Mike Smart


Breeding birds in the Severn and Avon Vales this year

The bird breeding season in the Severn and Avon Vales is almost over, so this seems a good time to offer an update on the results, based on observations made by the many birdwatchers active in this area, particularly, but not exclusively, at the two Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust reserves at Coombe Hill and Ashleworth Ham; and not just waterbirds, though they have been the main focus.  We have paid particular attention this year to identifying fields on which Curlews are breeding.

The beginning of the season was unpromising, because of the flooding which lasted well into April; we haven’t had spring flooding for several years now.  Three pairs of Shelducks (rather more than usual; they are more numerous on the estuary, where they nest in rabbit holes) produced duckings  – at Coombe Hill, Ashleworth and Cobney Meadows; two of these were unusually early in mid-May, despite the flooding, which suggests that they were nesting, as is traditional, in the boles of pollarded willows; the Ashleworth pair was seen to lose their young to a passing fox, but at least some of the other two broods seem to have survived.  The usual breeding pairs of Mute Swans, Greylag and Canada Geese and Mallard occurred, but no other ducks have as yet been proved to nest; some Tufted Ducks will no doubt be nesting somewhere.

Grey Herons and Little Egrets have nested at the usual Vale heronries; today at Coombe Hill, the unusually high number of nine Little Egrets was present, most of them clearly recently fledged juveniles, which no doubt originated in a local heronry.  As for waders, Coombe Hill has been the star site, even though successful rearing of chicks has been very poor. For the first time ever, a pair of Avocets attempted to nest; this was hardly unexpected, as there are colonies at Slimbridge and on the Worcs Wildlife Trust reserve at Upton Warren near Droitwich; sadly, they abandoned their attempt fairly early on, but we may hope to see them trying again in future years.  A pair of Oystercatchers successfully raised two chicks on the island.  At least nine Lapwing nests were seen from the hide, but only two produced chicks and both broods seem to have disappeared, which is pretty depressing; there have been few reports from other sites, though one or two pairs seen to be nesting on maize fields in the Vales .  A pair of Redshanks also nested at Coombe Hill for the first time for several years; they produced two chicks, but neither reached the flying stage; no records of nesting Redshanks at any other site have been received.  At Ashleworth, only Coot and Mallard seem to have nested successfully on the reserve, though two pairs of Curlews nested on the SSSI, just outside the reserve, one of them successfully raising two chicks.  No nesting Redshanks and very few Lapwings have been found on other sites in the Vales in Gloucestershire, though several have been successful at other sites on the Severn and Avon in Worcestershire.

As for Curlews, the wet weather of recent weeks has meant late hay cutting, which may have helped them to bring off young chicks successfully.  We have found three adult Curlews with definite broods of chicks in the last ten days, and strongly suspect (from the agitated behaviour of the parent) that at least three more pairs have raised chicks, which are notoriously difficult to find in the long grass.  The Curlew is a well recognised and much loved species in the area, and many farmers are willing to delay hay cutting when they know there is a nesting Curlew on their land.  It is very striking that these adult Curlews (which are highly faithful to the same breeding field, year after year) nest predominantly in ancient hay meadows, so we have been paying greater attention to botany; if you look after the hay meadows (a very desirable conservation objective in itself), you will look after the breeding Curlews – and other ground-nesting birds like Skylarks and maybe other waders too.

Among other breeding birds, there have been no signs of Quail or Sported Crake this year (both probably bred last year).  Ringing at Ashleworth produces good data on nesting songbirds, and it seems that Sedge Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Whitethroat and Reed Bunting have had a good year, with at least one pair of Grasshopper Warbler.

Autumn migration has already begun, with a lone Spoonbill at Coombe Hill in June, the first returning Snipe and Green Sandpipers from mid-June, and already returning Teal, Greenshank, Whinchats and (rather unusually away from the estuary) a Bar-tailed Godwit.


Latest news on the breeding Curlew survey in the Severn and Avon Vales

Below are further notes on the survey of breeding Curlews in the Severn and Avon Vales in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, as of mid July. The survey is being carried out because of the increasing realisation that conservation of Curlews (both on breeding sites and in wintering areas) is one of the principal bird conservation issues in UK. Similar breeding surveys have been carried on in other parts of lowland England, as well as on the upland breeding areas throughout UK.

  • The nesting season started late because of flooding which continued into mid-April.
  • Although the breeding Curlews were quite obvious and vocal (with lots of bubbling song-flights) over their territories in May, they went quiet and became much more difficult to find during June.  In June, when the eggs would be expected to hatch, the adults became much more discreet; they often kept out of the way in the long grass, only emerging if you got fairly close to the area of grass where the chicks were presumably located; if they did have chicks, their very agitated calls made this pretty obvious.
  • Some birds clearly lost their eggs or young; but the adults seemed to hang about close to the breeding sites, remaining much quieter than birds with young; this makes the picture much more complicated and difficult to interpret.
  • Several farmers in the area have contacted me before hay cutting, asking me to check whether there were breeding Curlews on their fields, and offering to delay hay making if breeding Curlews are found with young.
  • By mid July, the breeding season is almost over.  Several adult Curlews have been seen with full-grown young on hayfields.  This rather early date is something of a surprise to me: I thought it was a late year because of the April flooding, but the young seem to be fledging slightly earlier than usual.
  • Because of damp, miserable weather in the last couple of weeks, hay cutting has been delayed; this extra period of grace may well have helped more breeding Curlews to bring off their young successfully.
  • Curlews will no doubt disappear from the Severn and Avon meadows in the next couple of weeks, moving off to wintering sites on estuaries and round the coast; some birds from further north may be seen moving through. From early August, the focus on Curlew observations will change to the estuary.
  • Over the Hasfield/Ashleworth area in Gloucestershire, a Curlew was seen on 6 July, flying high downriver and taking no notice of local breeding birds – probably a bird that had finished the breeding cycle further north and was on its way to the estuary.
  • In the same site (where two breeding pairs had been noted throughout the spring and early summer) a very anxious adult male was giving alarm calls over a hayfield on 7 July; it was still there, equally anxious, on 9 July, accompanying two full grown chicks, which could just fly (an early date, it seems to me); by 12 July there was no sign of them and they had probably moved off to wintering areas.
  • At Upham Meadow, Twyning (Gloucestershire), where hay cutting is always relatively late, and is staggered (leaving large swathes of uncut hay as a refuge for young Curlews), another anxious male was seen on 15 July, with two flying birds of the year nearby.
  • Near Bredon’s Hardwick on the Worcestershire bank of the Avon, another anxious male was found on 16 July and, shortly afterwards, a flying young bird was seen.  This is a site recognised by the famer as a regular Curlew breeding field; he had seen a non-flying young Curlew a week earlier, and had therefore not cut the hay over a large part of the field.
  • It is probably significant that all three of the above sites are very secluded, with little or no disturbance from visitors (especially dog-walkers).
  • At several other sites along the Avon, both in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, very agitated adults with the characteristic alarm call have been seen in the last ten days; young (flying or not) were not found, but were almost certainly present; the chicks’ natural reaction, even if they can fly, is to crouch in the grass, where they are very difficult to find.  So it is thought that at least three other pairs successfully raised young.
  • At some sites where breeding attempts had been noted earlier in the season, adult Curlews have been noted, but without the alarm calls and with no sign of anxiety.  It is thought that at these sites, the adults had lost eggs or young and were staying on near the site after the failure of their breeding attempt.
  • Thus, at the Severn Ham, Tewkesbury, (where a pair successfully brought off chicks last year), the farmers who had hay cutting rights were all ready to delay hay making if young Curlews were found.  But although one (perhaps two) pairs of Curlews had tried to nest there, it seems they lost their eggs or young (probably to predators such as fox, crow or badger), so had no chicks by the time of hay making.
  • I am sure that there are more pairs that I don’t know about, especially further up the Worcestershire Avon.  I would be very pleased to have any more reports on the progress of the season, there or elsewhere.

More long-term issues:

  • Mary Colwell, who earlier in the year undertook a 500 mile from Northern Ireland to Lincolnshire to highlight the plight of the Curlew (see page 61 of the latest RSPB magazine, in a broad article on Curlews and other waders), has been back to Gloucestershire, together with Phil Sheldrake of RSPB.  We are planning an all-day workshop as a follow-up to Curlew surveys throughout lowland England (and as a prelude to efforts next year), probably on next World Wetland Day, Thursday 2 February 2017; watch this space for further details.
  • Despite my limited botanical knowledge, I have been looking more closely at the botany of hay meadows in the Severn and Avon Vales.  It seems to me that most Curlews are nesting on herb-rich ancient hay meadows, and that if you look after good hay meadows (a highly legitimate conservation aim in itself), you will protect many of the nesting Curlews (and other ground nesting species too – Skylark, Yellow Wagtail, Corn Bunting – and probably other nesting waders such as Lapwing, Redshank and Snipe, though these tend to prefer rather wetter sites than Curlew).   So I shall be talking to county record centres about marshalling botanical data, so that it becomes easier to identify and monitor the best hay meadows in each county (Top Twenty? Top Fifty?  Are they all recognised as SSSIs or Key Wildlife sites?).

In Memoriam Lawrence Skipp

LawrenceLawrence Skipp, who died in a road accident in the Forest of Dean on 2 July at the age of only 38, was a general naturalist of exceptionally broad interests.  I have known him for fifteen years or more, and usually met him in the hides and lanes round the reserves at Ashleworth and Coombe Hill.  His base was in the Hartpury/ Tibberton area, and the Severn Vale and the Forest of Dean of the county were the two areas where he was particularly active. I am grateful to his father, Dave, who has provided more details about the life and interests of his son.

He would sit for hours in the hides, usually wearing his green and brown camouflage gear, often very late in the day, or even into the night, since he knew that birds often become more active at that time and do interesting things that can’t be seen by day.  As Dave notes ‘Several times this year I have been in a hide with him around dusk time, when you can hardly see your hand in front of your face, and there he is scribbling away without really looking at what he was writing. He seemed to have a knack at writing “blind”.  I will miss him coming round to check on weather forecasts and sighting websites, to be followed by a running commentary from him on what he expected would be seen in the next few days here & there based on wind / weather/ migration patterns’.

In his youth, as his father relates ‘Lawrence was a keen Gloucester Young Ornithologists Club member, a captain of the Hartpury School Nature Team and a mean sprinter on the track. He always had a wildlife pond wherever he lived, and would spend hours with his backside in the air and his head at the water surface, marvelling at the antics of the newts and general pond life as they went about their daily business. When he wasn’t doing that, he was reading natural history books, drawing, or bird watching. His first real job was with the Gloucestershire Trust for Nature Conservation, until he unfortunately suffered a back problem that needed spinal surgery which left him plagued with pain. Later he did voluntary care work for the Animal Rescue Centre, allied to Hartpury College, where they called him the “Bird-Man”. He was always coming home covered in cuts, bites and bird poop but he absolutely loved it. He was the sort of person who wouldn’t kill a fly, but he would fairly happily feed it to the resident wild spiders in the webs around his flat unless of course it was something special or one he hadn’t seen before, in which case he would capture it under a glass tumbler to view and sketch it thoroughly before release’.

His strength was his attention to detail, of which there are many testimonies in the hide log books at Ashleworth and Coombe Hill, in his characteristic neat and elegant handwriting, done with a fine nibbed pen: he had real artistic flair. As his father notes ‘He loved his art, and was gifted with a keen eye for detail and an ability to transfer it to a beautifully drawn replica. He was so excited when was asked to contribute bird studies for inclusion in the “The Birds of Gloucestershire”, but unfortunately had a bad car accident in 2011 which left him wheelchair bound for almost a year and unable to follow that through. His love of nature, art, and bird-life in particular kept him strong and got him through those bad times back up to relative fitness and back out into “the field” and into drawing again. He never really fully recovered, and pain still plagued him daily, but he soldiered on and fought his demons head on.  Perhaps that’s why he loved his “camo-gear” so much, as you would never really catch sight of him out of uniform, ready for action in the hunt for an elusive rarity or just simply marvelling in the beauty of the humble iridescent Starling’.

He did find quite a number of rare birds in the county: he was one of the few who saw the Scarlet Rosefinch at Ashleworth; he was the one who actually identified the Stilt Sandpiper at Coombe Hill (after Les Brown had seen it without identifying it); he found the singing Spotted Crake at Coombe Hill (late at night of course) last year.  I remember him persuading half a dozen of us to join him at Ashleworth round midnight in early June, when an unusually loud and voluble warbler song had convinced him a Marsh Warbler had turned up: it proved to be ‘just’ a Sedge Warbler, one that had probably failed elsewhere, and had moved in for a fresh breeding attempt, which would explain the sudden bursts of song.  He was with us on 10 May this year when Coombe Hill had such a succession of unusual migrants brought in by a south east wind – Grey Plover, Turnstone and Sanderling, plus overflying Black and Arctic Terns, and he was the one who first picked out the terns.  The log books reveal him writing down details of things as they happened in front of him: he would record individual variations in the plumages of Curlews as they arrived (he was the one who most frequently recorded the colour ringed bird at Ashleworth, and he showed me Curlew chicks in a hayfield near Haw Bridge); he recorded not only birds, but invertebrates too, especially dragonflies.  One of the last text messages I received from him (in his usual textspeak) on 19 June ran as follows: “Would you mind asking Ingrid Twissel if teneral Lestes sponsa ever show pale pterostigma pls?  If not, i saw Lestes viridis at coombe the day I last saw you”.  Sadly he died before I could pass on Ingrid’s reply, so let me pass it on here: “Chalcolestes viridis (Willow Emerald Damselfly) is larger than Lestes sponsa (Emerald Damselfly), and has pale wing-spots outlined in black, but at present is only found in south-east England. Other immature/teneral species of Lestes have pale wing-spots which darken on maturity, so this is likely to be what Lawrence saw. L.sponsa is the only species that breeds at present in Gloucestershire. The only other sighting of another Emerald (Southern Emerald Lestes barbarus) occurred on the R. Avon, east of Keynsham in August 2006.”

So sad that such a gifted and observant naturalist should be snatched away so soon, and that many of his observations die with him.  There will be a simple non-religious ceremony at Gloucester Crematorium at 3.p.m. on Monday 1 August, at which all will be welcome.

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Latest news on the breeding Curlew survey

A real movement to study and protect breeding Curlews in lowland Britain seems to be developing.  Apart from our efforts in the Severn and Avon Vales in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, Phil Sheldrake is busy on Salisbury Plain and has contacts with Curlew observers in the New Forest; surveys are being carried out in two areas of the Upper Thames Catchment (through RSPB Otmoor and Jenny Phelps of  Gloucestershire FWAG) and there’s a demonstration on one of the farms near Faringdon tomorrow); Phil and I are planning to visit the Somerset Levels next week, to see how their Curlews are doing.  Furthermore Mary Colwell is now in the middle of her 500 mile walk from Ireland to East Anglia to highlight the plight of the Curlew: she came to the Severn and Avon Vales in early April before beginning her walk; you can see notes on her visit to our area, plus details of how her walk is going, on her website www.curlewmedia.com  The latest edition of RSPB’s magazine “Nature’s Home” carries a note about the lowland Curlew surveys on page 39.

We hope at the end of the breeding season to arrange some kind of get together for all those interested in Curlews and who have taken part in the surveys.

Now for some updates on the situation in the Severn and Avon Vales in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire:

  • In the Gloucestershire section we had April flooding for the first time since 2012 (thanks to Storm Katie coinciding with high elver tides); this meant that many of the traditional breeding sites were under water until mid-April, and still remain very wet; so 2016 is definitely a late season.
  • Whether because of the wet conditions, or because of the continuing decline in Curlew numbers, I have the impression that there are fewer Curlews than usual in the traditional breeding haunts this year: that’s only an impression, and I hope I shall be proved wrong as the season advances.  Several people have sent NIL returns for sites usually occupied.
  • Many pairs at traditional sites have spent the month of April holding territory, just standing round (often in pairs), showing other pairs that this field is occupied.  I haven’t seen much chasing or courtship behaviour: this is in fact quite hard to see, because they stand still, apparently doing nothing, for a very long time, and you need patience, waiting at the edge of a field behind your telescope to see them actually indulging in courtship chases.
  • The grass has now grown belly high to a Curlew, and I think they are just now in the process of laying.  Typically, a pair will stand feeding in a field, then one (the female which can be distinguished by its longer de-curved bill and larger size) walks away, often with a particular gait, looking alert and keeping close to the ground to avoid attention, and disappears out of sight.  Meanwhile the male stands round, on guard.  Phil Sheldrake tells me that he has observed this kind of behaviour on Salisbury Plain, and has pinpointed several nests in this way.
  • I have been to the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust reserve at Coombe Hill a couple of time in the evenings, to look at numbers coming to roost.  Numbers were small because of the flooding in early April, but the last two visits have produced only five and four roosting birds, another reason for thinking numbers are low.
  • Two of the birds colour ringed in autumn from 2010 to 2013 on the Severn estuary have been re-sighted on their traditional fields, one at the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust reserve at Ashleworth, one near Twyning.  No one has as yet found the colour-ringed bird seen in previous breeding seasons in the Queenshill Rough/ Ripple Lake area.
  • I have been to see John Belsey at the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust reserve of Upton Warren, where there is a tradition  of Curlew roosts; interestingly, these turn out to be mainly in winter, with numbers dropping off in summer; so the situation there is clearly different, with wintering rather than breeding birds coming to roost.
  • Carrion Crow and Magpie control is practised by many farmers in the area around Haw Bridge.  They are convinced that excessive numbers of predators is one of the reasons for the decline of breeding Curlews (which is  what the British Birds article in November 2015 said).  Foxes at Coombe Hill cause panic among the waders present.
  • It is hoped that mowing on the Severn Ham at Tewkesbury will be flexible (like last year), to allow any chicks produced there to fledge before the hay is cut.

I’d welcome any comments on the above remarks, and – even more so! – any additional observations that any of you may have made.


Otters seen at Coombe Hill

Water levels at Coombe Hill are currently quite high, because of recent rain and the high level of the Severn, made even higher by high tides between 6 and 12 April. On the morning of 9 April, Andy Lodge was lucky enough to see and photograph three otters very close to the Grundon Hide. There have been more and more records of otters along the Severn in recent years, indicating that this once scarce species is returning, and that water quality must be improving, but not many people get such good views; the Lapwing was clearly interested too!

Otters 2016.04.09 DSCN0269

Otters 2016.04.09 DSCN0273

 

 

 

 


Coombe Hill on 16 April

Horrid weather with snow showers early in the morning, leaving probably the heaviest snowfall of the year on the Cotswolds and a little snow on the southern end of the Malverns, and bringing large numbers of hirundines down over Coombe Hill; once the snow passed, fair numbers of singing summer migrants; no sign of the cranes seen yesterday by Andy Jayne.  Water levels continuing to rise (over the top of the stage boards again, water on the boardwalk) , making life very difficult for any ground nesting birds but nice variety pof breeding and passage waders.

4 Mute Swans (one with nest by board walk); 6 Greylags; 2 Canada Geese; 6 Shelducks; 3 Wigeon; 6 Gadwall; 150 Teal (still lots of them about, are they going to nest??); 20 Mallard; 20 Shoveler; 3 Tufted Ducks; 3 Little Egrets; 2 Grey Herons; 1 Cormorant landed; 15 Coot (family still with four growing chicks on canal); 2 Oystercatchers (mating seen); 20 Lapwings (lots of aerial display, and some display on the ground with raised tail, but no sign of any sitting birds, either on the reserve which was under water, or on the barley field which has recently been ploughed and sown); 1 Little Ringed Plover; 2 Snipe; 1 Curlew (only a bit of bubbling); 1 Whimbrel; 1 Black-tailed Godwit (in bright summer plumage); 2 Redshanks (very lively, lots of trilling and display, looks as though they would like to nest if the water levels ever drop); 1 Green Sandpiper, 10 Black-headed Gulls moving through; hundreds of Swallows and dozens of Sand Martins, plus a single House Martin, flying low early on and landing on willows to get out of the wind and snow; 2 Yellow Wagtails; 3 Pied Wagtails; one male Wheatear; at least one singing Cetti’s Warbler; about four singing Sedge Warblers; one singing Whitethroat; 1 singing Lesser Whitethroat; 3 singing Blackcaps; 2 singing Willow Warblers; at least three singing Chiffchaffs; 2 singing Reed Buntings.


Update on the 2016 breeding Curlew survey in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire

A note on the Curlew survey and a requests for records was posted on the GNS website earlier in March.  Below is a summary of activities during March, the first month of the survey:

Thanks, first of all, to the many observers who have submitted reports of Curlews in the last month.  Some salient points:

  • Mary Colwell-Hector is undertaking a 500 mile walk through Curlew breeding areas in Ireland and England to draw attention to the plight of the Curlew; you can read about her project on curlewmedia.com .
  • I have sent Mary some information about our survey, which she has posted on her website.
  • Mary is coming to Gloucestershire next week, and Phil Sheldrake of RSPB and I are going to visit Upham Meadow along the Avon with her.
  • By the end of March, most Severn and Avon Vale Curlews seem to be on territory (as you would expect).  Most of the males are bubbling over their territory, or walking round with their mates, asserting ownership of the territory.
  • The weather this March has not been very kind to nesting Curlews in the Severn and Avon Vales: there was a big flood (following floods in January and February) from 7 to 15 March, and the waters have come up again in the last four or five days, following the passage of storm “Katie”.  So this may delay the nesting season.
  • Numbers of territorial pairs do not seem to be very high so far; apart from a couple of sites like the Severn Ham at Tewkesbury and Upham Meadow, most sites seem to have only a single pair.
  • As regards the colour-ringed birds that winter on the Severn estuary, four have so far been recorded back on nesting territory (they are very site faithful and return every year to the same breeding site, generally to the same field); one was back in Netherlands by 22 February, one was back on the Yorkshire Moors by 18 March, and the two birds that nest locally at Ashleworth Ham and Upham Meadow have been seen in March.  Please keep an eye out for any colour-ringed Curlews in your own patch.
  • Finally, I have tried to check on communal roosts of Curlews which have been recorded in previous years; so far not much luck, because my evening visits have coincided with flooding, when the birds don’t concentrate in one place.  It would be particularly interesting to know if there are any evening roosts by water at other sites, for example along the Avon (maybe Bredon’s Hardwick Pits or Kemerton Lake NR?); or the gravel pits along the Severn in Worcestershire?  Or at Upton Warren?

Please submit any records to Mike Smart at smartmike@btinternet.com


Please help us to help the Curlew

20120802 Coombe Hill Curlew juvenileMessage from Gordon Kirk, Chairman of the Gloucestershire Ornithological Coordinating Commitee (GOCC):

“For many people the wonderful ‘bubbling’ summer song of the Curlew is one of the iconic sounds of the countryside, but sadly it is heard less and less; the UK’s breeding population is estimated to have fallen by 43% in 20 years.  Curlew has very recently been added to the “Red List”, and is now considered by many to be the UK’s highest conservation priority bird species, because of the high proportion of the international population that breeds in UK.  Curlews are not raising enough chicks to sustain their population; predation, habitat change in upland breeding areas, and modern farming practices seem to be the main reasons.  Although most British Curlews breed in upland habitats, there are also important lowland populations, mostly in hay-meadows but also in various habitats where there is rough grassland.  In Gloucestershire and Worcestershire Curlews still breed in the Severn and Avon vales, and there are a few pairs on the Cotswolds.  These birds can often be helped by involving farmers and other landowners and working with them; for example it may be possible to delay the hay harvest in some fields for a few days to enable young birds to fledge.

“To try to help Curlews, a local project is aiming to find all our breeding birds in 2016 and see what help can be offered to them and the landowners on whose land they are nesting. The area involved is Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Wiltshire and the partnership includes the Wildlife Trusts, Natural England, RSPB and the Gloucestershire Ornithological Coordinating committee.  A small team of experienced volunteers will be studying the well-known sites, but because Curlews can be quite catholic in their choice of habitat we are also asking people to report any Curlew seen or heard in potential breeding habitat between 1 March and 31 July so it can be followed up. We are particularly keen to hear from you if you are a farmer or landowner with Curlews on your land.

“Please report your sightings to Mike Smart, either by email smartmike@btinternet.com or by phone (landline 01452.421131, mobile 07816.140513).”


GNS Field Meeting at Minsterworth Ham on 20 March 2016

A small group of members took part in a field meeting at Minsterworth Ham on Sunday 20 March.  This is one of the “Severn Hams”, the large grassy meadows in the floodplain of the Severn, which take up winter floodwater, and are cultivated, mainly as hay meadows, in summer; other Severn Hams include Ashleworth Ham, Coombe Hill Meadows and the Severn Ham at Tewkesbury, all popular and well covered by naturalists.  Minsterworth Ham (which also includes the so-called “Corn Ham”), on the other hand, has been rather neglected, perhaps because it is rather isolated (in the large southward bend in the course of the Severn between Minsterworth and Over), though it is hardly remote, being only a few miles from the centre of the City of Gloucester.  Being very close to the course of the Severn, a number of birds pass over the site, which has regularly been mentioned as a possible for wetland restoration.

The participants used public footpaths to walk down to the river through the Corn Ham, returning by a parallel footpath.  The landscape is one of very wide open spaces, punctuated by very deep drainage ditches, with hedges of hawthorn, willow and oak; one of the attractions of the site is the chance to see well known features from a new angle – not just the Cathedral, but the looming presence of the Landfill Site, the reserve at Hempsted, and Windmill Hill and Elmore Back.

Initial impressions were that much of the present grassland has at some stage in the past been ploughed up, so that the botanical interest of the vegetation may be limited (but more visits later in the flowering season will be required to confirm this).  One of the birds being sought was Curlew, for which a breeding survey is being organised this spring in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, as well as other lowland counties; no display flights were noted, and only a single bird was heard (though it was a cold windy day and conditions may not have been perfect).  A couple of Lapwings showed signs of breeding display, and about a dozen Shelducks, mainly in pairs, may well have been seeking nesting sites in holes such as rabbit holes or pollarded willow boles.    Half a dozen Cormorants, some in flashy summer plumage, were loafing in a tree on the river bank.  One unexpected finding was a couple of male Ruff, feeding round a shallow pool remaining from the winter floods; a few of this species have recently been seen round floodwater at Ashleworth and Coombe Hill, no doubt migrants on their way to breeding grounds further north in continental Europe.  Minsterworth Ham used to be popular as a resting place for gulls from the Landfill Site across the river; with the decreasing numbers of gulls present at the Landfill Site nowadays, only a couple of hundred were found during the GNS visit, some Black-headed Gulls coming into summer plumage and a few Common Gulls, as well as the ubiquitous Lesser Blackbacks and Herring Gulls.   A large flock of some 500 Fieldfares was feeding on the grass, so there were clearly plenty of invertebrates in the soil.

A number of Lichen records were made, some frog spawn was noted in one ditch, and the mammals seen included fox, rabbit and grey squirrel.


GNS Annual General Meeting 2016

The GNS Annual General Meeting took place as planned on Friday 18 March in Cirencester, with the President, Mrs Anna Ball, in the chair.  The Meeting re-elected the existing Executive Committee, except for Lynne Garner and Gordon Avery who had stood down in the course of the year; it elected Ben Locke and Martin Matthews as members of the Executive Committee.  It was agreed not to appoint a new Hon Secretary, and to go ahead with the redistribution of tasks as already agreed: Andy Oliver will take over the initial screening of Grant Applications; the Chairman will complete the annual return to the Charities’ Commission.   The Committee is looking for a volunteer to act as Minutes Secretary.

David Scott-Langley had stood down after ten years as Chairman of the Cirencester Branch, but remains on the Cirencester Branch Committee as Treasurer; Andy Bluett has joined Ken Cservenka and Rob Curtis as the other members of the quartet; there will be a rolling Chairmanship.

Gordon Avery (former Bird Recorder), Roger Gaunt (former Moth Recorder), David Haigh (Spider Recorder), Colin Twissell (Amphibian Recorder) were appointed Honorary Members of the Society; all have made major contributions to the recording of these taxa; Colin thanked the Society on their behalf.

David Scott-Langley has also for many years been Chair of the Scientific and Publications Sub-Committee, a really crucial position within the Society Society.  David of course remains Recorder for a variety of invertebrates and hence a member of this Sub-Committee, and is to continue editing “The Gloucester Naturalist”, quite apart from continuing as Vice Chairman of the Society.