Tuesday 26 March 2024

Avalon Awayday

Yesterday we enjoyed a guided tour of Somerset's Avalon Marshes, courtesy of friends who live in the area. It is hard to believe that this collection of reserves is mostly less than 30 years old. What was once an industrial wasteland of peat extraction is now home to a ridiculous number of quality marshland birds. A quick photographic summary of the day's highlights...

Great White Egrets are a common sight on the Avalon Marshes. This one has the black bill of a breeding-plumaged adult.

Hen Harriers are definitely not a common sight, especially pristine males like this one. Its close pass was totally unexpected, and I was way too slow with the camera. The first 'grey ghost' I have seen for many years.

Two Snipe, probably resting up until nightfall.

Drake Pintail. Always a winner.

Spotted Redshank at Catcott Lows. Sheltering from the wind, it was almost always partially hidden by tufts of sedge etc.

Spotshank is quite a scarce bird locally. Occasional on the Axe Estuary and marshes, but I have yet to see one in West Dorset.

Great White Egret, sporting the more familiar yellow bill.

Marsh Hariers were everywhere; frequently there would be more than one on view at a time.

Another Marsh Harrier...

...and Marsh Harrier again, a 2nd-summer male I think.

This pair of Ring-necked Ducks was accompanied by two other females. Haven't seen many of these locally either. Well, none actually.

We had a great day out. The accompanying soundtrack of booming Bittern was a regular reminder that we were somewhere special. At one point, a tight flock of 50+ Cattle Egrets whisked distantly past like a tattered sheet in the wind. Totally surreal!

Back to reality today, and a local lunchtime walk. A couple of West Dorset buntings...

Lovely male Yellowhammer.

Female Cirl Bunting, showing rump nicely.

In order to separate female Cirl Bunting from female Yellowhammer, field guides helpfully point out that you should be looking for an olive-grey rump. In the photo above, the bird certainly has an olive-grey rump, but it clearly has warm, chestnut upper tail coverts too. I've only checked two field guides (the ubiquitous and excellent Collins Guide, plus the oldie-but-goodie MacMillan Field Guide to Bird Identification) but the Cirl Bunting illustrations in both depict a totally olive-grey area from tail to lower back, including the upper tail coverts. When a birder relatively unfamiliar with the species (like I was a couple of years ago) comes across a putative female Cirl, I guess it might be a bit discouraging to see a bunch of chestnut feathers where the Collins Guide is telling you there shouldn't be any. All I can say is: don't be put off.

Finally, there were three Wheatears. So of course there's a photo...


  1. A day on Sedgemoor is always a pleasure Gav, the reserves are flush with life and every trip is a joy. That Hen Harrier was a bonus, I never saw one of them in my Somerset years. Your golden touch follows you everywhere.

    1. To be fair, our friends had mentioned Hen Harrier as a slim possibility, but they too were shocked at the sight of a glorious male! I'm sure my presence had absolutely nothing to do with it! 😄