Strolling, hiking, climbing - take your pick in order to track down all that Somerset has to offer in this exciting month. Chris Chappell shows us how.
Spring is under way, and the delights of the natural world here in Somerset are boundless. We are blessed with a huge variety of habitats, and whether you are tempted by a stroll along the beach at Watchet, a hike across Avalon Marshes, or an energetic climb on Exmoor, there is no excuse not to get out and enjoy it all. You will soon see what the Somerset Wildlife Trust is working towards, and why preserving the environmental diversity for the future is so important. While April can bring anything from snow to warm sun, each day brings its own reward. Warblers are now settling in to the countryside, and can be heard calling from trees, hedges and reedbeds. The chiff-chaff has the most recognisable call, which distinguishes it from the very similar willow warbler. But you may soon get to know the falling crescendo of that warbler, the loud and tuneful blackcap, or the modest trill of a whitethroat. There are many excellent aids online to help you perfect your skills. Swallows, sand martins and house martins have now arrived and swallows can already be seen in our villages. The very striking wheatear is arriving on the coast, where it likes to feed on sand flies at the shoreline to restore strength after the journey.
The woods and meadows are now full of flowers, lesser celandine, primrose, early orchids, cowslips and bluebells. Once the tree canopy comes into leaf, many of the woodland flowers will be gone until next spring.
By the end of April the majority of summer migrants will have arrived. This includes the cuckoo, a bird that has sadly declined dramatically over the past 40 years. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but it is thought that climate change leading to early breeding by the host species such as dunnock is a major factor. However, Somerset has a good number of cuckoos on Exmoor, where the cuckoo preys principally on meadow pipits, and will also be found on the Quantocks and the Levels. The other main prey species are pied wagtail and reed warbler. It is only the male that makes the familiar call, while the female cuckoo has a bubbling cackle, made when the bird is looking for a host for an egg. The cuckoo remains in Somerset for about ten weeks. They are more heard than seen, but look out for a bird like a small grey dove, with a dashing flight, that characteristically drops the wings when perched. They are often closer than it might seem, as their call does not carry that far.
Swell Wood is situated on a wooded ridge above the levels of West Sedge Moor. It hosts the largest heronry in the West Country. From the hide you can look up to the numerous grey herons’ nests, large untidy constructions built at the top of the tall oaks and ash. It is thought nearly 100 pairs of herons breed here, and they make an impressive sight preening in the bright sunlight. Grey heron is a misnomer really, as they have an almost white neck, and a black cap, and crest, and now in full breeding condition have a cascade of white feathers, flecked with black stripes, sprouting from the lower neck and look magnificent. As the young hatch, the adults will become very active collecting food from the moor; frogs, eels and fish, and the noise level will increase as the chicks squawk for attention. The herons have been joined in recent years by a few pairs of white egret, now breeding at the site. Below the canopy, the wood is full of birds, blue, coal, great and long-tailed tits; nuthatches abound. You may spot a goldcrest, our smallest bird, as voles scurry about in the leaf litter, and a roe deer will be feeding in the background. Great spotted woodpeckers breed in the dead trees, and you may hear their drumming call, as they hammer out a warning to rivals on a hollow trunk.
SWT Westhay Moor is notable for the variety of habitats preserved there. In addition to the reed beds and lagoons, formed from old peat workings, there are birch woods, some pine, scrub and a good area of raised bog heathland. From the main Viridor hide you can see bittern, kingfisher, great crested and little grebes. Marsh harriers regularly patrol the reed beds looking for prey. Taking the paths around the reserve, you may see kestrels hunting over the heath, while buzzards soar overhead. Our native greylag geese and Canada geese are common here, often making a noisy display as they come and go. The woodland area is home to many birds, and long tailed tits abound. You may hear the drumming of great spotted woodpeckers, as they signal their presence by tapping on a hollow tree. The various habitats available on the levels support many reptiles; adders, grass snakes, slow worms and common lizard can be spotted, warming up in a sunny spot.
The marshes and waterways of the levels are dominated by many bird sounds, often from species that are more heard than seen. The Cetti's warbler has a noisy explosive call, and will often surprise you by calling from a bush or thicket close by, but the most you will see is a wide rich brown tail as it skulks in the undergrowth. The Cetti's is common right across the levels, but this nationally rare bird is a local speciality, and is now resident all year round. Water Rails are a shy relative of the moorhen, and spend their time skulking at the waters edge, probing the mud for food. The water rail is known for its loud scream-like call, which can be mistaken for an animal being attacked. Another noise you can now hear through the reedbeds is of course the bittern, now booming loudly at all the major wetland reserves. The success of this enigmatic bird is a triumph of nature conservation for Somerset, which now hosts the largest UK population. A fourth noisy bird is the little grebe, they call to each other with a loud, descending, wittering trill. All these species can be observed with care, time and patience, but the noises they make are hard to miss. The dawn chorus has started, but this peaks in May, when all the migrant species are establishing in their territories and breeding sites.
All photographs by Chris Chappell.
Great Crested Grebe