The Somerset Levels: 17-19th January 2020

An entry to our 2020 Writing Competition, Roderick Maclean travelled on our 'The Somerset Levels' tour.

When one of your tour leaders comments in a reflective, slightly hushed, tone that, “it’s the best thing I’ve seen in 24 years of birding”, and the other that it’s the second best Starling murmuration (of a very large number) he’s ever seen, then you know you’ve witnessed something truly remarkable. And it was. Not bad for our first murmuration, well done to Matt, Matt and Naturetrek!

Just after the sun had set on a cold but sunny winter’s day, many large groups of Starlings, eventually numbering more than half a million, came together from all points of the compass, filling up the beautiful, clear, January sky, to eventually roost in the reed beds of the Somerset Levels.

But this wasn’t the end of the murmuration. Oh no, the raptors had other ideas! Fearful of being picked off, the Starlings were very nervous and wave upon panicking wave left their initial roosts to noisily reposition in hopefully safer spots in the reed beds. And then, 40 minutes after it started, the commotion was over. The end, for that evening, of a truly incredible natural phenomenon!

Less discussed, but almost as amazing, is the Starling eruption at daybreak when the roosting birds head off for the day in search of food. This required a 7am start from the hotel. Matt said, “that’s not 7:01am, it is 7am!” And as a result, we got to the reed beds just in time to witness another cacophonous commotion!

But there was so much more to this trip than just the Starlings! Indeed, the first mammal we encountered was Snowball, the hotel cat, who greeted us from atop the reception desk as we checked in. Then there was the fox cosily curled up outside the front door of a snug country cottage and of course the many Roe Deer. Wells was a wonderful base. The hotel opposite the Cathedral and the moated Bishop’s Palace, with its resident Kingfishers and Swans, five minutes away.

Our massively knowledgeable tour leaders, the two Matts, helped us to identify 70 of the 100 birds on the species checklist and a few that weren’t even on it. Their ability to spot with the naked eye flocks of Golden Plover, Lapwing, Snipe, etc. in the far distance was nothing short of remarkable. Naturetrek’s special ops training perhaps?!

So we now know our Marsh Tit from our Coal, Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits. The Bearded Tit remained elusive, maybe next time! Oh, and we also know our whistling Wigeon from our cooing Pigeon. Some of the birding highlights seen from a private RSPB hide were Crane, Marsh and Hen Harriers and a Merlin. From another RSPB hide we saw Snipe, Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler at very close range and further away, Pintail and Black-tailed Godwit.

In summary, the trip was highly professional and informative. Effortlessly well organised but at the same time fun, relaxed and unhurried with many opportunities for fascinating chats with our inspiring tour leaders. Oh, and let’s not forget the lovely country pubs with excellent beer and lunchtime food! We loved it, hopefully the first of many Naturetrek holidays. Thank you!

Read more about our 'The Somerset Levels' holiday.