Ham Wall is the name of a wonderful bird reserve in the Somerset Levels. There is no ham there and no wall, but the name comes from Anglo Saxon hamm for water meadow, and the wall was probably a bank to control the water. Where there is water once was peat, and you can see the black soil where the moles have pushed it to the surface. The single track road, straight as a die, tips and humps where the peat has sunk or dried. Accross the road is a big black mound where peat is still being dug.
It’s only 78 miles from Cilycwm – at least it would be flying. By road it’s 128, but much of it is motorway so takes about 3 hours. One plant dominates: if you don’t like Phragmites a.k.a Norfolk Reed then you won’t like Ham Wall, and you won’t think much of its neighbour Shapwick Heath either. Between them they cover an area of 5 square miles, divided roughly one third water, a few patches of woodland and the rest Norfolk Reed. At this time of year the tops are silver and the stalks pale brown, and if you catch the sun behind them they are fabulous. Silver, brown, fawn, buff with occasional green: it’s a subdued pallet in winter – subtle and very beautiful.
The birds tend to be brown too. At one extreme are the snipe, so camouflaged as to be almost invisible against the reeds. The female Shoveller ducks too can melt into the background, but the drakes don’t even try.
The bitterns (brown again) have alas also proved invisible on this trip, but you can’t miss the King of the Marsh, the Marsh Harrier in its old 50s British Rail brown and cream.
Nor can you miss the spectacular (though not brown) Great White Egrets, one of our most recent colonisers which have their British headquarters here.
In between are literally thousands of ducks. On the great lake at Shapwick Heath the water is dotted with ducks as far as you can see – possibly tens of thousands. The typical species will be Wigeon, Teal, Shoveller, Gadwal Tufted and Mallard, though Wigeon outnumber all the rest.
So for anyone who loves water birds and is not colour prejudiced, this is one of the best places in Britain. I spent a glorious 2 hours in the “Tor Hide” and took over 300 pictures, of which 90% were of one family of Marsh Harriers. I’ve tried many times to get good clear pictures of these magnificent creatures, but they seem to know exactly how near they can approach the hides so that there is not quite enough light to get the fine detail. They are always just that little bit too far away, damn them. Still, just watching them was fascinating. They had two favourite places in the reeds where they would land, mostly it seemed just to preen, but one of the spots looked like a source of food.
Then they would rise and follow a prescribed route quartering the ground between the hide and Glastonbury Tor before swinging south and east.
I also spent some time at Steart Marshes to the South of Bridgwater, but there were no big brown birds there. This new, huge reserve is tide dependent, and even though I was there at a normal high tide, only one of the smart new hides had any birds at all in front of it, and that was on some freshwater lagoons. For the main reserve you need to be there at a Spring (extra high) tide. Reminder to self – check when they occur. I did get some nice pictures of Knot flying though – in the low morning sunlight.