Firstly, Happy New Year everybody. I hope you had a rested, safe and peaceful Christmas. I'm sure you are all looking forward to what the reserve, and the Avalon Marshes in general, has to offer this year and what surprises may be in store.

It has been remarkably mild in general, with just the last couple of days feeling more wintery this week. People are remarking on hearing bird song and seeing some birds prospecting for nest sites already. Day length can often be a limiting factor but mild weather can certainly seem to upset the balance a little.

We have already heard a bittern making it's first booming attempts - although very limited and what we call a grunt rather than a boom. It is the male warming up and exercising his neck muscles to help project that boom when it really matters. It is quite early, but not altogether unusual, to have one so early here in the balmy south west of England. 

A few bitterns have been seen in flight this week too with reports coming from the Avalon Hide and the first viewing platform (VP1).

Grey herons too have been one bird prospecting for nest sites. Typically, these birds start early anyway, partly I guess as the whole process takes a little longer and the earlier you start, particularly in a colony, the best nest site you will get. We generally have small colonies of herons nesting on the ground - as the season progresses keep your eyes open in Waltons and much further down the main path on the left (beyond the second viewing platform (VP2).

Thanks to both John Crispin (bird on the ground) and Sandie Andrews for their recent Grey Heron photos:

Other heron species are most definitely available too. A glossy ibis was reported from neighbouring Shapwick Heath on the 2nd January - a bird no stranger to Ham Wall of course and little egrets are also seen occasionally.

One of the reserves stars of course is the elegant great white egret although the way they are spreading their range they will soon be quite commonplace across the British Isles (it all started here of course folks). Thanks again to John Crispin for his shot of a great white egret searching for morsels along the reed edge:

Another bird sure to spread it's range and potentially quite quickly is the cattle egret. Large numbers of this bird are being seen each day now with birds roosting around local reserves (including Ham Wall) each night and during the day in big flocks in local fields. Between Westhay and Mudgeley is common and often out towards Burtle. I counted over 300 in a field recently whilst numbers of up to 370 have been recorded by other local birders. Potentially other birds have also been seen at Chew Valley and other local sites. It is therefore possible that the Somerset count could be over 400 - amazing. 

John Crispin took this shot a few days ago close to Ham Wall. Thanks John:

Starlings are still roosting on Ham Wall of course but some nights seem to be split into separate groups. Some in front of VP1, some behind in Waltons but reports of birds at Shapwick Heath and an isolated section we manage away from the reserve. Be prepared that they may well move locations. It is often at this time of year they begin to use Shapwick Heath more regularly, so things may change. Information here about visiting the roost: https://bit.ly/HMWStarlings2122 

If people are planning a visit of any kind the the reserve be aware that the road between Ashcott and Ham Wall in closed for a 13 week period. As it stands up to April 1st. Access will be from the Meare end only. There is a "road closed ahead" sign here too but this is beyond the reserve so you can pass through from this end. 

VP1 is not quite the spectacle it was as water levels continue to rise. There must have been close to 2000 Lapwing here before Christmas and numerous snipe. Small pockets are still holding on on the higher parts of islands not yet fully covered. We have brought the levels up as we are trying to drown out some of the reed here to make a more sparse and open area which will then gradually regenerate over time. This should make the area more diverse at it changes over time. 

We will be trying to compensate for the lack of splashy areas in front of VP1 by bringing water levels down in front of VP2. This will happen slowly and probably not start until next week once this band of rain has passed through. 

There are good numbers of wildfowl over in Waltons with notable numbers of shoveler in particular and plenty of coot to add a bit of noise and action - with fights and territorial disputes occasionally breaking out. Thanks to John Crispin for his shot of a shoveler taken recently along with a close up of its comb like bill:

  

Shoveler feed on tiny crustaceans, other water invertebrates and seeds, which they filter out with comb like projections called lamellae along the edge of the bill. It's the same principle as baleen whales. 

Within Waltons you will also find: great crested grebe, moorhen, mallard, tufted duck, gadwall, teal, wigeon and the male ring necked duck which is still present. Search on the west side of Waltons amongst the tufted duck. It does look slightly different but generally the ring around the bill is the main giveaway if you are unsure. 

Pintail have also been present on occasions. Certainly a small number just before Christmas (those photographed) but 19 were spotted flying out of Waltons on Monday morning. Thanks to John Crispin for his pintail snaps:

You can often see a fair selection of birds after a scout around the car park and a short walk down the main path. Monday saw quite large flocks of mainly siskin (40-50) with a few redpoll thrown in. Good numbers of goldfinch and flocks of long tailed tits too as well as mixed tit flocks. 

Bullfinch (both male and female reported along with treecreeper, siberian chiffchaff, a male blackcap, regular chiffchaff, great spotted woodpecker, goldcrest (no firecrest reported directly to me yet but one was on the sightings board at the car park close to VP2 - keep looking), singing blackbird and song thrush and plenty of friendly robins. They were forming a queue as we stood at VP1 yesterday - obviously grabbing a few crumbs from visitors. 

At the car park and mini marshes this week: coal tit, raven flying over, greylags in flight, redwing and a green woodpecker in the min marshes area around the ponds and small copse.

Also on the reserve this week: Marsh harriers daily with the Avalon Hide the best spot usually but often from either platform, a barn owl was also spotted sitting out in the sun - yes there was a little - but unfortunately I have no location - great to know they are there though (the mess in the Avalon Hide suggests as much too). A sparrowhawk from the Tor View Hide early this week along with a peregrine from VP1, bearded tits spotted from the Tor View Hide and on the way to the Avalon Hide, roe deer spotted up the side of the wood almost opposite the old rail bridge, a bat (unknown species) feeding happily on Sunday morning and plenty of little grebes in and around the Loxtons section - thanks to John Crispin for his lovely photo:

That's it for this week but I will leave you with some information of some upcoming events on the reserve: 

“We’re running a range of events to celebrate Big Garden Bird Watch from a walk to help you learn to identify your garden birds to a bird feeder making craft session and a trail to learn about the names we used to call our garden birds in Somerset from bumtowels to dippity-washity.

For more information and book your place go to: https://events.rspb.org.uk/hamwall

To find out more about the Big Garden Bird Watch and join us in counting your garden, from your balcony or in your local park for one hour between 28 and 30 January 2022 visit https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/

Anonymous