Visitors from Africa bring welcome colour to our Summer. Chris Chappell explains how.
As the season warms up, there are huge changes to the countryside, and to the wildlife you are likely to see. Breeding birds are now able to hide in the fresh foliage, and will skulk as they feed their fledglings. Roe deer will hide in a thicket, watchful as you pass by, unseen in the dense growth. But butterflies and dragonflies are now on the wing, while swifts and swallows mop up insects overhead. Water birds such as swans and mallards escort their broods around the waterways. Swan cygnets start life as fluffy balls of silver down with dark beaks, keenly protected by the pen and cob, best not get too close at this time, albeit they are very tempting for the photographer. Great crested grebes and little grebes both produce striped young, good for camouflage in the reeds. The chicks may be seen being taught how to catch small fish by the adults. Coots and moorhens now have sizeable offspring, they are quite vulnerable at this stage and many large birds from herons to harriers will snatch a quick meal.
Swallows and House Martins
Swallows and house martins are now settled in and starting to raise broods. They are distinctly different in appearance and behaviour. The swallow prefers to nest in an outbuilding, and are known to many as barn swallows. However, they are as likely to nest in a shed, porch or even a bird hide, if there is open access. The male builds a slight nest of mud and grasses, making a cup stuck to the eaves or beams. He will then sing noisily to attract a female. The nest is then lined with a few feathers, and a clutch of four or five eggs is laid. Adult swallows have long tail streamers, and the mature birds have the longest, which helps to attract a mate. The female will undertake most of the brooding, and the pair will both feed the young. The male is fiercely protective of the female, both against other males, or threats such as cats, which they sometimes dive-bomb. The swallow prefers to feed by swooping low over meadows, existing largely on flies. There are usually two broods, using the same nest, and the swallow has a high hatching, fledging and survival rate, and their population is not deemed to be under threat.
House martins build rather more substantial nests made almost entirely of mud, and nest in colonies, of generally just a few nests, under the eaves of houses. The house martin will be heard twittering from the nest a great deal of the time. Their feeding habits differ from the swallow in that they are often seen feeding on high with the swifts, and travel across the sky at some speed mopping up insects and spiders. The house martin can easily be distinguished in flight by the white rump. They are fertile breeders, having three clutches or more. But they are in some significant decline, and studies are attempting to analyse the extent and reasons for this. It is, of course, illegal to disturb their nests or nest sites while the house martins are present in the UK. If their presence causes a real nuisance, you may consider blocking off the problem area next winter with wire mesh, to encourage them to nest away from your doorway, for instance. Wildlife organisations will advise on the most sensitive way to do this.
Up on Exmoor, another two related birds with very different lives may be seen, often perched on the top of a gorse clump. The male stonechat is a striking bird, with orange breast, white collar and black head, and will often be located by the characteristic noise of two stones being tapped together. The stonechat is a resident, seen all year round, but moving down from the hills in winter. Stonechats are relatively common in Somerset. Despite occupying very similar territory, the whinchat is a summer visitor. Quite similar in appearance, it can be distinguished by the very strong white stripe (supercilium) over the eye in both sexes. The whinchat will return to central and southern Africa for the winter. It is now quite a rare bird, the population arriving here having reduced by half in the past thirty years, for reasons unknown.
There are about 50 species of orchid growing wild in the UK, and June is a good month to see most species, although a few, such as green-winged, may be past their best. While orchids have disappeared from some areas, there are protected wild meadows and unimproved land where they abound. They generally grow on calcareous soils with an underlying stratum of chalk or limestone. There are many weird and wonderful species offering great scope for photographers. Bee, fly and lizard orchid are among the descriptive nomenclature. But the common spotted or pyramidal orchids, which are relatively easy to find, are beautiful to see.
Dragonflies and Damselflies
Dragonflies and the related smaller damselflies are now emerging from their nymphs, climbing reed stems before breaking free of the exuvia, or larval case, which may be found sticking to the reed. Damselflies are distinguished by their smaller size, weaker flight and separated eyes. After a period of drying out in the sun, they will flex their wings, and set off to hunt the smaller insects they feed on. Dragonflies have very powerful wings, which enable them to accelerate rapidly through the air, and also very good eyesight, enabling them to home in on prey. There are just 57 recorded species of Dragonfly (Odonata) in the UK, of which 40 might realistically be seen, so it is quite feasible to learn their identification if you become interested. The hairy dragonfly and the four spot chaser are among the first to emerge. There is some complexity, however, with variations in sex, and colour changes with age. Irrespective, they make wonderful subjects for macro photography, and on a still warm day they can easily be approached. the rivers and ponds of Somerset are superb habitats for many species
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.
All photographs © Chis Chappell