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Blagdon Lake Birds

May 2020 News

Saturday 30th May [Hot & sunny]

I met Mark at the Fishing Lodge this evening, now that wardens and season ticket birders are allowed back to the lakeside. We walked to Top End and back. I saw a Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos on the dam, and we both saw the 2 Greylags Anser anser back on Holt Farm. We were disappointed to see that the brood of Great Crested Grebes Podiceps cristatus spotted earlier in the week, has now been reduced to just a single bird. Gulls? There were no fewer than 5 Hobbies Falco subbuteo hawking insects at Top End, and I have to say the number of midges and hatching sedge-flies was just extraordinary! In nearly 60 years of visiting the lake, I don't think I've seen the like before. It was difficult to identify some of the ducks over at the Indian Country bank, opposite the hide, the insects were so thick in the air and distorting the view.


Wednesday 27th May [Hot & sunny]

I've had little time for birding this week, but I did go for a wander down the hill to the far side of the dam and back, late this evening. As I started the walk back up Station Road, having seen nothing worthy of note, I was watching the Noctule Nyctalus noctula and Serotine Eptesicus serotinus bats flying over my head as I walked between the trees. I became aware of a frequent and insistent gull-like call above and slightly behind me. I would say emanating from somewhere between Pipe Bay and the dam but despite turning around to look for it outside Little Halt, I didn't see anything due to the trees. I turned to watching the bats as I continued up the road, when I thought that the call was getting closer and was probably somewhere over the Inspection House. By this time, I was standing opposite the entrance to Railway's End where I could see more of the sky above. The clear 'ke-er' call was still being made, but I couldn't see the bird. By this time a couple of minutes had probably elapsed since I'd become aware of it. I was peering upwards into the clear, but darkening, sky for a while before I spotted what was making the calls, seemingly high above and sightly south-east of me. I immediately raised my binoculars and saw a small heron. OMG I thought, what is it? I couldn't make out any plumage details as it was around 2200 hrs by now, so I thought well, I must concentrate on the silhouette and try and get as much in my head as I could. The bird was still calling and was circling above me. It was reminiscent of a Night/Squacco Heron or Cattle Egret, rather than Grey Heron or Little/Great White Egret. There was little extension of the legs beyond the tail, and the wings were much shorter and relatively broader than the larger species. The neck and head extension were also short and the bill not as obviously long as the larger members of the family either. I watched the bird flying in circles still calling, as it drifted over the road and off to the west before lowering my binoculars. Well, I knew it was something special, but the call was unfamiliar, so I legged it up the road home, having decided to interpret the call with the word 'care'. I got onto the laptop straight away and started to go through the calls of Cattle Egret and Night Heron but there was nothing similar that I could find. Way to 'croaky'. So, I thought okay, this is clearly something special let's listen to Squacco Heron. There was nothing that hit the nail on the head, but some parts of calls were not dissimilar. I decided to put a message out on our local WhatsApp group straight away in the vain hope that someone else might hear it later, as so many birders were sitting in their gardens listening to nocturnal migrants since lock down began. I suggested it seemed to have been a Squacco Heron as that's the nearest I could get with the calls I'd listened to. I then got back onto the laptop to listen to more outlandish possibilities like Green and Chinese Pond Herons, just in case! No good with any of them. I was still slightly puzzled and beginning to worry that I shouldn't have suggested Squacco Heron publicly, but what else could it have been? Well, I pondered the whole episode over and over in bed before falling asleep. In the morning I looked at the BOU list and of course, I spotted Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus, the only other possibility. I called up xeno-canto recordings and read and listened to the Sound Approach sound illustrated article and realised that, without any doubt, I had been listening to a Little Bittern giving its 'night-time flight call', which was described as a 'ker'. It sounded exactly the same as my bird. I put a note on our WhatsApp group again, apologising for not thinking of Little Bittern at the time, and said I felt a bit foolish - after all, they're regularly reported less than 15 miles away on the other side of the Mendip Hills from Blagdon. The fact that the bird I saw in the air was so small was lost on me at the time because I just watched it through my binoculars, I'd completely misjudged the height it was flying at. It was a small bird flying low, and that was why the call was so clear and insistent. The silhouette fits very nicely with Little Bittern too. 


Little Bittern, Lesvos, 22nd May 2009.Little Bittern, Lesvos, 22nd May 2009.


I had been at the lake the previous evening with Mark, as I'd written in the blog, but not heard anything suggesting the presence of a Little Bittern during our walk at dusk. Could it have arrived overnight? I don't know, because I didn't visit the lake during the day, nor would any other birders have been there, as we'd all been excluded during lock down. Perhaps it had spent the day in Home or Pipe Bay reeds just the other side of the Inspection House, and I got onto it as it flew up, calling and flying away from the lake? Unless I can find an angler, who may have seen it, I'll never know if it was there by day, or just passing over. Rich Andrews asked me about the rate of wing flap on the WhatsApp group, but I have to admit that I have absolutely no recollection of the wing-flaps looking unusual for a bird of the size I was looking at, despite looking so carefully at the bird's silhouette. What was really annoying in retrospect, was that I didn't hold my phone up to record the calls - but as I only had less than a minute with the bird in view, I concentrated on watching it. I am, however, 100% sure of its correct identity now, even given the limited view, the flight call was diagnostic. There is one previous record of Little Bittern at Ubley in 1916, which has a hint of suspicion about it, given that it is a summer migrant and was observed repeatedly in November, but with the increasing number of records on the Somerset Levels, I suppose seeing one locally in the modern era was not to be entirely unexpected.


Tuesday 26th May [Hot & sunny]

It was a beautiful evening for a walk, and the first Mute Swan Cygnus olor brood was out and about with mum and dad; Mark and I eventually counted 8 juveniles. Of note, we saw a Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, a male Shoveler Spatula clypeata in flight, and 1 or 2 Hobbies Falco subbuteo, as well as heard a Kingfisher Alcedo atthis.


Monday 25th May [Hot & sunny]

News from Bristol Water for birders and anglers:

"21/05/20 - We are now taking steps towards restricted reopening of the bird hides. With picnic area and car park preparations dominating this week, our aim is to reopen the bird hides on Friday 29th May, to annual/half year season ticket holders only.

Conditions of reopening:

  • Social distancing to be maintained at all times (Be aware most approaches to hides are <2m wide – communication and turning around may be required)
  • Maximum of 2 people in a hide at one time (suggest vocalising your arrival or knocking on door of hide)
  • Restrict visits to the bird hide to 20 minutes at busy times - we are working on the basis of permit holders being considerate of each other, particularly at busy periods
  • Signage must be in place – please report to Lakeside staff immediately if signs are removed or defaced (signage attached for reference)
  • No day tickets at this stage, this may resume in a few weeks in line with a phased approach
  • We recognise that padlocks are a transmission concern, however on balance, the risks of uncontrolled access to permit only areas means that we must insist that gates are re-locked after being opened by permit holders. Permit holders must therefore bring appropriate PPE (nitrile gloves/hand sanitiser) to protect themselves and other permit holders when unlocking/locking gates.

 Unfortunately, it is not appropriate for people in the vulnerable/shielded category to be onsite until further notice.

"22/05/20 - As of Wednesday 27th May 2020 boat fishing will be permitted at Blagdon Lake.... Available boats will be limited to just 12 per day."


Sunday 24th May [Warm & windy, but calm in the evening.]

The Coot Fulica atra, Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus and Canada Goose Branta canadensis broods previously noted all seem to be doing okay. A Kestrel Falco tinnunculus over Rugmoor Gate was a first of the year for Mark (and only my fourth sighting of this increasingly rare resident this year), and 2 Hobbies Falco subbuteo over Top End were a welcome sight too.


Saturday 23rd May [Very windy]

Lots of Swifts Apus apus over the lake in the extremely blustery conditions, and 80 Canada Geese Branta canadensis on Holt Farm.


Friday 22nd May

We procured permission from BW to video the emergence of bats from two hibernation boxes this evening - they are used by large aggregations of Soprano Pipistrelles Pipistrellus pygmaeus during the breeding season most years. Ken did one, and Mark the other, while I stomped around the lake for some exercise. Although they recorded Nathusius' Pipistrelle P. nathusii, Soprano Pipistrelle, Common Pipistrelle P. pipistrellus, Noctule Nyctalus noctula and Lesser Horseshoe Rhinolophus hipposideros on their detectors, there was no sign of any bats using the boxes at present.

I saw a Tawny Owl Strix aluco fly across the lane (with no name) by Rugmoor Farm into Indian Country pines during my walk.


Thursday 21st May

More gunshots on Holt Farm again this evening. No sign of the Greylags, but I did hear the Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti and Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca still singing, and saw the pair of Gadwall Mareca strepera.

Celia found a Broad-bodied Chaser Libellula depressa sunning itself in the garden today.


Wednesday 20th May

Most of the usual suspects again today, but a Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus with 3 juveniles on her back was the absolute highlight. Others noted were the singing Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti and Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca, plus a pair of Gadwall Mareca strepera, 2 Greylags Anser anser, and 2 Speckled Woods Pararge aegeria.


Monday 18th May

There was a Little Egret Egretta garzetta at Top End, a male Garganey Spatula querquedula (and a probable mate) at Burmah Road noted in flight twice, 2 Greylags Anser anser and 27 Canada Geese Branta canadensis on Holt Farm, the Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti singing near the Lodge, a pair of Grey Wagtails Motacilla cinerea with 2 juveniles at Cheddar Water, and a Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos on the dam. Curiously, there was a Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major drumming at Bell's Bush too.


Sunday 17th May

Today, I saw a Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, heard a Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti and Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca singing, and noted the 2 Greylags Anser anser again.


Saturday 16th May [Sunny spells]

This evening there was a Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos on the dam, 2 Greylags Anser anser on Holt Farm that flew onto the lake, and 2 Hobbies Falco subbuteo at Top End.


Friday 15th May [Sunny, but the breeze remained cool.]

Not a great deal of bird news to report today, other than Mark Hynam spotted a Hobby Falco subbuteo over Holt Copse and 2 Greylag Geese Anser anser still on Holt Farm grazing with the Canada's and non-breeding Mute Swans. Bank angling is back under way, although there weren't large numbers today, perhaps the weekend will bring more? The dam, on the other hand, was like a car park, with people flocking to walk, picnic, sunbathe and exercise themselves and dogs along Butcombe Bank as 'lock down' is eased. If you want to remain socially distanced and not have your health compromised, on today's evidence, this is not the place to come!


Thursday 14th May [Sunny with a cool wind]

Birding access (with permits, of course) will be permitted at the lakes as of Monday 18th May. Bristol Water have just been in touch, at 1900 hrs on Thursday, to say that there has been a change of heart regarding the timing of birders being given access to the lakeside. It is now anticipated that this will happen sometime around the middle to end of next week, but an announcement will be made nearer the time. Procedures will have to be posted for the use of hides and queuing to get in them (if required), in order for social distancing to be maintained.


Wednesday 13th May [Cool, but a rather beautiful sunrise this morning.]

I met fellow warden Mark at the dam at 0600 hrs this morning, to conduct a survey around the lake for Bristol Water to check that there were no breeding birds that were nesting in places where they might get compromised by anglers as bank fishing gets underway again, announced as 0800 hrs on Friday 15th at Blagdon, Chew and Barrow Tanks. We also conducted the monthly WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) count while we were permitted on site. May is always the month with the lowest count, partly because there are fewer birds, and partly because many of them are well-hidden in marginal vegetation as breeding takes place. We saw our first brood of 5 juvenile Canada Geese Branta canadensis, 2 broods of Mallard Anas platyrhynchos (5 and 3 juvs.), and our first brood(s) of Coot Fulica atra (7 juvs.). Other species with fledged young included Green Woodpecker Picus viridis, Grey Heron Ardea cinerea, Rook Corvus frugilegus, Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus, and Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea. With the slight ground frost still evident in the meadows up to an hour after we'd started the survey, I think the bird song was a little muted, but we counted 18 Blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla, 11+ Reed Warblers Acrocephalus scirpaceus, 11 Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita, 10 Reed Buntings Emberiza schoeniclus, 9 Garden Warblers S. borin, 3 Lesser Whitethroats S. curruca, 1 Whitethroat S. communis, and 1 Sedge Warbler A. schoenobaenus during the 5-hour survey. The amazing thing was, although we were keeping a close eye out for raptors, especially after Chris Craig saw 6 Red Kites at Compton Martin yesterday, we didn't see even a single Buzzard the whole time we were surveying (finished at 1100 hrs). The WeBS counts are on the WeBS Page and included the 2 Greylags Anser anser, at least 3 pairs of Shoveler Spatula clypeata and a pair of Gadwall Mareca strepera, although we undoubtedly missed others with the lakeside edges so overgrown at this time of year. Top count was 189 Coots, and the swan numbers have grown during lock down to an impressive 35 - which will doubtless cause problems with the breeding pairs as the season wears on.

For the anglers, the Damselflies are starting to hatch, we saw a few teneral hatchlings and a blue adult. While for the botanists, the white form of Bugle Ajuga reptans is flowering on Park Lane verge between the Lodge entrance and the dam, alongside the normal, blue-flowered form, and appears to have been increasing as we saw a few spikes of different plants. I've been recording the white form there since at least 2005, and when looking this up, discovered I'd seen a pink-flowered form at Chancellor's Farm on the Mendips many years ago too. The first time I saw the white-flowered form was at Black Rock, also on the Mendips, longer ago than I care to remember!

Bristol Water have posted important guidelines for anglers to follow as fishing gets back underway, and of course, many of the guidelines apply to birdwatchers with permits as well. I have cherry-picked from those guidelines so that if you are coming birding (date to be announced yet), you have a chance to be prepared before setting out:

"DO NOT visit our fisheries if you are showing Covid-19 symptoms or are shielding.

Access arrangements

Bristol Water continues to have a duty to protect our special sites, for which many are designated SSSI’s. Access needs to be managed. With the recent announcement that unessential travel restrictions have been lifted, more so than ever before we need to ensure we do our bit to stop unauthorised access and prevent social gathering. It is really important that our anglers and birdwatchers alike, understand that having combination padlocks on access gates is essential for us to be able to permit these activities during the current epidemic. Please do your part by closing gates and locking padlocks behind after accessing our sites.

Bank closures

North Shore at Chew Valley Lake and the Butcombe shoreline at Blagdon are currently off limits for visiting anglers. With high levels of footfall expected on near footpaths we actively want to discourage gatherings on nearby banks. We have decided that anglers are not permitted to fish from the North Shore at Chew Valley Lake and the Butcombe shoreline at Blagdon Lake until further notice. Anglers should note this before purchasing a ticket. Check out the lake pages found HERE for further information on locations of these banks.

We advise all anglers to wear PPE and/or use hand sanitiser when visiting our sites. Consider bringing nitrile gloves with you to open access gates or similar.

Social distancing
Always remember to social distance. Government guidelines are that you should try and stay at least 2 metres away from another person. Bristol Water ask that anglers follow the Angling Trusts guidance by retaining a 15m gap between yourself and other anglers when bank fishing. Current Angling Trust guidance can be found HERE. (Birders please note that numbers will need to be limited in hides. Blagdon Top End has a note asking for a maximum of two inside at a time, so please be responsible and give way to others as appropriate to ensure everyone enjoys their visit when the time comes - Nige).

Park sensibly and only park in designated parking areas. Do not park on grass verges or in meadows. Anglers should try to park leaving a space between vehicles where possible. If unable to do so, park next to an unattended vehicle to ensure social distancing at all times.

Volunteer wardens
It’s been great to see the angling community reach out to Bristol Water by offering to help enforce the current government guidelines. As well as lakeside staff carrying out patrols, volunteer wardens will be helping Bristol Water monitor our waters. Regular anglers have helped by stepping forward to re-iterate the importance of abiding by the current government guidance. Volunteer wardens will help us review the current arrangements periodically to ensure both Bristol Water and its customers are following current guidelines. Any anglers dismissing the government guidelines and requests of the fishery may face exclusion from our waters. Do your bit..." (this applies to birders as well, so let's all keep each other safe - Nige).


Tuesday 12th May [Still cool, but at least it was dry.]

There had been some wader movement overnight, and this evening I found a Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula and 3 Common Sandpipers Actitis hypoleucos on the dam.


Monday 11th May [Cooler in the north wind]

Another brisk 6 mile walk around the lake, as dusk fell, was the best I could do. Again, the 2 Greylags Anser anser were on Holt Farm with the Canada's and Mute Swans. I also had only my third Kestrel Falco tinnunculus sighting at the lake this year - this one hovering over the hedge at Long Bay.


Sunday 10th May

Not a great deal of time available for birding today, so I just had a brisk walk around the lake in the evening using the lanes and footpaths. I saw 2 Greylag Geese Anser anser on Holt Farm with the Canada's and Mute Swans.


Saturday 9th May [Sunny & warm]

I had to drive over the dam to go and get some eggs during the afternoon, and of course, there were two groups of people in the lake! In the evening though, I had the great pleasure of meeting with Ellie (socially distanced of course) to release a bat that had been in the care of Max, part of the team at Bristol Bat Rescue, a voluntary charity (donations always welcome). He is a Nathusius' Pipistrelle Pipistrellus nathusii and we set him free along Butcombe Bank. Thanks to the work of the team, he flew off strongly along the the woodland edge path where he will, no doubt, have quickly had his fill of midges and had the opportunity to socialise with some of the locals before selecting a roost. He came to the UK in a shipment of wood from Belgium, delivered to somewhere in the Bristol area. He was probably hibernating in the wood pile, a favourite site for the species. He had to go into quarantine, but thanks to the team he was fed and regularly flown, so was ready for release today. The bat was given the name 'Waffle', while in care. Nathusius' Pipistrelles are migratory, and are regularly encountered at Blagdon, now that we are actively looking for them. He may just take off and head back across the North Sea and make has way around the Baltic to wherever he came from (a fair old undertaking for a 6-gram bat), or he may just hang out locally for a while. He was ringed, J13588, so it'd be nice to hear where he's got to. Who knows, one of the National project team may trap him again. We hope there will be some video footage of the release, and news of 'Waffle's' visit to Bristol in the media in due course. A good news story, to warm the cockles of your heart, in these difficult times! While at the lake, waiting for the bats to start flying, Ellie and I saw a Kingfisher Alcedo atthis fly in, over the dam too.


Friday 8th May [Sunny & warm]

Being a Bank Holiday I nearly decided not to go anywhere near the lake, but the need for exercise got the better of me towards dusk, so I yomped around the lake again, anticlockwise, following footpaths and lanes. To be honest, due to the late hour and my need to get on with it, the only things I noted were the two Brown Hares Lepus europaeus I watched for a while frolicking around in one of the farm fields on the way.


Thursday 7th May [Sunny & warm]

Another 6 mile walk around the lake this evening, as fitness improves. It was anticlockwise this time, and I saw a male Shoveler Spatula clypeata from Rugmoor Gate, heard a Whitethroat Sylvia communis sing from a hedge nearby on Rugmoor Farm, and a Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca by the first kissing gate as I dropped down from Bellevue Farm (West Town) towards the head of Butcombe Bay along the footpath, which was worth reporting albeit it was away from the lakeside. 

Whitethroat, Somerset Levels, 18th July 2004.Whitethroat, Somerset Levels, 18th July 2004.


Wednesday 6th May [Sunny & warm with ne'er a cloud in the sky]

This evening I did my 6 mile walk around the lake following footpaths and lanes. There was a Mallard Anas platyrhynchos with 4 juveniles at the dam, along with the Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos, and I watched a Little Egret Egretta garzetta stalking the water's edge at Green Lawn, from Butcombe Bank. I timed the ramble to allow me to reach Top End by dusk and going through Nempnett Thrubwell enjoyed watching the 'super moon' rise in all its glory. At Top End I leaned on the gate near the hide awhile, and sure enough spotted my first Hobby Falco subbuteo of the year hawking insects over the trees. Then, as I walked back through Blagdon a Barn Owl Tyto alba flew along The Mead roadside hedge before turning over the road and off behind the houses towards the top of Street End Lane.


Tuesday 5th May [Sunny & warm]

Again, my visit was towards dusk today, and I did see the Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos on the dam, and a pair of Gadwall Mareca strepera feeding on the Spillway with Mallards Anas platyrhynchos. Of more interest, was the guy, his wife, and daughter that turned up and proceeded to start fishing along Butcombe Bank! His wife was chain-smoking and drinking lager, then tossing her cans into the undergrowth behind her, and the fella caught a trout, banged it on the head and hid it in a bag in the undergrowth too. They were reported, of course, but a local lady out walking spoke to them and they left shortly afterwards taking their ill-gotten gains with them.


Monday 4th May [Breezy]

I wasn't able to take my exercise walk until dusk due to care duties and report writing (Avon Bird Report), but when I did reach the dam, I was in for a very pleasant surprise as there was a Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus flying back and forth a little way off the dam wall. It was getting pretty gloomy, so I wasn't able to age the bird reliably, but darkening underwings and no tail band suggest it wasn't a 1st-winter. Whatever it's age, I was very pleased to see it! I heard the usual Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos calls as I walked along the dam, before I stood for a while with the Pipistrelle Pipistrellus spp. bats at the Spillway, watching them feeding as close to the treeline as they could, out of the strong breeze, and as I walked back up the hill there were no fewer than 20 Noctules Nyctalus noctula flying over the road between the Inspection House and the top of Dark Lane.


Sunday 3rd May [Overcast and wet]

Another long walk was planned this morning, nice and early, so I headed down and over the dam, along Butcombe Bay footpath and out to the lanes around Nempnett Thrubwell before reaching Top End and the footpath back along the south side and up into the village - almost exactly six miles from the house. In Butcombe Bay I saw a Mallard Anas platyrhynchos with 2 new young, the apparently deserted Great Crested Grebes nest (unfortunately predictable), heard my first Whitethroat Sylvia communis of the year at Rugmoor, saw a Weasel Mustela nivalis scoot across the lane towards the lake near Selways, and heard my first Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus of the year at Top End. There were quite a few hirundines over Top End, mainly House Martins Delichon urbicum, but also some Swallows Hirundo rustica and a handful of Sand Martins Riparia riparia. As I got back into the village and looked down to the lake while recovering from the climb up the steep hill, it was disappointing to see two joggers heading along the south side road as the drizzle eased off...


Saturday 2nd May

Most of the day was, quite rightly, spent at home. We had a pair of Blackbirds Turdus merula with at least 2 juveniles on the patio and I spotted a number of Holly Blue Celastrina argiolus butterflies still on the wing. The butterflies seem to be having a particularly good year here at home, but it is likely to be the precursor to a population crash as the parasitic ichneumon wasp that kills their caterpillars build up in numbers too. Their population goes through cycles of boom and bust, as do so many other wild creatures.

I didn't get out for a quick walk to the dam and back until dusk, consequently I only heard what I thought was just a single Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos calling in the gloom. But I had a really uplifting few moments standing on the footpath by the spillway under the trees as dozens of bats flew all around me, coming so close that I could feel the wind from their wings on my face as they hunted for their breakfast. A magical experience that I can thoroughly recommend to anyone who is interested.


Friday 1st May

Isn't the year seemingly flying by while we're in lock down? May Day already! I decided to take one of my longer walks late this afternoon and saw 2 Common Sandpipers Actitis hypoleucos and an adult Dunlin Calidris alpina on the dam. There was also a Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus sitting just off Butcombe Bank, that I felt was probably the wrong place to nest, given the footfall along there and number of dogs off leads.

Nigel Milbourne © 2009-24. All Rights Reserved.