You can't go wrong if you follow Chris Chappell's expert advice here. Grab your binoculars and enjoy the delights on offer.
Spring is under way early, 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 much to tempt you out to 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.
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 fade away until next spring. Butterflies are emerging; peacock, brimstone, speckled wood and comma will be seen on sunny days, and soon the early dragonfly species will join them. The dragonfly nymphs that have wintered underwater will climb a reed stem, breaking out of their exuvial casing, and spread their wings to dry. But you will have to wait for May to see most dragonflies emerging.
Warblers are now settling in to the countryside, and can be heard calling from trees, hedges and reedbeds. An expert birder can tell the difference between similar warblers by their appearance, but the calls will remove any doubt for the amateur. The chiff-chaff has the most recognisable call, which distinguishes it from the very similar looking willow warbler. But you may soon get to know the falling crescendo of the willow warbler, the loud and tuneful blackcap, or the modest trill of a whitethroat. The birds are often so pre-occupied with their efforts to claim territory or attract a mate, they are easier to approach, and while the leaves are just budding, there is less cover for them. Finding the bird using your binoculars, and then watching it perform, is a great way to learn the songs. There are many excellent aids online to help you perfect your skills. Swallows, sand martins and house martins have now arrived and will soon spread out across the countryside.
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 established 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 high overhead. If you are lucky you may see bearded tits feeding in the reeds. Our native greylag geese and invasive 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. Tree creepers make their way up tree trunks, looking for insect larvae in the bark fissures. 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 will peak in May, when all the migrant species are establishing in their territories and breeding sites.
All photographs by Chris Chappell.