Back for Good - Farmers give Big Birds a Home
Farming families across the Levels and Moors have been working with a team of conservationists to create new wetland areas where they hope, one day, cranes may breed.
The cranes - huge, grey birds, with long legs & necks, and an incredible bugling call - have been released as part of a national reintroduction programme ‘The Great Crane Project.’
The project has been hand rearing and releasing Eurasian cranes in Somerset since 2010 with the aim of establishing a sustainable breeding population.
Cranes became extinct as a breeding species around 400 years ago as a result of hunting for food, and drainage of their wetland habitats.
Now they are being given a second chance - but the success will be dependent on farmers and landowners getting behind the project and helping to ensure they return for good.
The RSPB, as a partner in the project, has been enlisting the support of local farmers across the moors to create new breeding zones – small pools, surrounded by tall fen-type vegetation and hay meadows, in very out-of the way, undisturbed areas.
Mr Sam Mitchell, a farmer on Kings Sedgemoor who has been part of the scheme enthused
“It will be wonderful to see these birds on my land. It’s a bit different to what I am used to – but I’m looking forward to seeing the wildlife that will return after the creation of this new 25acre wetland”
Mr Mitchell’s has been supported in this venture by DEFRA through an Environmental Stewardship Scheme ‘HLS’ agreement, which will provide income for the next 10 years to off-set the reduction in agricultural productivity.
“It’s also been causing quite a stir in the local community. Neighbours in the village here love the cranes – and often talk about hearing them bugling and calling to each other”
Another farming family, the Stradlings from Cossington, have been helping the cranes by converting an 18th Century Duck decoy, (a pool where ducks were trapped for food) into a potential crane breeding area. The Great Crane Project has provided funds and a small army of RSPB volunteers to clear the built up vegetation and designed the work, and helped to steer the way through all the necessary paperwork and permissions required from Natural England, Somerset County Council, English Heritage, and local drainage Boards.
Joe Stradling said of the project
“Our family, in particular my Grandfather, hold a keen interest in wildlife and do what we can to support it in conjunction with our farming methods. We were only too happy to help with this superb project, reintroducing a species into the environment - exciting stuff.”
“The area was just a overgrown pond and this project has enabled us to improve it, not just for cranes and other wildlife, but to maintain it as a historical monument. Hopefully we will a healthy crop of young cranes one day!”
The RSPB’s work through the Great Crane Project forms part of a wider initiative to offer conservation advice and support for farmers following the disastrous floods of 2012.
Other works completed over the summer for cranes on private land include the creation of another breeding area on the moors near Walton, enhancement works on a former flight-pond near Stathe, and provision of wintering feeding areas for the cranes - again supported through HLS.
Damon Bridge - the RSPB’s Project Manager concluded:
“We have made a terrific start here. It’s great to be working alongside keen farmers to make this project a success. We hope to get these wonderful birds back for good, and to do this need to work towards the creation of more wetland breeding areas within the Moors – and bigger wetlands too!”
Some great sightings on the reserve this week - very few of these made by me I should add. I've spent 2 days reedcutting with our Softrak machine at Greylake this week, 2 volunteer days in a corner of the reserve cutting and burning scrub and had an office day today, but with the help of a few people I've gathered together some impressive stuff.
One of the highlights was the arrival of a pair of Goosander, clearly visible from the 1st platform on Monday. They were there for some time and fishing with great success. They were however, accompanied by a few Black Headed Gulls, which were intent on stealing their fish as they surfaced.
A good catch without the attention of gulls
Gulls swoop on a surfacing male. The stealing of food produced by another is known as Kleptoparasitism. Thanks to John Crispin for the photos and the biology lesson - well, you didn't think I'd use big words like that did you?
There was a bit of a hot streak of sightings on Monday as the same area produced an Otter sighting too. There was one seen from here on Saturday too which sent a flurry of Coots scurrying away just before it arrived. Monday also saw a report of a Water Pipit using the area in front of the 2nd platform. This makes sense as Ray Summers, the Warden, had thought he'd seen a possible Water Pipit the same morning in a nearby section.
You put these birds with the daily sightings we get of Great White Egrets (now considered resident), Bitterns (the first platform offers the best views usually) and Marsh Harriers and you start producing a nice list. There is a rather splendid looking Male Marsh Harrier frequenting the Waltons area lately:
This bird has rather distinct markings - so he really stands out!
The new screen (The Tor View Hide) will offer great views of this bird in the near future. There's just a few finishing touches to do to the path (The Reedbed Walk) and the screen, before we officially open it. Cut areas in front have offered a loafing area for ducks and even a few Snipe have been flushed from here. If we can get the extra screening right on the paths we could hopefully reduce this type of disturbance so that visitors can see them at close quarters. Stonechats are again, frequently being seen in and around the screen area and we even had male and female Bearded Tit seen in Waltons last weekend.
The 2nd viewing platform has also been a good area for Snipe lately - John Crispin Managed to photograph this little chap in a tug of war with a worm this week!
Both platforms offer a fair selection of wildfowl between them: Good numbers of Gadwall, Mallard, Shoveler, Wigeon and Teal with a few Tufted Ducks thrown in too. Groups of Lapwing c200 pass over and sometimes settle in front of the 2nd platform, although we have raised water levels here in readiness for the visit of the Truxor machine in January. This aquatic cutter should be able to open up the area a lot more - particularly the growth directly in front of the platform.
Also this week: Jays heard squawking in the Central Wood, Great Spotted Woodpecker here also, Groups of Fieldfare flying over the reserve including c40 on Wednesday, Vocal Cettis Warblers and Water Rails within the reedbeds, Groups of Redpoll, Siskin (both these often seen in tall Alder trees), Long Tailed Tits, Goldfinches, mixed Tit Flocks and Goldcrest near the screens along with Kingfisher in the Waltons area.
Finally, I had a great view of a Song Thrush bouncing along the grassy footpath that runs parallel to the rail path (the other side of the drain). John Crispin had a similar experience but of course he is always armed with his camera and took these lovely shots:
A good ID point is to note the shape of the spots. Here on the Song Thrush they are arrow shaped but the Mistle Thrush has round spots. Always useful to know such things when out 'in the field'
The Starlings are going great guns and the latest estimates are coming out at around 500,000. The main bulk are still at Shapwick Heath towards the Ashcott Corner Car Park end. There are still some birds on Ham Wall but much lower numbers. The roost location can change though, so phone the Starling Hotline for the latest news: 07866 554142
That's it for this week - have a great weekend!
There has been plenty of work for staff and volunteers to get stuck into in recent weeks and there's barely been time to draw breath, let alone enjoy the feathery fruits of our labours. Work has continued on the new raised screen at Waltons (the Tor View Hide as it will be known) and the structure itself is now complete (just some fine tuning required and a few benches to make to go inside would be a good idea). The path too has all been laid and just needs a tidy up and some extra screening is required for the walk up. We want it all to be just right before we open it up to the public and with the Christmas break fast approaching this may not happen now until the new year but sooner would be great!
Some good sights have been had from there this week (not just the Tor) - The lovely male Marsh Harrier (dubbed handsome Harry) has been around and showed well over Waltons yesterday, the Starlings dropped down close by yesterday too and swooped low over the reeds several times before settling - the woosh of the wings an amazing sound to hear (it all adds to the experience). Stonechats too have been present all week. Perching up on the tops of reedstems is common behaviour for them and the flicking of the tail is a dead giveaway! It also offers a great photo opportunity. John Crispin captured these shots this week:
Despite the colder weather - there were a couple of nice surprises this week: On Tuesday, despite temperatures dropping to minus 4 or 5, a we saw a Ruddy Darter out on the north of the reserve and later a Red Admiral Butterfly. Also, having mentioned in last weeks blog about a couple of Swallows seen locally, one flew in front of the 1st platform last weekend. Then a second was seen on Tuesday up the the Avalon Marshes Centre in Westhay, where our office and workshop are based. Time for them to get moving on though I think!
Last weekend also saw a female (rintail) Hen Harrier fly in front of the second platform, (I've seen 2 seperate reports of this during the week). The second platform is still offering a nice selection of wintering birds and the first platform is also now offering a similar selection on a slightly smaller scale. At the 2nd, Snipe and Lapwing are more likely and good numbers of Shoveler along with greater numbers of Wigeon and Teal. Although large flocks of c220 Lapwing were passing over Waltons on Thursday on several occasions and were visible from the 1st platform.
The first platform this week has boasted a fair number of Tufted Duck (no sign of the Goldenye amongst them though) and consistent views of Great White Egrets spending long sessions fishing. One in particular must have this as a favourite fishing area. A second bird came in to join it on Thursday but stirred it into action and they both flew off over Waltons and Loxtons and out of sight. Little Egrets are also frequenting the area along with Grey Heron, Shoveler, Mallard, Gadwall, Teal, Wigeon and Black Headed Gulls.
The perching posts in front of the 1st platform offer good views of birds on occasions - used by Grey Heron, Black Headed Gull, Kingfisher and Cormorant. A good opportunity to pick out some of the more distinguishing features.
Kingfishers have again been seen this week. 2 flights along the main drain running parallel to the rail path and heard several times within Waltons this week but just the one sighting myslef despite all the calling.
Also this week: A Jay flying from the Central Wood on Tuesday and in a similar area on Monday, a Green Woodpecker was heard, Great Spotted Woodpecker also seen this week, several Bittern flights throughout the week, with the 1st platform the best bet (4 flights in the morning yesterday), Bearded Tits heard pinging from the 1st platform, a Cettis Warber in full song, Goldcrest heard along the rail path in the trees and on the Otter Survey this week: 2 spraints (Otter poo) and 3 runs recorded - so indication of the presence still.
Goldcrest bathing: John Crispin
Plenty of winter flocks/parties of birds this week including Siskin around Waltons, Goldfinches, Long Tailed Tits, Redpolls c80 near the reserve entrance (search the tops of large Alder Trees around the reserve), Pied Wagtails at dusk and a few Fieldfare. Oh, and of course, several thousand Starlings. Numbers are thought to have doubled over the last week or two with figures of over 200,000 being estimated. The main bulk have been at Shapwick Heath still though, with a smaller roost at Ham Wall. This of course can change at any time so the Starling Hotline is definitely worth a call 07866 554142
The Starling Murmuration begins - Carolin Coward
That's it for now - have a great weekend!!