Chris Chappell explains how to tell your warblers and your chats apart and reveals the delights of the Somerset countryside in Spring
Spring is now under way, albeit rather delayed by recent cold weather. As the days lengthen, the woodlands resound with birdsong, robins and blackbirds are already nesting in the gardens. This is perhaps the most exciting time of year, as the countryside wakes up. Brimstone butterflies and large bumblebees are already on the move. Wheatears are appearing on the shore at Bridgwater Bay, an early migrant, and striking birds to see perched on a rock or wall.
During April the winter visitors will complete their exodus, wigeon and teal no longer piping and whistling on the meres and lakes, and the chatter of fieldfare now ended. And this month sees the arrival of millions of summer visitors; chiff chaff and willow warbler, two songsters heard throughout the county. They will be joined by blackcap, garden warbler and whitethroat. In the reed beds reed and sedge warblers will join the resident Cetti's warbler, the former will set up their distinctive rhythmic chatter, punctuated by the Cetti's explosive call.
Lesser celandine, wood anemone, primrose and cowslips will appear in woods and meadows. Flowering bluebells will peak by the end of April, along with other flowering woodland plants, they need to take advantage of the light before the tree canopy cuts out the sun.
Butterflies are emerging and orange tip, 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.
Stonechats and whinchats
The sight of a male stonechat on top of a reed mace or gorse bush, making the characteristic tapping noise from which it is named, is always a joy. They are widespread, from the levels to Exmoor, and unlike many birds, their population is deemed to be stable. They are very protective of their territory when breeding, and both male and female will grumble noisily if you are near a nest. The male has a black head, white ring to the side of the neck, and orange breast, the female lacks the black head, and is otherwise quite similar, but subtler in hue. and make a striking appearance perched in the sun, frequently calling attention to themselves with their eponymous call. They are resident all year round.
The whinchat is a similar and related bird, but with a very different life pattern. In appearance, they are less colourful than the stonechat, but can be distinguished by a strong white supercilium (eye stripe). The whinchat spends the winter in central and southern Africa, so their return is eagerly awaited by birdwatchers. They have a modest warbling song, but are generally more secretive and harder to see than the stonechat. These days they are mainly see upland habitat, such as Exmoor, with a few pairs on the Quantocks. They have suffered some significant decline in recent years, probably due to changes in farming practices. Their migration to the UK should be complete by the end of April. The chat group of birds includes wheatear, redstart and nightingale.
This small falcon travels from tropical Africa each year to breed in southern Britain, arriving from late March. Prior to their dispersal around southern Britain to breed, they will gather in some numbers to feed on insects, and the Somerset levels is a particularly fruitful area for them to find food. Migrant birds need to regain weight prior to attempting breeding. They feed by catching prey in the air, anything from large insects to small birds, but they are very fond of dragonflies. Once caught, they will hold a dragonfly in one claw, pluck off the wings and legs and eat the edible parts whilst the hobby is still on the on the wing. They are fast, dashing falcons, in profile they resemble a large swift, but in good light look quite like a small peregrine, but with a large rufous patch under the tail. It is possible to see 30 or 40 birds over Shapwick Heath. Initially, they may feed on the large black St Mark's fly, which emerges well in advance of the St Mark's day (25th) these days. They are best seen at Shapwick or Westhay. As May approaches, they will disperse, a few pairs staying in the area to breed. Hobbies always use the old twig built nest of other birds such as crows or sparrow hawks. An estimated 2000 pairs migrate to Britain each year, and it is good to report that they are on the increase. Watching them hunting over the reed beds, or high in the sky is a thrilling experience.
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 this isn't always easy, and the calls will often 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 on line to help you perfect your skills. Swallows, sand martins and house martins will all soon arrive and will spread out across the countryside.
Swell Wood is situated on a wooded ridge above the levels of West Sedge Moor, just West of Curry Rivel. It hosts the largest heronry in the West Country. From the new hide you can look up to the numerous grey herons’ nests, large untidy constructions built at the top of the tall oaks and ash. Around 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 woods are 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.
Orange Tip butterfly
All photographs © Chris Chappell