It’s not all bad news.

Hobby at Shapwick

In recent posts I’ve written about some of the exciting and fascinating wildlife encounters I had during my May travels. These included great bustard, lady’s slipper orchid, snakeshead fritillary, even the humble Duke of Burgundy butterfly; all four were either re-introductions and/or found specifically on National Nature Reserves. Without interventions from conservationists none of these four species would be found in the UK, or would be struggling to survive. The last post of this series involves a bird species which has, on the quiet, become very much more common over the last fifty years. At the time of the first Breeding Bird Atlas (published in 1976) there was an estimated 100 pairs of hobbies in the UK. By the time of the 2013 edition, it was far more widespread, with a population of about 2,200 pairs.

The hobby is a small falcon related to the peregrine. It is fully migratory, arriving in the UK in April and leaving for Africa in September. It feeds on small birds and large insects caught on the wing. As a very fast, fluid and agile hunter it can catch even swallows and swifts in flight. On their arrival in the UK hobbies congregate at certain wetlands (where there is normally an abundance of dragonflies to feed on), before dispersing to their breeding areas. I had read of flocks or even “swarms” of hobbies at certain locations in early May and longed to see such a spectacle.

I have visited one of these locations – the Avalon Marshes, near Glastonbury – several times in recent years (see here), and it is one of my favourite UK birding destinations. Up to eight species of heron have bred there, which is extraordinary – given that just a few decades ago only the grey heron and the rare and elusive bittern were found in Britain. It was here that I headed after leaving Stonehenge.

My first evening and the following morning there were unspectacular. I was disappointed that the hides at the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve were still closed following the Coronavirus lockdown, and birds seemed a little thin on the ground. After lunch I headed in the opposite direction along the disused railway line into Shapwick Heath NNR. Just a few minutes later I had seen my first hobbies, a dozen or more, hunting independently in a loose flock. Prey must have been small insects because there was also a very large dispersed flock of hirundines (swallows and martins) doing the same thing. Occasionally I caught sight of a bird transferring prey from its feet to beak in flight, a sure sign that these were hobbies. A few minutes later I heard loud bugling calls coming invisibly from Meare Heath to the north – surely they must have been cranes? *

Checking me out………

I hurried on towards a northward facing hide. From there it looked like the hobbies had disappeared. I then began to pick them out in the heat haze, perched singly or in small groups on stunted dead trees amongst the reeds. Gradually they resumed their hunting and I managed a reasonable count of thirty-three birds altogether. It occurred to me that these were truly African birds spending just a few months of every year in the UK. Although they were very active, the hobbies were really too far away to photograph, so I returned to the railway line. And guess what? Hobbies, lower and much closer. Part of the same flock, no doubt, but this was more like it! I returned to the van to eat and recharge my mental batteries.

Late that evening I returned to the same area. Still hobbies! They were hunting insects low over one of the lagoons until well after sunset. Close to darkness in the far distance I could see about twenty of them perched on the stark boughs of a dead tree, one-by-one disappearing to roost somewhere nearby. They had gone by the next morning; but great white egrets – ethereal and otherworldly – floated by just outside the hide window. There must have been a nest nearby.

These spectacular birds are a very welcome addition to the British avifauna; as are the little egrets that are now a familiar sight in many parts of the UK. The flocks of hobbies that are now seen in the UK every spring are another example of the continually changing nature of our bird populations. It is a mistake to believe that wildlife distributions and numbers are normally static. For the wildlife lover there is a relentless diet of bad news in the media, and there’s no doubt that we are still losing some species rapidly. The difficulty is in distinguishing between natural fluctuations of bird populations and those changes, like the loss of farmland birds (and other wildlife), that are entirely down to human destruction of wildlife habitats.

* Sightings at nearby RSPB Ham Wall that day included a flock of eight cranes flying over, and two returning.

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Kit talk. Far too much kit talk.

Great white egrets, Ham Wall.

As I have done so little photography in the last two months I hope you’ll forgive me if recount an incident from spring last year. In early May I paid a visit to Ham Wall in the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury. In a post describing a previous visit I called this magnificent RSPB reserve ‘Heron HQ UK’ : as an example of habitat creation on a large scale it just can’t be beat.

My first morning there saw me making an early start. It was humid, still, and scraps of fog hovered above the wetlands and reedbeds.  I wasted little time in making my way to the Tor View hide, joining another early-rising photographer. It can be good to chat to like-minded souls in bird hides and one can sometimes pick up useful info about what can be seen locally. But on this occasion it really was a bit too early for conversation and, besides, a surreal dawn was slowly developing into a stunning sunrise. But he just wanted to talk ….”Are you using Canon, then…..?” Even worse, he wanted to talk about kit. And did he! He proceeded to list his lenses: …the 600 f5.6, the 500 f4 and the 400 f2.8 (…..possibly…..). He carried on in this vein.

Meanwhile a pair of great white egrets were just becoming active in the mist nearby, offering a stunning spectacle to the photographer. But he just didn’t seem to notice. Fortunately a couple of other photographers arrived which took the pressure off me to respond! The sun began to break through the trees, spotlighting sections of the egrets’ brilliant white plumage. I couldn’t believe I was the only one pointing my camera in their direction.

Perhaps backlit birds don’t offer ideal subject matter for the traditional bird photographer. Whatever the reason, the others sat on the other side of the hide and chatted away. The sun rose, dispersing the mist and warming the landscape.  I was able to photograph a bittern in flight with the summit of Glastonbury Tor in the background, an image that really sums up Ham Wall for me.

And what of our friend with the car boot full of equipment? I hadn’t noticed him slip away but certainly noticed him return. This time he was pulling a four wheeled trolley loaded with gear. Someone had advised him that thieves were known to frequent the car park and he must have thought it better that he had it all with him.

I’m struggling, really, to conclude this post because the moral is surely so clear to see. There is more to photography than kit.

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Birding at Heron H.Q.

Glastonbury Tor from Ham Wall at sunrise.

Only twenty years ago one could reasonably expect to see a grey heron or two at a wetland in southern England and possibly the one of the first little egrets to arrive on these shores. How things have changed! Little egrets can now be seen all over the south, and several other heron species have arrived in Britain since then. Spoonbills nest in Norfolk and probably elsewhere, and it cannot be long before glossy ibis nests in the UK. The great white egret, previously a rare vagrant, has been breeding on the Somerset Levels (a.k.a. the Avalon Marshes) for several years, and may well do so elsewhere. Cattle egrets have nested there and even little bitterns. To avoid confusion it is now necessary to refer to its larger relative as the “greater bittern” instead of plain “bittern”; and  there are now more of them in the Avalon Marshes than there were in the whole of Britain at the end of the last century.  The conversion of large areas of redundant peat cuttings into reedbeds has created what could accurately be described as U.K. Heron H.Q. The RSPB has a fabulous reserve (Ham Wall) there and is constantly adding new areas of land to its holding. It might be a massive corporate behemoth beset by unpleasant internal practices but, boy, does the RSPB do a good job when it comes to habitat creation!

Great white egret over the Avalon marshes.

In a previous post I wrote about a trip to the Somerset Levels in winter, where I photographed starlings and great white egrets. Earlier this week I spent a couple of days around Ham Wall and what a great place it is!  My internal clock woke me about 4 a.m on the first morning and from the van I could see wisps of low fog in the air.  I wasted no time (well, maybe a little….) in getting myself up and on to the reserve. It was a gorgeous, atmospheric morning, with misty conditions throughout;  the iconic shape of Glastonbury Tor, with its tower, was often visible, and this was my first photographic objective (see above). It was soon sunrise and birds were leaving roost sites and moving to feeding areas in the marshes.  I tried to include over-flying birds in these early morning landscapes even if they were quite small in the viewfinder. It was particularly noticeable how many great white egrets there were, and I saw several greater bitterns in flight. Despite being extraordinary birds in themselves I can’t get too excited about the appearance of the latter in flight, while the former are delightful.

Barn owl.

As the morning sun rose and burned away the mist the landscape began to look a little more ordinary. Mid-June is not the greatest time of year for landscape photography but there was still plenty of interest bird-wise. A barn owl was hunting in broad daylight near one of the hides and flying past with prey – a nest nearby, no doubt. I’ve never been that good at birds-in-flight so it was a bonus to find that a few images I took of it are reasonably sharp!

It is usually possible to have an exchange of information with other birders and I think most enjoy it.  But with rare species, especially if they are nesting, there’s so much misinformation around. You just don’t know who or what to believe. Was the guy in the welcome hut – no doubt anxious to keep visitor numbers up – being honest about the red-footed falcon that had apparently been seen earlier?   The Ham Wall recent sightings blog made no mention of little bitterns, but despite that were they back again this year? So after a well-deserved (I thought) and rather lengthy siesta I headed back on to the reserve in the late afternoon from the Glastonbury end. It wasn’t long before I came across a gaggle of birders standing by the main track looking into the reeds. This looked like a gathering. Had I stumbled onto the location of the legendary little bittern? At first my attempts to ascertain this were met with a rather frosty silence. But soon it emerged that yes, I had. It had been heard there earlier in the day and seen briefly. I waited around for an hour or more but all was quiet; it was time to move on.

Greater bitterns had been booming on and off all day and it was the first time I had heard the “in-breath” and really got to grips with the sound.  If all else failed I was also hoping to hear the “bark” of the little bittern; sometimes the sound of an elusive bird’s song can be enough; you know it is there somewhere and it all adds to the sum of one’s knowledge of wildlife. So I stopped at the same section of reedbed on the way back to the van and listened. And there it was – a regular, nay, monotonous single note repeated every two seconds exactly. After half an hour of listening I saw a movement low over the reeds – a stunning male little bittern. The sighting lasted just about second, but I was elated. The barking resumed from the reeds in the direction the bird had disappeared in.

Marsh harrier at dawn, Ham Wall

My second morning at Ham Wall was similar. Misty, still, and full of birds.  Below the Avalon Hide marsh harriers were just arising and stretching their  wings. (In fact, I later discovered that the three birds I saw together were probably one male and his two females…..) The barn owl was still hunting the same area. A cuckoo was very active. The little bittern was still calling, and there seemed to be assorted other heron species everywhere. What a sight and sound!

 

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