Even if it's bleak and chilly, take a picnic and get out there, says Chris Chappell.
Fine days in November provide the best of times to explore Somerset, be it a walk on the Polden, Quantock, or Mendips Hills, Exmoor, or down on the levels. This month the countryside completes the changes from autumn to winter as the last leaves fall, hastened by a frosty night. Winter migrants arrive, thrushes and ducks, and finches such as brambling. In addition there is a great movement of waders from the north, to over-winter on our coast moors and estuaries. Vast flocks of wood pigeons can be seen passing over, heading south for the winter.
Starlings are gathering in the countryside, 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.
The display is enhanced when a sparrowhawk appears looking for a meal, and the birds form a tight ball as a defensive tactic, making it it difficult for the raptor to pick out an individual bird. The display is already spectacular, but the numbers grow during the winter as many starlings arrive from north and east Europe in order to benefit from the milder winters here. As the light fades, they land in the reed beds, and a loud chatter grows, the noise is astounding if you are close by, and continues into the darkness.
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.
One of the major conservation success stories in Somerset is the establishment of the bittern on the levels. The restoration of reed beds in former peat works across the levels over the past twenty years has provided the perfect habitat for bittern. They survive and nest solely in these reeds, here they can feed, hidden in the reeds, and breed when the spring arrives. They are secretive birds, and highly camouflaged. However, they are cumbersome in flight, and rather clumsy when landing, extending huge feet as they come down. The bittern survives mainly on a diet of frogs, eels and fish, but will eat small mammals, and even starlings. The levels now hosts the largest population in the country, making the area of further international conservation importance. While the male bitterns are not booming now, they do have a call, a harsh sound rather like that of a grey heron. As the reeds die back, and are battered by wind and rain, this may make the bittern easier to spot. The bittern is a heron sized, with a bulky body, beautifully streaked in shades of brown. A vigil at any of the key reed bed hides will provide a bittern sighting, with patience. In addition, a day out on the levels may provide sightings of an otter, bearded tits, marsh harrier and much else.
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, Breach Woods, New Hill and Tannager, and Dundon Fort. 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
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.
There is, therefore, every reason to get out in the countryside in November, plenty to explore, with your camera, or just for a good walk.
All photographs © Chris Chappell