Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Sultry Somerset

I'd been keeping an eye on reports from Somerset of late. The breeding Little Bitterns there at Ham Wall RSPB had piqued my interest but this fact on it's own wasn't quite enough to entice me westwards. However, whilst idly reading the Collard Hill Large Blue blog I realised that the two sites were very close to each other and this dual attraction was enough to tip the balance for an official Gnome outing. With the plan hatched I had been meaning to go Wednesday of last week but work and tiredness between them contrived to intervene so it wasn't until Monday morning that operation Blue Bittern got underway. Given how hot it was going to be, I probably should have got up much earlier than my chosen 6am time in order to do as much as possible before the full heat of the day but I find that too early a start  leaves me too tired to enjoy the day properly. Thus it was that at about 9:30 I arrived at Ham Wall RSPB and parked up.

The last time that I'd been there had been in March this year when I stopped off en route to Cornwall for the Pied Grebe. The contrast in the weather could not be more complete: whereas then we were in the grips of an unusually cold and prolonged winter complete with an icy wind, today it was full-on sunshine, a hazy blue sky with just the lightest of breezes to take the edge off the heat. As I walked down the path Chiffchaffs were singing away merrily and there was a buzz of summer insects in the air. I had been thinking that the Little Bittern Watch Point referred to in the regular RBA news reports would be some kind of boardwalk or screen affair but in reality it turned out just to be a bloke on a ladder next to a portable sign about Little Bitterns.

The Watch Point

An enquiry of the official observer on the ladder revealed that there'd been eight sightings so far that morning in about two and a half hours so with any luck I shouldn't have too long to wait. I set up my scope though soon realised that it wasn't going to be much use. Apparently the flight views were brief so getting a good bin view was going to be the best I could hope for. I started watching the reedbed intently with the dozen or so other birders there. 

I soon started to appreciate just how hot it was - it was sweltering. A Common Tern flew by, offering some distraction and a couple of Cormorants did an overhead circuit. I adopted the tactic of leaning on my scope and not moving at all in order to keep cool, all the time keeping my eyes fixed on the reedbed in front of us. Periodically the breeze would start up to take the edge off things but it was really roasting. A Kingfisher was spotted nearby on a branch by the water and a Great White Egret flew over. A Eurasian Bittern flew over the reeds - nice but not the Bittern we were looking for. Somehow, despite the temperature I managed to keep my gaze fixed purposefully on the reedbed before us.

The Little Bittern Reedbed

Suddenly I spotted something which flew up from the reeds and over into the central channel. I only saw it for a fraction of a second but the pale shoulder marks were unmistakably those of a Little Bittern. It had been all been over so quickly that I hadn't even had time to call it out before it was gone. I carried on watching and the sun carried on beating down. About ten minutes later I picked up a Little Bittern again, this time flying just above the reeds away from us. I called it out and everyone managed to get on it. We watched it as it sped to the back of the reedbed and dropped down to where the nest was apparently located - it had all been over in about 10 seconds. The chap next to me who'd arrived just before me, thanked me profusely for spotting the bird - he'd been worried that he wasn't going to see it. Well, that was probably going to be as good a view as I was going to get. Thinking about what to do next I was all too aware that Badger, who'd been there yesterday for the Little Bitterns and who'd then gone on to Collard Hill (at my suggestion), had dipped the Large Blue butterflies in the afternoon. Like birds, butterflies prefer the mornings too so rather than hang around getting roasted for a few more brief views I decided to stick with my two sightings and head back to the car. This would then give me a more time with the butterflies in the late morning before the day got even hotter.

It was a very quick ten minute drive to get to the Collard Hill car park by the Street youth hostel where some helpful signs soon guided me to the hill itself. En route I met a few departing butterfly'ers who all reported having had several sightings of the elusive Large Blue though in the heat they were mostly fly-by's rather than settled sightings. The hill turned out to be a steep, south-facing chalk hillside with some light scrub and relatively short grass interspersed with lovely wild flowers.

Collard Hill

There were perhaps ten or so other people there dotted about the place and I kept half an eye on them all the time in case they started looking like they were photographing something. After a while I came across a couple of elderly gents getting in position ready to try and photograph a sitting Large Blue. For some reason the chap was insisting on a point-blank macro shot and unfortunately the butterfly was disturbed and flew off before anyone could get a photo. Still, at least I'd seen one. I wandered all the way to the east end and then started to head back. I soon came across a gaggle of butterfly'ers all gathered around what turned out to be a mating pair of Large Blues. The butterflies were so engrossed in their amorous activities that they were completely oblivious to their observers and everyone was able to have a go at some photos. A third Large Blue even flew in and tried to join in briefly before flying off. As far as the photography was concerned there was the usual problem with the autofocus but with a large F stop and by locking on something of similar distance I managed to get a few in-focus shots.

Mating Large Blues

Having accomplished my mission I started to amble back towards the car park, stopping en route by a chap was trying to photograph something. It turned out to be a pair of mating Crescent Plume moths, a common species though a new one for me personally.

Mating Crescent Plume Moths

On the way back to the car park I got chatting to another butterfly'er who turned out to be from St Austell in Cornwall. We got talking and when I said that I was from Oxford he mentioned his Cornish friend who'd driven all the way up there for the Black Hairstreaks recently. Of course it turned out that he was talking about John Chapple, whom I'd met up with that day at Bernwood Forest for the Black Hairstreaks - what a small world!

Back at the car I hungrily devoured my packed lunch before firing up the Gnome-mobile and heading back home, arriving back at Chateau Gnome about 3pm. Another successful mission accomplished and some good stuff seen on a hot and sultry summer's day.

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