It’s been rather chilly this week at Ham Wall and we even had some sleet here yesterday, while some dedicated volunteers actually drove through snow to get here for their work party.  Steve C has been busy working for our colleagues at RSPB Greylake with the Softrak machine this week so I’m taking over the blog again and in fact it’s a double takeover! 

If you’re a regular reader and/or if you’ve ever visited Ham Wall you’ll have realised that we are the place to come if you want to see a great white egret or two, or three or more.  The Avalon Marshes is pretty much awash with them!  And along with our partner organisations Natural England (NE) and Somerset Wildlife Trust (SWT) we keep a close eye on what these birds are up to, through staff and volunteers on the ground as well as with our drone flown by trained and experienced volunteers.  We find out how many nests there are and where, and how many chicks fledge.  This year our colony fledged 31 chicks which is completely amazing – no wonder great white egrets are popping up all over the country!  To add to the excitement, when possible we ring the chicks to find out how the colony moves around.  Here I’ll hand over to Alison Morgan, lead ringer, for more information on this exciting project and a request for your input.

Great White Egrets on the Avalon Marshes – can you help?

Here on the Avalon Marshes we are proud to host the UK’s first great white egret colony. The birds first bred here in 2012, and since 2016 we have been running a colour ringing project to help us monitor, understand and support this new breeding species. Can you help us by keeping an eye out for the ringed birds?

The colour ringing project

Each year we visit a small number of nests by kayak, ringing on average just three or four birds per year. Each chick is given both a metal BTO ring and a red and white plastic ring with an individual three letter code, so far all starting with AA.  The colour ring is worn on the upper left leg and can be clearly seen in these photos by Andrew Kirby and John Crispin. 

All of the colour ringed birds have been seen out and about since fledging. We have had many sightings from locations around Somerset and Gloucestershire, but it is usual for young birds to disperse widely in their first couple of years, and some have been reported from much further afield. The two birds ringed in 2017 caught the first west wind to Kent, turning up at Sandwich Bay and Dungeness just two or three weeks after leaving the nest. The birds ringed in 2018 have been seen in Gloucestershire, Warwickshire and Hampshire.

As the population grows, great white egrets are being seen all over the country, especially in the autumn months, and breeding has now been reported from sites outside Somerset. At least one of the 2016 birds has returned to the Avalon Marshes to breed and experience elsewhere suggests that this is the normal pattern. But this species is new to the UK, so we really have no idea how far or fast they will spread, and whether they will come back here or establish new breeding colonies elsewhere.

GWE sightings autumn 2017 (Birdtrack)

Follow that bird

AAC was ringed at Ham Wall in May 2016 and identified from a feather sample as a male. He was regularly seen on the Avalon Marshes (Ham Wall and over the road on Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve (NNR)) during the next year, but by November 2017 had headed over to Chew Valley Lake. In May 2018 he came back to Ham Wall, moving on after a couple of weeks to Shapwick where he successfully paired and nested in a small willow tree. Three chicks hatched in early July; all successfully fledged.

AAF was ringed at Ham Wall in June 2016. In September he was reported from Shapwick and then from Durleigh Reservoir (Bridgwater). In October he visited Chew Valley Lake and then Blagdon Lake, and in December he was seen at Clevedon and then back at Chew. In May 2017 he returned to the Avalon Marshes for the summer, heading back to Chew in September and staying there for the next couple of months. In February he paid a visit to SWE Catcott Lows, and by March was back at Ham Wall, where a brief nesting attempt failed. He then headed back to Chew in the autumn.

AAH and AAJ were ringed at Ham Wall in May 2017. AAH (female) was reported from Dungeness from July through to October, and again on a single occasion in October 2018. We do not know whether she stayed at Dungeness throughout that year and we have had no sightings this year. AAJ (male) went to Sandwich Bay in July and August 2017.

AAL was ringed at Ham Wall in May 2018. July saw this bird in WWT Slimbridge, early September in Frampton, and late September at Brandon Marsh, Coventry.

Can you help?

This year saw a remarkable 13 pairs nesting successfully in the Avalon Marshes. All these nests were in locations which made observation difficult and ringing impossible, so we do not know if any of the adults were colour ringed birds from previous years.

It would be extremely helpful to have more information about the current movements of our ringed birds and autumn is the best time to look for this species. So if you see a ringed great white egret, please do report it to us! You can let the Ali from the RSPB Ham Wall team know at alison.blaney@rspb.org.uk or email Alison Morgan, lead ringer, at ajm@alisonmorgan.co.uk. If you are able to read the three white letters on the red leg ring, we will be happy to let you know when and where the bird was ringed. Every sighting adds to our knowledge base for this new UK species.

Thank you!

Alison Morgan

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Habitat management

Thanks Alison for your blog!  In other news this week, work has continued on our replacement viewing platforms, kindly funded by Viridor Credits and they are really starting to take shape now.  The timber structures are appearing and looking good, as seen below in the photo from Site Manager Steve Hughes.  More work to be done but hopefully they will be ready for use soon.

Viewing platform two

Reed cutting has been continuing on the reserve. Steve H and I finished the island opposite Tor View Hide and started in an area known as New Ground Square in the north east of the reserve. The work parties were out in these locations carrying on with reed work as well as fence clearance and repairs. Further work was carried out on the willow eel in the mini marshes and we’re hoping to finish this off as soon as possible and get it re-opened. Finally some car park potholes were filled (thanks volunteer Pete W!) but plenty more to do when we get a chance.

 

Recent sightings

With the cold and blustery weather of this week visitors may have been a little thin on the ground but those brave enough to head out have still had some nice sightings.  On Saturday a few lucky visitors spotted a short-eared owl near the Avalon Hide, hunting over Phase 2 between the two viewing platforms. Wendy Bartlam from Hedgehog and Garden Bird Rescue (Staffordshire) sent us some lovely photos – thanks Wendy!  Also over the weekend a green-winged teal was seen from the second viewing platform.

Short-eared owl

Steve H and I enjoyed watching the marsh harriers taking on the gusty winds on Monday, they seem to relish the challenge of hunting in these conditions and seemed to throw in some acrobatics just for the joy of flying!  Look out for three different birds at the moment: a 2nd calendar year male, a female and a juvenile – test your ID skills!

You can also test your observation skills and look for snipe hiding in the cut reed on the islands in Waltons West, south of the first viewing platform. John Crispin managed to photograph some peeking out!

Common snipe

Common snipe

You can still see around the viewing platforms under construction and into Looks Low and Phase 1. Looks Low has a good selection of wildfowl with teal, gadwall, mallard, tufted duck and wigeon out there, along with shoveler, as seen in John Crispin’s great photo below of three birds in flight. A good number of lapwing are also hanging out in Looks Low with 200 or so at times. These can be visible from other areas when something puts them into the air!

Shoveler in flight

Wildfowl on Looks Low

Stonechat seem to be following us around wherever we are doing reed work at the moment and John Crispin managed to get a lovely photo of one from the first viewing platform area with what looks like a caterpillar.

Stonechat

Little grebe are visible on most areas of open water, when they have popped up from feeding.  Bearded tits have been seen and heard between the two viewing platforms and we had reports of a very late swallow yesterday, no doubt heading south as fast as it can fly with the weather we’ve been having!  A good number of fieldfare flew over the car park on Wednesday, listen out for the distinctive chuckling call as they fly. Also listen for the 'zeeping' of redwing as they fly overhead and don’t forget to look out for blackcap, chiffchaff and goldcrest along with robin, blackbird, chaffinch and wren of course.

Black-tailed godwits were out on Looks Low this morning and John managed to get 10 of the 11 seen into the same photo below - thanks for all your photos this week John. I heard bullfinch calling on the canal bank side so look out for those, always a lovely splash of colour on a grey day. An otter was also reported this morning at 0745 in Waltons West!

Black-tailed Godwits

Finally, starlings – we are up to approximately 40,000 and they have been splitting up a bit at roost time this week, with some going into Waltons West near the first viewing platform and some into Loxtons, the compartment to the east.

As Steve mentioned last week the Starling Hotline is up and running again - 07866 554142. This is a recorded message which tells you which reserve the starlings roosted on the night before and is updated as and when the starlings move location. It is a pretty good guide for where to go starling seeking but no guarantee as they can move! Sunset is around 16.23 at the moment and the advice is generally to arrive one hour before this to get into place and perhaps grab yourself a hot drink from the Welcome Building before heading out. We will try to have this manned each night until 16.00 to provide information. To get the most from your visit check out our top tips post here: http://bit.ly/HMWStarlings2019

Have a good weekend everyone!

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