A deep bellow echoes across the flat landscape, followed by a strangled scream. With a backdrop of golden grasses, glowing in the morning sun, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were listening to life and death on the African savannah. Instead, this is a wetland safari in Somerset and a hunt for an alternative ‘big five’ – a handful of secretive species that elude the eye, but burst with song in spring.
Shapwick Heath is a national nature reserve on the county’s low-lying levels and moors. Visit early in the day and as you explore the trails that lead through a tranquil wilderness of reedbeds, wet meadows and ferny woodland you can hear the bellow of bitterns. It’s an extraordinary sound that can carry for up to three miles and brings to mind the grunt of a lion when heard close up. These brown-streaked herons are thriving here.
And that strangled scream? Water rails, another wetland specialist. They’re difficult to spot but have a cry that sends shivers down the neck of even the toughest twitcher.
Near the reserve’s entrance on Shapwick Road, a boardwalk (made from recycled plastic and suitable for wheelchairs) leads to one of Britain’s oldest man-made footpaths. Neolithic tribes constructed the wooden Sweet Track across the swampy ground almost 6,000 years ago and it was discovered, preserved in the peat, in 1970. From here, you can follow the footsteps of these early settlers and the track’s original route on the reserve’s Wet Woodland Walk.
Passing towering reedbeds and damp stands of alder, willow and silver birch, this path provides plenty of opportunities to stop and listen for warblers. Don’t be put off by their ‘little brown job’ appearance for, while they
may look similar, their songs are noticeably different.
Willow warblers return from beyond the Sahara in early spring and pour out their liquid trickle of descending notes from the tree tops. Reed warblers return later and sing persistently with a repetitive, rhythmic tune that reminds me of a Space Invaders game from the 1980s. But perhaps the most characteristic call of all belongs to the Cetti’s warbler.
This resident species, which is more common here than anywhere else in the UK, is typically shy, but announces its presence with loud, almost arrogant, self-confidence. Read Simon Barnes’s book How To Be a Bad Birdwatcher for a memorably naughty aid to recognising its call.
The herald of spring
Follow the signs to Decoy Hide and, with the sun climbing higher in the sky, pause for a few minutes of quiet reflection as you look out across the open water.
If you’re lucky, you may hear bearded tits calling to each other with a dull pinging like the modern bicycle bells that you flick. Patience is needed for more than a fleeting glimpse of these charming little birds, but their exotic looks are well worth the wait.
Retracing your route brings you back to the main path, which was once the Somerset Central Railway line. Built on the tow path of the short-lived Glastonbury and Highbridge canal, it has since become a popular cycle route.
On your way, keep an ear open for that quintessential sound of spring: the call of the cuckoo. Its loud, two-tone chime carries far across this open countryside. In Africa, from where the bird returns in April, the cuckoo is associated with the coming of the rains. But here in Britain, its familiar song is said to foretell good weather. A prediction that I’d like to echo.
Image © Simon Huguet and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons
HOW TO GET THERE
Leave the M5 at J23 and take the A39. After six miles, turn left to Shapwick Village and follow signs for Shapwick Heath NNR.
FIND OUT MORE
Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve
0300 060 2570
The Ring O’Bells
High Street, Ashcott TA7 9PZ
18th-century freehouse pub offering home-cooked food
and local ales.
60 St Marys Road, Meare
Historic country house hotel in the middle of the moors that has regular special offers on birdwatching weekends.
Somerset Crafts Centre
Shapwick Road, Westhay BA6 9TT
Art and craft inspired by the area. Located at the Avalon Marshes Centre, just a short walk from the reserve.