It’s always risky booking a British winter holiday. The weather can turn icy, sometimes snowy, even in the midlands or south. As it turned out, the weather was mild and sunny as I set off on the three hour drive to Wells, Somerset, for a two day bird watching trip. The hope was to see murmurations of starlings. Videos and photos I’d seen in the past, of hundreds of thousands of birds swirling through the evening sky before setting in group roosts, had made me keen to see the spectacle for myself. The Somerset levels are one of the best places for this sight in Great Britain.
The first part of the journey was motorway, all rather straightforward. Once I was in Somerset, the SatNav took me through winding country roads. I recalled a long ago visit to Cornwall with my mother. She was used to the wide roads of the USA. ‘What does that traffic sign mean?’ she asked at one point. ‘Road narrows,’ I told her. She went slightly pale. ‘This narrow road narrows? I’m going to close my eyes. Tell me when we’re past this section.’
I pulled into the car park at our hotel, The Swan, in Wells, just after 2pm. I checked in, dumped my case into my room, and headed out to visit the nearby cathedral. Sunshine and lack of wind made the day feel more like September than February.
I wandered inside and admired the ancient building. Wells is named after the natural wells which still bubble up in the garden of the Bishop’s Palace. Four million gallons of water flow from them every day, albeit now under ground rather than charging down the high street.
Construction on the present cathedral began around 1175, north of the old Minster Church. Wells Cathedral was the first in England to be built in the Gothic style. The West Front and the interior of the Nave are almost unaltered. In the Middle Ages, the stone was painted with many different colours. Hard to imagine how that would have looked.
After wandering around the city for a while, I returned to the hotel. As I went to drop some purchases off in my car, a minibus was reversing into the space to my car’s left. I stood back until the driver had finished, not wanting to distract him. As he emerged, I saw that he was wearing a fleece of Naturetrek, the company with which I had booked the short trip. Nick introduced himself and we agreed that, had he scraped my car, it would have been a bad start to the holiday!
At 6.30pm the group gathered for a briefing by Matt and Nick about the next two days. I was relieved that most people were interested in birds but not to the extent of having life lists or wanting to see something rare. We expressed a common interest in seeing murmurations.
A three course meal awaited us in the hotel’s dining room. I slaked my thirst with a rather nice amber ale called Gem, from Bath Ales. At only 4.1% alcohol level, I was certain my head would still be in good shape the next morning.
A rather too warm bedroom over night. I run a very cold house, so when I’m somewhere using central heating, I find it hard to sleep. I turned down the radiator when I rose.
Breakfast was lovely full English, although I declined the black pudding. The staff did seem to be confused as to whom had ordered what, with several attempts needed to bring out plates with the right items.
We boarded our minibuses at 8.30am and headed out. A light drizzle gave way to lovely winter light as we reached our first destination, RSPB Greylake. We saw some roe deer in the distance before going into the reserve. One sharp-eyed member spotted a water rail under riverside bushes. Our guide put a scope on the bird, and we watched as the rail pulled meat from a dead frog. A rather grisly but still fascinating start to the walk. Soon afterwards, a merlin landed in tree.
A rare waterfowl, the Baikal teal, had been spotted on the reserve, and quite a few birders were out hoping to see it. The teal was well hidden, it seemed, in the midst of the other birds. We were treated to a several flyovers by flocks of lapwings, the sun catching in the white of their bellies and wings. A pair of juvenile swans carried out synchronized preening and a robin came over to watch us. Most of the ducks on the nearby pond were sleeping. A buzzard posed on a fence post.
We headed off, stopping to admire some common cranes. As is often the case with such birds, even with my big lens they would have been no more than a speck on a photo. I satisfied myself with admiring them through the guide’s scope.
We next visited RSPB Swell Woods. Our guide explained that, in oak forests such as this, the oaks were too close to each other to do the classic spreading out seen when a solitary oak has a field to itself. Instead, the oaks grow tall and straight, only spreading out much higher up. This gave the sort of wood needed for ship’s masts and other timber uses, which is why so few such forests remain.
We saw many small birds, such as coal, blue, and great tits, as well as treecreepers and a spotted woodpecker. I was particularly pleased to take a good photo of a wren. I know wrens are quite common, but I’ve never photographed one before. We walked into the woods, and admired distant views of common crane.
Lunch was at an old pub with flagstone floors. Only one real ale was on offer, Otter Amber. It made for a decent drink. I only had a half pint to avoid nodding off after lunch.
Near the pub was Burrow Mump. We climbed up the hill, not quite to the ruin of the 18th century church at the top. A nearby house had set up a bonfire, which our guide blamed for the lack of bird life to be seen. The views were quite extensive, although rather dull, as clouds had taken over the sky.
A longer drive took us to our final destination, Shapwick Heath. We joined a large number of people gathered in hopes of seeing starling murmurations. I watched a woman push along a pram holding a small dog, and my first reaction was pity for an over pampered pooch. But once I looked closer, I saw that the dog was ancient and obviously suffering from various ailments. Discussion with the woman revealed that her elderly pet found it difficult to walk, so she transported him in the pram so he could still enjoy fresh air and new surroundings.
Shortly after 5pm we gave up and headed back to the car park. The starlings had moved on to a different location. We drove back to the hotel, gathering later for our meal and drinks from the bar. Our guide reminded us that we had the opportunity, the next morning, to head out before dawn with the idea of watching the starlings emerge in a mass from their night time roosts. But we’d be leaving at 6.30am. Anyone not at the minibuses by 6.30am would miss out…
A much cooler room led to a much better night’s sleep. 5.30am still felt a bit early for a holiday rise, but I forced myself out of bed and made a couple mugs of coffee.
Jolted by caffeine, I reported in good time for the pre-dawn excursion. Rain was falling, the sort of drizzle which simply feels like a waste of time. Either rain properly or not at all, that’s my opinion.
We drove to Shapwick Heath and headed down the path to the reed beds. It was quite a long trudge in semi-darkness and semi-rain. I concentrated on simply keeping up with the group and avoiding the worst of the puddles.
At dawn we halted. No sign of starlings. The birds had moved their roost in the night. As we headed back, we saw the flock streaming across the way we had come, around a half mile away. The sight brought new life to tiring legs, but of course the birds had finished their departure long before we came near them.
Back at the hotel, I changed into dry clothes and headed down for breakfast. The guides were sat at my table, looking a bit morose at the lack of starling success thus far. Others started talking about murmurations which they’d seen in their local areas. I caught the guide’s eye and said, ‘I’ve heard rumours that there are murmurations even on the Somerset levels.’ That got a good laugh.
At 10am we headed out. The skies had cleared to bright sunshine, clouds driven away by a cold wind which bit through our clothes. We drove along the levels, spotting swans and egrets of various kinds. A stop at a visitors’ centre yielded little in the way of birds but allowed for a bit of retail therapy at a store offering local crafts. At another reserve, we observed various ducks which, quite wisely, were sleeping the cold weather away. A predator caused a brief flurry of flock activity.
I had soup and a pint of local ale for lunch. Both warmed me in different ways. We headed back out into wind and sunshine, returning to Greylake. Once again we were looking for the Baikal teal. We talked about the ‘Where’s Wally’ books in which you had to locate, in a complicated drawing, a small man named ‘Wally.’ So the teal became called ‘Wally’ and we kept asking whether anyone had found him.
Wally was briefly spotted, but proved to be rather elusive. He would show his head, then disappear back under the cover of reeds or other ducks. Several snipe obliged by walking into open areas.
We made our way back to Shapwick Heath to once again try to spot starlings. The wind began to drop, which made the afternoon feel warmer. We walked down the same track which we’d followed before dawn, joining a gathering crowd of people hoping to see the sight for themselves.
Starlings did begin to fly in small groups, west to east. I had put my wide angle lens on to my second camera. This proved to be a triumph of hope over experience. The starlings did gather together in a large flock, but at a distance which required my telephoto lens. We had a good display of movement, not the classical view of high in the skies, but decent enough. I went over to Matt to congratulate him.
The sounds from the starlings rolled across the distance. The chatter of thousands of birds was like running water. It must have been nearly deafening to anyone closer by.
We returned to the minibuses and drove back to Wells. The guides let us out of the vehicles outside the hotel, and we said our goodbyes. A number of us had booked into the hotel for a third night, but the guides were driving home that evening.
Those of us who were left gathered for dinner. The conversation ranged from previous trips to politics and the royal family. As often happens. We all firmly expected that the world would look different in the morning, solely down to our efforts to put it right.
I was one of the first down to breakfast, taking my seat just after 7.30am. Others trickled down afterwards. Again I had a full English, minus black pudding, to see me through the morning.
After I’d packed up the car, I walked past the cathedral to visit Vicars’ Close. The Close was built over 650 years ago to house the Vicars Choral, who deputized for the Canons of the Cathedral in singing daily worship. Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury founded the college for Vicars Choral in 1348, and he wanted to house the young men away from the temptation of women and to provide them with communal facilities. After the Reformation vicars were allowed to marry, and some of the buildings were combined to provide more living space. Later on front gardens were added. Today the Close still houses Vicars Choral (now twelve members) as well as organists and virgers.
After taking a few photos, I returned to my car and started the three hour journey home. This time the SatNav took me through different back roads, including part of the city of Bath. I arrived home without incident and unpacked after an enjoyable short break.
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