Lots going on at the reserve again this week, with plenty of interesting reports and one or two unusual sightings.
Bitterns seem to be much more active over the past couple of weeks and there have been plenty of sightings at Ham Wall. The first viewing platform still seems to be the most fruitful place for Bittern hunters with sightings here every day. This morning, a couple reported seeing one from the platform but also hearing them too. There are perhaps as many as 5 males currently grunting (like a rather weak boom) on Ham Wall - mainly in the early mornings, although I did hear one myself from the Loxtons screen at around 1pm today. He gave 2 sets of 6 grunts in the short time I was there. I also observed 2 other bitterns making flights within the Loxtons area.
Also from the screen at Loxtons - good views of a pair of Great Crested Grebes who have been seen in courtship display on several occasions this week - always a pleasure to watch this, snipe both seen and heard, shoveler, gadwall and Great White Egret.
As well as the Great Crested Grebes on site 'getting in the mood', the Little Grebes are also extremely vocal, with their whinnying like call heard almost consistently at times - particularly in the Waltons section.
Little Grebe: John Crispin
Also on a walk around Waltons Loop this morning a large number of Pochard were observed - over 50 along with several Tufted Ducks and a sprinkling of Gadwall. Teal best observed from the viewing platform, where up to 3 drake Pintails have been present all week (only two this morning). Also observed around 1.30pm at the platform a juvenile male Marsh Harrier seen hunting, although only for a short while as a peregrine appeared and began to hassle the Harrier until they both disappeared behind the wood to the right. Both male and female Marsh Harriers seen repeatedly this week. The first viewing platform in particular, has been a good place to spot the male.
Bearded tits have been seen and heard at a few loctions on the reserve this week. As usual they tend to spend most of their time in the non-access areas of the reserve. They have been heard from the platfrom recently and were seen flying over the railway line and into Loxtons on one occasion.
On Thursday night, around Starling murmuration time, 2 Merlin were seen - thought to be one male and one female from the first viewing platform and on Weds evening a Ruff was seen flying over Ham Wall. A Glossy Ibis has also been seen in flight in the early evening recently and this week on both Sunday and Monday sightings have been reported.
My best encounter this week came late on Thursday when walking up to one of our rides in the woodland. Staff & volunteers have been clearing them out a bit this week and been discussing how they might be suitable for Woodcock. Low and behold, not far away from where we were working I flushed one up from just a few feet away from me - what a view! Good to know they are in the area.
Great White Egrets still a daily occurence with 2 being seen together this afternoon and a third one close by. Also this week: Great Spotted Woodpecker seen and heard - including drumming, several Goldcrest, Small flocks of Siskin & Redpoll, Coal Tits by the first viewing platform, small groups of Lapwing in Waltons - visible from the third screen but with larger flocks flying over and Kingfisher from the first viewing platform.
Treecreepers have been seen at a couple of locations: firstly in the wood by the first wooden gate on the footpath side of the main drain and as is more usual in the Alders between Loxtons and the railway track.
Treecreeper: John Crispin.
Starlings are still showing well and are currently back at Ham Wall in areas easily visible - although do check with the Starling Hotline (07866 554142) as they are prone to changing the location of their roost. A couple spoke to me this morning and said that they had come in the morning also and said it was just as good if not better than the night before - so it might be worth considering a morning visit (it wont be so busy either - the couple I spoke to had the reserve to themselves). Of course, you are also guaranteed to see the Starlings if you know exactly where they roosted the night before.
Ham Wall's reed cutting machine - The Softrak, has been down at Greylake for a couple of days this week. With all our own reed cutting work finished for the winter, it's good to make use of the special piece of kit elsewhere. Greylake, as you may know, has a small reedbed of its own - planted with reed seedlings grown from seeds taken at our reedbed here at Ham Wall.
Over time reedbeds begin to dry out as decaying material from each years growth begins to build up raising the land level (albeit slowly) and this eventually encourages the growth of willow scrub, which then helps to accelerate the process. To keep this in check, we manage our reedbeds on a rotation - cutting different areas each year. This not only reduces the likelihood of the reedbed drying out but creates a varied age structure throughout the reedbed and increases diversity as many reedbed species have slightly different requirements.
The reedbed at Greylake has been divided into 7 sections and one of these was cut on Monday and Tuesday this week (this is easily visible from the reedbed loop - now re-opened as the work has finished). That was the easy bit. I then had to cut in and around the pool/open area visible from the boardwalk - not quite so easy but a pretty good result achieved in the end.
The open area from the boardwalk. Water levels will now be brought back up in a hope to prevent some of the regrowth of vegetation and provide some shallow water areas and soft mud for feeding birds.
Photo of the Softrak Machine.
In the picture above the Softrak can be seen accessing a harder to reach area of the Ham Wall reedbed using our new pontoons, which we have connected together to make a floating bridge (this saves us a lot of time tracking cut material in and out and allows us to reach trickier parts of the reedbed. We have since used small sections of this to create a tern raft - visible from the first viewing platform (I have written a short blog about this previously).
We use the bin on the back to collect cut material, which is then put into our composting scheme, producing a great soil conditioner, which is currently for sale. Sales days coming up on Sun 26th Feb, Sun 18th Mar and Sun 25th Mar. All 10am - 4pm at the Avalon Marshes Centre in Westhay. Alternatively call the office on (01458) 860494 to arrange collection of compost during the working week.
The Softrak is on it's travels again on Friday - on a trip to the seaside at RSPB Radipole Lake in Weymouth undertaking some more reedcutting there.
Still much to see at Greylake: Curlews seen and heard on Tuesday and large numbers of duck including Wigeon, Teal and Pintails and Peregrines hunting in front of the hide (male and female). I almost trod on a Jack Snipe when surveying the areas I needed to cut, as is there way. It flew a short distance, without calling before landing again - different behaviour than the Common Snipe. Bearded Tits have also been reported lately from the Greylake reedbed, although I wasn't lucky enough to see any myself. There were some very vocal Reed Buntings however as well as Cettis Warbler and Water Rail calling from the reedbed.
The RSPB is proposing to increase the available parking and improve the facilities for visitors on Ashcott road
In recent years the existing car park has been unable to cope with the number of people now visiting Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall nature reserves. This has led to parking issues on the road causing problems for local residents and businesses.
We are now starting to draw up initial designs for a potential new car park to cater for the current visitor numbers. It would also include some additional visitor facilities such as a small welcome building, toilets, a wildlife discovery area for families, and new pedestrian access to the nature reserves.
We would like your help in shaping this project, so that it delivers the best benefits for visitors and local communities alike. We will be holding a drop in session in the classroom at the Avalon Marshes Centre on the 6th of March between 2.30pm and 8pm where you will have an opportunity to look at outline plans and give your views on the proposals.
For more information contact the Ham Wall office 01458 860 494, email email@example.com, or post your comments here.
Sorry about the awful pun but you may have noticed a strange looking raft floating out in front of the first viewing platform. This is a tern raft, which will hopefully attract breeding terns this coming season. They have bred successfully before - Common Terns in 2007 on a piece of land adjacent to Ham Wall and then tried again in 2008 using our old rafts in Loxtons. In 2007 they spent much of their time feeding over Ham Wall and it would be great to attract them back again.
The reserve purchsed some floating pontoons last year, which can be joined together to make bridges, marinas etc and we have used these on the reserve to access areas of the reedbed to undertake management, both on foot and with heavy machinery with great success. Of course, during breeding season these will be mostly redundant as habitat management work ceases, so we thought this would be a good way to use at least one small section as an experiment.
Staff and volunteers have built sides, which are detachable, and covered the base with small shingle - terns will make a small scrape in here to act as a nest. The sloping sides at the top are designed to stop predators eg mink from accessing the raft. The beauty of this design is that we can take it apart at the end of each season and change locations if necessary, without too much difficulty.
Here's a few shots of it's launch and maiden voyage before being anchored in the open water.
Ever seen the TV series 'Three men in a boat' ? - here's the low budget version but it's just as funny to watch.
Looking worried ? Captain Birdeye's younger brother Garry ready for action
How do you drive this thing?
Enjoying the ride! - The curved roof tiles are for the tern chicks to take refuge under from any aerial predators.
Success at last - lets hope it's made use of.
The slightly milder weather this week has thawed out the reserve and so birds have been able to move around a little more freely. Most noticeably there has been an increase in Bittern activity this week. There have been several sightings in front of the first viewing platform and within Waltons. 4 different birds were seen on Tuesday afternoon with 2 in Waltons, 1 in Loxtons and one in front of the platform (This one was seen twice - the second time it flew right across in front of the platform - very close in). There have also been more reports of male birds grunting (not quite booming) with 3 reported on Tuesday morning and another from a different area on Monday morning. It's just a little ahead of where we were this time last year.
3 Drake Pintail (a handsome looking duck) have been in front of the first viewing platform all week - regularly seen with their backsides up in the air as they feed. In the same area on Monday a drake Smew was picked up by volunteers undertaking the monthly WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey), but by the late morning it had already disappeared and has not been seen again this week. Also during the WeBS as many as 7 drake Goosander were recorded on the Waltons section.
Pintails at Ham Wall taken earlier this month by John Crispin.
The first two screens at Waltons currently offer good views to a group of c20 Pochard and from the 3rd screen close views of Teal, Shoveler and Lapwing can be seen on the cut island in front. Both Male and Female Marsh Harrier have been seen from these locations and the first viewing platform every day this week.
Great White Egrets can still be seen on a daily basis, with one bird in particular favouring the area in front of the first viewing platform, where it has been noted every day for long periods. Today (17.02.12) one has also been seen in Waltons section and on the cut island from the Loxtons screen.
A male Merlin was also spotted today from the first viewing platform flying close in and low before flying away from us and disappearing quickly over the far bank. It's the first one reported on the reserve for a while (it was also seen yesterday evening I have since discovered) so it was a pleasing sighting.
Also yesterday evening a Glossy Ibis was seen flying from Ham Wall over to Shapwick Heath and then beyond. It's quite possible this is the same bird reported from the Catcott Lows area recently - so it's worth keeping your eyes open if you're in the area.
During the one of our guided walks on Wednesday, guests were treated to good views of both Sparrowhawk and Peregring as well as the selection of wildfowl that Ham Wall has to offer - the majority of these people were quite new to birding so was a valuable sighting to have.
Also on the reserve this week: groups of Redpoll and Siskins still being seen and reported - particularly in the Alder trees along the railway line and around Loxtons, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Crested Grebes, Little Grebes, Raven, Buzzard, several Chiffchaff, Treecreeper and Bearded Tits heard pinging briefly from the first viewing platform.
I have met several people/groups on the reserve lately who have been reading the blog and deciding to come and visit. It's pleasing to know that people are using the information we provide. If there are other things you want know about or any other information you would like us to provide please just ask.