Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Pratting About at Ham Wall

After my successful butterfly outing last week I was more or less assuming that things would be rather quiet for a while until autumn proper kicked off. However at the start of this week the finding of a Collard Pratincole at Ham Wall RSPB in Somerset got my attention as it's a bird that I've not yet seen in the UK. What's more Ham Wall isn't too far away at around 2.5 hours so it was certainly on the radar. It seemed to be being reported regularly throughout the whole of Monday so when I found myself finishing off all my work tasks for the day first thing on Tuesday morning, a bijou tripette to the south west seemed suitable reward and I duly set off at around 9:40 a.m. arriving as predicted some two and a half hours later after an uneventful journey. I parked up in the new car park, admiring the wealth of wild flowers that have been planted there and got tooled up. The weather forecast had been threatening showers so in the end I packed a rucksack with extra waterproof clothing which, along with my scope & tripod and also my bins and cameras and packed lunch meant that I was rather over-burdened as I headed off. Near the start of the path I met with an RSPB volunteer who informed me that the bird was showing well and he also told me where to go for the singing Little Bitterns which were also present on the reserve. When I asked about dragonflies he told me of all the different species that they had there including Keeled Skimmer and Scarce Chaser which I was rather impressed by. He even mentioned that someone had reported seeing a Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly in the pools behind the car park which very much piqued my interest and I made a mental note to allow some time to take a closer look after I'd seen the birds.

I yomped off as best I could given all I was carrying and soon met up with a birder from Bath who was heading the same way. We got talking and since my VLW and I idly discuss the idea of moving further west from time to time, I was asking him about good birding spots in the area. He seemed happy enough with what was available though he didn't reveal any great birding secrets that I didn't already know of. After about 15 or so minutes of walking, with just a fly-over Hobby of interest, we came to the second viewing screen. Here, much to my delight, the Pratincole was immediately on view, hawking back and forth over the pool on the opposite side of the Gloucester Canal and showing very nicely. It was in amongst a small flock of Swifts and with its rakish shape and long forked tail it very much looked like an over-sized Hirundine of some sort. It's tail streamers were nice and long and it had an obvious contrast between the paler back and coverts compared to the darker flight feathers though against the light sky it wasn't so easy to pick out the chestnut underwing or the white trailing edge to the secondaries.

The favoured pool
Twitchers watching the Pratincole
I attempted to take a photograph though bridge cameras aren't particularly good at flight shots and I soon gave up.

My puny efforts

An amazing photo of the bird taken by Timothy White (c). For more fantastic photos see his great blog
The bird seemed to have a pattern of flying around for a bit before settling down on a favoured bund which unfortunately was mostly obscured behind some inconvenient rushes though I did manage to scope it on the ground on one or two occasions. In addition to the star turn there were a couple of Great White Egrets knocking around and I managed to spot an in-flight Bittern in the distance. I'd been told that there were a pair of Glossy Ibis about though there was no sign of them presently. I enjoyed several more views of the Pratincole flying around regularly and in the warm afternoon weather it was all very pleasant. After a while I decided to move on to see what was happening at the Little Bittern location and duly set off, munching a sandwich as I went.

It was fairly obvious where the Little Bitterns were located as, after a walk of about 10 or 15 minutes, I came across a large crowd (at least as large as those watching the Pratincole) all intently staring at the reed beds. I could hear one Little Bittern barking in the distance and tried to take some video though unfortunately the song was barely audible. Apparently, the last sighting had been at 7:30 a.m. despite the number of people all watching there so it was clearly a hard job actually to see one and as I'd already seen one in the UK (here at Ham Wall as it happened when they bred a few years ago) I decided not to hang around but instead headed back towards the Pratincole at the second viewing platform.

I arrived back to find that the Pratincole was on one of its rest breaks but that the two Glossy Ibis were now on show which was a nice bonus and I took a few record snaps.

The two Glossy Ibis
Having now seen or at least heard all the rarities on offer (Pratincole, Great White Egret, Little Bittern and Glossy Ibis) I decided to head back to the car park to dump most of my stuff and then spend my remaining time rummaging around the car park ponds to see if I could find these Scarce Blue-tailed Damsels. On the way I took snaps of any interesting flowers though much of the flora was starting to look rather tired: the plentiful Hemlock was going over, to be replaced by Hogweed and there was quite a bit of Tufted Vetch and Meadow Vetchling in amongst the Nettles and I found a few Marsh Woundwort dotted about here and there.

Tufted Vetch

Marsh Woundwort

When I was almost back at the car I bumped into Dave Chown, whom I know well from my autumn Cornish birding trips. He was there to pay homage to the first Collard Pratincole in Somerset since 1858 and we chatted amiably for a while before going out separate ways. Back at the car I dumped most of my gear and headed back to check out the ponds. There were three small ponds, two which had quite a few reeds and one which was more open. There were loads of dragonflies buzzing around, mostly on the open one with several Emperors, a Brown Hawker, loads of Four-spotted Chasers, a few Black-tailed Skimmers and Common Darters all to be seen. The ponds were nice and small and there was easy access along the sides and I decided that it was one of the nicest spots I've visited for Odonata'ing. I busied myself taking snaps of the various dragonflies.

Ovipositing female Brown Hawker
Common Darter

Ovipositing female Emperor

Four-spotted Chaser
Another Four-spot

There were loads of these small Perez's Frogs along the banks - an introduction from the continent

Branched Bur-reed

Water Plantain
Despite all the wonderful dragonflies, one of the reasons why I was there was to look for rarer Damselflies. There were modest numbers of Damsels around, mostly Blue-tailed with some Common Blues in amongst them. 

Blue-tailed Damselfly
In my search for Scarce BT's was very much focused in on the blue markings of the tail and finally thought that I'd found one until I looked at the eyes and realised that it was a Red-eyed type. Later when some other enthusiasts arrived they pointed out that rather than Red-eyed it was actually a Small Red-eyed and now that they mentioned it the eye colour was different and there was indeed the diagnostic different pattern to the tail segments that had got me thinking of Scarce Blue-tailed in the first place.

Small Red-eyed Damselfly
I'd soon got several other people interested in looking for the Scarce Blue-tailed Damsels and someone took a photo of what they though might be one and as we all crowded around looking at the back of the camera it did indeed look good though now that I think about it back home I think that it too was a Small Red-eyed. Despite a good deal of searching on my part I couldn't turn up anything that wasn't just a regular Blue-tailed and in the end I had to admit defeat and I headed back to the car. Still I couldn't really complain: I'd got a new UK bird tick, seen three other scarce birds and indulged in a great bit of Odonata'ing. I fired up the Gnome mobile and headed back on the long slog towards Oxfordshire, arriving back at around 5:30 for my usual celebratory cup of tea. It had been another great day out.

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