Another changeable summer has been challenging for breeding birds, and led to rather unpredictable appearances by our butterflies.
However, it looks like a fruitful time, with rowan, hawthorn, guelder rose and elder hanging heavy with berries, and blackberry thickets already producing ripe fruit in more sheltered spots. Both adult and young birds are now skulking, the adults moulting, and the fledglings growing their adult plumage. Swifts are beginning to depart, and are mostly gone by the end of August, heading south for the winter. For birders, this time of year is an opportunity to see a variety of migrant birds, as they leave their northern breeding grounds, on their autumn passage. Common sandpipers are an example that may be seen on any area of fresh water at this time of year, en route to West Africa. Ospreys stop over on the levels each autumn, usually toward the end of the month, and are recorded at Shapwick each year, where there is a plentiful supply of fish.
Dragonflies and damselflies abound as the flowering plants reach their peak, attracting the insects they feed on. You may see large numbers of common darters, a small species, sunning themselves on a fence or wall, the males dusky red, and the females olive green. The prevalence of the species peaks at this time of year. The larger dragonflies, hawkers, the brown, southern and migrant species are common in Somerset. With patience, they will settle in the sun, and can be photographed close up, revealing their extraordinary patterned bodies.
Moorland heathers are now flowering, adding colour to heathland areas, where you may spot reptiles on a stump or bare patch of earth. Adders and common lizards both enjoy the warmth of the sun. It is a good time to plan a walk on Exmoor, the Quantocks or the Mendips, take your camera and a picnic and enjoy Somerset's wild places.
Egrets are members of the heron family, and there are now three species breeding in Somerset. The Little Egret started to appear in the UK at the end of the 80s, and is now firmly established, with possibly 1000 breeding pairs nationally. They are about half the size of a grey heron, but much more delicate, and a male in breeding plumage has festoons of display feathers. They have white plumage, black beak, black legs, and rather strange yellow feet, if you can see them. Feeding mainly on small fish, but will swallow any small creature that comes their way. The little egret nests in colonies, in trees, often alongside a heronry.
The great White Egret is white, heron sized, and has black feet. The bill is yellow in winter, but darkens in colour in mature individuals during the breeding season until it is almost black. They are seen increasingly in southern UK, and the Somerset Levels hosted the first breeding success five years back. The great white egret builds a nest in the reed beds, and in spring will be seen carrying sticks and reed stems to the nesting site.
More recently, these two have been joined by the Cattle Egret, similar in size to the little egret, but with a slightly more stocky build, and heavier beak. It is a white bird, but develops a strong honey hue to head and neck in the breeding season. Pale legs help to distinguish the species. And for the first time, the cattle egret is now breeding in Somerset. As the name suggests they will mix with cattle, and snap up anything disturbed by the hooves, but will also feed on marshes and ponds. They like to nest in colonies near water.
August is a very good time of year to explore the delights of the Somerset coast. Running east from Glenthorne on the Exmoor coast, to Portishead and beyond, there are a great variety of coastal habitat to explore. There is a chance of spotting a grey seal bobbing about offshore, and a great variety of seabirds and waders may be seen. Peregrine and ravens breed on the cliffs, and can be seen hunting for food along the cliff tops. The rocky outcrops make a picturesque backdrop to the beach, where you may see rock pipits chasing insects, a ringed plover darting around.
Soon the tideline will attract wheatear, an early departing migrant, which likes to catch the flies that hover over the washed up seaweed. The coastal environment nurtures many specialist plants and shrubs. Sea campion and thrift thrive on the shingle at Porlock. Climb Hurlstone Point for fine view across Bossington Beach to Porlock Weir, where flocks of linnets gather in the gorse. And of course there are the rock pools to explore, seaweed, molluscs, crabs plus small fish trapped by the receding tide. The exceptional tidal range in the Bristol channel fosters the great variety of living creatures, and in addition, there are some of the most extraordinary geological features in Britain, at Kilve beach, Watchet and East Quantoxhead, where bands of blue lias limestone, are interleaved with mudstone and shale, creating an extraordinary lunar landscape. And there are fossils. Try to take some pictures on your phone or camera and spend some time looking up the various species when you get home, extending your knowledge as you do so. The large tidal range does mean the tide runs in and out very swiftly, so take care, and check the tide tables.
Many bird species will moult at this time of year, and as a result they tend to skulk out of sight, as they are very vulnerable during this period. And birdsong has all but ceased, as there is no need to compete for mates, and no wish to attract attention. During the moult birds may suffer in wet weather, and also from predators, as their flight response is impaired. The moult allows fledglings to develop from the juvenile plumage into adult, or in some cases, there may be a two stage step to adult plumage. Adult birds need to replace their feathers as they become worn in flight, damaged, and attacked by lice. Some species will moult into winter plumage, as there is no wish to attract attention outside the breeding season, and less striking plumage is better camouflage.
This is why in August you may get the impression that many birds have disappeared. The pale fledglings will begin to gain their adult colours of the species, while adult birds renew their worn out feathers. Some larger species, such as geese and swans, are unable to fly while the wing feathers are re-grown. If you see rather scruffy and moth-eaten birds this is normal, and they will soon be resplendent in new plumage.
Pictures: top to bottom: Brown hawker dragonfly, Large skipper butterfly, The coast at Kilve coutesy of Chris Chappell