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Murmuring starlings or whispering dunlins?

It was twilight. The stars had faded away but it was not yet sunrise when hundreds of pairs of wings purred past my shoulder. What were they? Where had they come from and where were they going?

I was standing on the sea wall path with my back to the nature reserve. As these low flying birds flashed past from behind the sound was just magical. Had I been murmured at by starlings or whispered to by dunlins? In those few seconds, in the gloaming, it was hard to tell. Both can congregate on the reserve in their hundreds, so which was it?

I hurriedly snapped off a couple of photos as they streamed out across the flooded salt marsh and hoped this would give me the answer.

My snapshots turned out to be typically blurry but not too blurry to identify a fling of dunlins.

I saw them again later in mesmerising flocks, making endless shapes across the skyline and wind turbines. There were in fact over 1200 of them!

Was it because the high tide was right up to the sea wall that they sought refuge in the reserve? After all, the reserve is an excellent place to wait for the tide to ebb!



December is the month of CHRISTMAS and that makes it hard to avoid references to mistletoe, robins, holly and ivy! Let’s learn more about these Christmas symbols which you might spot on a walk around the reserve at this festive time of year.

The Robin


How many Christmas cards will you receive featuring a robin somewhere in the picture? British robins are our favourite, friendly garden bird, largely because they can become so tame and, let’s face it, they are such pretty birds!

It is not hard to see robins on the reserve at this time of year. Many of them might be winter visitors from elsewhere, even from the continent. They will have come here because it’s milder here than further north or east.

Robins sing all through the winter, so listen out for their beautiful, wistful tune as you walk through the reserve. This is what it sounds like:

Robin song recorded by david m. from


Mistletoe growing on the branches of a tree

Now that most of the leaves have fallen off many of the trees on the reserve, mistletoe shows up really clearly because it keeps its green leaves all year round. You will see a lot of it around the reserve if you look out for it.

To germinate, seeds of the mistletoe do not have to pass through the gut of a bird. The seeds are surrounded by a very sticky pulp (viscin) which often stick to a bird’s beak when the berries are eaten. They are then often wiped off onto a branch when the bird cleans its beak. The viscin then hardens to fix the seed to the bark of a new host tree and sometimes these seeds germinate.


The green root growing out of a mistletoe seed and into a tree branch.
The seed then grows a root, which burrows through the bark of the tree and into the sapwood inside. Here is a picture of this happening on a tree in my garden.

The mistletoe gets water and minerals from the tree, though it also makes some of its own food by photosynthesis, which is why it has green leaves.

Here is the same mistletoe plant three years later……..
…and here is a slice through a branch showing the mistletoe roots (white) growing into the wood of the tree


If the Robin is the ultimate Christmas bird, Holly must be the ultimate Christmas plant. As the carol says  “the holly wears the crown” and its dark green leaves and bright red berries have become the colours of Christmas.

Unlike many plants, holly has trees of different sexes. You won’t find berries on a male tree; their flowers only produce pollen.

Holly was valued by farmers in bygone days in many parts of the country as an important source of winter fodder. Branches would be cut off trees and, despite the prickles, cattle and sheep fed on leaves.



We featured Ivy in a September post. It is an extremely valuable plant for wildlife and, unlike Mistletoe, it is not a parasite, but simply uses the trees that it climbs for support.

If you want to read more about this wonderful plant follow this link – Ivy post




Did you know?

  • Ivy was once thought to be a way of countering the worse effects of alcohol
  • “Ale-stakes”, poles covered in ivy, were once used as signs for taverns
  • Ivy was traditionally seen as a “female” plant and holly as a “male” one
  • Young Queen Victoria once wore a wreath of ivy intertwined with diamonds in her hair
  • Traditional schoolgirl rhyme: “Ivy, Ivy, I love you; In my bosom I put you; The first young man who speaks to me; My future husband he shall be.”
  • Apple, lime and poplar are mistletoe’s favourite hosts, but it can parasitize many different species
  • Mistletoe growing on oak trees is unusual and very rare. This may be why the druids were supposed to particularly value mistletoe harvested from an oak tree
  • Mistle thrush and blackcap are the two main dispersers of mistletoe
  • Like holly, mistletoe plants are either male or female. Only female plants carry berries
  • Kissing under the mistletoe may have originated from Norse mythology and probably began in the 18th century when it was first used as a festive decoration in our homes. One kiss was allowed for each berry and after each kiss a berry would be removed until there were none left.
  • Holly wood was traditionally used to make stocks and horse whips
  • Holly trees were left standing in cut hedgerows “to stop witches running along the tops of the hedges”


Two Goldeneye ducks appeared on the reserve this last weekend. They were seen on Saturday and were on the big North Pool when we started the monthly monitoring count on Sunday, but then moved to the South Pool where I was able to get these pics on my mobile through my telescope.







Goldeneye are diving ducks that breed in Scotland and further north, so they have come south for the winter. These are the first I have seen on the reserve – they normally prefer bigger areas of water. These are “red-heads”, i.e. they are females or juveniles. The males are a lovely black and white.

If you want to know more about our monitoring counts see Wildlife Monitoring.

You could always come and join us on future counts!

NOVEMBER – What to look out for

Welcome to November!

The clocks have gone back, so dusk comes early in November. The first frosts have arrived and the trees are rapidly losing their leaves….but it’s a good time for wildlife spotting. Winter visitors are streaming in, so there’s lots to look out for!

The North Pools

As the cold sets in further north and east, many ducks fly in to enjoy our milder winters. We do regular monitoring counts on the reserve and the charts of the duck numbers on the North Pools clearly show this happening.

Blue bars show 2018/19 and brown bars show 2019/2020 counts so far.

Both these species breed on the reserve, so they are here all the year round, but their numbers on the North pools are bigger in the winter months.This will be due to local birds moving to the North Pools where there is safety and lots of food, but also their numbers will be boosted by extra birds coming in to join them from elsewhere.
Mute Swan

These two species spend their summer further north and just visit us in the winter.The numbers that reach us will depend on how harsh the winter is elsewhere.

Will this year bring bigger numbers? The October counts looked good, but we’ll have to wait until December or January to know for sure!

Male Wigeon
Shoveler, male and female

The South Pool

Recent management work has opened up the South Pool and the water levels have increased with the wet weather. The South Pool hide is a great place to sit and search for Snipe. Snipe numbers also increase in the winter, but they are hard to spot amongst the tussocky grasses because of their amazing camouflage. They have  impressively long beaks for their size and fly away with a zig-zag flight if disturbed.

Common Snipe


The Hedgerows

The count on 27th October also saw the first winter thrushes – a flock of Redwings. Look out for big flocks of both Redwings, Fieldfares and Blackbirds on the Hawthorn trees around the reserve as they swoop in to strip the trees of their berries or “haws”. Some years the crop has almost gone by the end of the month! 


As well as hawthorn berries there are lots of other seeds to look out for.  Keep any eye out for these on the reserve, of course, the hungry wildlife might get them first! ​

The weather might not always be friendly in November, but a visit to the reserve is always worth the effort. You never know what you might see!



Images: some supplied by “Friends” others are courtesy of thank you all!

Mini Nature Trail in Portishead Library

Just in time for half term we have set up a mini nature trail in Portishead Library.  Can you identify the seeds we have put in the foyer?

Pick up a tick card and find the 6 seed posters placed around the library.  Then answer the true and false questions on the back of the tick card.

So why not have a go?
Then try to find the seeds out on the nature reserve.



OCTOBER – What to look out for

Hawthorn berries (haws) after rain

Welcome to October!

We are well into the autumn and this can be a lovely time of year with lots going on.


While the summer birds have gone south to find warmer climates, the winter birds are coming here from colder countries further north. We may not think it, but our winters are relatively warm for these northern birds which will stay until spring. They will spend the winter feeding on the salt marsh and the pools in the reserve.

Also keep an eye out for snipe around the muddy pool edges. They are well camouflaged waders so take some spotting!

Look carefully – can you spot the snipe?
Shoveler, male and female
Shoveler are named for their big scoop of a bill, but the males are most easily recognised by their white and chestnut sides.
Male Wigeon
Wigeon are neat and dainty ducks; usually found in good numbers on the North Pools in mid-winter as well as out on the Saltmarsh.
Male Teal – he has a fabulous head pattern if you can ever get close enough to see it properly.
Teal are the smallest of our ducks and are also fond of the Saltmarsh. They also seem to prefer the cover and shallow water of the South Pool to the open spaces of the North Pool, so this can be the best place to see them well.

The numbers of waders like dunlin and redshank will also increase during October and November. Dunlins may be dumpy little wading birds, but they fly along the tide line in large mesmerising flocks (flings of dunlins).

The larger redshanks will also become increasingly numerous now, identifiable by their long red legs and long red bills. Add to that the haunting calls of the long-legged, long-beaked curlews echoing across the salt marsh. All in all it is a lovely place to stand and stare during autumn and winter.

In the hedgerows

Glossy red rose hips

October is a time of plenty. Though the blackberries may be starting to run out there are lots of other berries to keep wildlife fed.  Look out for the glossy red hawthorn berries and red rose hips. Rose hips, contain the seeds of the rose and are jam packed with vitamin C. Field mice will climb along the slender stems to reach them if the thrushes don’t get them first. Other small mammals can join in this feast by picking up berries when they fall to the ground.

Insects and butterflies will benefit from the over mature fruit on offer now. While tempting ripe seeds are on the menu for the likes of goldfinches and linnets.

Where there is fruit and seeds there is likely to be wildlife, so look closely.

Red Admiral on ivy

Flowers may be in short supply now that summer is over so insects that rely on pollen and nectar have to search harder in October. This is where the ivy flowers come to the rescue. Ivy is a fantastic plant for wildlife and will keep flowering into November. You can read more about ivy here.


Enjoy your October visit to the reserve

We hope you enjoy your visit to the reserve and maybe, if you are lucky, you will see some of our wonderful wildlife.

Evergreen ecosystem

What plant do these belong to?

You probably see this plant every day as you walk past gardens, woods and along the paths in the reserve. Everyone knows this plant but nobody really notices it. Yet it is an important evergreen ecosystem.

Ivy provides nesting sites and shelter for insects, birds and even small mammals, frogs and toads. It also provides food for wildlife from autumn until spring.

Ivy flowers in autumn when few other flowers are open for business. Bees, butterflies and all number of insects come to feed on the nectar and pollen. In fact it is so popular with bees that you can often hear it “buzzing” as you get close, especially on a warm day.

For insects that hibernate over the winter, like the queen wasps, queen bumble-bees, queen hornets, red admiral and peacock butterflies this may provide their last chance to fuel up.

By December the fertilised flowers have ripened into clusters of black berries.  Birds love them! The berries will last until April if they don’t get gobbled up before!

Do you know what it is yet?

Want another clue?

It can happily grow along the ground or up a wall and older plants can even stand on their own if thick enough. It can grow up trees but gains no nourishment from the trees it clings to. Though it may cause some damage by its sheer weight or by shading the trees’ leaves, it does not directly kill the tree it grows up.

Even our Portbury Wharf roe deer will dine out on it when the opportunity arises.

To find about this plant click HERE

Hinkley Connection Update September 2019

This update relates to the measures being taken to protect the environment and ecology of the reserve.

This is a briefing we have received from the Community Relations Team of the National Grid Hinkley Connection Project. We are posting these briefings so you are kept up to date with the work being done on Portbury Wharf Nature Reserve.

“As you’ll be aware, during 2018 and 2019, we carried out several ecological surveys in the reserve, including those for bats, badgers, great crested newts and reptiles, otters, water voles, and birds. More recently, we’ve been busy implementing schemes to reduce disruption to wildlife at the reserve. This includes the installation of temporary exclusion fencing and daily checks of pitfall traps and tiles to prevent protected species from entering the construction areas. Any species found are safely translocated to designated sites within the reserve.

To ensure the construction corridor remains free of protected species, we need to manage the vegetation by pruning trees and cutting grasslands, scrub and hedgerows down to ground level. This work will start later this week and be completed in October 2019.

After the hibernation period ends in spring 2020, the next step is to carry out another search to ensure the construction area is free of protected species and to remove any remaining vegetation, including trees and hedgerows where necessary.

Once construction is complete, vegetation that has been removed will be reinstated in its original location, or as close to the route as possible, subject to discussion and agreement with relevant landowners.

To prevent disturbance to wintering birds between September and April, core construction activities will be on hold. This excludes vegetation removal works and, with permission from the Local Planning Authority, we may undertake minor construction activity for a limited duration. We’re taking special care to safeguard nesting sites for species of protected birds by creating specialised buffer zones and relocating designated barn owl boxes. Towards the end of this month, we’re relocating some of the existing barn owl boxes and replacing them at a ratio of 2:1, with a total of four new barn owl boxes being installed at the reserve.

To keep visitors to the reserve informed and updated, we’ve recently replenished the public information boards (Image attached for info). These provide an overview of our work and promote the contact details of our community relations team should any visitors wish to get in touch. We’ve also updated our project website with an overview of this work.

Before starting construction, we’re planning to deliver updated briefings to parish/town councils during November and December. We’ll also be writing to residents and businesses along the route of the underground cable with an update on this work and to invite them to attend a public drop-in event in the area.”

Community Relations Team,
National Grid Hinkley Connection Project

You can read more at and on this website at Hinkley Connection at PWNR and the FAQ page.

Very Scarce Lesser Emperor

We are approaching the end of this year’s dragonfly season, but a few species are still to be seen.  In the last week, or so, we have seen: Common Blue and Emerald Damselflies; Common and Ruddy Darters; Migrant Hawkers and a female Emperor depositing eggs on vegetation in the North Pools.

Ruddy Darter
Emerald Damselfly
Migrant Hawker
Migrant Hawker

Possibly the most unusual sighting was of the very scarce Lesser Emperor. We had suspected that this rare vagrant, which has bred in the UK, was present at PWNR; but we had no photograph to confirm our suspicions. Our luck changed when we managed to photograph a Lesser Emperor. Though it is not a particularly good image it captures a Lesser Emperor attacking an egg-laying Emperor.

Emperor Dragonfly laying eggs
Emperor Dragonfly and again . . .
. . . and now with the Lesser Emperor Dragonfly

See also our Dragonfly and Damselfly section

SEPTEMBER – What to look out for

Hawthorn berries and Old Man’s Beard (aka Traveller’s Joy / Clematis vitalba)

September is here!

This means that autumn is properly starting. The weather may be sunny and warm at times, but nature is preparing for the hardships to come. Fruits and nuts are ripening, many animals are fattening up for migration or hibernation – some have gone already!


On the pools, the ducks will be starting to moult out of their eclipse plumage into their full breeding colours. This will make them much easier to identify. The first of the wintering species will also be starting to appear, though it will be a while before their numbers really build up.

Lookout for the first wigeon, shoveler and teal. There will be lots on the pools by December!

Shoveler, male and female
Shoveler are named for their big scoop of a bill, but the males are most easily recognised by their white and chestnut sides.
Male Wigeon
Wigeon are neat and dainty ducks; usually found in good numbers on the North Pools in mid-winter as well as out on the Saltmarsh.
Male Teal – he has a fabulous head pattern if you can ever get close enough to see it properly.
Teal are the smallest of our ducks and are also fond of the Saltmarsh. They also seem to prefer the cover and shallow water of the South Pool to the open spaces of the North Pool, so this can be the best place to see them well.

In the hedgerows our summer warblers are laying down fat reserves to fuel their long migration flights south. You can often see Whitethroats and Blackcaps feasting on elderberries or blackberries this month and look out for more unusual species moving through.

Female Blackcap
Long-tailed Tit

Two of the birds that will stay with us through the winter also sing throughout the winter months. The Robin has a slightly wistful, but pretty, winter tune that can often be heard on Wharf Lane. By contrast the Cetti’s Warbler has a strident and explosive, though abrupt song that erupts from the thickest scrub. Both birds can be heard now and in the months to come, though most other species have stopped singing.


Some types of butterfly will still be active and searching for nectar-rich flowers all through the autumn, provided that the weather stays mild for them. Some species of butterfly over-winter as eggs, pupae or even caterpillars, but Peacock and Red Admiral both over-winter as adult butterflies. Before they go into hibernation they must keep feeding up, so you will often see them gorging on the sweet juices of over-ripe blackberries or apples.

Red Admiral









Dragonflies are beginning to die off now, though their larvae, or nymphs, are still very much alive in the ponds and rhynes. Three species that you can still look out for are the Ruddy and Common Darter and the Migrant Hawker.

The two darters are not always easy to tell apart but you will often see them perched on the tip of a prominent twig or fencepost. From here they will dart out to catch flies before returning to the same perch – hence their name!

Male Ruddy Darter
Female Common Darter







Migrant Hawkers are also often still abundant in September. In contrast to the darters, they spend a lot of their time flying backwards and forwards round a small circuit “hawking” for flies. Unlike most other dragonflies they are not territorial and can sometimes be seen in quite big groups, zig-zagging around a sheltered patch close to trees – Wharf Lane can be a good spot.

Male Migrant Hawker
Female Migrant Hawker









In conclusion

September can be a lovely month, with lots of warm weather. So make the most of it when it’s fine and get out onto the reserve to see what our wildlife is up to. There’s plenty happening this month – just keep your eyes peeled and enjoy your walks!