I visit Steart two or three times a week. This wetland reserve, administered by the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust, is just a short drive from Nether Stowey through a labyrinth of winding lanes.
Watching birds at Steart is always hit and miss. But as I never check the tide tables I can hardly complain. If I did I wouldn’t always make the effort to go, and it would be a wasted opportunity. I’ve come to understand that it is the act of going that is all important. Gilbert White the eighteenth-century naturalist made it plain there are no guarantees in Nature. Wild birds make no attempt whatsoever to cooperate. You must take your chances, and if you see little or nothing you must not be disappointed. You learn the value of acceptance – always sound and salutary.
I have been blessed many times. Once when I was driving away after an apparently fruitless visit I spotted a stray cattle egret squatting between the legs of a huddle of long horn cattle. Another time when I was trudging the path alongside a moody River Parrett a trio of short-eared owls performed an intricate dance for me on the bank. And just last week, as I was trekking between hides, I was accompanied by a merlin, hopping from fence post to fence post a few yards ahead, curious but unconcerned.
Today I am on a walk around the reserve. The landscape is a palette of shades of grey, the sky drained of colour, the mud flats gleaming palely in a weak sun. In the fields of rough grasses alongside the path a hundred chaffinches break cover, flinging themselves in all directions across the salt marsh. A lone peregrine slices the sky heading for the Parrett, showing scant interest in a flight of wheeling, panicking lapwings.
The scrapes shine with a shallow skin of water, and a brief scan reveals that they are birdless. Yet when I lift the binoculars I see a thick gathering of birds huddled among the clumps of grass and reed – a scattering of golden plover, sullen and silent; redshank, always solitary, restlessly roaming the cracked mud, then fleeing for no obvious reason, and piping far into the distance; long-beaked black-tailed godwits energetically prodding the mud slicks; a single meandering greenshank; flights of lapwing plunging and calling.
I have to confess that duck and gulls do not excite me. I rarely carry a scope, and today they are bland colourless shapes squatting in the skim of water. I pick out a hundred widgeon, but I know there are other species of duck I am not skilled enough to identify without the help of a scope. Gulls I leave to serious birders. I’ve immense respect for the way they can identify a vagrant Mediterranean or Pallas among a rabble of brawling herring gulls and black-backed gulls.
I scramble towards the beach, splashing across the wet mud of Wall Common with its cover of sea lavender and cord-grass. My greatest joy is when a marsh harrier breaks cover and flaps languidly across the marsh towards Stert village. Today it doesn’t happen, and I trudge along the edge of the beach, the pebbles making cracking sounds under my boots. The tide is far out and I see only brackish water stained dark brown with Severn silt. Always in view is the trio of upturned packing cases that are the Hinkley Point reactors, sinister, but somehow old friends. Brean Down is an indeterminate thumbprint, humpbacked Steepholm almost invisible. Then a sudden surprise as a skein of dunlin weaves past, racing purposefully towards the distant sea.
I like to think I’m walking in Coleridge’s footsteps. He knew the healing power of walking in wild places, and must have visited the marshlands here many times on his way to the ferry at Combwich. It stood him in good stead. A few months after he wrote his moving and powerful ‘Dejection: an ode’, expressing his despair at his dwindling creative spirit and his hopeless and unrequited love for Sara Hutchinson, he took to the fells of the Lake District and walked himself back into a semblance of normality.