Somerset is swarming with birds in November. Chris Chappell guides you to their habitats.
We are very lucky in Somerset to have a great range of unspoilt natural habitats, ranging from Exmoor down to the levels, taking in the Quantock and Blackdown Hills, and the Mendips. The coastline from Portishead to Porlock sustains a huge variety of flora and fauna. So there many good reasons to get out and about, and November has much to offer. The autumn colours are beginning to fade, as the leaves fall, but there is great beauty in the countryside, and the low winter light provides inspiration for the photographer, or artist. Starling roost numbers are building up, and their spectacular displays are now under way at dawn and dusk. Many birds such as robins and song thrushes will sing at this time of year, lovely to hear, albeit the robin's song is rather thin compared to the spring version.
The winter thrushes, fieldfares and redwings have arrived from northern Europe for the winter, and will be seen feeding on the hawthorn, rowan and sloe berries. Fieldfares are large grey and brown thrushes, most noticeable by their noisy cackle, and their tendency to gather in a bare tree, each bird facing in the same direction. The redwing is the smallest thrush, usually quiet, and more secretive, but a striking bird, with a strong pale stripe above and below the eye, and of course the russet red, which is actually the flank, rather than the wing, and not always visible. The redwing is mostly quiet, but has a weak 'chip' like call. When they run out of berries, they will feed on windfall apples, which can be used to attract them to the garden as winter progresses.
On a fine day the Polden Hills provide a lovely place for a walk. SWT reserves New Hill and Tannager, plus Great Breach Wood can all be explored in a day. In addition, the National Trust own adjoining land at Collard Hill and Walton Hill to the west. The area offers mature trees, where you may find nuthatches and green woodpeckers, and also open areas where buzzards will soar overhead, or you may hear the deep croak of the raven. There are fabulous views from the ridge across Kings Sedgemoor, showing the Somerset countryside in all its autumn glory. Ancient hawthorn bushes are heavy with berries, and old man's beard looks its very best, sprawling over the landscape with the silver seed heads sparkling in the sun.
Starlings and Wagtails
Starlings are now flocking toward the end of each day, landing in trees and on wires all over the county, and then converging from miles around to travel to their roosts. The huge gathering in the reedbeds at Shapwick is an awe inspiring sight and sound. Eventually many tens of thousands of birds will arrive at the roost site, and in fine weather, will circle the area prior to landing in the reeds. The patterns they make in the sky are all the more impressive when a predator, such as a sparrow hawk appears, provoking the starlings into tight shapes in an attempt to confuse their attacker. The reasons for the starlings drive to flock in this way are not clearly understood. Safety in numbers is a likely cause, and certainly the swirling mass of birds makes a difficult target. Along with many bird species, starling numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years, as much as 79% since 1979. The decline has occurred across northern Europe, so is of major concern. However, our local birds still provide an extraordinary spectacle.
Pied wagtails also flock in great numbers, roosting overnight in reedbeds such as those at Greylake. They do not swarm as the starlings do, but the sight and sound of them arriving for the night is impressive, with a loud chorus of their chattering call.
On Shapwick Heath, just west of the Ashcott Corner car park, Meare Heath attracts a good selection of winter wading birds, where the 'scrape' provides the right conditions for them to feed. You are likely to see the lapwing in numbers, feeding on the water's edge. Standing in the water, probing for invertebrates and insects, a large flock of black tailed godwits are regularly seen. The black tailed godwit is a large wader with a long straight bill, and distinctive white mid section to the wing and white rump, and of course a small black tail. These migrant or passage birds, (very few breed here) make a fine spectacle, especially when in flight. Interestingly, male and female black tailed godwits have different length bills, which means they don't compete directly for the same food. These may be joined by a flock of knot, a smaller wader, grey, with almost white underparts, and a short slightly curved bill. A few common snipe should be seen, hard to spot, as they are well camouflaged, but with patience and a good optics, their movement will give them away as they feed. They are beautifully marked, mottled and striped, and blend well into a background of reed stalks. The much smaller, and rarer jack snipe also occurs on the levels, even harder to see, but also given away by a slight bobbing movement when feeding. A few rarer waders may arrive, such as ruff and curlew sandpiper. When a sparrow hawk or marsh harrier appear, this will put the smaller birds to flight, something which helps to establish which species are feeding at the time. Kingfishers, great and small white egrets, can also be seen at this spot, while a bittern will make an appearance from time to time. If you are lucky a troupe of bearded tits will move across the tops of the reeds, their 'pinging' call revealing their whereabouts.
Bridgwater Bay NNR is one of the largest intertidal mudflats in Britain, due to the huge tidal range in the Bristol Channel. This provides feeding grounds for large numbers of wading birds and ducks. The bay is of European importance for wildfowl such as shelduck, where 2000 may be seen in feeding on the flats when the tide recedes. In addition large flocks of knot and dunlin feed here, along with curlew, oystercatcher and greenshank. The waders all have to move with the tide, so the best time to see them is an hour each side of high tide. A flock of dunlin will murmurate en masse, a real spectacle on a bright day, as they change from gold to silver as they twist and turn in the sun. There are many points of interest for the wildlife enthusiast, and opportunities for a bracing coastal walk, with the added chance of seeing a short eared owl hunting over the land, or a flock of avocets following the river out to the sea.
All photographs © Chris Chappell