Off with a boom and a swift finish to a visit at Ham Wall

Sat in the passenger seat putting the world to right in a deep conversation with my driver for the day  Paul Joy, I could not help but worry about the dark clouds and rain coming down. We were heading for a days bird watching at the RSPB reserve Ham Wall which is situated not far from Glastonbary, Somerset. I was saying a silent prayer to mother nature hoping she would hear me and call off the rain for a while.

A view of the Tor from the reserve.

Ham Wall is an amazing reserve and your almost guaranteed views of Marsh Harriers, Great White Egrets and Bitterns I've been before and really enjoyed it. Any opportunity to photograph my favourite bird of prey fills me with excitement. I was hoping the rain would not put a damper on things. Pauls a bit of a lucky charm in any case when it comes to finding birds so I kind of had a good feeling about the day ahead.

I already had a good week. On Monday I spotted a Red-Necked Phalarope at my usual patch - Goldcliff Lagoons that had caused something of a sensation amongst the birding community. Today I was eager to see if Paul and me could catch sight of some newly arrived migrants and perhaps a lifer or two. I was certainly planning to increase my yearly BirdTrack sightings list.

We arrived at Ham Wall quite early. The showers had eased and the skies remained thick with cloud.
As Paul and me made our way from the car park down to the reserve proper we were serenaded by a host of songbirds. Chiff Chaffs, Blackcaps, Willow , Cettis, Reed and Sedge Warblers blasted out their tunes. A Song Thrush and a Robin joined the chorus too and I must admit it was great welcome.

Song Thrush serenaded us.

As we entered the reserve proper and walked past the huge reed beds "boom" went a Bittern from the undergrowth. Hearing these members of the Heron family making these sounds is amazing.

So our day began with a boom and a multitude of bird melodies. The reserve is made up of a huge expense of reed beds and waterways. Home to a multitude of wildlife.

From the first platform we sighted a couple of Black Tailed Godwits and numerous Gadwall and Porhard Ducks. The water levels are quite high at the moment and I suspect the Pochard like this as they are a diving duck and like some depth to the water.

We checked the Tor hide out first and found it be a little quiet apart from the booming of the Bitterns.

Our next stop was the Avalon Hide. Getting to this big extremely well designed hide takes some time. There is a bit of a walk involved following an easily negotiated flat path.

The route takes you along side a big expanse of reeds to your left and a canal on your right. All along the path were spring flowering plants. Many of these attracted a variety of butterflies including Orange Tip, Peacock, Green Veined White and Speckled Woods. A few early dragonflies were also showing. Then we saw our first Swift of 2019 shooting over head in the sky.

Male Orange Tip Butterfly

As we neared the Avalon Hide we caught out first sighting of a Male Marsh Harrier quartering the reeds and causing a disturbance amongst the ducks we had seen earlier. Another eye catching species that are "common" on the reserve are Great White Egrets. Massive white "heronlike" birds.

Male Marsh Harrier

Great White Egret

Deep in the reeds a Sedge Warbler called. Incredibly difficult birds to pin down to photograph but with some patience both of us managed to get a few pictures.

Deep in the reeds. Sedge Warbler singing.

We then spent a few hours in the Avalon Hide. Before us was a panoramic view of a marsh land paradise. Up and down from the reeds rose at least three Marsh Harriers. After watching them for some time we came to the conclusion there was a male bird who was  "courting" two female birds in quite close proximity. The males are known to be polygamous and it looked like this was happening.

Courting Marsh Harriers

The male would often swoop up into the air and do a little aerobatics calling to the female. He would then descend into the reeds where a female was located . The female bird would often rise to meet him and then repeat the process but this time she would be the one swapping place with the male.

At one time we were sure we saw five individual birds. I suspect that a number were juvenile birds.

Marsh Harrier quartering the reeds.

We struck up some great conversations with fellow birders throughout the day. It's super how helpful people can be when your visiting reserves. One gent told us where the Garganey Ducks were showing so Paul and I headed to that part of the reserve.

Garganey Ducks are apparently the UK's only native migratory species of ducks. They are rare birds in the wild in the UK. Using the scope I spotted them hiding near some reeds and they then proceeded to show quite well. It was a lifer for Paul and only the second time I have seen these ducks before.

There are two male Garganey Ducks ( Center and Center Right)

Male Garganey Duck

Next up from the Tor Hide were Hobbies. Up to five of these migratory falcons were seen whizzing through the sky catching airborne insects.


Nightingales were next on our list. Heading to a location near Shapwick Heath we waited for a while but saw or heard nothing. Thats how it goes. We did though get some great views of Black Caps, Willow Warblers and Chiff Chaffs.

Blackcap (Male)

As we headed back to Avalon we struck up a conversation with two birders who told us they had just seen an Alpine Swift no less. I must admit I had no idea what they really looked like so had to consult my Collins bird guide, When we looked up at the sky all we could see was Sand and House Martins. Alpines are apparently of described as looking a like giant sand martins so at least we had that to go on. However its easier said than done and as most of the time these birds are high up and resemble fast moving black dots through the lens.

Failing to spot anything we went back to the Avalon Hide bumping into a fellow birder from our welsh neck of the woods albeit hes Scottish.

In the later afternoon sun we watched the Harriers displaying and "toing and froing" over the reeds. High in the sky came the highest flying Bittern we have ever seen. It landed and disappeared into the reeds. It was good to see one.

Swooping quickly across the reeds came a female Sparrowhawk. She landed on the gate near the hide and perched there for a short time.

Sparrowhawk (Female)

It was time to head back. We slowly made our way back counting up the species we had seen. It was about 54 or thereabouts , not a bad days bird watching.

Then we came across a line of birders with scopes and our Scottish friend. Look up he said theirs an Alpine Swift!.

That we did. After some help from the birders who had turned up and scanning the sky's patiently eventually the Alpine Swift put in several appearances. It certainly is bigger than a normal swift or Sand Martin. When it beats its wings it resembled a Falcon.

Alpine Swift

Alpine Swift

A black dot in the Sky

Wow - the Swift was lifer for both of us and totally unexpected.

A brilliant sighting to end a great days bird watching and high fives all round.


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