Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Ham Wall RSPB and Shapwick Heath NNR - Sunday 7th July 2013

Many birders have been waiting patiently, and hopefully, for the breeding Little Bitterns at Ham Wall RSPB to begin feeding flights for their young. The reason being the birds are an absolute bugger to see unless they're flying around. In fact, at the time of writing, breeding hasn't been confirmed - it's just assumed because flights have begun.

News of the birds' presence on the reserve was released weeks ago, apparently because the grapevine was already buzzing about it. Staff had seen a male and female and a further male had turned up later. Little Bitterns had attempted to breed here for the last couple of years, but there are still plenty of birders who had seen them - myself and Secret Twitcher included.

We set off early enough from West Yorkshire to be on site by 08:30. Following up the grid reference on BirdGuides (ST444395), we headed west from the car park, onto Shapwick Heath NNR. Wrong. There was hardly a soul here and other who arrived with us had gone east. Still, we had a quick look around - a nice reserve, with insects a speciality. We decided to head back here later, before heading home.

View from the Little Bittern viewpoint at Ham Wall RSPB, Sunday 7th July 2013,  with Glastonbury Tor in the distance.

The Little Bittern "viewpoint" (basically a place on the reserve trial where the foliage is low enough to see across the reedbed) was already well populated when we arrived. There had been some flights before we'd arrived, but lucky they weren't the last. There was a early flight, but it wasn't easy to get on to. After 20 minutes of waiting and searching, I got some decent views - enough to clearly show the difference between the male (basically black and white, with a red bill) and female (more brown and black). The birds looked small for bitterns, but a Black-headed Gull was the only other birth to compare with. The wings flapped at quite a rate, not what you'd expect from a member of the heron/egret family. The way they carried themselves was interesting too: with little or no tail, and a long, thick neck, they looked very front-heavy. The neck seemed to almost droop under its own weight.

There were several flights, low across the reeds, from a particular area going out away from us to the right, then back again. Having said that, there was no reliable pattern, probably due to there being two males. The male(s) performed the best, with one briefly perching up in a sallow. My best and most prolonged view was of a male flying from the back of the reed bed to the presumed nesting area, heading straight at me.

 We'd had our fill and set off to look around the rest of Ham Wall. The main path is a former railway track, which also runs through Shapwick Heath. Bird-wise, it was relatively quiet, as befits mid-July; but there was still plenty of interest. The best was probably my first Green Sandpiper of the year, to the north of the track. Common Tern and Hobby are always nice to see too. Lapwings seemed to be doing well here. Blackcap and Garden Warbler were singing all along the wooded trackside, Amy with the odd Chiffchaff and Cetti's Warbler.

By the roadside at the end of the reserve we found dead badger (in good condition). Always a sad sight, and unfortunately the only sight I've ever had of these creatures. Thanks to those greedy, bloodthirsty bastards Owen Paterson and Richard Benyon, we'll all be less likely to see one alive in future. To help stop the cull, please add your name to the petition here.

 Badger, Ham Wall RSPB - Sunday 7th July 2013

Close up of Badger claw

I’m a total dude when it comes to insects (some might say I'm a total dude when it comes to birds too, and they may have a point), but I'm trying to get to grips with butterflies, moths and dragonflies this year. Well, at least get a bit better. Both Ham Wall and Shpwick Heath gave us opportunities to test our ID skills.

 Banded Snail, Ham Wall RSPB - Sunday 7th July 2013

Small Tortoiseshell butterflies were everywhere, with scores of them along the paths. Where there were nettles we would find the black, silver-spangled caterpillars of the Peacock butterfly. We could see where the caterpillars were up ahead, form the waiting Carrion Crows on the path. For some reason many of the caterpillars were making suicidal dashes across the tracks.

Peacock butterfly larva, Ham Wall RSPB - Sunday 7th July 2013

There were a few Meadow Brown and Large White too, and smaller numbers of Ringlet and Speckled Wood. The butterfly highlight was a bright yellow Brimstone in a glade on Shapwick Heath. Understandably, there weren't so many moths around, though I did manage a photo of this distinctive Barred Straw:

Barred Straw, Ham Wall RSPB - Sunday 7th July 2013

Ham Wall clearly is a great reserve for dragonflies, and we were obviously here on a good day. Shame my ID skills aren’t up to much. We did see Brown Hawker, Emerald Damselfly, Red-eyed Damselfly, Azure Damselfly, Banded Demoiselle, and probably Common Hawker and Blue-tailed Damselfly.

Azure Damselfly, Ham Wall RSPB - Sunday 7th July 2013

On Shpwick Heath we came across on of the several Great White Egrets seen recently, showing well. On the same pool were some 27+ Black-tailed Godwits.

Great White Egret, Shapwick Heath NNR - Sunday 7th July 2013

I struggled a bit in the car up the M5/M6 on the way home, as the sunshine blared through the window (as most of the rest of the UK was in the grip of Murray Mania). A top day out, spoilt only by me forgetting to bring my cap - it was one warm day.

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