The Avalon Marshes through the Seasons
Spring This is the most exciting season for birding on the marshes, as breeding birds return from their winter quarters in Africa. The frenzy to attract a mate and establish territories means that usually secretive birds become easy to see. Bitterns ‘boom’ early in the morning, Marsh Harriers ‘skydance’ overhead, and Cetti’s and Grasshopper Warbler inch their way up to the top of bushes as they pour out their song. Many other species that do not actually breed here can be seen as they stopover to feed and rest during their long journeys. Common and Arctic Terns fish the lagoons, a Wood Sandpiper might join a squabbling flock of Black-tailed Godwits, a wandering Red Kite drifts overhead and Hobbys pursue dragonflies across the skies. This is the time to look out for rarities that have overshot, or got disorientated on the way their breeding grounds. In recent springs vagrants as varied as Black Stork, Lesser Yellowlegs and Gull-billed Tern have made surprise appearances. Other wildlife starts to emerge from it's winter dormancy too, the rare Hairy Dragonfly being the first of the dragonflies to appear.
Summer The marshes are truly alive at this time of year, with the breeding season in full swing. Herons, Bitterns and Egrets are constantly back and forth over the reedbeds bringing food to their hungry chicks, the air positively hums with dragonflies, and the meadows are awash with the colour of wildflowers. This is the best time to look for butterflies, including rare woodland species such as the White Admiral. In recent years, the Avalon Marshes have hosted the only British breeding Great White and Cattle Egrets, and Little Bittern. Hopes are high every summer for yet another new species to set up home in Somerset! On adjacent woodlands and moors, scarce migrants such as Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers nest in secluded valleys, and Nightjars venture out onto the heaths after dark.
Autumn The season of change and variety. After a (hopefully!) successful breeding season, we wave goodbye to our summer visitors, though many stay to enjoy our comparatively mild winters, and welcome the winter visitors. Like Spring, this is a good time to look for migrants passing through. Ospreys are becoming an increasingly regular visitor, and some individuals stay for several weeks before moving on. Black Terns and Little Gulls hawk for flies over the lakes, a Spotted Crake might sneak into view between clumps of sedge, and waders take advantage of the lower water levels to feed on exposed mud. The high number birds moving south across Europe, boosted by the years young, leads to a good chance of an off-course rarity dropping in.
Winter The breeding birds may have moved South for the winter, but the marshes certainly don’t become any quieter. The most famous visitors are of course the Starlings, with several million birds coming to roost in the reedbeds each evening, mesmering spectators with their sheer numbers and if you're lucky, a breathtaking murmuration. Every year, over 100,000 waterbirds come to the Somerset Levels for the winter, including internationally important numbers of Mute Swan, Wigeon, Pintail, Teal, Shoveler, Golden Plover and Lapwing. There are usually scarcer species around too, such as Smew, Black-necked Grebe and Whooper Swan, you really need to know where to look to see these delights. The sheer abundance of birds draws in avian predators, which have moved down from their upland breeding areas. Merlin dash across fields after finches and pipits, Peregrines circle the sky looking for a stray duck to stoop down on, and a few ghostly male Hen Harriers glide low across the marshes hoping to surprise something tasty.
The Somerset Levels, though always 'wet' to some degree, have a chequered history in regard to their value for wetland wildlife. Once a vast marshland teeming with life, a period of intense exploitation initiated by the Romans saw drainage, agriculture and peat extraction taking their toll and forcing wildlife to a few tiny refuges, and in many cases to local extinction. A concentrated conservation effort involving the recreation of rare habitats and the restoration of damaged sites has seen the region regain many lost species, and the Levels have reclaimed their position as one of the premier wildlife watching destinations in the UK.
The Avalon Marshes, a low plain stretching from Glastonbury to the Bristol Channel have seen particular benefit from this conservation initiative. Disused peat extraction workings have been landscaped, planted and re-flooded, and have developed into a stunning wetland. Reedbed, wet grazing marshes, Alder and Willow Carr, shallow and deep lakes and pools combine to form a habitat attractive to a great range of wildlife, from algae and tiny invertebrates through to Otters and Cranes. It is here on this wonderful complex of nature reserves that I focus my guiding.
Great White Egret