Chris Chappell would be delighted if you got up at 5 am to hear the dawn chorus but if not, there's plenty to be seen later in the day.
The last of the spring migrant birds have now arrived, and swallows are settling into the villages around the county, cuckoos are calling across the levels, and up on Exmoor. One of the last birds to arrive is the very pretty spotted flycatcher, a delicate beak, streaky chest, and as much identified for the habit of returning to the same branch or twig after forays after insects. The reed beds on the levels are ringing with the chattering of reed and sedge warblers, punctuated by the explosive call of the resident Cetti's warbler. Noisy blackcaps call in woods and thickets, with chiff chaff and willow warbler above them. But as the birds settle to the business of breeding, they will become quieter, so as not to attract attention to the nesting sites. Adult birds are busy feeding their broods, and blackbirds will be seen in the garden with a beak full of worms, or warblers collecting flies.
Butterflies abound on sunny days, peacock, brimstone, orange tip, comma and speckled wood will all be seen. Now that there are some flowers to feed on, they will flourish and start to breed, laying their eggs on the foliage, which will soon hatch as caterpillars.
Red Kites are an increasingly common sight in Somerset, as their range extends across the country. A large hawk, beautifully marked, and distinguished from the marsh harrier by the russet colouring and more significantly, the forked tail.
Dragonflies and Damselflies
Dragonflies and the related smaller damselflies are now emerging from their nymphs, climbing reed stems before breaking free of the exuvia, or larval case, which may be found sticking to the reed. Damselflies are distinguished by their smaller size, weaker flight sand separated eyes. After a period of drying out in the sun, they will flex their wings, and set off to hunt the smaller insects they feed on. Dragonflies have very powerful wings, which enable them to accelerate rapidly through the air, and also very good eyesight, enabling them to home in on prey. There are just 57 recorded species of Dragonfly (Odonata) in the UK, of which 40 might realistically be seen, so it is quite feasible to learn their identification if you become interested. There is some complexity, however, with variations in sex, and colour changes with age. Irrespective, they make wonderful subjects for macro photography, and on a still warm day they can easily be approached. the rivers and ponds of Somerset are superb habitats for many species
This is the best time to hear the dawn chorus. The birds start to sing just before daybreak, so you will need to set your alarm. An early start will be well rewarded with the bird song ringing throughout the woods as numerous species compete for attention. It is an experience you will always remember, and is a chance to find out what is about. Song thrushes call from the top of a tree, their loud call consisting of short phrases repeated two or three times. You may hear the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker, as it claims its territory by hammering on a hollow trunk. The loud cackle of a green woodpecker, or yaffle, will echo through the oak trees. All this to a background of tits, warblers, finches noisily chiming in. Robins, dunnocks and the boisterous little wren will also join in. If you are very lucky you may hear a nightingale, with its unmistakeable warbling and trilling call, their song is not restricted to the night time. However, this now rather rare bird is at the western limit of its territory. The nightingale is a fairly undistinguished brown bird a little bigger than a robin, more heard than seen, as they like to sing from a dense copse.
The hobby is one of the special summer visitors to the Somerset levels. It is a small migratory falcon, much like a small peregrine. Happily the hobby is holding its own, and large numbers of them arrive in late April /early May. Initially they stay in the area to feed after their migration from Africa, and then most will disperse throughout the country; a few pairs will stay to breed. The hobby is very partial to dragonflies, which it catches and eats on the wing, of which there is a plentiful supply as the nymphs hatch in the reed beds. Hobbies are swift and graceful in the air, and it is a breathtaking sight to see them hunting over the reed beds. They have a distinctive moustache with white bib, curved wings, and rapid darting flight.
Spring plants and flowers
May blossom is the flower of hawthorn and is now coming in bloom, lighting up the hedges and hillsides. The woods are full of the spikes of cuckoo pint, or wild arum, also known as lords and ladies. This strange plant will produce bright red berries later in the year, but is generally thought poisonous and best not handled. Wild clematis is starting to creep along the hedgerows. Yellow rattle, oxeye daisy, buttercups and spotted orchids will be seen in meadows that have escaped modern farming methods. Long Wood (just north of Cheddar) is the Trust's oldest reserve and has a good display of bluebells at this time of year. While in the area you can also visit the adjacent reserves of Black Rock, Velvet Bottom and Ubley Warren, which between them have too many attractions to list, but boast snakes and lizards, and some rare bird and plant species. Plan a day out with the help of your SWT Nature Reserves Guide.
Cetti's Warbler courtesy of Wikipedia. Other photographs by Chris Chappell.
Great Crested Grebe