Thursday 18 May 2023

United Kingdom - May 2023 : Part 2

16th May -

Having arrived in Somerset the day before to visit some family friends, we booked an Air B&B just up the road from where John lives. This allow us to start our birding days easier and also save John from having to drive all the way to the nearby town to pick us up. 

The village of Coleford was where we started our birding in Somerset, we started early that morning, it was still relatively cold to begin with. John picked us up and we were soon out of the car, walking to a spot for Dippers at his local patch. It didn't take long for us to locate one of the Dippers, however it was not the best of views. John told us we will return again later on to hopefully get a better view. I did saw a Treecreeper briefly, a Eurasian Nuthatch was also spotted.

Dipper habitat

White-throated Dipper

Eurasian Nuthatch

We wasted no time and drove towards the levels, where we made a brief stop to look at some nesting Grey Herons as well as a few Mute Swans by the road.

Grey Heron - pair at nest

Mute Swan

Our first proper birding spot was Ham Wall Nature Reserve, this RSPB reserve is one of the key wetland reserve on the Somerset levels. Soon after we got out of the car I spotted a Song Thrush which perched briefly for a photo. John pointed to a singing Willow Warbler on top of a tree. A friendly Robin came in, and with a little bird seeds it even landed on my dad's hand.

Song Thrush

Willow Warbler

European Robin

It took me a bit of effort to finally get a half decent photo of a Cetti's Warbler, their explosive songs can be heard in various habitats. A tree attracted some smaller birds, which turns out to be Garden Warblers as well as a Common Reed Warbler.

Cetti's Warbler

Common Reed Warbler

Garden Warbler

I was photographing a Great Cormorant drying its wings when John said he found a tern, I was expecting a Common Tern of some sort until I picked up my binoculars, turns out it was a Black Tern in breeding plumage! This was quite an unexpected find and one lifer that I did not expect to get on this trip! A Great Bittern also flew out briefly in the distant.

Great Cormorant

Black Tern - an unexpected lifer!

At the bird hide, a Great Crested Grebe was busy attending to its two chicks. A Western Marsh Harrier came through quite low, which gave excellent views in the morning sun. The most showy bird though was a singing Sedge Warbler, which was found singing on top of the reed in full view! On our way out we picked up a male Blackcap preening, which allowed us to get some decent photos of this usually skulking species.

Great Crested Grebe - with chicks

Western Marsh Harrier - male

Sedge Warbler

Blackcap - male

After that pretty good early morning walk, we headed to the Quantock Hills where we were to meet up with Brian Gibbs; the county recorder and a very experienced birder around the Quantocks. As soon as we met up with Brian he led us down an oak forest footpath and within a few minutes we were looking at a brilliant looking male Pied Flycatcher. It was going back and forth, in and out of a nest hole in the oak tree.

European Pied Flycatcher - male

Just a little further ahead Brian showed us a singing Wood Warbler, while I've seen this species in Hong Kong where it is a mega rarity, it is nice to finally see it in its natural range. We pushed on up to the moors to look for Tree Pipits, it took us a while to finally track it down, where it showed briefly on top of a tree, again having seen this in Hong Kong, I am very glad to see it where they truly belong!

Wood Warbler

Tree Pipit

As Brian had other things to attend to, he left us with a few pointers in where to look for Common Redstarts. By then it was around mid-day and things are beginning to quiet down. Green-veined Whites were quite common in the area, we also spotted a pair of Green Tiger Beetles. A nice looking male European Stonechat was present, although not quite the Whinchat that I hoped for.

Green-veined White - Pieris napi

Green Tiger Beetle

European Stonechat - male

We were walking along when John suddenly stopped us, he heard the song of a Common Redstart nearby. It didn't take too long to locate the lovely looking male nearby, where it gave relatively good views. A Eurasian Nuthatch was also found nearby, while a Common Cuckoo started calling not too far away.

Common Redstart - male

Eurasian Nuthatch

After a roadside picnic, we drove further west towards Exmoor National Park. Here, we were to look for my personal top target bird of this trip; Dartford Warbler. Although its called Dartford Warbler, this species can be found throughout much of western Europe and down to northern Africa. UK is about the most northerly limits of its natural breeding range. I've always been fascinated by this species ever since I started flipping through the UK field guide as a kid. 

Dartford Warbler habitat

We tried the first possible spot with no luck, but when we got to the second spot, Hoiling suddenly shouted "It got red eyes!", I immediately ran over and we were soon getting excellent views of this wonderful looking bird! Hoiling remarked that it reminded her of a strange looking Prinia, and I would have to agree. Light was perhaps a little harsh at the time for me to take any really good photos, but just seeing this bird on the moors was quite an unforgettable experience.

Dartford Warbler - my personal top target of the trip!

On our way back we stopped at Steart Marshes, a birding spot I've never been to as it is relatively new, it was created by WWT and opened in 2014. Here we added a few more wetland species not seen in the morning, including a lot of Pied Avocets, there were even quite a lot of chicks wandering about the reserve! It is great to see this species doing very well here. A pair of distant Eurasian Spoonbills were a little surprising to me, although John says they are not that rare nowadays.

Pied Avocet - adult & chick

Eurasian Spoonbill - very far away...

A few Little Ringed Plovers were also spotted, a few chicks were also seen on the island, although they were too far for photographs. Up above, a Red Kite drifted past, while numerous Common Swifts came through at great speed. A Common Cuckoo flew past on our way out towards the car park.

Little Ringed Plover

Red Kite

Common Swift

Our last stop on our very long day was Tealham and Tadham Moors on the levels, this was a birding site I regularly visited when I was still studying in the UK, as this was about the only birding spot within reasonable walking distance to my school. Along the roadside we added several Little and Great Egrets, both species used to be quite rare in the UK, but now regularly sighted and increasing in numbers. A very handsome Western Yellow Wagtail gave good views, as did a Meadow Pipit on the side of the road. That evening, John's wife Saph treated us to a wonderful home cooked dinner.

Little Egret

Great Egret - in non-breeding & breeding plumage

Western Yellow Wagtail - race flavissima

Meadow Pipit

17th May -

John helped booked the tickets for a trip up to Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, this is one of the largest seabird breeding colonies in the UK, with over 10,000 pairs of puffins breeding on the island. The drive up from Somerset is 4 hours including breaks, John very kindly took up driving duties and we got to the very scenic Martin's Haven at 10am in glorious weather. We checked in at the shop and waited to board on the 11:20am boat to Skomer Island. We walked around before our scheduled boat, Barn Swallows perched on the roof, while out at sea numerous Herring Gulls flew by, a few Puffins could be seen flying in the distance.

Barn Swallow

Herring Gull

The boat ride to Skomer only takes 15 minutes, it wasn't long before we started seeing numerous Guillemots and Razorbills flying past our boat and hundreds of Puffins dotted around the sea. The closer we got to the island, the more birds we saw, and soon we were looking at both species of nesting auks on the rocks near our landing.

Common Guillemot



Common Guillemot - at nest

As we walked up the stairs from the landing, a few Puffins started to emerge from their burrows, while I have seen Puffins back on Shetland in 2010, all three species of auks were completely new to Hoiling, making this trip to Skomer more than worthwhile!

Atlantic Puffin

After listening to the briefing from staff on the top of the stairs, we followed the main footpath up towards the interior of the island. To our surprise the island was transformed to a sea of blue by Bluebells, which was quite a spectacle to behold!

We arrived at the Old Farm, which is the only building on the island, there were more shrubs in the area compared to other parts of the island, therefore attracting birds such as Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers. A Raven came by briefly, immediately obvious due to its immense size.

Common Whitethroat

Sedge Warbler


Eurasain Oystercatchers were surprisingly common here, while this is a species I usually associate with mudflats, many were seen on top of cliffs. I scanned for Choughs along the cliffs, but saw mostly Jackdaws.

Eurasian Oystercatcher

Eurasian Jackdaw

We arrived at the seabird colony at Bull Hole, where thousands of Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes were seen on the cliffs. Both Lesser and Greater Black-backed Gulls patrolled the area. Scanning the rocks below yielded a few Grey Seals.

Sea bird colony

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Greater Black-backed Gull

Grey Seal

It was when we got to around halfway through the trail that Hoiling spotted our first Chough! It circled around a few times and flew out of sight, we later relocated a pair of them feeding on the cliffs, although they were a bit far away, we had some good views of this much wanted species for me.

Red-billed Chough

Our walk around the island continued to produce various birds, including a few Northern Wheatears, Meadow Pipits and a single Rock Pipit from afar. A Greater Black-backed Gull was found on its nest, they are probably part of the reason why we saw a lot of Manx Shearwater carcasses dotted along the island. Skomer is the largest Manx Shearwater colony in the world, however we didn't see a live one during our time here as they only return to shore at dusk. Only numerous European Rabbits were seen around the holes in the ground.

Northern Wheatear - female & male

Meadow Pipit

Rock Pipit

Greater Black-backed Gull

Manx Shearwater carcass

European Rabbit

By the time we got to the Wick on the southern side of the island we only had about an hour left! Here we saw plenty of Puffins along the footpath at close range, these charismatic birds are certainly a highlight for any birding day!

Atlantic Puffin

A lot of Black-legged Kittiwakes were flying in and out of the seabird colony, allowing some relatively closer photos to be taken of them in flight. We cut across back towards the Old Farm hoping to run into some Short-eared Owls, however they never showed themselves, only Carrion Crows and Common House Martins were seen.

Black-legged Kittiwake

Carrion Crow

Common House Martin

Only getting four hours on the island is never going to be enough, I took the last chance while heading back down to the boat to get some closer photos of Razorbills and Guillemots. I could have spent all day here just taking photos of all the auks on the cliffs! On our return boat trip a few Northern Gannets flew relatively close to our boat.

Common Guillemot


Northern Gannet

I must say a huge thank you to John for driving us there and back! By the time we got back to Coleford it was already quite late, we agreed to start a bit later the next morning for a slightly more relaxed day.

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