This blog is written by Josh - Residential Volunteer at RSPB West Sedgemoor, Swell Wood and Greylake. 

Visitors, volunteers, and staff alike have brought a lively start to 2022 at our reserves. From 2nd January a rare bird - a Baikal teal - has been spotted regularly at Greylake, prompting a flurry of footsteps around the reserve. On Sunday 9th January, people visited Greylake in their hundreds! Meanwhile, our dedicated volunteers returned for their first sessions of 2022, using their strength to start building an impressive new “deer fence” in a corner of our woodland. Many hands make light work – or lighter work, when you have over half a tonne of fencing materials… Read on for more about how we have been giving nature a home at RSPB West Sedgemoor, Swell Wood and Greylake.

Baikal teal

The Baikal teal is a dabbling duck which normally resides in the Far East: breeding in eastern Russia and migrating to southern China and Japan to spend the winter months. The female bird is brown with a whitish throat and a distinctive, circular white spot at the base of its bill (i.e., where the bill joins the head). The male bird has a bold head pattern that shares the green of the UK’s own Eurasian teal, but which also has cream and black colours. The male also possesses a distinctive white stripe that runs vertically down each side of its breast. At the turn of the century the Baikal teal was classified “Vulnerable” by the IUCN, meaning it was in some danger of becoming extinct (click the “Assessment Information in Detail” tab here for more). Fortunately, in recent years it has recovered and is now considered of “Least Concern” – safe from extinction currently.

(Click the image for increased resolution/detail). The distinctive features of the female (left) and male (right) Baikal teals, though neither is the exact individual seen at Greylake. "Baikal Teal" (female) by Mike Prince is licensed under CC BY 2.0 and "Baikal Teal" (male) by Mike Prince is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Original two photos grouped for web display purposes.

On rare occasions birds can veer off course from their usual migration, and such birds are known as “vagrants”. On 2nd January 2022 one male Baikal teal was reported at RSPB Greylake, and it has been considered by local birders as a possible vagrant (rather than an escaped domestic duck). Over the following days the bird has remained amongst the thousands-strong flocks of Eurasian teal that gather at Greylake. The bird certainly provided a satisfying challenge for hundreds of visitors who spent time in our two hides, combing the wet field habitats with their binoculars and telescopes; many of them succeeded in viewing the Baikal teal. At times, the teal flock spent time in a distant field on the reserve, making the Baikal teal an elusive sight. However, it also came closer to the hides, particularly on some early mornings. Only around ten Baikal teal have been recorded in the UK before.

Deer fencing

Coppicing is a huge part of the RSPB’s woodland management in and around Swell Wood. Coppicing involves felling a tree close to its base and allowing it to regrow. When we coppice a small selection of our trees whilst leaving others alone, we create woodlands with varying layers of vegetation (i.e., short and sunlit layers alongside tall and shaded layers). In turn, this provides homes for a larger variety of wildlife – often in larger numbers too! Coppicing has several benefits over simply felling and replanting separate trees: the felled trees keep their root systems, enabling them to grow back faster; the fast growth means the trees are slightly more protected from browsing by hungry deer; and coppicing is a culturally important technique used historically to provide wood for local communities.

Despite this quick and strong restart to their growth, coppiced trees are still vulnerable to browsing by deer. It is for this reason that the RSPB’s work also involves building tall fences which separate our newly coppiced trees from deer in the local landscape. Our volunteers joined us for a day of fence-building on 11th January which went very well! We succeeded in moving over half a tonne of metal fencing wire and wooden posts 200m into the woodland, and refined our skills using an array of tools to dig in our posts and attach the wire – in a way that gives the fence durability and strength. Building a deer fence is a very physical but satisfying task – after which you’ll likely take a photo of your handiwork to proudly share with your friends. What’s more, the hills and hollows of Somerset provided a wonderful light show throughout our time giving nature a home.

(Click the image for increased resolution/detail). Hefty fencing materials (left) and the partially constructed deer fence in the misty woodland (right).

(Click the image for increased resolution/detail). Various light conditions seen between morning and sunset near Swell Wood.