Saturday, 6 April 2013


We were not really expecting to connect with a major rarity from across the Atlantic Ocean that had taken up residence in a small corner of this remarkable collection of wetland nature reserves.  We were pretty content just to stroll around in the sun and soak up a little more of the long, overdue spring. News of a smart PIED-BILLED GREBE had originally filtered through way back on the 16th February when we were over 800 miles to the north looking for a PINE GROSBEAK on Shetland. I had been tempted to make the journey down here long before now, however a combination of the dire weather and the elusive nature of the bird had put me off a little.

We arrived at Ashcott Corner at about 2.00pm, snaffled a few sandwiches and knocked back a quick beverage in the nearby pub. It was now time for a bit more birding. We decided to start off at Shapwick Heath NNR and we were glad we did. Almost immediately we picked up an adult GREAT WHITE EGRET foot paddling and feeding away in a shallow corner of Meare Heath. Just this small section of flooded peatland alone was a pretty impressive sight.  A single Little Egret and a few Grey Heron were also feeding in the area. Other highlights included a pair of Pintail amongst the Gadwall, Common Teal and Northern Shoveler. In addition there were 3 Little Ringed Plover, 38 Black-tailed Godwit and a single Common Redshank. With the large quantities of walkers and birders milling around we thought it wise not to bother with the hide overlooking Noah's Lake so we headed back east.

Ham Wall RSPB, Somerset
The area to the right is where the PIED-BILLED GREBE lives!

On the walk over to Ham Wall RSPB numerous Chiffchaff and Cetti's Warbler could be heard in song and a Kingfisher showed nicely perched up in the afternoon sunshine. From the first viewing platform a Bittern showed briefly as it slowly stalked past a cutting in the reedbed. A second Bittern then showed well in flight behind us. A great start.  We then continued onwards to the second viewing area where almost immediately I heard a strange 'grebesque' type call emanating from a reedy area of the main lagoon to our right, 'c c c cow-cow-cow-cow' went the bird. Luckily I have an American birding application on my iPhone and I quickly played back the call to myself. My suspicions were confirmed, it was the sound of a PIED-BILLED GREBE. We then crossed the drainage ditch and found a couple of other birders staking out the area from where the strange sounds were coming from.

Judging from the glum expressions of those present, the rarity was obviously not playing ball. It looked as though we were in for a long wait. The bird continued to call on and off but frustratingly it remained well hidden amongst the phragmites. After about forty five minutes though, there was a slight movement in the water and there it was in all it's glory, a stunning summer plumaged PIED-BILLED GREBE. It had a curious look around it's territory, threw it's head forward to call and then promptly headed back to the safety of the vegetation. A glimpse of the bird could be seen every now and then for a while before it scrabbled towards us across the pool and attacked a rather shocked looking Coot
Photo by Jon Hall
Photo by Gary Thoburn

The bird was obviously in no mood to tolerate any nonsense from the resident water birds and angrily swam around actively seeking confrontation. This was good news for us though as it was completely unaware of us standing just a few yards away watching the drama unfold. Once it had cleared it's patch from any potential invaders it then started to focus on us birders. On several occasions it sunk stealthily like a miniature submarine only to pop up a bit closer to the bank and study us with just it's head showing. It was a remarkable thing to witness and one of those birding memories that stays with you forever. 

Photo by Jon Hall
Photo by Gary Thoburn

On the way back to Ashcott Corner we heard at least three booming Bittern. Other highlights included a 3 Pintail, 70 Northern Shoveler, 48 Common Teal, 22 Eurasian Wigeon, 4 Common Pochard, a Water Rail, 6 Ruff and 2 drumming Common Snipe.

Special thanks to John Hall and Gary Thoburn for the use of their excellent photographs. Please click on their names to be taken to their own websites.

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