Churring nightjars and screeching water rails are among Chris Chappell's suggestions for your wildlife adventures this month.
Swallows, house martins and swifts are now feeding on flying insects. The swallows prefer to swoop low over meadows, or pastures where the flies attracted by cow dung are a ready source of food. House martins are as likely to feed up high as low, along with the swifts, but they all have to follow the food source. As they feed, they collect a ball of insects in their crop to take back to the chicks in the nest. The martins and swallows are in the family known as hirundines, but swifts are unrelated, albeit they share feeding habits. These species are common prey for raptors, sparrow hawks and peregrine falcon in particular, as these birds of prey have the speed and agility to catch them You may spot a sparrowhawk circling up high with a group of house martins, hoping to snatch a meal. The peregrine is more likely to approach at great speed, stunning the prey with the impact.
Burdock and teasel grow tall in meadows and hedgerows, and elder flowers are turning into berries. The rampant wild clematis, )country names are old man's beard, or travellers joy), joins in, climbing anything it can get hold of. There are impressive displays of foxgloves this year, good for attracting bees and butterflies. Fledgling birds are learning how to feed for themselves, now hidden in the dense undergrowth. Families of warblers or tits move through the foliage, calling quietly to keep the group together. Juvenile gold and green finches will come to your feeders, so it is worth keeping them topped up, the young birds being a pale version of the adults. You may see the pretty spotted flycatcher, one of the last migrants to arrive, catching flies, repeatedly returning to the same branch, a distinguishing characteristic of the species. Sparrow sized, a delicate bird with a sharp bill, the breast is more flecked than spotted, they are sadly increasingly rare. Spotted flycatchers are very much at home in a small garden, all they need are the flies and a suitable perch.
Up on the Mendips, as night approaches, nightjars swoop over the open heath, mouth open to collect moths and flies. The nightjar will sit on a post or branch, its alternating churring call echoing across the land for long periods. The males clap their wings together to attract the hen birds, and they also communicate with a small high pitched squeak. Otherwise silent in flight, they have all the appearance of a large moth, and with a fluttering flight, they have been the subject of legends. Best known folk tale being their supposed habit of sucking goats milk at night, and their Latin name caprimulgus means goatsucker. It is unclear why this myth arose. They are extraordinary birds, with long wings and huge gaping mouths. They have white patches on their wings and tail, but are otherwise highly camouflaged for nesting or roosting on the ground, in bracken and leaf litter. The nest is just a scrape on the ground, and they lay just one or two eggs. This bird too is becoming very scarce, and being a ground nester, is very vulnerable to disturbance by humans and dogs. If you are walking your dog in heathland, or open woodland, please remember to use a lead during the breeding season.
The Sweet Track
The Sweet Track is a Neolithic trackway through the Somerset marshes, and thought to be the oldest constructed path in the country. Parts of the wooden planks were found preserved in the peat, and dendrochronology tests have revealed them to be circa 6000 years old. It is named after the man who discovered the path. The route of this wooden track is now a very pleasant walk, taking you from the western access to Shapwick Heath through to Decoy bird hide. The habitat is quite varied, starting with reedbeds, leading into birch and willow stands, and then an area that has recently been opened up, with a lot of wild flowers, irises and ferns. The woods are full of bird song, willow warbler, chiff chaff, song thrush and many others. The area is frequented by cuckoos, albeit the adults will soon leave for Africa. This is a good area to search for butterflies and dragonflies, moths and beetles. Moving on, the path crosses a track where there are some lovely mature oaks, and then enters a meadow, where you will see spotted orchids in profusion. The magnificent royal fern, Osmunda Regalis, flourishes in the damp conditions along the route, as well as common fern and myrtle. The royal fern has huge fronds, up to 5 feet in length, and has two leaf forms, sterile and fertile, the fertile being upright and carrying the sporangia for dispersal of spores. The path then joins the main track round to decoy hide, and on the left you can see a reconstruction of how the sweet track would have appeared. From the hide you may see a hobby hunting for dragonflies, a marsh harrier quartering the reedbeds, and young coots, moorhens and great crested grebes. A number of non-breeding swans feed here, a lovely site with the Tor in the background. Hundreds of damselflies skim the surface of the water, along with a variety of dragonflies. Keep an eye out for grass snakes by the water's edge, or swimming among the lily pads hunting for frogs.
The water rail is one of the stranger birds inhabiting the reed beds and ponds on the levels. Rarely seen, but often heard, this little bird is part of the rail family, characterised as round bodied marsh birds, with short rounded wings, short tail, large feet, and long toes. They are related to coots, moorhens, and the crakes. If you are lucky enough to see one you will find a brown and grey bird, with red beak, and black and white striped underbelly, usually darting about in a rather comic fashion. The loud screeching call will be heard as they communicate with each other. They build a small nest in the reeds, rather like that of a moorhen, and the young leave the nest soon after hatching. The chicks are initially just balls of black fluff, with a pale beak protruding. At this time of year they may be heard bleating noisily, hidden in the undergrowth, while waiting to be fed. Water rails are omnivorous, living on seeds, small fish, snails and insects. Nationally uncommon, they are a key feature of the wetlands of Somerset.
Water Rail photograph courtesy of Dave Wicken
All other photographs © Chris Chappell
House Martins nesting
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Water Rail with frog
Little Grebe (juvenile)