Many people dislike November but Chris Chappell has found lots to cheer you up.
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, 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.
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, every 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.
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.
The jay is a small but rather spectacular member of the crow species. With all shades of pink, brown and grey, a black moustache, plus white rump and black tail, and of course the bright blue and black barred feathers on the leading edge of the wing, they are striking birds. Jays are less sociable than other crows, and not generally seen in flocks, except when food is short. . At this time of year their numbers may be swollen by the arrival of winter migrants, when the acorn crop fails in eastern Europe, and they are forced to travel to find food. They are noisy birds, issuing their harsh grating call as they sail through the woodlands. Jays are usually just glimpsed dashing through the oak trees, but this is the best time to see them properly, as the leaves fall, and they are busy gathering acorns, which they bury in the ground to retrieve later as winter fuel. They are therefore responsible for a large proportion of oak saplings, as, along with the squirrels, they tend to forget where a portion of their winter stores are located.
Our native mute swans are joined by two winter visitors, the Whooper swan, and the smaller Bewick's swan. The Whooper swan leaves Iceland once winter arrives, and a good number spread out over the UK. Similar in size to our resident mute swan, it can be distinguished by its triangular pale yellow bill, with black markings. In flight it may make the whooping call, a loud trumpeting, not forgotten once heard. The rarer Bewick's Swan arrives from breeding grounds in Siberia, and a few will turn up in Somerset. It is noticeably smaller than mute or whooper, has less yellow on the beak, and the call is more like that of a goose.
Feed the birds and clean the nest boxes
Now that frosty mornings are on the cards, the birds will benefit from feeding, and if you start to attract them now, you will be able to watch the numbers and species build up.
It is a good time to clean out old nesting material from nest boxes, as this will remove the build up of parasite larvae, and other diseases. Take care when handling this material, and avoid inhaling any dust generated. Re-line the boxes with clean hay or wool, as many birds (and a few mammals) will roost in the boxes in winter, sometimes large number of small birds such as wrens will huddle together for warmth. The bird feeders should be thoroughly cleaned too, as there is some evidence that diseases can be transferred if there is any residue of stale food attached to them.
All photographs © Chris Chappell
Starlings on Ash tree