Category Archives: Severn estuary

The Uskmouth Savi’s Warbler

A Savi’s Warbler (Locustella luscinioides) at the RSPB’s Uskmouth Nature Reserve has now entered the third week of its stay. The bird was found by Mathew Meehan and is the first record for Gwent. It is holding territory in a small strip of reedbed in the centre of the reserve, flanked on one side by a track and on the other by open water, so (unusually for this species) it is quite easy to observe. If visiting, please keep to the paths: as well as the Savi’s Warbler, nesting Bearded Tits (Panurus biarmicus) and Cetti’s Warblers (Cettia cetti) are present in the same area.

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Savi’s Warbler, 1 June 2014, Uskmouth Nature Reserve, Martyn Hall (www.martynhallphotography.com)

If the physical appearance of Savi’s Warbler is a little dull, its song certainly isn’t: it sounds like a loud, prolonged cricket. I emphasise loud: on my first visit, I could hear the bird from at least 100 metres away as I approached. Click here to listen to a recording of the Uskmouth bird by Darryl Spittle.

Savi’s Warbler is at the northwestern end of its world range in Britain, and numbers have fluctuated considerably since it was first discovered here in the early 19th Century. Back then, it bred in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, but with drainage of the fens, this population died out by around 1850. It remained a rare migrant for the next 100 years, but then established a breeding population again, initially in Kent, then in Norfolk, Suffolk and a few other southern and eastern counties, although still in tiny numbers: the peak population was of c.30 singing males at a total of c.15 sites in 1977-1980. Numbers have since declined, to the point where ten singing males constitutes a good year.

Most of our local birds have occurred on the Somerset Levels, where around a dozen have occurred, with two clusters of records: four birds at the gravel pits around Bridgwater between 1970 and 1988, and five birds in the Ham Wall/Meare Heath area between 2005 and 2010. Chew Valley Lake has had four, the last of which was in 2001. In Gloucestershire there have been just two: at Frampton in spring 2001, and at Coombe Hill Meadows in 2013. Wiltshire has also had just two, at Coate Water, Swindon in May 1965, and at the Cotswold Water Park in 2006. Almost all of these birds have been singing males in spring, so no doubt other individuals have occurred undetected. With the increase in records from the Somerset Levels in the last decade, there’s perhaps a good chance that Savi’s Warbler will become a regular breeding bird here one day.

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Uskmouth Reserve’s Penduline Tit

This male Penduline Tit (Remiz pendulinus) is entertaining the crowds at the RSPB’s Uskmouth Nature Reserve, near Newport, at the moment, feeding on dead flowerheads of Bulrush (Typha latifolia), right by the reserve’s visitor centre.

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Eurasian Penduline Tit (to give it its full English name, as there are about nine other species in Asia and Africa) is one of several bird species which have spread northwest from eastern Europe in recent decades. The first British record was in the 1960s, at Spurn, the famous migration watchpoint in Yorkshire, but now almost 300 have occurred here, including several small flocks. There has long been speculation that Penduline Tits might colonise southeast England, but so far it hasn’t happened – and we can say this with a fair amount of certainty as the nest is a conspicuous pouch which is constructed hanging from a tree branch above or close to water, and one of these would surely have been noticed considering how well-watched Britain’s wetlands are.

The Uskmouth bird can be identified as a male by its large black mask, with a rusty bar across the forehead, whitish head, intense chestnut upperparts, and small reddish-brown breast-streaks. Females have a narrow face-mask, pale grey head, paler upperparts and plain underparts, and juveniles have a completely plain pale brown head.

Uskmouth’s bird is the first for Gwent, but there have been several on this side of the estuary (see below), and with the trend towards increasing numbers, plenty more can be expected.

  • Westhay Moor, two birds from January to March 1997
  • Berrow reedbed, three birds in December 1997 and February 1998
  • Shapwick Heath, two birds in December 1999
  • Ham Wall, four birds in January 2004
  • Portbury Wharf, two birds in January 2012

Uskmouth reserve is just west of the small village of Nash, east of the river Usk, south of Newport, and is signposted from junction 24 of the M4 motorway.

Green Sandpiper

Autumn is here: the first of the post-breeding shorebirds are on their way south. At Slimbridge, while I was watching the Spoonbill, there were at least six Green Sandpipers (Tringa ochropus) feeding on the edges of the same pool. I was going to illustrate this post with my own photos, and then Vic Savery sent me this excellent shot:

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Green Sandpiper, 1 July 2013, Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, Vic Savery (naturenutz.net)

Green Sandpiper is the earliest of our sandpipers to appear on southbound migration, always being seen somewhere locally from the end of June onwards, so no need to panic about winter being on the way just yet. Any freshwater wetland with reasonable areas of exposed mud will be graced by Green Sandpipers over the next few months. The birds turning up at the moment are adults, whereas juvenile birds will occur from August onwards (a pattern common to most migrant shorebirds). Green Sandpipers also overwinter in the region in moderate numbers, tending to inhabit shallow slow-flowing streams and ditches and marshy sites.

Green Sandpipers nest in bogs from Scandinavia eastwards through Russia. Unusually for a shorebird, they nest in trees, in disused birds nests. Occasionally, pairs nest in Scotland. A lookalike species, Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria), replaces Green Sandpiper in North America. They have occured in southwest England after Atlantic storms in autumn several times, usually on the Isles of Scilly, but there was one in Devon a few years ago, so it’s possible that one could turn up near Bristol one day.

Here are a couple of my own Green Sandpiper photos as well, showing a Slimbridge bird in some different poses, and highlighting how birds can look different in different lighting conditions. You can also see, by looking closely at individual feathers, that this is a different bird from the one Vic photographed.

 Green Sandpiper Slimbridge 28 June 2013 b  Green Sandpiper Slimbridge 28 June 2013 a

A Spoonbill at Slimbridge

A Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) is present at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Slimbridge currently. I visited the site yesterday afternoon, and the bird hadn’t been seen earlier in the day but just after I arrived at the Tack Piece hides, it flew in and started feeding very actively on the shallow pools just in front of me, and then rested up and started preening … cue the camera, and here is a selection of the best photos from the 150 or so that I took.

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Spoonbill is a scarce bird in Britain, although because they’re large and conspicuous, inhabit the sort of wetland sites that birdwatchers visit, and tend to hang around for days, weeks or months, they can give the impression of being more common than they really are. They are on the increase here however, and you stand a reasonable chance of finding one yourself if you spend enough time birding around the Severn estuary: I added Spoonbill to my “self-found list” with one on Goldcliff Pools in Gwent in 2009; this is the second one I’ve seen at Slimbridge and I’ve also seen birds at Steart. They are much less common inland, although my very first Spoonbill was at Chew Valley Lake over 20 years ago, and there was even one a few years ago on a small lake near Swindon.

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Spoonbill numbers elsewhere in Britain have been building up for a while, and double-figure flocks are now seen in most winters in Poole Harbour, with other favoured sites including the Taw/Torridge and Tamar estuaries in Devon. However, East Anglia is doing even better, as birds have now established a breeding colony on the north Norfolk coast. All of this increase is fuelled by a burgeoning population in wetlands in the Netherlands.

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Although their odd appearance might suggest that they occupy an ancient branch on the bird evolutionary tree, spoonbills are really just members of the ibis family that have evolved a specialised feeding technique and the apparatus to go with it. Spatulate bills seem to evolve quite readily in waterbirds, with Shoveler ducks, and a small shorebird, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, also having them. There are five other species of spoonbill worldwide: two in Australasia, one in Africa, the gaudy pink Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) in the Americas, and the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill (Platalea minor) in southeast Asia.You can see some videos of Spoonbills feeding on this page on the ARKive website.

Skua hat-trick

Strong westerly winds have been blowing for the last day or two and this has brought a small number of seabirds into the Severn estuary. Our best site for observing seabirds locally is Severn Beach, a village on the east shore of the estuary just to the south of the Second Severn Crossing. Because of the bridge, most birds blown in are reluctant to carry on upstream, and the estuary is quite narrow here so close views are often possible, especially at high tide.

I visited yesterday evening and again this morning, and the highlight was a pale morph Pomarine Skua (Stercorarius pomarinus) in full breeding plumage complete with ‘tail-spoons’ (like this one). Pomarine Skuas that migrate past Britain in May are on their way from wintering grounds off the west African coast to nest in the Arctic tundra in Russia. Local birder Dave Nevitt first noticed the bird flying upstream at about 8.45am; it gave reasonably close views in the air, and then settled on the water. About an hour later I noticed a second skua, also probably a ‘Pom’, approaching: this bird behaved quite differently, gaining height quite rapidly until eventually I lost it high up. It is possible that it flew inland, and will carry on migrating overland until it reaches the North Sea. Somerset birder Julian Thomas has been theorising about overland skua migration in autumn in recent years and published this interesting note about it in British Birds magazine (scroll down to page 503). I’m not sure if anything has been written about this phenomenon in spring.

The previous evening I had seen two Great Skuas (S. skua) and an Arctic Skua (S. parasiticus), plus two Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis), two Gannets (Morus bassanus) and at least a dozen Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla). Most Arctic Skuas are either pale morphs like this one, or dark morphs like this one, however yesterday’s bird appeared to be an intermediate bird: similar to a dark morph but with paler cheeks and a small pale patch on the belly). The Great Skuas (‘Bonxies’ in birders’ shorthand) came in very close at times, as you can see from the photos on Paul Bowerman’s excellent Severnside Birds sightings blog. Arctic and Great Skuas occur regularly in the estuary after strong winds, and Poms are seen most years, usually in the same concentrated period in early May. Not bad really, considering that we’re a good 80 miles from the ‘proper’ sea. The fourth northern-hemisphere species, Long-tailed Skua (S. longicaudus) is very rare here though.

Other seabirds seen at Severn Beach over the last couple of days include Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) and Little Tern (Sternula albifrons), but top prize goes to birders at Burnham-on-Sea who had a Leach’s Storm-petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) this morning: these are regular in autumn and winter after storms, but very rare in spring. Good seabird weather occurs quite often through the summer these days, so I’ll no doubt be posting again about this subject before too long.

Brian Lancastle has written two papers about the status of seabirds in the upper Severn estuary: details are on my Articles page.