Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Trip to Portland and South-west England: Casual Somerset birding, the visit to Shapwick Heath/Ham Wall RPSB and the arrival at Portland

First things first, I apologise for not posting in so long! I've had to do a lot of exams at school recently and thus have been very busy. I am aware that this puts me way behind again and that I probably won't be up to date for a long time now, but I'll get there eventually! If you wish to know any more of my recent sightings keep up to date on the latest sightings part of the sidebar to the left of this post.

Birding was really at a minimum up until the 7th April, when I'd leave for Portland. From the 30th March till the 4th I stayed in Bristol with my grandparents, taking the one day out (1st April) to visit Chew Valley Lake, where I started the holiday superbly. On the evening of the 4th I headed westwards. My relatives have a cottage in a little village bordering the Exmoor National Park and we stay here annually (sometimes twice a year). This was the first time I had visited this year, and I was going down there to spend some time with my auntie, uncle and cousin. We would stay here for just a couple of days (5th-7th), and then head down to Portland. There are several nice countryside walks you can take near where the cottage is positioned, and on the 5th I found myself doing some casual but very pleasant birding whilst on a couple of hour or so walk. I managed to get very nice views of a Nuthatch, a bird which you don't get in North-east Scotland but I do see on most occasions that I'm down in England, as well as fleeting views of a Green Woodpecker that I tracked down when I heard it calling nearby, yet another bird which you don't see in North-east Scotland. The biggest surprise of all, however, was a Red Kite which my Dad first saw when he did a casual scan of the fields around us. This magnificent creature was in one of the closest fields to us, and rose suddenly to the air. There were a few buzzards circling nearby, and it looked positively longer-winged and bigger than them. It circled briefly, showing wonderfully, and then flew eastwards and out of sight. What was really significant about this sighting was the fact that, after nearly 20 years of my family staying in the same cottage and walking around the same countryside, this was our first Red Kite in the area; I had never seen any there in the past. This almost certainly suggests a recent arrival of Red Kites in the area, which is very good news. I reckon they're in very small numbers, but there may be a few pairs dotted through the area's countryside. So, this walk provided me with three useful yearticks. Later that day I was rewarded another new bird for the year in the form of a Tawny Owl that flew in front of the car as we returned from an evening's meal late on, which rounded off what was a surprisingly beneficial day, even though it wasn't intended to be a proper birding day.
One annoying thing about the place I was staying was that I couldn't get a signal and thus couldn't receive any texts (I had made a deal with young BF member Simeon that he would send me texts from Birdguides). It so happened in the end that Simeon couldn't text me updates anyway as he was busy, but I was keen to keep up to date with what was being seen in Somerset and Dorset. As a result I had to take a walk each evening to gain enough height to get a signal, and on top of that use up quite a bit of my credit to see what was around. I did manage to keep up to date, noting on paper any significant sightings from the abovementioned counties. I became quite excited at news of a Rose-coloured Starling seen in the centre of Weymouth (the closest town to Portland), but it turned out that this disappeared on the day before we would go. I also kept track on the two Hoopoes at Portland and Langton Herring. The Langton Herring bird was present on the final day before we'd head for Portland, but the Portland one hadn't been seen since the Monday. Apart from this, there wasn't anything over significant reported. However, I was becoming very excited. I couldn't wait to stay in the Observatory and discover what wonders Dorset birding would hold...
Then the day came, Wednesday 7th, possibly my most anticipated Wednesday ever! When I got up that morning I was raring to go, and we were away by 10:00am. Portland is probably just over 2 hours away from where we were staying, so there was no need to hurry straight there. I had planned in advance that we do a bit of birding on the way, suggesting to my Dad that we stop at Ham Wall RSPB and the adjacent Shapwick Heath NNR. The last time I had visited this reserve was July 2009 when I went in search of the long stay Little Bittern that was seen at Ham Wall RSPB. Unfortunately I failed to see the Little Bittern (missed it by 5 minutes!), but saw some fantastic marsh species including my first ever Bittern and Cetti's Warbler. It's a fantastic site, and I felt that it would be a crime not to visit it on the way. My Dad thus obliged, and we arrived there just before 11. When you park at the car park you have a choice of crossing the road and going east towards Glastonbury and Ham Wall or heading westwards into Shapwick and Meare Heath, Shapwick being the first area you reach. For the previous two days before our arrival there had been a Great White Egret at Meare Heath, so it seemed a reasonable idea to go and look for this as well as check both Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall. We were in vague hope that we may be in luck and see a Bittern as well, but of course this would be difficult. We wanted to head off towards Portland by around lunchtime so we had a couple of hours or so to spare. Thus we set off.

Like Ham Wall RSPB, Shapwick Heath was a marshland paradise. Everywhere you looked there were reedbeds and muddy pools, and a flooded scrape. This habitat is ideal for marshland specialities such as Cetti’s Warbler, Bittern and Marsh Harrier and for waders and wildfowl. As we viewed the scrape at Shapwick Heath we could constantly hear the rapid, staccato song of several Cetti’s Warblers reverberating the area and dominating the other warbler songs that could be heard. It seemed to be literally teeming with them. The other warbler that seemed particularly in abundance was that of the Blackcap, although Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs were also singing a lot. Whilst we could hear this pleasant harmony of warblers, I was meanwhile having a look on the scrape at 51 fantastic summer plumaged Black-tailed Godwits. These beauties with their plumage mix of rufousy-orange and silvery grey were my first of the year, and a sure sign of spring. Whilst these Blackwits busily fed, several species of commoner duck including Shoveler and Pochard were also present on the lake. Whilst we stood on the scrape we asked a couple of birders if they had seen the Great White Egret today. Unfortunately the news was that it hadn’t been seen all day, but this didn’t surprise me too much as the sheer expanse of reedbeds gives the Egret plenty of space to hide! With the Egret not having been seen all day, we came to the conclusion that it was best not to go as far as Meare Heath and thus spent more time at Shapwick Heath. We were just about to move off towards Noah’s Hide, arguably the best hide on the reserve, when all of a sudden there was a cry from one of the birders viewing the scrape of:


With this everyone that had been watching the scrape stopped what they were doing and looked to the skies. I too turned and looked up to see a magnificent Bittern gliding high above the reeds behind the scrape. This glorious create glided slowly away from the reeds behind the scrape, passing high right over my head, lowering as it passed the muddy pools and finally descending into the reeds behind the pools. This was a moment of pure magic as that was only my second Bittern ever and in comparison to the few seconds view of one rising above the reeds at Ham Wall the year before, the views were far more prolonged and at much closer quarters. I reckon it stayed in the air for about 45 seconds, which is quite impressive for a species that can be very elusive. As we left the scrape and continued towards Noah’s Hide, I felt as if I had been tinged with good fortune. I certainly didn’t expect to see one, that’s for sure. Shortly after this Bittern sighting I managed to hear and locate my first Sedge Warbler of the year which luckily was singing very close by. Arriving at Noah’s Hide nothing of great note was around, although at one point an impressive female Marsh Harrier was seen quartering the reeds, another new bird for the year. Plenty of common wildfowl species were present too. After about 20 minutes here we left, and due to no sightings of the Great White Egret, headed for Ham Wall. As we were walking back along the scrape and heading towards Ham Wall when I heard the most peculiar sound coming from the reeds. However, I didn’t fail to recognise it; there really was no mistaking it. It was extraordinarily low pitched, almost foghorn like ‘wooooomp’, heard just for a few seconds. I had just heard my first booming Bittern. I stood and listened in delight as it sung, and as it died down I couldn’t help but think what a bizarre but fantastic sound it was and how privileged I was to have heard one.

The walk to Ham Wall is quite a long one and can be tiring, but we were kept entertained by a few Cetti’s Warblers that showed themselves, my first two Little Egrets of the year at the first viewing point which was the same viewing point that I had seen my first ever Bittern and dipped on the Little Bittern, gorgeous views of a male Blackcap, good views of a Whitethroat (yet another year tick) and by the beauty of the commoner birds. By the time we had checked both Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath it was nearing lunchtime, just the time we were hoping to leave. I felt that I had real felt spring coming to life at these two reserves. Numerous species of warblers were in abundance and constantly singing, there was a decent flock of Blackwits, a Bittern was booming brilliantly and the first Marsh Harriers were quartering the reeds. It was a lovely thing to experience. Not only was it great in this way, but as a result of this visit my year list had now increased to 148 species when the initial target when I got back from Norfolk was 150 species. Not reaching this total by the end of the holiday would be virtually impossible, so I was now aiming for 160 species on my return to Aberdeen. I did manage to not see the Great White Egret, which was a bit annoying, but look at this way, I did get fantastic views of a Bittern in flight, and Bittern isn’t a species I normally expect to see! After a plain lunch, Dad then commenced the drive to one of the most southern points in Britain, Portland. Within a couple of hours I would be at the Portland Bird Observatory, where I’d be staying for 5 days. The time had now come... Here are some pictures taken from Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall RSPB.
As we drove out of Somerset and into Dorset I decided I would have a check of Birdguides in the event of anything notable being present en route to Portland. As I progressed through the long list of birds that had been seen that day, nothing caught my eye at first. However, about a quarter of the day something caught my eye that made me feel even more excited than I already was... Here was what the phone read:

“Pied Flycatcher – 1 male in the obs garden, as well as 2 Grasshopper Warblers, 12 Redstarts, 2 Firecrests and a Black Redstart. Also upwards of 200 Willow Warblers and 100 each of Chiffchaff and Blackcap”

A fall! Of course this fall had not producing any major rarities, but as a matter of fact it happened that a majority of my passerine migrant target species had been seen there today. With this news I was starting to feel that I may have a very nice start to the holiday, but would all these birds still be present, or just passing through? I was soon to find out... At 4:00pm we arrived in the bustling town of Weymouth, the closest place effectively to Portland. Now, for those that are unfamiliar with this area of Dorset, Portland is actually an island which is linked to the land and only by a causeway by the famous Chesil Beach, hence why Portland is accessible. Portland as an island is quite large, and the Bird Observatory is right on the tip. Here is a map of the island. Note that when I mention my explorations of different parts of the island, this map will crop again and the areas I am mentioning will be circled/cropped so you can get an idea exactly where they are in relation the island. You will see below that I have circled the Observatory’s position on the island and that it is incredibly to the southern-most tip, Portland Bill.

As we progressed up through the causeway into Portland and through the small community of Fortuneswell and Easton, we eventually turned a corner and all of a sudden we had alighted on verdant green fields and the Portland Bill Lighthouse. It was an exciting sensation seeing the Portland Bill Lighthouse come into view as I knew that not far from there stood the Bird Observatory lighthouse. After travelling through the little village of Weston we turned another corner and the Bird Observatory came into view. Within a minute or two we had arrived in the bird observatory car park and upon entering the lighthouse met a small, old man with some binoculars round his neck.

“Are you Joseph and Mr Nichols?” he asked kindly (I'm not giving the name of my Dad), “I’m Peter Morgan, the assistant warden and ringer here at Portland Bird Observatory, pleased to meet you.”

Peter told us where we would sleep during our stay, which unfortunately wasn’t the Lighthouse but a small annexe nearby. We duly put our luggage into our room, and then headed back into the Observatory for a small exploration. The living room in the observatory looks out onto the sea ‘obs garden’ as it known, an area of dense bush which is ideal for and hosts a majority of any passerine migrants passing through. A few birders sitting in the living room greeted us and we became acquainted to the adjacent kitchen. On the table in the living room we had a look at the day’s sightings, scrolled down a notebook. These sightings reflected that of the Birdguides report. Peter told us that plenty of people were out checking the Obs garden and advised that we have a look as migrant activity was still high. We agreed to this, and headed into the bush for our first exploration of the area and some early evening birding on what was a lovely sunny day. We aimed to start with a meticulous search in the obs garden, then heading down to Portland Bill and coming back round to the Observatory. To give you an idea of what the area looks like here are several pictures, including a picture of the Bird Observatory, a view from the balcony of the observatory onto the sea and the obs garden and the coastguards huts behind them, the obs quarry (which is just beside the obs garden), and a view down to the Bill lighthouse and a view of the obs garden from the very top of the lighthouse, where I went a couple of times a day to get a signal so as to receive texts about sightings from Simeon and others.

Upon entering the obs garden I could instantly see signs of the fall caused by the covering of cloud early in the morning. Almost every bush that we checked had at least one Chiffchaff or Willow Warbler; they were literally everywhere that you looked. I had never seen so many of them before in my life, and I revelled in the fact that these two species were so abundance. I would have said that Willow Warblers were the more plentiful of the two, yet again reflecting the Birdguides statistic of a 200+ total of this species. As well as watching these Phylloscs, we kept our eye out for those species that had been reported earlier in the day – Redstart, Black Redstart, Pied Flycatcher, Firecrest, and Grasshopper Warbler. Unfamiliarity with the Obs garden meant that if these birds were being seen in certain parts of the garden that we wouldn’t know where to go to find them, which frankly lessened our chances. As we wondered around the Obs garden without any real knowledge of our way round we continued to scour the bushes for anything that wasn’t a Phyllosc. Whenever we saw any sign of movement from any birds, I’d quickly latch on them but would normally find that they were Phylloscs. On one occasion, however, this wouldn’t be the case. Quite early on, as we came to a slight opening in the bushes I was keeping my eyes peeled when all of a sudden I saw a bright red flash of a passerine’s tail on the ground ahead of me. Eagerly, I got my bins on the bird, and to my delight had found a cracking female Redstart. I quickly alerted my Dad, but as he turned to look it flitted off the ground and dived into the nearest bush, leaving us both mesmerised by that iridescent red flash. The views were brief, but it was a good start to our search and took the year list up to 149 species. This sighting was also pleasing in the fact that I had regrettably managed to not see a Redstart in 2009 and that this year I had finally managed to catch up with this stunning species once again.

Unfortunately for us, things didn’t turn out as successfully as we thought they might in terms of seeing the scarcer species that had been present earlier in the day. Despite a full search of the garden (there weren’t any areas that we hadn’t covered even with the addition of the quarry) we could not find the male Pied Flycatcher, Firecrest or Grasshopper Warblers. It was fair to say that these species had either passed through or were keeping themselves very secretive, although for Pied Fly and Groppers the first of those factors was the most likely. We were however lucky to get a fleeting view of another Redstart briefly as we were heading to the western edge of the obs garden, although we didn’t get sufficient enough views of this bird to determine its sex. Also the sheer abundance of Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers kept us well entertained. The walk from the obs garden to the Bill itself was about 10-15 minutes long, and on the way we were fortunate in coming across a White Wagtail amongst a small group of Pied Wagtails busily scuttling around the in the grass surrounding the huts. Of course, I couldn’t year tick this as it is merely a subspecies, but it was arguably a smarter and prettier equivalent to our Pied Wagtail and a nice bird to see. When we finally did arrive at the Bill we went behind the lighthouse and had a look out to sea. It was a remarkable experience looking out from here, as the Bill and Portland itself sticks out so far into the sea. This meant that any birds that were passing were often much closer than you would expect them to be. We didn’t expect much to be going past, and nothing much did, but it was just the fact that we were having a look out to sea from one of the most southernly tips in Britain that was so fulfilling. On the way to and from the Bill we had a look for the Black Redstart that had been reported early on the day on the rocky shoreline, but alas it wasn’t present.

Due to having to sort several things out such as getting the dinner and unpacking our stuff, when we returned to the Observatory we didn’t go out again that day. After doing these things, we sat in the lounge and got to know a few of the birders that were staying in the observatory, sharing a few birding experiences and commenting on how good the day had been until there was sunset and then darkness. At 9:30 we retired to bed, as we were going to get up very early the next morning. At Portland, it is always vital that you get up at sunrise as this is when you are most likely to catch the first migrants of the day arriving and migrant activity is at its peak. Sunrise in this case was around 6:00, so I set the alarm on my phone for 5:55. Whether my Dad and I were going to survive getting up at this time for 5 days straight, we didn’t know, but nonetheless I was eagerly anticipating what the next day would hold! I wasn’t too bothered that I had missed a few of the migrant species that had been seen that day, there was still 5 days to go! In my next entry you can read about how my first full day in Portland and Dorset went.

Thanks for reading,