Before the birds are hidden by the foliage, make the best use of this underrated month to visit some of Somerset's top sites, following Chris Chappell's shrewd advice.
The natural world is responding to the exceptionally mild winter, producing early flowers and buds. You may see birds such as blackbirds, robins and pigeons nesting prematurely, taking the opportunity to extend the breeding season. But as the natural sources of food are consumed, it is still important to continue feeding the birds. The yew, rowan, cotoneaster and guelder rose berries have largely been eaten. Apples are a good source of food for blackbirds and other thrushes. Rooks are rebuilding their nests, the only crow species to nest communally, they nest early in the year and build large nests of sticks lined with whatever soft material is available. Great tits are calling, they have a variety of calls but their loud see-saw will be heard on sunny mornings. Robins and song thrushes are startling to build up their song, as the days lengthen.
The dunnock, which gets its name from the Old British meaning 'little brown one', has many country names; including hedge sparrow, but it is not a sparrow, but the only native member of the accentor family. Dunnocks like to sit on a high point in a hedge, and repeat the rather thin, but pretty trill. Observed closely, they are beautifully marked, in browns and greys. They are shy and reclusive birds, and tend to skulk on the ground when feeding, rather mouse-like in behaviour. The dunnock builds a well hidden nest, and will lay 5 or 6 pale blue eggs. Oddly they are sometimes the target of cuckoos later in the year. It is a very good time of year to watch birds and animals, as they are very active in preparation for the spring, but easier to view while the trees and hedgerows are still bare of leaves.
This is the time to put up bird boxes, or to check and clean out the old ones. Take care not to disturb any hibernating dormice. Removing the old nest material reduces the proliferation of parasites. Be careful when removing old nests, as the nest debris contains fungal spores, and avoid inhaling any dust produced.
Bridgwater Bay and Steart Point
It is worth making the trip to Bridgwater Bay at this time of year. While very bleak in poor weather, it is a spectacular place on a bright day, and the shoreline hosts a good range of wading birds and ducks. Plan your visit around high tide so that the bird species are forced to feed near to the shore line. Wrap up well, and take refreshments, as there are no cafes on the peninsula. The copses and coastal scrub provide cover for linnets, meadow pipits and stonechats. Dunlin feed along the water's edge, you may see hundreds lining the shore, and from time to time they will take flight, an impressive sight as they turn in the sun, flickering white to grey. Other waders you may see are curlew, redshank, grey plover, knot, ringed plover and oystercatcher. As the tide recedes shelduck will arrive to feed on the sand banks, probing for small molluscs. Avocets feed in the area, and sometimes a flock will travel along the Parrett River. These once extinct waders are gradually re-establishing in the UK, and numbers are increased by over-wintering individuals. They striking are large black and white birds, with a distinctive upturned end to the bill.
The newly established Steart Marshes now attracts waders, ducks and egrets. In particular the shelduck will be seen in numbers, redshank and lapwing feed in the shallow mud. If you are lucky, you may see a short eared owl, a winter visitor to the south of England that hunts by day. Barn owls are regularly seen towards the end of the day, both species looking for voles and mice.
From the reserve you have views out to sea, to Flat Holm and Steep Holm, two rocky islands a few miles offshore. The Quantock Hills rise to the West, and the mudflats and sandbanks form striking patterns as the tide recedes. A good opportunity for some special landscape photography. The lighting is often spectacular, and when combined with the mournful call of curlew, and the piping of oystercatcher and redshank, a place of inspiration on many different ways.
Westhay Moor Nature Reserve
As a contrast to the delights of Bridgwater Bay, Westhay offers all kinds of birdlife, both aquatic and woodland species. In addition, Westhay is home to otters, and you may see a group of roe deer feeding at a safe distance. You may also spot a tree creeper making its way up an alder or birch, searching out insects in the crevices in the bark. It is an exquisite creature, with a white front, striped and barred back, and thin curved beak for teasing out prey.
Bullfinches can be seen in the shrubs and bushes, the male with an unmistakable dusky pink/red front, and the female cafe crème. Both have black heads, wingtips and tail, and you will see a flash of the white rump as they take flight. They have a rather sad weeping call.
Marsh harriers hunt over the reed beds, these magnificent birds, spread their great wings in a characteristic vee shape, and make a wonderful sight in winter sun. They feed on small mammals and birds, and are generally silent. They are the largest harrier, the female brown with a honey cream head, and the male paler with grey mid-wing, black wing tips and greyish tail. They are joined by a few migratory hen harriers during the winter. The male hen harrier is a striking white and grey with black tipped wings, whilst the female is brown with a white ring to the base of the tail. Young males are almost indistinguishable from the female form; the two are identified together as ‘ringtails’, having a clear white base to the tail.
If you are lucky, you may see bearded tits clinging to the reed heads, the males beautiful sculptured birds, long brown tails, grey heads, and a strong moustache. They make a distinctive 'pinging' call as they pass through the reeds. They are also often seen feeding on the ground, gathering grit which many birds need to help with the digestion of seeds. In addition there are bittern, kingfisher, and many ducks including mallard, teal, wigeon gadwall, and tufted duck. Water rail and little grebe are common here, more heard than seen. And the starlings, which deserve another mention, are present in huge numbers; their preferred roost in the reeds changes during the course of the winter, but you will always see them scooting over the reeds en route to the roost.
By the end of the month, the male bitterns begin to call. Most birds go through a process of building up the muscles used to call or sing. Therefore when the bitterns start to call, it is just a muffled grunt, and builds up to a resonant call that can be heard from several miles away.
March will bring lots of changes, so meantime enjoy the winter visitors before they leave, soon to be replaced by all our summer migrants.
Photographs © Chris Chappell