Traditionally Mrs Caley and I take a couple of days, stopping over on the Friday night, to journey down to Cornwall and our October "twitching" week. In the past we've favoured places like the New Forest and Arne but last year we made our first visit to Ham Wall in Somerset and enjoyed the place so much that we returned there this year. We had both been blown away by the variety of waterbirds on offer last October but this year, in what would prove to be a precursor for the following week, we were simply blown away. Yes it was windy! Which made seeing any birds much more difficult with most species choosing to stay well out of sight. But we attempted to make the most of it.
Our main target species for this visit were bearded tits, a bird that we hadn't seen well for a while now except for juveniles at Lakenheath Fen. I much yearn for an opportunity to grab a decent photo of a striking male beardie, moustache and all. Sadly we would fail again!
With the bearded tits in mind we ventured out into the reserve and towards the Avalon Hide, which we had somehow managed to miss the year before. On our way we logged a couple of great egrets fishing the shallows and a flypast bittern, endorsing the notion that these marshes are the Camargue of Britain! We followed the path out into the reed beds watching the swaying of the stems ever moved by the strong breeze. The track enters a small copse and we heard the shrill blast of a cetti's warbler's song from deep inside a shrub. A few yards on and it blasted out again, this time much closer. We peered into the undergrowth and saw the small chestnut coloured warbler spring from one branch to another and then fly straight across the path just ahead of us. This cetti's was reasonably easy to see and follow owing to it's constant movement and noisy song but it never settled for anything like a decent photo although record shots were obtained nonetheless. As much as the windy conditions were making viewing and photography difficult, even worse was the awful overcast and dull lighting conditions meaning that very high ISO settings were required for getting even slow shutter speeds!
We arrived at the hide which rises out of the reeds and affords an elevated viewing position of the surrounding area. As we walked in another birder left and replied to our question of "what's about?" with "nothing!". Great encouragement there then! We took our seats and looked around. There were a multitude of ducks, mainly mallards but also some wigeon, gadwall, shoveler and teal, so hardly nothing. I'd be delighted to see so many on Otmoor at home. We also noted cormorants, little grebe and a kingfisher sped past too. A female marsh harrier quartered over the reeds, admittedly at some distance away, and was joined by a male. Water rails squealed excitedly from deep within the reeds and many cetti's called too. Then we heard a tawny owl hoot from the direction of the copse that we'd walked through. I looked that way and noticed a triangular shaped owl box attached to a tree on the edge of the wood and guessed that the owl would be inside snoozing away. Another bittern was seen flying away into the distant section of reeds and a heron settled in for a spot of fishing close by. We could hear the "pinging" of bearded tits but none showed despite my constant surveillance of the reed bed.
|marsh harrier (female)|
After the tawny owl had gone back to bed and the kingfisher had zipped past going the other way we decided to head out and look around the rest of the reserve. It was still quite windy so we knew that even if we heard the bearded tits there would be little chance of getting good views. We encountered the cetti's again rattling away in the same bushes as before but no easier to see. Then as we approached the small river that feeds the marshes several bearded tits called out their little cash register song, "pching, pching...". This time I was able to locate them flitting amongst the reed stems but they were restless and didn't pause or pose long enough for any photos. After a minute or two of searching for them, seven beardies erupted from the reeds and flew back over our heads and away into another stand of reeds. I managed to fire off a few quick shots of their backsides! Blurry and completely not what I was hoping to get but, hey, something!
A large mixed flock of small birds were flying between the trees either side of the river and we noted a couple of lesser redpoll and reed buntings amongst the various tits and more common finches. The imaginatively named viewpoint 2 was supposedly the best place from which to see the resident glossy ibis, a bird we'd seen well here last year, but it was absent for us today (despite being seen later). We did manage a little egret and a couple more great egrets as well as another flypast bittern. We retraced our steps and had a look from the Tor View Screen and sure enough there, in the distance, was Glastonbury Tor! Pretty easy that one. Last year this place was alive with birds but this time all we saw was a kingfisher and a cormorant, testament to a higher water level and the windy weather.
|mute swan (juvenile)|
|grey heron (juvenile)|
We had a quick look at the scrapes on Shapwick Heath which is the adjacent reserve to Ham Wall and managed by the Somerset Wildlife Trust. Again there were less birds than on our previous visit but we added a single ruff to the days proceedings and a large flock of lapwings. Feeling the strain of a frustrating day, although not without its rewards, we headed off to our overnight digs in Newton Abbot to prepare for the remainder of the journey down to Cornwall's far west.
Saturday 14th October
Saturday dawned much the way Friday had ended with heavy skies and drizzle but at least the wind had dropped. The news was all about ex-hurricane Ophelia that would hit us on Monday so we were a bit anxious as to whether we'd even be able to see any birds at the start of the week! A tradition for us now is a visit to a small RSPB reserve near Shaldon called Labrador Bay and to see cirl buntings, that highly localised and beautiful songbird. Cirl buntings are largely confined to the South West of England and the South Devon coast is a stronghold for them. Labrador Bay is a very easy place to see them and you can get them almost as soon as you get out of the car. Make sure you pay the 50p to park though since the council officials are very keen to issue penalty tickets! We were the only people on site and because it was still before 09:00 wandered away from our car looking and listening for the buntings. Luckily I did glance back at the car at 08:55 and realised that the parking vulture was poised next to the car ready to pounce. My 50p was deposited, along with some of my very best scowls, not a moment too soon! The vulture went off looking for another victim and left us to it. In five years of visiting this site I had always seen cirl buntings but had never heard them singing so it was a surprise this time to hear them trilling away at the tops of trees and bushes. We saw at least 4 different splendid males singing and even a juvenile male joined in too. A couple of female type birds were seen too. The song reminded me a little of the wood warblers trill but deeper and more rattly. The buntings were joined at various times by a male bullfinch, chaffinches, goldfinches and some linnets. A lone swallow drifted past which may prove to be our last of this year. The only downside to the fabulous views of the buntings and the beautiful scenery on offer was yet again the awful light which continued to make obtaining decent images very difficult. But I tried!
With the onset of persistent rain we jumped back in the car and headed west. At this time last year, in similar weather, we had been treated to the Dalmatian pelican and a very confiding short-toed lark on our way down through Cornwall, and then a fantastic red-eyed vireo at Porthgwarra on our arrival. The year before it had been an isabelline shrike in the South Devon Hams. This year there was nothing unusual on offer so I took us to a place near Bodmin to look for dippers on a small river there. Needless to say, with the heavy rain dampening any enthusiasm we may have had, we didn't find any but neither did we look that hard!
A message that came through while we were buying our provisions for the week raised our spirits though. There was a red-breasted flycatcher in Porthgwarra! We've seen a few before but another one would make a nice start to our week in Cornwall!