Listen for the "kerching" of the Beardies, says Chris Chappell or spend a day at Steart.
Autumn now turns to winter, the days shorten and the clocks go back. But November frequently offers beautiful clear days, myriad colours in the woods and hedges, and the chance to look for our avian winter visitors. Winter thrushes, redwings and fieldfares have now arrived, and will be seen feasting on berries and fruits. And as the leaves fall, the birds and animals become more visible, and the need for food in colder weather makes creatures bolder in their search for a meal. On the moors, noisy winter ducks gather on open water, feeding up after their journey from northern Europe.
Starlings are gathering in large flocks, and head for their roost before dusk. They provide one of Somerset's great wildlife spectacles, huge fluid shapes fill the landscape as they swarm and circle before landing. Many starlings arrive from north and east Europe in order to benefit from the milder winters in the UK. Birds of many species arrive from the north, you have a good chance of seeing goldcrests, listen out for their squeaky see-saw call, whose numbers rise from an estimated 600.000 resident population to several million, all seeking milder conditions for the winter. Overwintering blackcaps are now common in the south, and will happily come to the bird feeders.
Dragonflies can still be seen on sunny days, the larger species of common, southern and migrant hawkers still on the wing, along the small common darter, the bright red males may be seen in numbers. Wasps and hornets feed busily on ivy flowers, competing with the occasional red admiral butterfly.
The Polden Hills are comprised of a ten mile ridge running from the village of Street westwards toward Bawdrip. Almost parallel to the Mendips to the north, and the levels to the south, this is an interesting area to explore, and provides great opportunities for a good winter's walk. The Polden Ridge originally carried a Roman road running all the way from the fort at Ilchester to the coast at Combwich, and is an area steeped in history.
The SWT has three reserves on the Poldens, Great Breach Wood, New Hill and Tannager, and Dundon Beacon. On a fine day the Polden Hills provide a lovely place for a walk. SWT reserves New Hill and Tannager, plus Great Breach Wood can all be explored in a day. In addition, the National Trust own adjoining land at Collard Hill and Walton Hill to the west. The area offers mature trees, where you may find nuthatches and woodpeckers, and also open areas where buzzards will soar overhead, or you may hear the deep croak of the raven. Kestrels hunt for voles and mice, identifiable as the only falcon that will hover for any length of time. The kestrel's ability to hold a position on a blustery day, while they scan the ground for prey is a wonder to watch. The noisy cackle of the green woodpecker, or yaffle, rings through the oak woods. The yaffle likes to feed on ants, of which there is a good supply on the Polden ridge. There are fabulous views from the Polden Ridge across Kings Sedgemoor to the south, showing the Somerset countryside in all its autumn glory. Ancient hawthorn bushes are heavy with berries, and old man's beard looks its very best, sprawling over the landscape with the silver seed heads sparkling in the sun
Also known as bearded tits, these exquisite birds are not tits, and were thought until recently to be related to parrot bills, but have now been put in a class of their own. They are nationally extremely rare, but we are fortunate enough to have them in some numbers in the levels reedbeds. At this time of year they tend to flock in good numbers, and are quite vocal, with distinctive loud calls. Their arrival is preceded by their main call, a loud 'kerching' but they can be hard to spot as they travel low through the reedbeds. At this time of year their diet changes from insects to seeds, and in order to be able to digest the seeds they develop an enlarged gizzard, which holds grit to assist with grinding up the hard seeds. And to this end they gather the grit from the droves, so this is the time that you stand the best chance of seeing them. There are estimated to be 650 pairs in the country, and they are a resident species, occupying reed beds in East Anglia, Morecambe Bay, the south coast and here on the levels. Their existence in Somerset can largely be attributed to the establishment of reedbeds under conservation programmes. 'Beardies' however, very vulnerable in harsh winters which may diminish their number significantly. They are a real treat to see when you do catch up with them. Try at Westhay Moor.
It is well worth the trip to the coastal marshes at Steart Point. Bridgwater Bay NNR is one of the largest intertidal mudflats in Britain, due to the huge tidal range in the Bristol Channel. This provides feeding grounds for large numbers of wading birds and ducks. The bay is of European importance for wildfowl such as shelduck, where 2000 may be seen in feeding on the flats when the tide recedes. In addition large flocks of knot and dunlin feed here, along with curlew, oystercatcher and greenshank. The waders all have to move with the tide, so the best time to see them is an hour each side of high tide. A flock of dunlin will murmurate en masse, a real spectacle on a bright day, as they change from gold to silver as they twist and turn in the sun. There are many points of interest for the wildlife enthusiast, and opportunities for a bracing coastal walk, with the added chance of seeing a short eared owl hunting over the land, or a flock of avocets following the river out to the sea. The new Steart Marshes project has greatly added to the attractions in this area, and a whole day can be spent exploring the peninsula. Do dress up well, as it can be rather bleak, and take a picnic, as it is a remote spot.
We are very lucky in Somerset to have a great range of unspoilt natural habitats, ranging from Exmoor down to the levels, taking in the Quantock and Blackdown Hills, and the Mendips. The coastline from Portishead to Porlock sustains a huge variety of flora and fauna. So there many good reasons to get out and about, and November has much to offer. The autumn colours are beginning to fade, as the leaves fall, but there is great beauty in the countryside, and the low winter light provides inspiration for the photographer, or artist.
All photographs © Chris Chappell
Poldens woodland path
Dundon Fort from Walton Hill