Wednesday, 25 February 2015

How to go birdwatching in Somerset

If you're a keen birdwatcher, you'll probably already know that the south west of the country is one of the best places to spot our feathered friends. In fact, the National Trust describes the region as a "mecca" for them.

In Somerset there are birdwatching opportunities all year round, but the spring and autumn migrations are by far the most exciting times of the year to see a variety of bird species, from starlings and sparrowhawks to wood warblers and wagtails.

You don't need to go anywhere particularly special to spot birds in Somerset, but there are some parts of the county where you get a really special, close-up and uninterrupted view, and the Somerset Levels and Moors are most definitely among them.

This vast coastal and wetland plain covers around 160,000 acres and consists of marine clay levels and peat-based moors that support a vast array of wildlife, including numerous bird species.

The Levels and Moors are home to the largest lowland population of breeding wading birds, with around 60 cranes living wild in the area and fitted with small radio transmitters so that their movements can be monitored.

Cranes were a common sight in UK wetland areas more than 400 years ago, but they were sadly wiped out by hunting. Fortunately breeding programmes are seeing them reintroduced and these magnificent creatures can be viewed on a Crane Safari organised by the Great Crane Project.

Starling mumurations can also be witnessed on the Somerset Levels and Moors in autumn and winter as these pretty little birds flock together to create huge and spectacular aerial displays.

There are a number of nature reserves dotted around this area, but Westhay Moor, Shapwick Heath and RSPB Ham Wall are three of the best for starling spotting. To find out exactly where the starlings are during your visit to Somerset, simply call the Avalon Marshes Starling Hotline on 07866 554142.

The Levels and Moors are also a great place to hear the unique 'booming' call of the bittern. These rare birds - a member of the heron family - have been making a remarkable comeback across Somerset in recent years and are doing very well in the Avalon Marshes.

Due to their secretive nature, they are difficult to spot, but if you are lucky you might hear the male as he attempts to attract a female during the breeding season.

Other species
There are numerous other species of birds to be seen across the Levels and Moors from season to season. In spring, look out for mute swans, lapwings, skylarks and reed buntings, and in summer keep your eyes peeled for buzzards, kestrels and little egrets.

As autumn arrives, you may be able to spot kingfishers, green sandpipers and - if you're lucky - peregrines, while winter brings with it large flocks of wigeons, teals, mallards and occasionally shovelers, gadwalls and pintails.

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Starlings picture credit: RSPB