Bitterns, bats and brimstone butterflies are targets this month, says Chris Chappell. And can you tell a Mistle from a Song Thrush?
This month is an exciting time of major changes to the natural world in Somerset, as spring gets under way, and winter recedes. Many species of birds will be seen building nests as the hedgerows start to turn green and the first blossom starts to show. Bats are emerging from hibernation, and may be spotted in daylight seeking to take on some food after the winter. Frog and toad spawn appears in ponds. Dunnocks will trill noisily from the tops of hedgerows. Rowdy rooks are busy rebuilding their communal nest sites after the ravages of winter. On the levels the reed beds are starting to echo to the sound of bitterns, their loud boom reverberates, as the males advertise their presence. Therefore there is a lot to look out for, and many good reasons to explore the county as the days lengthen, and the sun warms the ground.
And as the days warm up, early butterflies will appear. Species you may see are peacock, comma, brimstone, speckled wood, small tortoiseshell, orange tip and small and large whites. Lesser celandine, wood anemone and sweet violets will come into flower. The brimstone butterfly is an important pollinator of primroses, now flowering in woods and copses.. On Exmoor gorse is in full flower, the strong coconut-like smell attracting insects, while the dense prickly foliage provides good cover for birds such as linnet to nest. Hazel and alder trees are hanging with yellow catkins, releasing clouds of pollen in the breeze. The goat willow, colloquially known as pussy willow, displays large furry silver catkins with yellow covered pollen bearing strands. The bare spiky blackthorn is now blossoming, the profuse flowers preceding the leaves, a striking contrast of white on an otherwise black hedge.
You may see brown hares chasing each other in the fields, sometimes 'boxing', while rearing up on their legs. These contests involve the does seeing off an over-attentive buck, when they are not ready to mate. And toward the end of the month male adders will appear on sunny days, warming up after the winter hibernation.
The deer species you are most likely to find in Somerset is the roe deer. Often seen in the distance, grazing to the rear of reserves such as SWT Catcott, these small deer may exist in any small area of woodland or copse. Their breeding pattern remained a mystery for many years, but we now know that they employ a strategy of embryonic diapause, or delayed implantation. The rut takes place at the end of the summer, but the roe doe will not give birth until the end of May or early June. By this time there is maximum leaf cover to conceal the newborn fawns. At the same time buck roe deer are re-growing their antlers, a process that consumes a great deal of energy, as the new bone is deposited from a layer of 'velvet' that covers the new growth. They are delicate and beautiful creatures, able to disappear into any woodland, as they move nimbly between the branches. They will sometimes bark if surprised.
Eurasian Collared Dove
These pretty, delicate doves have a remarkable story of colonisation of northern Europe over the past 60 years, arriving from the Middle East in the 50s and now established as part of our avifauna. Most of us will be used to hearing their mewing call, usually used as they move from perch to perch, and their rather repetitive cooing, which some find a bit trying. However, this is more than offset by their appearance, delicate hues of grey and pink, black collar in adults, and startling red eyes. They breed prolifically, having up to five clutches in a year. Collared doves build rather flimsy nests, often in rather exposed spots, so they are not always a success.. All pigeons incubate two eggs, so the chicks get well fed on a milk of masticated grain and seeds. They are territorial, and cock birds will fight enthusiastically if an interloper appears. They are opportunistic, coming to garden bird feeders, or occupying farmyards looking for grain.
March sees major movements of migrant birds, from goldcrests to greylag geese, as the wintering population starts to leave our shores for their breeding grounds further north. In turn the influx of summer visitors will start from the south. On the levels, the winter ducks and waders will also start to leave, heading north and east for their breeding grounds. Migrant starlings, thrushes and jays will also disperse. Large flocks of woodpigeons head back to eastern Europe. But as they depart, our summer visitors will begin to appear. One of the first birds to arrive is the wheatear, a striking bird that is fairly approachable, and can be seen along southern shores, often first seen feeding on flies on the shoreline. Bridgwater Bay is a good place to find them, and they arrive from the second week of the month on. Huge flocks of sand martins, and then house martins can be seen feeding high over the levels and moors. Our resident noisy Cetti's warbler is joined by chiff chaffs and willow warblers, plus blackcaps, albeit these species increasingly over-winter here. Initially migrant arrivals concentrate on finding food to build up their weight after the journey. You may see mixed warblers clustered around a sheltered pond where there is a good source of early flying insects
Blackbird, Song and Mistle Thrush
Blackbirds have a lovely melodic song, some say the best, and they will be heard singing from a high point, the cock bird claiming his territory at dawn and dusk, challenging any rivals. You may hear several singing in competition in your town or village. They are well adapted to suburban gardens, taking advantage of food, shelter, and shrubs and bushes for nesting sites. The song thrush population seems to have made something of a recovery, having become rather scarce in recent years. The song thrush will perch up in a tree, and their song is quite distinctive, repeating short phrases two or three times, but at best this pattern becomes quite fluid, and very musical. The thrush has a great liking for snails, and often uses a favourite stump or rock to break their shells. The larger and rarer mistle thrush has a loud and rather tuneless flutelike song, repeating longer phrases than the song thrush, they are often heard on heavy cloudy days, when rain is imminent, and have a traditional country name of storm cock.
Photographs © Chris Chappell
Young Roe Buck