Migration is the key word this month. You will be impressed when you read what Chris Chappell has to say about Swifts and Painted Ladies.
You are spoiled for choice in the Somerset countryside at this time of year, flowering plants appear in the fields and meadows, the dawn chorus is at its peak, and birds and animals concentrate on rearing young. As spring turns to summer and the countryside is swathed in greenery, transforming the countryside, as the bright shades of spring are followed by a multitude of darker hues. The hawthorn blossom fades and the elder takes over. Wild clematis throws tendrils along the hedgerows, now lined with flowers and umbellifers. Dragonflies patrol the rhynes and ponds, snapping up smaller insects as they go, and in turn they may fall prey to a hobby or kestrel. Swans escort families of silver cygnets around the waterways. Swans are very protective parents, the male (cob) can be quite aggressive at this time, and should be treated with some caution. Mallards, coots, moorhens and grebes may be seen teaching their offspring to feed. While the dawn chorus continues, it will diminish during the month, as birds concentrate on rearing their young.
The reedbeds on the levels are now growing fast, the golden brown stems and seed heads that we have become used to during the winter will soon be replaced with green shoots. This will provide welcome cover for the breeding birds, from bittern to reed warbler, as they do their best to conceal their nests and eggs from marauding ravens and carrion crows.
It is a wonderful time to use your camera, the range of subjects, from close-ups of insects to the setting sun is endless, and while sunshine often helps, the moods on a bleak day can still make effective images.
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. They 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. Numbers of swifts arriving in Britain each summer have fallen significantly in recent years, although precise numbers 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.
Forming the western edge of the Somerset levels the Quantock Hills rise to over 1200 feet at the highest point, and run for some 15 miles from Vale of Taunton Dean up to the Bristol Channel. A valuable area of wildlife habitat, with gorse, heathland, woodland and copse, it supports many rare species of flora and fauna. These range from the majestic red deer, to soaring skylarks trilling overhead. Adders, grass snakes, slowworm and common lizard can be found. Stunted oaks, birch, ash and wych elm fill the valleys, while the more exposed areas are studded with ancient wind-blown hawthorn bushes. Willow warblers sing from the tree tops, the call of the cuckoo resonates through the valleys, and you may hear the churr of the grasshopper warbler. The area is traversed by numerous tracks, dating back into prehistory, the wide herepath, bordered by overgrown beech hedges makes a lovely scenic route for a walk.
June is the peak month for butterfly activity, as plants come into flower, and butterflies will be drawn to them to collect nectar. They will then mate and lay eggs on plant leaves. Most of the butterfly species seen nationally can be found in Somerset, due to the great variety of habitats in the county. The lesser tortoiseshell is easy to find on a sunny day, along with speckled wood, brimstone and peacock. And we are also host to many beautiful and rarer species such as silver washed fritillary. The painted lady butterfly has already made an appearance, a large and intricately patterned species with an interesting story. It has recently been established that the painted lady travels from Africa each spring, journeying as far as the Arctic Circle, a 9000 mile return trip. This behaviour had remained unknown for many years due to their habit of flying high in the sky, at an average height of 500 metres, and thus eluding those monitoring butterfly migration. No individual makes the whole journey, but repeated breeding cycles regenerate the species en route, in a sophisticated relay, passing through up to six generations in the process.
Out on the Levels
Shapwick Heath and the Avalon Marshes hold a wealth of wildlife. The numerous reed warblers chattering away, the noisy Cetti's warbler, exploding into sound from the depths of a willow. Whitethroats abound, slightly easier to spot, as they are fond of perching on top of a patch of brambles. Blackcaps, garden warblers and chiffchaffs are still singing from bushes and trees, while below they have nests with young, hidden in the undergrowth. Bitterns continue to boom, and you may see a male chasing a potential mate, or a rival, around the reed beds. Hobbies are soaring above, catching their favourite snack of dragonflies. The dragonflies are now be emerging in profusion, sometimes hundreds of four spot chasers take to the air along the reed bed edge. Little and great crested grebe now have young. Grebe chicks are highly camouflaged, a stripy mix of black white and brown, ideal for blending into the reeds. Both grebes' offspring have a fondness for riding on the adults' backs, not always welcome when they are trying to catch small fish to feed them. The male cuckoos are calling, and marsh harriers can be seen hunting along the far side of the lagoons. The now common little egret is joined by the very rare great white, now breeding in the area. Both are regularly seen on the Levels.
All photographs © Chris Chappell
Dog Rose (with flower beetle)
Swift entering nest site
Red-tailed bee collecting pollen
Painted Lady feeding on Valerian
Common Spotted Orchid