Chris Chappell reflects on some striking birds and the effects of the poor weather but also visits two very different sites.
Whilst best known for wintering waders, the Steart Peninsula on Bridgwater Bay is well worth a visit in July. Ideally you should check the tide tables before you go, and try to arrive just as the high tide is turning, as waders and ducks find most food on freshly uncovered mudflats. As the tide recedes, shelduck begin to arrive. They are large birds, black and white with a chestnut waistcoat, green neck and with a red bill. First in small groups, but more and more will appear, until there are hundreds on the saltmarsh. These will be joined by many curlew and a few small waders. This is a great area to plan a walk, just where the River Parrett Trail ends and the West Somerset Coastal Path begins. Turning inland , there are lagoons with islands, and various hides. Here you may see oystercatchers with their chicks, and if you are lucky, avocets, and the occasional spoonbill. Great white and little egrets feed here. The bramble patches and hedges are home to linnets and whitethroats, and skylarks nest in the adjoining fields. There is a small car park at Steart.
Shelduck nest on land, often in rabbit burrows, or sometimes a hole in a tree. The nest is often some long distance from water. The young, which are mobile and independent from hatching, are quickly led to the nearest water. Shelduck chicks are black and white with black beaks. The young are often gathered in crèches of perhaps 100, and are watched over by non-breeding adults. The shelduck feed by probing the mud for invertebrates, small shellfish and aquatic snails. The salt marshes at Steart are of major importance for feeding ducks and waders.
The avocet is a large and very striking black and white wader, with long grey legs, and distinctive upturned bill. Extinct in Britain in about 1840, due to persecution, and habitat loss as the coastal marshes they fed on where drained and turned to agricultural use. However, it began to re-establish itself after the last war, where eastern coastal land was allowed to flood as a deterrent to a German invasion. A lot of effort went into protecting and conserving the avocet, and there is now a reasonable breeding population, joined by a greater number of winter visitors. It is a highly specialised feeder, having an upturned beak with a flattened tip, used for skimming the shallows for invertebrates small crustacea and worms. It is surprisingly aggressive when defending territory, and will fly at great speed toward a threat, such as a little egret.
The spoonbill is an occasional visitor to Steart. Characterised by the large spoon-like bill, it is also easily identified at a distance by its feeding behaviour, as it scythes its bill sideways through the water whilst rhythmically striding forward. It sifts through the water for invertebrates and small fish. A large bird with dark legs and bill, a crest and orange breast patch in breeding condition, it flies with legs and bill extended.
If you are heading out to Steart, it may be a good day to visit Fyne Court, just a few miles north of Taunton, owned by the National Trust. Explore the nature trails and look for woodland birds, including great spotted woodpecker and the spotted flycatcher. The reserve has badgers, bats, and a great variety of flora and fauna. There is an interesting mix of introduced plants and trees, which is gradually reverting to the natural species for the area.
The poor weather has delivered a disappointing time for butterfly watching so far this year. However, when we do get a fine day, they will soon appear. The county of Somerset has a unique list of butterflies, because of the great variety of habitats, from the Mendips to Exmoor, the Levels and the coastal areas. Visit Collard Hill or Green Down to see the re-introduced large blue, or West Shapwick for Silver-washed Fritillary; near the 'Sweet Track' is a good area to see them. Unlike moths, the number of butterfly species is quite limited to about 60 breeding and a few migrants, so it is a reasonable project to identify them all with the use of a good guide. All we need is some sunshine!
Most birds are well through the breeding cycle by now, but as many nests were lost in the poor weather in May, many have young later in the year than is usual. On the levels look out for ducks and grebes leading posses of young. The tufted duck is a late breeder, and the tiny black ducklings are a lovely sight to see. The cuckoos breeding time is drawing to a close, and they will soon head back to Africa. Whilst the bittern is largely no longer booming, it is easy enough to spot one early or late, as they move to and from their favoured roosting spot.
Steart Point © Chris Chappell
Sheldduck and Avocets © Brian Phipps
Silver-washed Fritillary © Wikipedia
Steart Point - wide horizons
Large Blue Butterfly