For information about the Group please contact Kay Williamson on 01458 448694.
Have you ever wondered what that strange bird is at the bottom of your garden? Would you like to be able to identify birds by their songs and calls? If the answer to either of these questions is YES, then the Birdwatching Group might be just what you are looking for. It meets on the first and third Mondays of the month, usually in the mornings, commencing at 10.00am. Nearly all of the meetings take place out in the countryside around Somerton and involve a gentle stroll along quiet lanes, tracks and footpaths, quite often visiting local nature reserves in the process. A few meetings are held indoors to discuss various aspects of birdwatching (how to identify birds, which are the best binoculars and field guides, local and national bird clubs you can join, how we monitor bird populations, why some species are in decline, etc.) and there are also evening meetings to see and hear nocturnal birds. But it’s not just about birds, other forms of wildlife such as butterflies, plants, mammals and dragonflies will also be encountered and pointed out on our walks, so there should be plenty of interest for everyone.
At the beginning of July 2012 members of the newly formed Birdwatching Group were treated to amazing views of Britain's rarest breeding bird when they visited Shapwick Heath nature reserve. In the summer of 2012 for the first time ever two pairs of great white egrets nested in the country, raising five young. For over half an hour group members were able to observe one of the youngsters feeding in shallow water a mere 40 metres from their watching point in one of the reserve's hides. And if that wasn't enough, the egret was joined by a bittern for a few minutes, which strolled around just a couple of metres away before disappearing into the reeds. There are less than 200 of these secretive birds in Britain and you have to be very lucky to see one. So, in the space of a couple of minutes, we had seen two extremely rare birds in close up! An excellent morning's birdwatching.
On April 2nd 2013 the Birdwatching Group celebrated its first birthday, a good time to pause and reflect. During the past year, this group has met twice a month and has visited a wide variety of places to look at both birds and other wildlife. Most of the sites we visited were within 10 miles of Somerton and some, like the Avalon Marshes, we went to on several occasions. We are very lucky to have such a wonderful selection of nature reserves on our doorstep, many of them equipped with observation hides – Ham Wall, Shapwick Heath, Westhay Moor, Swell Wood and Eastfield, for example. Sometimes we ventured further afield to Salisbury Plain and the Exe estuary to see special birds such as great bustards and avocets, which involved a Land Rover safari and a boat cruise respectively. These birds were certainly the highlights of our first year, along with sightings of great white egret, crane, bittern, peregrine, marsh harrier, kingfisher and the amazing starling roost on the Avalon Marshes. But it’s not only birds, we have also seen mammals, butterflies and flowers on our excursions and looked at a whole range of flora and fauna. For our second season we will continue to visit our local haunts but also go further afield to places such as Cheddar Reservoir, Steart Point, the Axe estuary, the Quantocks and the Blackdown Hills. So if you would like to visit these great places with a friendly group of like-minded people to observe our wonderful wildlife, then perhaps the Birdwatching Group is for you. Mike Trubridge.
CRUISING WITH AVOCETS
On a cold day in early February 2013 (thank goodness the rain had stopped!), the Birdwatching Group and several guests assembled at Starcross, a few miles south of Exeter. Here we joined a Dunkirk little ship “My Queen” packed with keen birdwatchers and at midday we left the Starcross ferry port to sail along the river Exe on an Avocet Cruise. Also on board was a bevy of excellent RSPB commentators, including John Allan and Ed Druitt who were kept busy rushing from one side of the boat to the other pointing out the various species. The boat took us downstream to Exmouth, quite close to the shore, where an eagle-eyed birder spotted a peregrine falcon perched high up on a ledge on the church steeple. Then we turned upstream towards Topsham. There were herring gulls, black-backed gulls, little egret - and a kingfisher very well camouflaged on a sea-stained old yacht. We saw a variety of waders including oystercatchers, grey plover, redshank (and even a spotted one), and greenshank. We had beautiful views of red-breasted mergansers, teal, wigeon, smart Brent geese flying past, and large numbers of dunlin. And then the avocets! Elegant white birds, faces and wings neatly edged in black, pale blue legs and slender upturned bills.
They were quite spread out along the sandbanks, this was due to the volume of floodwater flowing down the river and extending the area where they could feed. And what a feeding frenzy: they were marshalled in lines, one close behind the other, moving effortlessly along, their curved beaks skimming the mud. Talk about formation dancing! We watched them for as long as we could, but with the tide flooding in the birds were flying elsewhere, and we turned round for the return journey to Starcross. The sun was getting lower, the wind was blowing harder and it was cold! But what an expedition! We had seen what we came for, and I for one will never forget the sight of those beautiful avocets. Julia Harvey
A VISIT TO STEEP HOLM
At the Somerton U3A meeting in the Edgar Hall in January 2014 the speaker Nigel Phillips talked about the Somerset coastline and included some photographs of the wildlife of Steep Holm. By an amazing coincidence, just four days earlier I had asked members of the Birdwatching Group if there were any sites they would like to visit in the forthcoming year…. and Steep Holm was mentioned as a possible venue. I already knew that any visit to this small island in the Bristol Channel would last about 12 hours due to the fact that it is only possible to arrive/depart at high tide, but there was enough initial interest from the group for me to make further enquiries. These revealed that there are only about 20 days during the summer when boats run, an early morning start was required and there were restrictions on who could go – people with back problems, severe medical conditions and who were pregnant were advised not to travel. Eventually just four of us signed up for a long day out on Sunday June 1st, assembling on the sea front at Weston-super-Mare on a lovely sunny morning. It took less than 15 minutes to cover the 5 miles to Steep Holm in a RIB with twin 300hp outboard motors on the back – quite an exhilarating ride! Once ashore, we climbed up the steep path onto the plateau of the flat-topped island and had a refreshing cup of coffee in the Victorian barracks, now a café and visitor centre.
The rest of the day was spent exploring this fascinating 63 acre island. Of particular interest were the numerous remains of previous occupation, ranging from the ruins of the 12th century Augustinian priory to the six massive gun batteries of the Victorian era and the more recent gun emplacements and searchlight posts of the Second World War. But the island’s history goes back much longer than any of these remains, as we discovered when we attended a talk given by two of the four archaeologists currently working on the island. They are part of a long term excavation of ruins on the island that takes place every summer. The occupation of Steep Holm probably dates back to the Stone Age, before it even became an island. The Romans certainly used the island, probably as a signal station, and we were shown Roman pottery dug up earlier in the day. Later the Vikings used Steep Holm as a base to raid the mainland.
In 1976 the island was bought by the Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust and since then it has been managed as a nature reserve and bird sanctuary run entirely by volunteers. During the summer months Steep Holm is completely dominated by breeding gulls, as we very quickly found out. They nest just about everywhere and it is estimated that there are about 1,400 pairs of herring gulls and 450 pairs of lesser black-backed gulls. They are particularly numerous along the footpaths that have been cut in the shrubby vegetation and they defend their nests vigorously – dive bombing intruders and spraying them with droppings. It wasn’t long before we all suffered direct hits!
Two of the more intrepid members of our party descended into the underground bunkers with torches to explore the world of creepy crawlies. Here we found many culvert spiders hanging from the ceilings and walls, together with the biggest woodlice that I have ever seen. Above ground there were many caterpillars on the vegetation, along with several butterfly species and one dragonfly. Plants were also well represented, and included unusual flowers such as great mullein, weld, wild wall wallflower, henbane and hound’s-tongue.
In the evening we descended to the landing beach and explored the ruined buildings on the way – Cliff Cottage and the Inn. The latter was built in 1832 originally to sell liquor to the Bristol Channel seafarers, although it did very well when the army arrived to fortify the island. It even managed to trade without a licence for some 50 years, until the law finally caught up with it in 1885. Within 13 years it was unoccupied and ruinous.
Eventually the RIBs returned to collect us shortly after 8.00pm, nearly 12 hours after we set off from Weston-super-Mare. But we were not quite finished for the day, because we were then taken on an unexpected circumnavigation of the island. Finally we returned to the mainland, slightly tired, exhilarated and certainly well splattered! It had been a most interesting, varied and unusual day out. Mike Trubridge
The Birdwatching Group is now well into its fourth year and it is as popular as ever. We continue to visit favourite sites such as Ham Wall, Greylake and Catcott Lows, while new venues include the Lytes Cary Estate and Babcary Meadows. During the summer months we spend quite a bit of time looking at butterflies and flowers. This included a particularly memorable visit to Ham Hill, where we managed to see 15 different species of butterfly. Also in the summer we have had some nocturnal meetings to look for and listen to birds such as nightingales and nightjars. Future trips further afield are planned for Slimbridge and a cruise on the Exe Estuary. Sign up now to join this vibrant and exciting group!
A VISIT TO FLAT HOLM
On a beautiful day in early June 2016 the Birdwatching Group had a glorious day out in the warm sunshine on the island of Flat Holm, in the Bristol Channel. Setting off from Weston-super-Mare at 11.00, it took two hours to reach the island on board the Westward Ho, taking in a circumnavigation of the neighbouring island of Steep Holm on the way. The Westward Ho is the smallest car ferry in the UK and on arriving at Flat Holm, she was beached on the stony shore of the island and left high and dry for the next seven hours, until the rising tide floated her off again. This gave us plenty of time to explore the 86 acre island, beginning with a guided tour from Martin, one of the volunteer wardens who live on the island, which is managed by Cardiff City Council. He started off at the lighthouse, which was undergoing major renovations; took us underground to see some of the old military installations that litter the island; showed us the ruins of the Victorian cholera hospital and ended up at the giant foghorn, no longer in use. For much of our tour we were mobbed and occasionally attacked by the screaming hordes of lesser black-backed gulls, which nest on the island and number about 4,000 pairs. Later on the group leader took us to the quieter northern end of the island to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of this remarkable place. But there was still plenty of time to sample the delights of the Gull and Leek, the most southerly pub in Wales, and to buy a few souvenirs in the small shop. Finally at 7.00pm we made our way back to the Westward Ho, which was just beginning to be lapped by the rising tide, for our return journey to Weston-super-Mare. Here we arrived at 8.30pm after a wonderful day out on a beautiful island. Mike Trubridge.
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