Meet this (not so) little chap. A Whooper Swan. Absolutely beautiful isn’t he? Well, before last week we had no idea these stunning creatures existed, let alone that they could be seen in Somerset if you know where to look – or more accurately, if you have an expert to show you! ;) We discovered a whole ‘bevvy’ of Whoopers visiting from Iceland and so much more, when we went out onto the Levels on a wildlife tour with brilliant guide Stephen Hembery of Wildlife Somerset.
Stephen’s a born and bred Somersetter, with a twinkle in his eye and an infectious enthusiasm for the wildlife in our unique county. Ever since he was knee high to a grasshopper (we didn’t spot any of those by the way) he’s been a seeker and spotter of all creatures great and small, and as Stephen tells us;
“I grew up in Puriton, walked the moors and have a real love for the wildlife here so I thought, let’s show people what’s going on.”
Stephen’s created Wildlife Somerset so we can all share in the amazing wildlife there is to see out there - and to benefit from his knowledge and passion along the way. Basically, if you want to spend a Somerset sunset or sunrise Crane spotting, watch wildlife by moonlight, hire a private hide on pond or pasture land and wait for the owls, badgers and foxes to come out to play, Stephen's the man to make it happen. He’ll take you to parts of Somerset moorland you wouldn’t normally get access to and help you spot the amazing creatures that are right on our countryside doorstep!
“We get people of all ages, from 8 to 83, coming along on the tours… people from all over the world, as well as those who have lived in Somerset all their lives,” Stephen tells us. “Every time I take people out, we see something new and I get such a buzz from showing people the amazing animals and birds they’ve never seen before”.
And we get some of that buzz on our own trip out with Stephen! :) It all starts as we pile into his trusty 4x4 and head off to Aller Moor to see what surprises the crisp Winter’s afternoon has in store for us.
It’s pretty grey out, with the sun trying its hardest to punch through the cloud, but when we arrive at our first stop, the moody weather just makes it all the more atmospheric (and of course, we feel like heroes for braving the cold and potential drizzle!! ;)).
Stephen gives us our most important tour tool – binoculars - and off we go to see what we can spot! Three things are on my mind:
One: I’ve previously been completely crap at working binoculars – but with a few laughs and a bit of patience, Stephen shows me how to actually use them properly and my several year ‘bins’ phobia is finally conquered. Woo hoo!
Two: The line “spot a rare one for me” that Edith Pressler always says to her husband Stu before he goes out birding in the film ‘The Big Year,’ is stuck in my head! Flipping love this movie, so that little earworm’s cool with me! :)
Three: The moor might look a bit flooded to the untrained eye, but Stephen cheerily tells us it’s “just a splash” and we chat about how the moor needs a certain amount of water overflow to create the perfect natural habitat for the visitors we’re hoping to spot.
Anyway, after trip-trapping over the bridge (no trolls about I’m pleased to report) we gaze out over the landscape...
It strikes me that if we’d have been here by ourselves, we’d have definitely thought “oh there’s a few lovely swans” had a half hour stroll and headed home! ;) But we have Stephen and he’s well and truly on the case… eyes alert to the tiniest movement in the distant undergrowth; ears pricking up at the slightest sound of a bird call that wouldn’t have had us batting an eyelid/eardrum!
It’s truly awesome watching Stephen in action – the huge smile that spreads across his face when he notices something a bit special and tells us excitedly where to look.
And look we do, refocusing our lens. A huge heron comes into view…
Then there’s that school of swans, a couple of moorhens, a comorant in flight, buzzards going about their business and the moment we’ve been waiting for... six cranes resting in the distance, before making their short flight back to West Sedgemoor to settle down for the night.
And that’s where we're off to next – to arrive before they do, so we can hopefully spot them as they come in to land. We drive to a private part of the moor that Stephen has access to and as we head down the long stretch of lane, we’re in for a few more/moor treats ;).
We crawl along so we can see what Stephen calls the ‘nice little waders’ :) - hundreds of lapwings on the watery plains - and we discover that one of the highest winter concentrations of the species is right here on the Somerset Levels!
We carry on cruising (wasn’t Sid James in that? ;)) and we’re stopped in our tracks. There's a family of roe deer right in front of us, as we look out of the rolled-down windows.
We hold our breath and wait for them to startle and sprint off, but as Stephen explains, they normally pretend to eat so they can keep their eyes very firmly on what we’re up to. As predicted, they do exactly that and it’s such a privilege to see this little family up close. Stephen tells us that actually, his favourite thing of all to spot is the roe deer and as he beams at them and says “ahh – that’s smashing”, we completely agree. I might have a little tear in my eye!
We park up in what feels like the middle of nowhere, jump out and just take in the beautiful views. I feel pretty emotional still and it’s almost as though being out here, in the quiet stillness of the afternoon with the light fading, puts everything in to perspective. It’s just you, your thoughts and nature at it’s brilliant best.
Anyway, more importantly, Stephen opens up the car boot and asks if we’d like tea and biscuits. Hell yeah! :)
I assume he’s bought a flask, but Stephen’s a proper professional and out comes the camping stove and kettle! Not a flask in sight and soon, we’ve got our hands around a steaming cuppa.
Stephen can see I’m moved by what we’ve experienced so far and tells me he feels the same. He also shares the story of one lady he took hare spotting. She burst into tears when she saw the hare for the first time and that makes me feel in pretty good company! :)
It is uplifting being out on the tour and we think Stephen’s got a lot to do with that. Let’s be honest, you wouldn’t want to spend 4 hours of your time with someone who irritates the herons out of you ;) and Stephen couldn’t be any lovelier if he tried. He’s the sort of guy you feel you’ve known for years. He speaks with a gentle, natural passion that means you just can’t help but feel excited about what you’re seeing and he strikes that great balance of talking you through the experience, but not talking too much. Basically, he’s a pleasure to spend time with.
The light’s fading and we wonder if we’ve missed the cranes flying back, as the sky isn’t what you’d call clear! Just when we think we might have to call it a night, Stephen’s sixth sense saves the day and he spots a tiny speck in the distance coming towards us. We hurridley grab our binoculars and there the birds are… flying across the late afternoon sky and landing in their own secret spot in the middle of the moor.
The waiting paid off and that’s one of the beauties of a Winter tour like this... or of any of the Wildlife experiences Stephen offers, whatever the season. You never know for sure what you’re going to spot, but what you do know is you’ll experience something very special.
As we leave West Sedgemoor, we’re pretty hooked and definitely want to try out wildlife spotting in one of Stephen’s hides, as well as returning to this spot in the Spring and Summer to see the differences the landscape has to offer. For me personally, I’ve never seen a Kingfisher and Stephen has a secret spot where the Kingfisher love to play, so that’s definitely next on my spotting list! ;)
If you fancy a Crane tour, or one of Stephen's other Wildlife experiences, check out the Wildlife Somerset Facebook page and website. You can also follow Wildlife Somerset on Twitter and Instagram and get out there to see what’s hiding in the Levels and across our amazing county.
And, if you want to see a bit more from the comfort of your own living room, Stephen features in a new BBC2 programme with Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall - Hugh's Wild West. Hugh teams up with the West Country's most dedicated nature lovers... and Stephen's definitely one of those! :)