Monday 18th February was one of those birding days that make it all worthwhile. I had driven from Tamworth to RSPB Ham Wall in Somerset on Sunday night. I intending having a quick kip in the car on arrival and then getting to the last reported sighting location of the Pied-Billed Grebe before first light.
All of the above went well, including a couple of hours sleep, and 6.00am found me unloading my gear and donning my boots in the Ashcott car park. Another car arrived and a fellow birder got out. I asked him if he knew where platform 2 was? The area the grebe seemed to favour. The guy in question introduced himself as Brian (Sorry! Can't remember surname.) and said to follow him as he was heading there himself.
Local knowledge and someone willing to share it is invaluable. Thanks Brian. We arrived at viewing platform 2 in the dark and waited for sunrise and usable light values. The temp was just below freezing, it just felt colder! Then, things started getting interesting. A Bittern started "Booming" in the reeds behind me, then in the distance another "Boomed" back. I had never heard Bitterns booming before, a very welcome first for me.
Slowly the light values started to increase and my next treat of the day just came walking along without a care in the world. A Roe Deer Hind. She stopped for a few seconds no more than six feet away from me, looked directly at me, then resumed her travels and disappeared into the trees.
Light values were now much improved, but still not good enough for good viewing. That didn't stop us trying to find our target though. Then, another couple of birders arrived and set up their equipment, the more eyes the better. As I scanned the area, I noticed what looked like black smoke rising from the reed beds in the distance. The black smoke turned out to be Starlings leaving their reed bed roost. I have never seen so many starlings in one murmuration. I couldn't begin to imagine the flock size? 50,000 or more I would guess? It was breath taking. I had yet to see my target bird, but the trip was already very worthwhile.
After some very dedicated searching from the four of us on the viewing platform, one of the other guys suddenly stated that he had it. He pointed us in the right direction and we were soon all on it. The Grebe was partially obscured as it was behind a reed bed and we were viewing the bird through it. It could be seen preening and occasional views of its beak confirmed it was indeed the reason we were all here. Eventually it briefly left the sanctuary of the reeds and entered open water. Very good views were had through the scope, but I failed to get a picture. It was very mobile and was soon hiding and preening again in the reeds. Another 25 mins before it exited the reeds and quickly swam to the right and out of view. I was elated at getting the tick combined with all the other great sights and sounds of the morning. I was a little disappointed not getting a picture though.
I did manage to find some pictures of the Ham Wall Pied-Billed Grebe online. I liked one taken by Paul Rowe. Paul had managed a decent record shot of the Grebe when he visited on Sunday 17th. I asked Paul if he would allow me to use his picture on this blog, and he kindly agreed. Thanks Paul.
By the time I left the viewing platform, it was getting busy with birders arriving all the time.
The early birders
I went for a wander around Ham Wall reserve as It was my first time there. It certainly won't be my last. There were still plenty of starlings about, I like this picture I managed of one.
While wandering around, I also managed to tick Great White Egret, Bittern, and Marsh Harrier. Great views of all three. The Bittern flew in over my head, glided for about 30 yards over the reeds then dropped into them and vanished like Bitterns do.
I found a bench and watched the Marsh Harriers hunting over the reed tops. As I sat there on a bright cold winters morning, drinking my coffee, I thought to myself, "it don't get much better than this."
I arrived at Bruton and parked by the Church at about 1.30pm. My first search of the churchyard didn't produce much except a few Jackdaws. On my second circuit, I heard a "ticking" like call from one of the mature Hornbeam trees and stopped to take a closer look. Result! My first Hawfinches. Once my eye and ear were tuned in I watched them coming and going between the Hornbeams in the churchyard for about half an hour. I knew Hawfinches were a big finch, but in the flesh, or feather if you prefer? Their size still surprised me. I tried in vain to get a photo, they were just too mobile. As soon as they flew to a tree, they instantly disappeared into the depths of its foliage, and in the end, with freezing hands, I gave it up as a bad job.
Bruton Churchyard and one of the Hornbeam Trees.
It was about 2.45pm when I left Bruton and started the journey home. I was soon on the M5 and heading back towards the Midlands. However, I felt that in the interest of safety I should stop off and stretch my legs on the route home. So after just over an hours driving, I exited the M5 at Gloucestershire, coincidently, very close to Slimbridge!
A quick two and a half hours at Slimbridge flew by. Another lifer for me in the form of Tundra Bean Geese was very welcome.
Tundra Bean (iscoped)
Also managed a nice year tick of Common Crane, with four of them performing for the camera.
Due to the distance involved, I also used my iPhone through my scope to capture and video the Cranes.
Common Cranes (distance about 250 yards)