"It is a very good time to explore the Somerset countryside with your camera, take some shots of the plants and insects that you are unfamiliar with, and identify them later," says Chris Chappell.
Delicate fronds of flowering meadowsweet line the droves and rhynes on the levels, attracting a great variety of insects, beetles, hoverflies and butterflies. Hemp-agrimony is now coming into flower, the dusky pink flowers are another favourite with butterflies. Convolvulus trails large white trumpet shaped flowers through the hedges, and will cover any spare patch of ground; it too is a popular source of nectar for many insects. You may find purple nightshade, a creeper with pretty blue and yellow flowers. Later in the year this will produce red berries that are good source of food for birds and small mammals. It is therefore a very good time to explore the Somerset countryside with your camera, take some shots of the plants and insects that you are unfamiliar with, and identify them later. It is surprising how quickly you can build up a good knowledge and understanding of the natural world.
Swifts, swallows and martins will all be seen feeding on airborne insects and spiders. Many will have young close to fledge, so the need to gather food increases up to the point where the young fledge and learn to feed themselves. Busy reed and sedge warblers gather flies for their young, some will have the additional burden of a huge cuckoo chick to contend with, these warblers being a popular host species. The adult cuckoos are now leaving for Africa, many adults will have gone by the end of July, and the offspring follow on a few weeks later.
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 traveller's joy), joins in, climbing anything it can get hold of. 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 often start again once the first fledging has moved on, and therefore 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.
There is a strange and enigmatic bird that most have never seen, but is not that rare, and can be found in Somerset wherever there are mature pine trees. Crossbills are named after their unusual beak, whereby the upper and lower mandible actually cross at the tip. This feature has evolved to enable the birds to open pine kernels, which are their sole source of food. They are an irruptive species, meaning that they move in numbers, often right across Europe, according to where their food source can be found.
The crossbill is a large and bulky member of the finch family, and their most easily identifiable feature, beyond the crossed bill, is their colour, the males dusky red, and the females green and yellow. They feed in the tops of pine trees, often hanging upside down as they probe the pine cones. A steady stream of chaff descends to the ground as they feed. They often fly in family groups, and call as they go, emitting a high cheep-cheep. They almost resemble a group of parrots as they fly over the tree tops.
Swifts are a familiar sight and sound in Somerset, and to see them darting through the towns and villages, and to hear their shrill screaming as they pass their breeding territory, is a welcome reminder of the season. There are many extraordinary facts and figures now known about these beautiful birds. Each spring they travel from southern Africa, via west Africa, where they are thought to fatten up for the rest of the migration, and can then cover the 5000km to the UK in just 5 days. Dark chocolate brown, with a pale chin, their aerodynamic shape and scythe like wings are perfect for speeding through the skies. They sleep on the wing, rising to up to 10.000 feet as the day ends, and are able to hold their position overnight. Swifts are now moving into their breeding sites, finding a niche under a roof tile, or a crack in an old stone building. They nest high up, so that they can drop straight into the air from the nest site, as the breeding period is the only time when they ever land. Swifts cannot normally take off from the ground. The nest is built from whatever they can gather on the wing, and insect wings, feathers, and airborne seeds are glued together with saliva. They return to the same spot year on year. Laying two or three large white oval eggs, the swift incubates for about three weeks. The young grow quickly on a high protein intake of insects and spiders. Numbers of swifts arriving in Britain each summer have fallen significantly in recent years, although precise figures are hard to establish. The main problem they face is finding nest sites, as older buildings are demolished, or are repaired unsympathetically, and modern buildings are erected with no provision for them. You can help by putting up swift nest boxes, and there are 'swift bricks' available, which can be built into the walls of a modern house.
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