Chris Chappell's photographs should be a stimulus to visit the wildlife places he describes in his article for this month.
As summer draws to an end, September sees most of our summer migrant birds head south, and the start of the inward migration of our winter visitors. Bird migration is an immensely complex subject, driven by the need for food, breeding grounds and suitable climate for survival. In addition to the arrival of birds seen only during the winter, our native populations of many resident birds are swollen by overseas visitors of many species, from starlings to short-eared-owls. Blackbirds and robins travel from Northern Europe to take advantage of our milder climate. The hedgerows are full of berries, nuts and haws, food that is vital for birds and mammals to build up energy for the winter months.
After a long wet winter, the countryside has largely recovered, at least as far as the wildlife is concerned. Good numbers of butterflies and dragonflies are still on the wing in September. Look for common darters, an abundant small dragonfly, the male is red and the female olive green The pretty clouded yellow butterfly has again made the long migration from Africa, and can be seen mixed with the common white butterflies, flitting across a meadow on sunny days.
As the breeding season ends, many small birds will gather in large flocks. Greenfinches, goldfinches and chaffinches will chatter noisily in the tops of trees, relying on safety in numbers and many keen eyes to spot an approaching predator.
Starlings begin to assemble in the towns and villages each evening, then set off to roost en masse, performing their spectacular patterns in the sky, now known as murmurations. Strictly speaking the murmur is of course the sound, as thousands of birds wings whir across the landscape. If you are out on the levels when a flock passes overhead, you will hear something quite unique, a great whisper across the land. As the birds approach their roost, they will swirl and gyrate in amazing patterns, settling, rising again, and moving across the reedbeds like running water. Their movement in the air is often driven by the appearance of a sparrowhawk or other raptor, hoping to pick off an easy meal. Once settled they start to chatter, rising into a crescendo of calls that may last some long time. While this phenomenon has been filmed and recorded, this cannot convey the full sense of awe that this spectacle inspires if you are actually there.
The Severn Estuary and the Bristol Channel, fed by the River Parrett estuary and the Huntspill Sluice, provide the perfect environment for many wading and dabbling birds. In addition to the reserve at Steart Point, there is now the new Steart Marshes project. This will be a key area in the Southwest for waders, something we are very lucky to have in the county. Huge flocks of small waders, can be seen on the extensive mudflats: oystercatcher, dunlin, ringed plover grey plover, turnstone, sanderling, along with larger birds, such as curlew and black tailed godwits. They make an impressive sight when they take flight, changing colour as they turn in the sun. Large numbers of shelduck can be seen on the shores and sandbanks, a bulky, distinctive duck in white with green neck and chestnut front, and a bright red bill. They probe the mud for small crustaceans, snails and invertebrates. Many rarer waders complete the mix, such as ruff, or little ringed plover, but you do require some good optics to see them. In addition, birds such as whinchat and wheatear may be found on the tide-line, feeding up on flies before they cross the Channel heading south. The best time to arrive is just after high tide, as the birds will fly in as the mudflats are exposed by the receding water.
Catcott Lows is a great place to see wildlife up close all year round, but numbers of birds dramatically increase in the winter, as the wintering ducks and waders arrive when the Lows are flooded. However, the newly restored area (The Fen) just to the south, now has reed beds which have attracted summer visitors reed and sedge warblers this summer, and our resident Cetti's warbler and reed bunting. And slightly delayed, there is now an impressive new tower hide. From here you can see marsh harriers hunting. These are rare and spectacular birds and a delight to watch as they turn and weave, looking for prey. Peregrine, kestrel and buzzard are also regular visitors. The hobby, a small raptor with the same moustache-like facial patterning as a peregrine, will soon leave for Africa. Once a rare sight, this summer breeding falcon now breeds across southern England and Wales. In flight it looks quite like a large swift, with curved wings and darting flight. Roe deer regularly browse on the fringes of the reserve, happy to feed in sight, at a good distance from the nearest human.
This is a good time to get out with your camera, as the trees start to change colour, and misty mornings and the lower morning and evening sun add to the atmosphere. Dew-covered cobwebs make great close-ups. Horse chestnuts are already turning rusty yellow, to be followed by ash beech and sweet chestnut. Ivy is one of the last plants to flower and is an important source of nectar for wasps and bees, whose populations swell as autumn progresses. The wild clematis flowers are turning from green curls to the woolly 'Old Man's Beard', running along the hedgerows.
All photographs by Chris Chappell
River Parrett at Huntspill
Old Man's Beard