Here is a post that has sat in my drafts folder for several years. I am not quite sure why it has sat there, maybe I couldn’t decide on the photos, maybe it felt too personal, I really can’t remember. At a time when the Levels are experiencing their worst floods in years I thought it might be a good moment to share one part of them that I know and love as they have been and hopefully will be again one day. All these photos date from May 2011.
Before I baked there were birds to take me out of myself and make my heart leap with joy and long after my last loaf has crumbled to dust there will be birds. And before I baked and before I had dogs, we used to go out all the time to see them. Now our visits are rarer but we still go down to the Levels when we can.
The bittern is a variety of heron. They are most easily seen in winter when they are less secretive in their behaviour, or in breeding season when they fly around above the reeds. You are more likely to hear one than see one. When I finally heard the boom of the bittern, my heart nearly stopped as I held my breath and thought, “Oh that is it! It really does sound exactly like someone blowing over the top of a bottle!”. And then when they flew overhead, I promptly threw my arms in the air and my new camera went sailing and landed in the hedge. I don’t have a good photo of a bittern to show you. I filmed them flapping over the reeds on a tiny camera that blurred as I tried to track them. It was not David Attenborough! But I have had a little look on the internet and found this fabulous film showing a bittern booming!
Bitterns need reed beds, it really is as simple and as complicated as that. No reed beds, no bitterns. Reed beds are found in flat coastal areas in the UK. Historically people have drained to turn them into farmland and in the case of the Levels to excavate for peat for fuel and for improving soil in gardens. Peat is viewed as a non renewable resource and though some peat excavation still goes on and peat is still sold in garden centres, many gardeners look for other materials to nourish their gardens and work on recycling their own waste in a more sustainable way or adopt permaculture principles into their lives.
The bittern with its distinctive booming call is so rare now in England that the RSPB have spent years transforming the old peatworked land at Ham Wall into the most astonishing reserve in order to create a habitat that will attract and encourage breeding of the bittern and other birds that need this sort of environment.
Brian took me down to the Levels when we first met. I was suffering for lack of green space and open skies, cooped up in the centre of hilly Bristol with its narrow streets and small windows of sky. We had talked about birds and where to see them one lunchtime as we wandered round St Nicholas’s Market in the heart of Bristol and I had confessed to a fondness for ducks and particularly Great Crested Grebes. He tentatively offered to show me baby grebes, how could a person refuse an offer like that?
Where we went that first time was allowed to flood as part of the redevelopment of the area, the old bird hides long gone, but in its place half a mile away is this reserve.
It’s been built to be accessible and to allow this rarest of birds to breed in peace and quiet and yet be seen by those who have the desire to go there. A miracle really; create the habitat and the birds will come. An act of faith – one which shows the dedication of the bird loving community.
Ham Wall is thirty miles south-west of Bristol in the heart of Somerset. The ruined church tower on Glastonbury Tor is one local landmark. There used to be some houses painted pink and violet but I think they’ve been painted some more subdued colours now. There are houses slowly sinking into the soft marshy ground by the elevated narrow causeways that undulate above the marshy pastures and fields, ditches to either side, stocked with cattle, and crisscrossed with drains where swans feast on underwater weeds and coots tenderly raise their babies. It is a manmade landscape, with canals and fields. Sometimes there are hundreds of swans sitting in the fields, the starling roosts are famous and much admired, you might see an otter, or a kingfisher shimmering over the top of the water. In winter you might see a night heron, wigeon, little and cattle egrets and many many more wild birds, it is a wonderful habitat.
The heartland of Somerset is a world away from the city of Bristol. On that visit there were wild flowers in profusion, cow parsley, dead nettles, archangels, big orange dragonflies, delicate irridescent blue damselflies, elderflower in bloom, roses and lilacs hanging over fences. Past the Railway Inn on the main road, we met a small family of grey partridges, who turned sharp right and disappeared on a mission up to the heath.
From the rebuilt carpark you have a choice, either cross the road and walk down the track to Ham Wall, easily accessible for wheelchair users and beautifully landscaped with sheltered bird hides and walkways, or walk up in the opposite direction to Shapwick Heath.
I am not naive, I know the costs of maintaining fragile habitats for both human and wild life use are huge. I know that the weather makes us all helpless and can wipe away the marks of the human species’ efforts to control its world in the blink of an eye, but I can still hope, selfishly, that a way is found to help the Somerset Levels with all their complex needs and their spectacular bird and wild life habitat to survive and prosper.
To see and read about the goings on at Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall you can visit the RSPB site blog where there are many more photos, up to date sightings and lots and lots of information!
PS For a well reasoned article of the situation re dredging I just read this piece by Tobias Jones, the warden of a woodland sanctuary in Somerset in the morning papers. It gives a slightly less misty eyed perspective than mine and is definitely worth reading and thinking about. The bird reserve referred to in the article, is at Steart, is not the one above, but a new one being created nearby where they are planning to build a new nuclear power reactor at Hinkley Point. Bird reserves have been created near most of our power stations as you can’t build homes there and they are all sited on coasts. The needs of wildlife, the needs of farmers, the budgets of governments, the future of our energy supplies, and what sort of energy supplies and what we do with our waste, whether mud in rivers or toxic radioactive material with the potential to harm not only us now but future generations if not safely disposed of. I get all Malthusian at this point so will stop now.
What an interesting post, Joanna. We visited a smaller bird preserve in Victoria last year and they are very special places indeed. You are so right about the cost to create and maintain them. Your description of the bittern was very much what the video sounded like, blowing on a bottle! How could a person refuse an offer to see baby grebes??
As a small child one of my main delights in life was walking down to the Thames at Putney Bridge and feeding the swans and the ducks, a traditional childhood activity for us. I don’t know if it something that parents do with children all over the world but we were endlessly going down to the riverside, or so it felt. I had a slightly tacky off white oilskin which creaked which I wore on rainy days. If I had refused that offer of baby grebes I don’t think I would be baking banana bread for Brian now ;) Far better offer than ‘come up and see my etchings’ ! The RSPB is one of the biggest oldest environmental charities in the UK and is very well supported by its members.
Lovely post, Joanna. That video clip of the bitterns is so interesting – both the sound they make, and also what an interesting looking bird they are. I think it’s wonderful that there are wetlands and reserves and safe havens for the birds. Long may they remain!
I thought you might find this booming Kakapo from New Zealand interesting:
Love that Kakapo! He sounds very similar doesn’t he? ! Thank you! I hadn’t thought of You Tube.
I just found footage of a bittern at Minsmere that presumably I can add a link that will embed here too. This isn’t quite such good quality but I shall add it in. I think I can hear Aussie accents in there for some reason ….
Such a beauty! I love the patterned feathers…
What a beautiful post.
Thank you Chef Mimi! I am glad you enjoyed it!
Well I am about to do my bit by getting my hands on some guinea fowl to wander around like manic turtles on Serendipity Farm desecrating the silence in order that Frank might have something to complain about behind our back as we have dealt with the feral cats, the tree on the power line and the crowing roosters…a man NEEDS something to complain about (especially when he is the antipodean version of Victor Meldrew ;) ). I loved this post because although it was no doubt hard on you to write and it smacked of a love that you both share for birds and their habitats, the word has to get around and the more people get on board and learn about habitats and how vital they are to these birds the more likely the agenda will be to get pushed up the political scale to “must renovate” rather than “who cares”. Where the voters (fickle creatures that they are) have their interest and energies invested is where the buck tends to stop. Sad but true!
Lets be optimistic! ! I shall look forward to hearing about the new birds arrival at Serendipity Farm. I am not sure why I love the birds so much, they are just dinosaurs in disguise, but I do.
Our dinosaurs all came back! We found a solution for feral cats and suddenly, a week later, there are birds everywhere. Hanging from the bird bath, squabbling over who gets to eat all of the blackberries and spread them all over the place, warbling in the treetops and hovering over my vegetable garden (fully enclosed of course) in order to take advantage of the delicious insect matter that is drawn into the oasis like rabbits in the headlights ;) I LOVE birds :)
Love, love, love this! Your first date was to see baby grebes? That is so lovely and heartwarming.
Your photographs are perfect for your post- and your sentiments are so apropos- we need to be reminded how important habitat and refuges are for wildlife. That is why I love Chincoteague- it is right nest to Assateague Island, which is a huge wildlife refuge right on the ocean with beaches clear of civilization and filled with birds and lots of estuary.
I am so pleased you liked it Heidi. And yes it was and we did huge amounts of bird watching in our courting days as you would call them, though very little bird photography, which is a different skill set in many ways, requiring you to focus on taking photographs rather than observing the birds, though of course many people do both successfully. I have always loved it when you write about Chinocateague and recognise deeply the happiness and peace that comes from spending time by the sea xx Joanna
A wonderful post, Joanna. Thank you so very much. As you know, I have a soft spot for birds. Peder doesn’t always share my love of them, but he’s good enough to not stop me from feeding them in the garden, hanging feeders, making piles of nuts and seeds, etc. I hope that our favourite wildlife sanctuary in Arundel recovers from the floods. It’s still very much underwater as the River Arun still over-tops its banks.
We are kindred spirits in our love of feeding the birds in the garden and I very much hope that Arundel recovers, I haven’t been there for many years but I have visited its sister reserves along the West coast many times over the years. xx Jo
Such a lovely post Joanna. I agree with Heidi’s comments. For some reason I find the names such as Somerset Levels and Shapwick Heath and Glastonbury Tor (even more perfect because it is a ruin) so romantic sounding – of the Bronte variety. I like Heidi’s Chincoteague and Assateague Island too. The Bittern is quite beautiful. I always find footage such as that so moving, I’m not sure why, something to do with the beauty and vulnerability of such creatures. The footage of the courstship flight with the electricity pylons in the background and what I think might be something to do with a nuclear reactor is, for me, quite emotional – the pylons and the reactor loom and threaten. I know there is catastrophic flooding in the Somerset Levels area at the moment. Nature does indeed make puny creatures of us all. I do hope the area recovers well. Now, my coffee is finished and I must return to chucking bits of paper about (I’m at work).
I am glad you liked the post, I have no idea what will become of the Somerset Levels. There is so much politics involved now. Time will tell how it plays out. I agree the names are completely wonderful, there is also Burrow Mump of which I am very fond, another hill with ruin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burrow_Mump at Burrowbridge which is still flooded and the wonderfully named Huish Episcopi. An extraordinary landscape of which I only visit parts. For such a small country there are some very unique habitats and environments to be found. I hope your chucked papers piled themselves into neat order and that you are well! Joanna