK.  But a small percentage of blackcap (and their relatives the chiffchaff, one of which has also been here over winter) have become truly resident. 

The issue I have then is that of proving this bird is resident. Blackcaps are notoriously uniformly bland in appearance. Don't get me wrong I love these males and their sooty black cap, but my overwintering one doesn't really have any other distinguishing plumage. Except that looking at some images I've taken over the weeks he does has a slight kink in the back of the cap and his white lesser covert somehow always sticks out just a bit. Hopefully that's enough to go on if he and the female remain here in the breeding season and I can prove it is this pair that have chosen to stay here all year round. 

More keen observations then, but even if they depart soon and are not resident, that wonderful song this morning enriched the garden during these dark days.

Friday, 25 February 2022

Is That A Spider I See Before Me?

Sometimes I stagger myself at how hopeless I am. Yes, I'm absolutely hopeless when it comes to identifying what turns out to be a common species in the garden, if only I knew. 

It being a lovely sunny morning I opted to take my elevenses and computer break out in the garden, sit on the bench and absorb some warm rays on the aged physique. However my allocated fifteen minutes screen break became a little longer than planned. Poised on the bench with a beverage of choice it was while reading the newly pushed through the letterbox Spring edition of Butterfly (Butterfly Conservation's Members' Mag) that I became aware of tiny spiders lurking on the shed. Not one or two, but dozens. Turning my attention away from thoughts of a summer trip to see the newly re-introduced chequered skipper, I got down on my hands and knees to have a closer look. They were everywhere, I counted over forty.  Less than 1cm in length I notice they were only on the sunniest side of the shed, always low down, or on the gravel, and by and large remained motionless for extended periods. But now and again one would dart towards another, they'd rush together then before meeting veer off before resuming a sun kissed posture well away from each other. Interesting to observe. 

Viewed with the naked eye they looked uniformly velvety black, no distinctive markings. However after taking some images and looking at these lovely spiders close up, they have quite distinctive markings, although I didn't know what these spiders were. Some sort of hunting spider I suspected given their rapid movement, but exactly which species, not a clue.  They were exquisite to watch close up and not intimidated by my presence at all. After half an hour I had to haul myself back indoors and to work, but over lunchtime I had a go at identification based on my photographs, as by now they'd disappeared. Well that hour went well.

My Boys Book of creepy crawlies was no help, neither the i-Spy book of arachnids. I was stumped, nothing came close, even flicking through the Spider recording webpages I wasn't really seeing what I had seen. So I posted onto Facebook and two of my friends on there got back. Brett, probably the best naturalist around, replied,

"these are probably Pardosa species...the wolf spiders that appear early in spring. Hard to ID from photos alone but the commonest in most gardens is Pardosa amentata."

While Richard who knows Brett and one of the best entomologists in the UK, added;

"As Brett says, Pardosa sp. - they're variable and hard to ID so basically impossible without checking specimens under a microscope.

What I later discovered is that this investigation to species level under a microscope involves close examination of genitalia. Presumably (and hopefully) just the spider's.

Doing lots of reading around on the web, two species stand out for consideration. My hot to trot pick is Pardosa pullata, very common and widespread with records of adults starting in March. Or, as Brett mentioned, Pardosa amentata, which is the commonest Pardosa in gardens.  Certainly looking at what seemed hundreds of images of these two species, they are really variable, and I was warned on-line identification is often serious misidentification. Either are likely, though I guess I'll never be absolutely sure which species.

It was while reading through details of various Pardosa species that I came across Pardosa purbeckensis, described as, rare, local, but numerous in suitable coastal habitat; though there seems to be a raging discussion as to whether P purbeckensis  is actually a coastal living P agrestis. Oh lordy, I can't even identify the common ones. What seems evident however is that looking at regional maps, one of the small numbers of places purbeckensis is allegedly found is on the coast just over the fields from me. So as well as popping to Northamptonshire for the chequered skipper this summer, I need to walk to the coast. It'll be easy to identify, the only spider wearing Speedos and carrying a beach towel. Even I couldn't get that one wrong.

All I know is that I like not knowing what I'm seeing. We all learn from a little bit of observation, a little bit of brain work, and of course knowing a few experts who can guide me out of the fog. That said, my thirty minutes watching the antics of these largely sedentary spiders was most entertaining. What the genera don't seem to have are common names, other than wolf spiders. So I'm naming my observed forty individuals of this species, The Friday Elevenses Spider. Catchy and certainly caught the moment!

Sunday, 20 February 2022

The Mock Nightingale In Winter

As I began writing this, the second storm of the week, Storm Eunice, was beating down onto this often windswept part of the Somerset coast. Out the window the only bird visible on the feeders is a male blackcap. With each energetic gust he clings onto the bird feeder as it sways and gyrates in the maelstrom, determined to feed on the fat balls no matter what a named storm throws at him.  How different this day is to Tennyson’s poem, The Progress Of Spring…

Across my garden! and the thicket stirs, The fountain pulses high in sunnier jets, The blackcap warbles, and the turtle purrs, The starling claps his tiny castanets.

It is mid-February and therefore a little early in the year to hear such warbles, yet Tennyson’s poem subtly sets the scene. 

In Britain, the blackcap is mostly referred to as a summer migrant. Their arrival from the end of March is heralded by its melodious song, which the poet John Clare called in his sonnet The March Nightingale “a rich and such an early song “.  While Gilbert White wrote on the 19th May 1770  “Black-cap sings sweetly…it is a songster of the first rate… called in Norfolk the mock nightingale".

And that is all well and good, but it’s still winter. While overwintering blackcap in the Mediterranean regions are known to sing outside the breeding season, the male and female blackcap visiting my garden since before Christmas have been very much silent. Come sun, rain, frost or wind the male blackcap has been visible most days, more often than not the only bird on the feeders,  whereas the presence of others - sparrows, starlings, tits and chaffinches - is one of safety in numbers. 

Blackcap are smart looking little birds too. Richard Smythe said of the male blackcap, “The cock-blackcap is a dull grey scrap of a bird with a smart, forward-tilted black cap”.  A scrap of a bird indeed! I’m not sure about that. I think this true warbler is a neat little chap with his sooty black cap and mostly uniform grey body washed with a watercolour tint of raw umber. While the male has been the regular visitor to my garden, his female companion with her chestnut cap has been less frequent. I’ve possibly seen her half as often as him, or more possibly she tends to spend less time at a feeder so I’ve probably just missed her while writing this.

Small numbers of blackcap have long overwintered in England, especially in the milder South West. Records go back to the 19th Century and possibly further, though unrecorded. Yet in the last few decades numbers have increased and reading a 2003 article in the online site Birdguides it notes around 10,000 blackcap now overwinter here, mostly in gardens.

Casting my mind back fifty years or so my interest in natural history, like many of my generation I suspect, was awakened by reading books such as Observer’s Book of Birds, which lists blackcap thus,  “This warbler is a summer visitor [April to October] though like the chiffchaff, it has been known to winter in the South West of England”. Another bedtime reading book back then (under the cover with a torch) was my Collins Pocket Guide To Nests and Eggs, a book singly failing to even mention overwintering blackcap, “…summer visitor, with range of garden warbler, but breeds locally further north in Scotland”. 

I saw my first overwintering blackcap around the turn of the Millennium. The reasons why overwintering numbers have gently climbed are still not fully understood, although climate change, weather patterns and available food are thought to play a part.  That article in Birdguides neatly summarises this, noting that it is the sheer number of blackcap “that now choose to spend the winter here, rather than their usual wintering areas in southern Iberia and North Africa.” Deeper into the article the town of Weston Super Mare, a few miles from me, receives special attention as a wintering blackcap hotspot. Which begs the question, ‘why do blackcap now prefer to spend their winters in Weston-super-Mare rather than the Costa del Sol or Morocco?’ 

Watching what I refer to as ‘my’ blackcaps in the garden on a winter’s day, I could be fooled into thinking these were simply resident birds, summer visitors from last year who for reasons of their own, (like increasing numbers of swallow now overwintering in England), decided it’s far too much effort to fly south for the winter when there’s a smorgasbord of food being laid on in this garden. Well that’s what ornithologists thought for a long time, and they, and I, would be wrong.  These birds, with a few exceptions, are not a resident population but winter migrants.

Back in the 1990s the mystery of why blackcap were flocking to Weston Super Mare (and of course elsewhere) was finally revealed. A Germain scientist, Professor Peter Berthold, and his team captured 40 Blackcap on the Somerset coast during the winters of 1988-1990. These birds were then taken over to his research station in southern Germany where they were observed and held until the following autumn when they began to show ‘migratory restlessness’ (or simply - the birds hop in the direction they want to migrate). Professor Berthold concluded that “in contrast to most of the Blackcaps breeding in southern Germany (which migrate [in winter] in a southwesterly direction towards Iberia and North Africa), the British birds he had captured orientated in the direction of the UK (northwest), meaning that the breeding origins of the UK wintering population were most likely to be in south central Europe”. In other words the blackcap I’ve been watching all winter have probably come from breeding areas of Germany, Poland or the Netherlands. And the birds I saw in the summer are now sunning themselves in North Africa and the Med. 

It must be a tough choice for a blackcap. One morning in October they wake up and ponder life’s big questions; shall I head south to my warm Mediterranean winter quarters? Or head northwest and be storm lashed next to the Bristol Channel? Foregoing to head south, those birds choosing to migrate to Somerset for the winter, are here for a reason. Seemingly part of the reason is food, or correctly, supplementary food we all put out in our gardens.

Studies by the British Trust for Ornithology ( BTO ) suggested that in British gardens the increase in overwintering blackcap coincided with the increased provision of wild bird food in our gardens from around the 1960’s. Not just quantity but quality. I remember as a child pestering my parents to put up feeders, all that was available was dusty floor sweepings of seed from the local farm suppliers or pet shop. Today there is a dazzling array of fat balls, suet treats, seeds of every description, with an estimated 150,000 tonnes of bird food sold annually. That’s a lot of food being regularly made available, providing much needed energy-rich feeding in the lean times over winter. Many resident birds have adapted well, tits, chaffinch and so on and have seen their populations increase as a result. In this regard, it is these birds known as generalists who are able to adapt to changes, feed in gardens, and potentially benefit from increased body condition, energy, survival and maybe come breeding time just be that much fitter. Didn’t Darwin have a theory about that or something? It seems blackcap are one of the bird world’s generalists, after analysis of the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch data found strong evidence that the rate and numbers of occupancy of gardens in winter [by winter migrating blackcap] is directly influenced by both supplementary food provision and temperature. 

One of the fascinating discussions at the moment is with Climate Change, which species will win out. A study by Van Doren et al said “[blackcap] is a migratory songbird thriving in the face of environmental change”. Climate change is making British winters warmer and all this food is providing vital mid-winter energy. Simple? Well maybe. 

I’m returning to my Weston Super Mare question – how do blackcaps in Germany know I’ve a garden overflowing with sunflower hearts? Have they a food miles map? Are the BTO providing fat ball Sat-Nav trackers? Does a lone blackcap find the sunflower hearts, pop over to Freiberg to tell his Germanic lady friend and a week later they’re back? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer here and the detailed mechanisms behind why birds alter inbuilt migratory behaviour is a wide-ranging topic of discussion, but not today. 

However bird migration routes are mostly genetically inherited. It could be argued then that this increasing trend in wintering blackcap in England was one of a slow burn from a few Victorian individuals being simply opportunist to a full on parent-to-offspring inheritance.  However, what is fascinating is that over time these winter migrants from Germany are showing subtle morphological changes. It seems that blackcap wintering in Britain have developed relatively narrower and longer beaks than those wintering in Spain, the assumption being this is a result of needing  beaks to be narrower and longer to simply get into the gaps in the feeders. There’s that ability to adapt and survive again. Additionally further German studies even suggest that over time the British wintering and North African wintering blackcap may develop into separate subspecies, and all because I’ve popped some fat balls into a feeder!

Why the overwintering birds do not stay here to breed and maybe grab an earlier more suitable territory isn’t known fully, though it seems that a tiny number of blackap are truly resident. One study found that only 6 individuals out of over 1000 studied in the UK one winter stayed put. But will this change? Patrick Barkham writing in the Guardian newspaper put forward a theory that with climate change [many species] birds will no longer need to migrate south in the winter. Why burn a lot of energy to find food when there’s food here. It’s an interesting thought as I fill up the sunflower feeder yet again and sit back to watch Mr Blackcap come and have his elevenses.

I’ve really enjoyed watching blackcap on the feeders this winter, and they are selective over which feeder they use too. My blackcap only feed on sunflower hearts and fat balls, rather than seed or other treats, and this ties in with other studies of overwintering blackcap. These studies show that when blackcap arrive for the winter they firstly prefer open farmland and scrub, and only later in the season, or during times of bad weather, will they come into gardens. Watching the male in particular, he has a routine. First seen in the fir tree beyond the garden, he will fly direct to the feeder of choice. Unlike other birds which flit back and forth into cover with each morsel, the blackcap remain at the feeder for a considerable amount of time, often many minutes. Either he is  sure of not being nobbled by the large female sparrowhawk resident in the area, or simply unawares. And because he stays out in the open so long it affords lengthy observation.  One thing I’ve noticed is that he tends to start feeding at one point and slowly move in a circular direction around the feeder until back to where he started.  So familiar has he become with coming to the feeders that on the rare occasions he doesn’t turn up (or I failed to observe him) I feel a real sadness. Where has he gone?

Well maybe they’re all feeding on mistletoe. I’ve noticed over the last decade that nearly every tree around here is now festooned with large verdant pom-poms of this parasitic plant.  Mistletoe does prefer mild moist climates and I do live in the centre of the preferred range for this plant, but especially during winter where once there were bare branches, those trees are now ostensibly evergreen. And I’m not alone. Since the 2000’s there have been suggestions that mistletoe is spreading faster than it used to in Britain, especially so in the less favourable eastern half of the country where previously established mistletoe populations have been slow to spread. Part of this might be due to warmer winters, but blackcap is a major culprit in this spread.

I’ve not tried this myself but apparently sticky mistletoe berries are not easy to eat, most birds avoid them. Another winter visitor, waxwing, will eat mistletoe and of course so will the mistle thrush (and other thrushes). But despite their name, mistle thrush are not great at spreading mistletoe as they swallow the berry whole, the seed of which is excreted about 30 minutes later often dangling below a branch trapped in the sticky excreta. Blackcaps however only swallow the berry skin and pulp, leaving the seed needing to be wiped off its beak on, well you guessed it, a branch, a perfect spot to let it germinate. And of course it’s an ever increasing circle if you think about it, mistletoe is a source of food during winter for blackcap, they help germination success, so more mistletoe means more berries to feed on over winter, fitter blackcap, I could go on.

All I know is that in the next few weeks these overwintering blackcap which have entertained me all winter will head back to their European breeding grounds, to be replaced by their summer-arriving cousins from north Africa, arriving fresh and ready to take up breeding territories with song.

So let’s hear it for the blackcap then. Though it still doesn’t answer my question about why on earth they chose to come to Weston Super Mare? 

Selected Reference : 

S. Vere Benson,  The Observers Book of Birds; Warne London (1972)

R.S.R Fitter and R.A Richardson  Collins Pocket Guide To Nests and Eggs. Collins London (revised ed 1968)

Smythe, Richard  A Sweet Wild Note: What we hear when the birds sing. Elliott & Thompson, London. (2017)

Witherby, H. F, Jourdan, F.C.R, Ticehurst, Norman F. and Tucker, Bernard W (1940) The Handbook Of British Birds, Vol 2. H.F & G Witherby, London (1940)

Fisher, James,  The Shell Bird Book. Ebury Press and Michael Joseph (1966)

Tennyson : The Progress of Spring.  – [fifth stanza] http://www.poetryatlas.com/poetry/poem/348/the-progress-of-spring.html

Flegg, Jim  Oakwatch : a seasonal guide to the natural history in and around the oak tree. Pelham Books (1985)

Charles S Bayne  Exploring England. Collins London (1944)

John Clare’s Poem The March Nightingale “and while the blackcap doth his ears assail” can be found in the book Midsummer Cushion ed. Anne Tibble. Ashington. Carcanet (1978) 


Birdguides (2003) : Wintering Blackcaps – Where Do They Come From and Why?


BTO : Why we are seeing more Blackcaps wintering in Britain? 


RSPB : Blackcap Mirgation 


Smithsonian (2021) : Bird Migration Patterns Are Changing—and Climate Change May Be to Blame


Van Doren, B.M., Conway, G.J., Phillips, R.J., Evans, G.C., Roberts, G.C.M., Liedvogel, M. and Sheldon, B.C. (2021), Human activity shapes the wintering ecology of a migratory bird. Glob Change Biol, 27: 2715-2727. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15597

Barkham, Patrick. Guardian. 25 Oct 2021 – Migratory Birds May Stop Flying South For The Winter.


Oxford study


Mistletoe website http://mistletoe.org.uk/

Sunday, 6 February 2022

Seek, Hide, Reveal

February is here and I'd been given a get out of jail free card on Saturday as Julie was in Bristol attending a soil management for horticulturists day course. The world lay before me. 

I had had this germ of an idea when visiting Shapwick Nature Reserve the previous Sunday. On that day we'd arrived at 7am, an hour before sunrise and were almost immediately rewarded by 2 bitterns calling quite close by. However the temperature had dropped overnight which made sitting for long periods observing wildlife in minus 2 conditions, less than pleasant. I resolved to return when milder conditions allowed, which was sooner than I planned when Saturday 5th February dawned fair of face. My rudimentary plan was to visit all three hides at the Catcott complex, sit for an hour in each and await to observe whatever showed up. 

The Catcott Lows Reserve was the very first area on the Somerset Levels to become a dedicated reserve way back in 1968 after Somerset Wildlife Trust bought it. Over time more land was added and now a larger Catcott Complex is sometimes described as a miniature version of the huge Avalon Marshes area.

Catcott is a mix of seasonally flooded wet grassland, former peat works now flooded, lowland heath, wet carr woodland and a number of droves and rhynes, or ditches. Although it isn't strictly on my doorstep it's a very regular haunt of mine after hearing a grasshopper warbler in the mid 1990's for the one and only time. It was here I headed for a five hour observational day.

Three hides to visit, the well named Bird Hide was my first destination. Accessible along an older drove road the hide itself juts out into the wet grassland, with a long border of woodland just behind it running out to the east. It is one of those hides where if you just popped in for a quick look, not much would happen. I though planned a long haul sit and wait...and it brought dividends. 

Almost immediately I spied a great white egret.  They have been a remarkable success story here, so much so that in the last three or 4 years it has become almost impossible to visit the Avalon Marshes and not see at least one. And to think when I first visited the Somerset Levels in the early 1990's to have seen a great white egret would have been a national event. Likewise the marsh harrier which I'll come to later. I took time to simply observe how the egret foraged. Like many other egrets and herons it made slow deliberate steps along the water's edge. Both feet just in the water, paddling the mud as it crept forwards, much as gulls do on a grassy field, or blackbirds in the garden. The paddling disturbs the mud and encourages invertebrates to come to the surface or disturb prey. What the egret does do I noticed is sway its neck and head a few degrees to the left or right while keeping its body absolutely motionless, presumably to gain a better view of what it is about to pounce on with that formidable dagger like bill. I'll have to watch grey herons anew as I don't think they do this, they remain motionless before they strike. Patience is a virtue for this large member of the heron family as in over 20 minutes only two strikes brought success, first a frog and the other a small fish.

While keeping an eye on the egret, I also looked out for anything else happening. I noticed another great white egret flying to my right way over towards Glastonbury Tor. As soon as it landed, the egret I had been watching flew off towards this newcomer. At first I thought this was a flight and chase off, but the egret I'd been watching flew in a wide arc and then behind the other bird, which then flew up and the pair flew back towards me. Watching these flying in unison was remarkable and something I've not seen before. Possibly a breeding pair within or establishing their area to breed in? Great white egrets only began breeding here in 2012, but last year, 2021, 10 nests were found and over 30 chicks fledged. I think they're here to stay, and provide a wonderful addition to the local fauna.

However while watching the egrets through my binoculars I caught the briefest of glimpses of a marsh harrier being mobbed by a carrion crow way off in the distance. Like the egrets, the arrival (or correctly the return) of marsh harriers to Somerset has been recent and remarkable given the bird was Britain's rarest raptor in the 1970's. These days they are visible with every visit, numbers annually bolstered after regular and successful breeding here every year since 2009. Although the harriers were a very long way off, through my binoculars I could now see there were two harriers and a carrion crow. The lower harrier was flying up high then dropping down with the other harrier flying in circles around the first's flight path. I was watching skydancing. This wasn't the full-on skydancing, not least as the carrion crow wasn't enjoying their presence in its territory and kept disrupting the flight rolls. However this was a form of aerial display practiced by the three harrier species in Britain. Usually marsh harriers are slow level flyers quartering the reedbeds, but time and again the lower bird, the male, flew up high then dropped down to maybe half height before flying up again. Although the higher bird would fly close to the other harrier, at no point did the two birds make contact in the air. A little research afterwards suggested what I had seen was the pre-dancing phase, pre-pair bonding if you will. I spent a good five minutes watching this performance before, presumably fed up with the crow's incessant intervening, the two harriers flew off and out of sight. 

It was back to the egrets then, one of whom had come to the nearside edge of a small island. Casually observing the egret, my eye caught, way over in the distance, a raptor flying along the tree line before perching into a tree. A peregrine. They're very common here, usually seen dashing across the large duck flocks trying to pick off teal or maybe a snipe which are common here. This one though landed in this tree and never moved at all. The woodland edge near the hide was pretty quiet, just a few magpies noisily chasing each other, a female pheasant and a couple of roe deer. I'd been in the hide over an hour, so feeling stiff with the sitting I decided to move off to the Tower Hide and leave the egret to its fishing.

It is about 1 and a half kilometres to the Tower Hide along one of the many droves which crisscross the Complex.  I'd only walked a few minutes when a huge dog fox ambled towards me a fair way off. I only had a short while to watch this very foxy coloured individual ambling along a reed bed without a care in the world before he dropped through a hedge and away. I say he, because of its size. Further on a fox scat was atop a mole hill. Like many mammals their marking is often on a raised or prominent part of a landscape. Given this drove was only a few centimetres above the water table, a mole hill would provide a perfect high point to advertise your presence.

But seeing this made me think about the moles on the reserve. Do they have webbed feet? The only 'high ground' in the Reserve are these droves, which can not be more than 30cm above mean water mark all year, much less in winter, yet there are many molehills. I wonder how many of the tunnels become waterlogged, and how often. I've read that at times of big floods hundreds of drowned moles (and rodents) can be found at the edge of the floodwaters, providing rich pickings for corvids and buzzards. It is a precarious life living underground in a wetland.


It isn't too difficult to understand why the Tower Hide is so named.  Approached along a narrow footpath between reeds much taller than me, this high observation hide somewhat startlingly looms out of the landscape. I come to Catcott regularly but rarely come to this hide, the reason being that each time I visit I can find very little to observe. And today it didn't disappoint. Ostensibly I'd come here to have a lunch break, and in the hour I spent here I saw a single carrion crow, a blue tit and heard a little grebe usher its strange high pitched babbling call they make. I did though have my lunch and was joined in the hide by a lovely couple from Cardiff. It was while talking to them a wasp fell out of the roofspace and onto the bench next to me, quite alive.



This couple had come from Cardiff earlier this morning to spend some time getting to know the Levels. As often happens when sitting in a hide the first conversation tends to be ' Are there any birds to see?' Being honest I said 'absolutely nothing'. Thereafter we spent about half an hour chatting about reserves they visit in south Wales, how they'd never heard of a black redstart, and how they'd be off to North Norfolk in a few weeks to catch the last of the winter flocks there. All this while I had my lunch. That latter conversation brought a pang of envy as it's years since I've birdwatched in Norfolk. Thirty years ago I spent every dawn and dusk during a week's holiday at the Cley reserve trying to (and failing to) hear a bittern. Back then bitterns were really rare and I was desperate to hear one. Now in Somerset between February and June they are a relatively common sound on the spring airwaves. Another remarkable success story alongside the great white egret and marsh harrier.

Eventually this lovely couple decided to head off, and I suggested they maybe wander towards the Lows Hide where a glossy ibis had been resident for weeks. They left and I spent a while longer on my own in the hide. The weather was beginning to change, a breeze picking up which rattled the roof sheets now and again. I could see rain heading towards me and wondered if the change may show an otter before I left. Despite where I was, I felt quite isolated in this high hide, a nice experience. I've heard otters are often seen from this high vantage point, not today, and I have to say while with every visit the bird life is somewhat lacking, the identification guides in the hide are probably a more sure way to add a tick on your birding list.

The walk back took me though Catcott Heath - which was a real change from the emptiness of the Tower Hide. Here on the heath hundreds of small birds flitted to and fro from the bits of wet woodland and scrub. Most were chaffinches and I thought how long it has been since I've seen such a large mixed bird flock moving through a woodland edge, in this case joining the chaffinches mostly long tailed, blue and great tits, plus a number of blackbirds.

Between the Heath and a drove road were these dragonfly beds I'd spotted a few weeks before.  It's the wrong time of the year of course for any dragonflies on the wing, but I made a mental note to return and see what emerges in those long summer days. Today however the wind was beginning to be a nuisance, trees were creaking and swaying, with uncoordinated raindrops being blown my way. Time to get to the final hide on my visit, where I'd parked the car. 

When I had arrived here at 11am, the car park was absolutely crammed with birdwatchers and 4x4 vehicles, I got the last space. At 3pm it was deserted apart from my car, well almost. The lovely couple from Cardiff were walking back to their car. "Seen the glossy ibis?" I said. "Just flown off" said the husband, before bursting into laughter. They'd not see the ibis after 30 minutes so were calling it a day to head back to the Principality. I wished them Bon Voyage and entered the hide. Little did I know what was to follow.



I like this hide, it's a regular stop for me, and a place where I've seen some remarkable events. Barn owls flying so close they could be touched, a remarkable drop of thousands of swallows covering every available perch like black snow, and of course the grasshopper warbler I heard all those years ago. Oh and the time my friend Rob and I entered the hide which was crammed floor to ceiling with a WI birdwatcher group who offered us wine gums and to sit on our knees to make space.  Mostly though coming here in winter I'd expect to see a lot of wigeon, teal, lapwing, a few pintails and snipe. On this visit I saw all of these although the snipe was really well hidden (bottom right image above). And there's a reason that image is included in this account.

The snipe could be found towards the far left of this view, almost impossible to see but, seeing it made up for the lack of the glossy ibis. I'd been in the hide about half an hour when a family group arrived, two women and a little girl. One lady had come here especially to see the glossy ibis having seen it reported on social media. She looked crestfallen when having asked me 'is the ibis here' I had to reply in the negative, 'certainly not while I've been here'. I added that I'd heard from another birdwatcher earlier in the day that the ibis may have moved to Westhay, a reserve a few miles to the north, but that was just hearsay. The lady, Rachel, resigned herself to not seeing the ibis and the newly arrived trio carried on watching the ducks with the little girl. It's lovely hearing children get so excited seeing 'a duck'  - it doesn't matter what it is. The little girl was very interested, when a fox was seen at the far end of the reserve. I only hope she continues being excited by wildlife as she grows older. Another 15 or 20 minutes had passed and I was beginning to think of calling it a day, it was about a quarter to 4. One last look then, could I get a better view of the snipe. Looking at the same place the snipe had been, another bird appeared in view, though heavily obscured. I thought to myself, that's not a snipe, it's the glossy ibis.

Calling this out to Rachel, the excitement resonated around the hide, though by now the ibis had disappeared from view. Was I seeing things? No there it was again with the little girl saying  - is it a heron. A master of understated joy. I've seen glossy ibis a few times before but this afternoon I had an unrivalled view for over half an hour just meters from me, allowing time to observe the feeding behaviour of this bird. Unlike the egret, the ibis spent virtually all of its time probing deep down between the stems of grasses and reeds with its long bill. It is a smaller bird than you would imagine, more akin to a little egret in size than a grey heron, but having that long bill and long legs it has different proportions. This individual I'd think is a non breeding adult (maybe a juvenile) with the white mottling on it's head and neck and more sombre colouring. Which is interesting for the next stage of this bird's increasing presence in Britain. The Somerset Levels have become a hot spot for water bird firsts, not least breeding successes with little bittern and night heron. Ibis' are here every winter now and there are currently 3 maybe 4 glossy ibis in Somerset this winter, is that enough to set up a breeding attempt? Since 2014 a few failed attempts have taken place in other parts of Britain, will 2022 be a success for Somerset?

Seeing the glossy ibis was my success during a very enjoyable day at the Catcott Complex. Sitting for hours, watching, waiting and observing brought huge rewards, the large chaffinch flock, the skydancing harrier, the fox, egret feeding behaviour. And with our views of the glossy ibis Rachel was overjoyed to see it with her family in tow. I like that fact. There were just 4 of us in the hide. We weren't packed together like sardines, no huge cameras, no camouflaged birdwatchers bristling with scopes, kit and bleeping rare bird pagers. Just me, two ladies and a little girl. Of course we all watch birds in our own different ways, for me it's meeting nice people and generally spending a long quiet day on my own, simply watching what happens.

I only wish the lovely couple from Cardiff had been with us too to see the ibis. That would have added another dimension to what was a thoroughly wonderful day