From Little Stints to Great White Egrets, the Levels have lots to offer this autumn. Chris Chappell tells us where to look.
October will see the season turn from autumn to winter, with colder nights and shorter days. But for many people this is a favourite time of year, while the countryside glows golden as leaves change into myriad colours. Wild clematis, known by the country name of Old Man's Beard, is a rampant creeper, now covering the hedgerows with fluffy seed heads. Jackdaws can sometimes be seen dropping walnuts onto stone paving to crack the shells. They collect the nuts from wild walnut trees in the area, and bring them in to their nearest village. Jackdaws will roost near their chimney nesting sites, but head off to feed in the fields early in the morning. Large flocks will return at the end of the day, wheeling noisily in the wind, before settling back on their chimney pots. Jays are feeding on berries and wild fruits, their harsh squawk echoes through the woods as they dive between the trees. Green woodpeckers will appear on lawns, probing for insects and ants, leaving characteristic little round holes in your grass. They are large striking birds, with olive coloured back, mushroom underside, a bright red cap, pale blue eyes with black pupil and a black moustache. Their loud cackle, or yaffle, can be heard throughout Somerset, wherever there are mature deciduous trees.
As the season changes, the last of the summer visitors have left, and our winter visitors are arriving. A day spent at Shapwick Heath will be rewarded with some unusual sightings. At the Meare Heath scrape (400m west of Ashcott Corner car park) a flock of lapwing will be seen feeding, along with 50-100 black-tailed godwits, a medium sized long legged wader, an elegant bird, and striking when in flight, showing white chevrons in the wing, and pale under parts. Great white egrets are regular visitors, along with the smaller common egret. And one strange visitor is the glossy ibis, a large wader with a heavy curved beak and black/brown body. Among the other unusual birds are ruff and little stint. Marsh harriers regularly hunt across the far side of the water, putting the waders to flight. Passing buzzard and sparrowhawk will have the same effect, and a late summer visitor, the hobby, may still be seen hunting dragonflies.
Polden Hills Trail
Moving up from the levels, following the Polden Hill ridge provides a really lovely walk on a bright autumn day. SWT Great Breech Wood and Copley Wood are on the route, and good places to find fungi. On the open stretches, there are wonderful views over the moors and levels to the west, and the hill top trees are an established haunt of ravens. Large flocks of goldfinches feed on the thistle heads, twittering loudly. Down in the valley, the cackle of green woodpeckers will echo.
By the end of October the starlings will begin to roost on the levels. They can already be seen gathering on the telephone wires at the end of the day. Initially the starlings consist of local populations, and the numbers start at 100-200,000, eventually swelling to several million with the arrival of northern European birds seeking a milder climate for the winter. When roosting in the reeds they cling on to the stems in rows, and it is thought they fall prey to being snapped up by bitterns hidden in the reed beds. The noise of their wings en masse, the origin of term murmuration, is extraordinary, and matched by their loud chattering once they have landed. The incoming flocks attract predators, such as marsh harriers, or sparrow hawks, often revealed by the effect on the swirling birds as they react to a threat. Once landed, they are often restless and swarm across the tops of the reeds like bees, until they decide to settle again. Best seen on a fine evening, and please take care to be considerate when parking. During starling season the local area can get very busy so please be considerate of local residents when parking and avoid blocking gateways and access points.
For up-to-date information on where starling murmurations may be seen call the hotline which will tell you where the birds are roosting - not yet live for 2013.
Please bear in mind that if you build a bonfire well in advance of November 5th, hedgehogs and reptiles such as slow-worms may try to use the heap as a suitable refuge for hibernation. The best way to avoid the risk to these creatures is to build a pile next to the spot where the fire is going to be lit, and to build the fire at the last minute. You can then rescue anything that might have crawled into the heap. Hedgehogs have declined dramatically in recent years, and need all the help they can get. If you have a suitable garden, consider installing a hedgehog box for their safe over-wintering.
All photographs © Chris Chappell
Old Man's Beard
Jackdaw attacks a walnut