Autumn walks offer a profusion of species to enjoy says Chris Chappell.
September sees the transition from summer to autumn, and a time when the countryside is full of colour. Ripe berries hang in profusion, providing food for birds and mammals. Horse chestnut trees turn golden as the conkers begin to burst from their shells. The misty autumn days will foster the growth of fungi spores, and toadstools begin to sprout. The best of days for a country walk, be it Exmoor, the Mendips or on the Levels.
The last of the house martins and swallows may still be seen feeding chicks, soon to fledge. The young ones chatter noisily as they wait to be fed. Many migratory birds gather on the coast in preparation for the journey south. It is a very good time to spot wheatear, whinchat and yellow wagtail, often feeding on the shoreline by catching the flies on the coastal tideline of Bridgwater Bay. It is vital that they build up their bodyweight before making the long journey south.
Ospreys may be seen catching fish from the lagoons on the levels, an ideal staging post as they travel from northern Europe back to Africa. Ospreys survive solely on fish, which they pluck out of the water, a dramatic event, if you are lucky enough to see it. The waterways and ponds on the levels are teeming with a variety of fresh-water fish, and these also provide a good source of food for otters, grebes herons and cormorants.
Meare Heath Scrape
The 'Scrape' is situated 400m west of the Ashcott Corner car park. It is an area designed to attract winter waders and other water birds. Meare Heath Scrape comes to life at this time. The water has been pumped out to reveal a large area of wet mud suitable for the waders to feed on. A new hide has been constructed, giving improved elevated views over the site.
A popular feeding spot for black tailed godwits, a large flock is often to be seen spread out over the exposed mud. They are large waders with long bills, and look spectacular when in the air, the wings showing white chevrons as they turn in formation.
Also attracted to the scrape are large numbers of egrets, little, great white and cattle have all been seen. And the exotic glossy ibis also favours this feeding area from time to time. A large dog otter has also been making a regular appearance, finding an easy catch of fat eels in the shallows.
For birders, some rarer species may also turn up; green sandpiper, ruff, pectoral sandpiper, ringed plover, plus snipe can be seen. Good numbers of lapwing are drawn here as the season moves on, and now the winter ducks are also starting to arrive. Marsh harriers patrol the rear of the heath, characteristically weaving and turning as they hunt for prey.
Late butterflies and dragonflies
Plenty of butterflies and dragonflies are still on the wing in September. Look for common darters, an abundant small dragonfly, the male is bright red and the female olive green. Many of the damselfly species are on the wing now, as well as the various large hawkers, Southern, migrant, brown and common. These are spectacular brightly coloured creatures, and can be quite obliging, landing nearby, or even on your clothing. Brimstone, comma, common blue, red admiral and small copper butterflies may still be seen on warm September days..
The beautiful colours in butterflies are formed by an unusual use of the natural light, , combined with pigments on the insects themselves.. Butterfly wings are iridescent, so the appearance varies dependant on the angle of view. This is achieved by a complex interaction of fine films which filter the light to create the iridescent colours. Great for close up photography.
As the breeding season ends, many small birds will gather in large mixed 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.
The goldfinches favourite food source is thistle seed. On the coast, large flocks of linnets feed on grassland.
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.
Corvids also now flock and feed together, and a freshly turned field may attract a mixture of carrion crows, rooks, jackdaws and the occasional raven. They work their way across the fields, picking up worms and beetles as they go.
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 around high tide, as the birds are first forced to the shoreline, and will then move out as the mudflats are exposed by the receding water.
All photographs by Chris Chappell
Brimstone and buddleia