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Avalon's Avian Haven

Two miles from mystical Glastonbury Tor, Norman Wright visits a haven for birds in the land of Arthurian legend Photography Clive Nicholls 

Early morning, and the drains and reed beds of Avalon Marshes live up to their mythical name. A light mist drifts over the flat fen landscape, while a couple of miles away Glastonbury Tor looks out over this legendary domain of King Arthur and his Knights of Camelot.

You could easily imagine Galahad, Lancelot and the gang riding into sight or an arm bearing the sword of Excalibur disappearing into the shimmering, smoky waters. And it is true you will see Merlin here – but it will be Britain’s smallest bird of prey patrolling its winter hunting grounds, not the Arthurian wizard. There are many theories about the true location of the island of Avalon, which was a safe haven and home of King Arthur’s sister Morgan Le Fay, according to the much argued-over legend. The Somerset Levels between the Mendip Hills to the north and the Quantock Hills to the south have a strong claim. Erupting green from the miles of marsh and low meadows, the Tor underlines the mysterious atmosphere with its dark tower.

For centuries a wetland, these fens were drained to create farmable land and for the peat that is still being extracted. Avalon Marshes are mainly former peat workings returned to wetland. There are several nature reserves here and we are looking across the RSPB’s excellent Ham Wall reserve.

As the sun starts to burn off the mist, another sound is added to the chorus of  birds – the chuckling croak of hundreds of marsh frogs.

It’s a curious noise that you could easily credit to a bird. The reverse is true of the call of one of Britain’s rarer birds, the bittern. This really is more of a croak – a big echoing shout that carries over the acres of reed beds.

It is perfect habitat for the bittern, a type of heron, and is one of the main strongholds of the species in Britain.

Normally rather reclusive in the summer, they can usually be seen flying to and fro to feed their hungry offspring in nests among the reeds. Sure enough, three bittern are pointed out to us as they get busy across the wider expanse of water at the heart of the reserve.

There are larger species of heron, also in flight, both great egrets and little egrets, easier to spot as they are pure white as the sun catches them. After a while your senses settle down and, quietly sitting, you begin to see and hear more and realise just how much wildlife you can enjoy just for the effort of strolling a couple of hundred yards from the car park. Walk a little further and you will be on a Somerset Safari.

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