Hawkers, Darters and Harriers should keep you interested this month, say Chris Chappell.
The extremes of climate this summer have rather disrupted the natural rhythm and as a result autumn seems to be arriving very early for many trees and plants. But as the season changes, early migrants, such as the swift will leave, heading back to Africa, after their all too short visit. Flocks of house martins will still be seen feeding high in the sky, as swallows start to line up on the telegraph wires. Waders are moving back to the estuaries, having completed their breeding cycle in the north. A good spot to get a bit closer to these waders is Meare Heath scrape on Shapwick Heath, where a flock of black tailed godwits are joined by lapwing and various sandpipers, and a few rarities. The occasional osprey may turn up on the levels, they survive solely on fish, and stock up their reserves before heading south for Africa. All these birds will pass through southern England in the next few weeks. Butterfly populations peak in August, the meadows are full of flowers. Look out for the hummingbird hawk moth, a large bee-like moth that feeds on the wing, probing flowers with its long proboscis. They are most likely seen on honeysuckle or buddleia. Large hawker dragonflies patrol their territories, circling a pond, preying on small insects. The smaller darter dragonfly will also appear in great numbers, the male a distinctive paprika red, and the female olive green. There is a good display of teasels this year, the prickly heads turning from pale purple to brown as they ripen. The teasel also attracts a lot of insects and butterflies.
Extinct by the end of the 19th century due to persecution and habitat degradation, the marsh harrier has made a steady recovery since the 1970s. The Somerset levels now provides habitat for these large raptors, mainly due to the creation of reed beds from worked out peat diggings.
Nationally still very rare, we are lucky to have a number of pairs breeding on the levels, and along with the bittern, are a conservation success story. The marsh harrier builds a nest in the reeds, laying four or five eggs. A male harrier may have more than one female as a mate. The young take three years to reach maturity, and broadly resemble the female bird until mature. Feeding on small mammals and birds, they will be seen quartering low over the reeds, hunting for a meal. The marsh harrier has a very distinctive look in the air, with arched wings, often trailing legs, it twists and turns as it scans for prey. They are now regularly seen and one of the true spectacles of the marshes.
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 habitats 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 sea runs in very swiftly, so take care.
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.
This is the best month for much of the butterfly activity, and while the vagaries of our weather have led to variable populations of some species, it is looking like quite a good year for some. Where there are flowers and plants to attract them, there have been large numbers of the gatekeeper, small and large white, blues and small coppers, and many more. On a still sunny day, the male butterflies become quite frenetic, chasing and competing for females, time is of the essence as they need to mate and lay as many eggs as possible while the weather is fine. While it may seem daunting to acquire the knowledge needed to identify the different species, there are not so many (unlike moths). It is very satisfying as your skills grow, and the behaviour, habitat and appearance all begin to make sense. If you have a garden, try to plant shrubs and plants that attract insects. Buddleia is the best known, but many other plants will help to diversify the lure, such as verbena, lavender, marjoram and honeysuckle. And these plants will also help our beleaguered bees. Your local garden centre or nursery will advise on what is best for you.
The Trust stages numerous events in the summer months, led by experts in their respective fields, be it bats, butterflies or glow worms. Check events for availability, charges and advice re suitable clothing.
All photographs by Chris Chappell
Marsh Harrier, female
Large White butterfly
Reed Warbler with a bee