Look beyond the luxuriant foliage to enjoy what Chris Chappell has lined up for you this month.
At this time of year you may have the impression that much of the wildlife has now disappeared, as luxuriant foliage covers the countryside, reeds gain height on the levels, and grasses, sedges and bracken sprout. But there is plenty to see, wild flowers are at their peak and butterflies and dragonflies are taking to the air, while bumble bees gather nectar as they build up their colonies.
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 house and sand 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, sparrowhawks 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.
On the moors, a redshank will guard its family from a nearby post, calling noisily. A medium sized wader, with long beak, which it uses to probe the mud for worms, molluscs and crustaceans. Redshank has the country name of 'sentinel of the marshes', as it is a noisy bird, and the first creature to spot an intruder, when a loud kee-kee-kee call will ring out. They are amber listed due to a slight decline in numbers, but breed in Somerset, particularly on the protected areas of moorland. They are delicate birds, striking in flight, showing the white section to the wing, barred tail, and orange legs trailing behind. The redshank lays four camouflaged pointed eggs arranged neatly point inward, in a hollow in the ground, and the chicks will be mobile as soon as they are dry after hatching. The parents will assiduously guard their young from predators, calling them to cover at any sign of a threat.
Bitterns are busy feeding their young in their reed bed nests, and make regular trips to a favourite spot to gather eels and frogs, which they carry back in their crop, regurgitating the slimy mix of nutrients direct into the bittern chicks beaks. It is therefore a good time to see them, and with a little patience, one will be spotted in flight. The Somerset levels now hosts the largest population of bitterns in the country, largely due to the regeneration of reed beds from redundant peat works. Driven to extinction in the late 19th century, there is now a sustainable and growing population in the UK. This has been achieved by a co-ordinated effort from the various conservation organisations, and it is a great success story. It is a privilege to have this strange and beautiful bird thriving in our county. You are unlikely to hear the booming call in July, now that the breeding season is under way.
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. The pretty meadowsweet lines the paths and rhynes, also a popular source of nectar for insects. 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. Coots, moorhens and mallard all have families in tow, feeding in the ponds and lakes. The chicks are very vulnerable when young, and fall prey to corvids, hawks, mink and even pike. This is just the natural way of things (except the mink!) and these birds will have large broods, and enough offspring will survive to keep the species going.
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.
Damselflies like to inhabit the fringes of rivers and ponds, these pretty miniature dragonflies are abundant, especially the common blue and the banded demoiselle.
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.
All photographs © Chris Chappell
Puffins have recently been seen on the coast