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.