Chris Chappell takes a close look at Grey Herons and wonders why Reed Warblers accompany Cuckoos back from Africa only to be used by them as foster parents.
The abnormal climatic conditions through the winter, and the fine and dry weather through March have affected the timing of arrivals, and there have been some very early breeding records. Chiff-chaffs were heard at Shapwick as early as 2 March. However, April is a very exciting month for observing wildlife, with the arrival of most of summer visiting birds, and the trees coming into leaf, while the ground is carpeted with wild flowers. Butterflies are now appearing, the first being comma, brimstone, peacock and small tortoiseshell. Sand martins have arrived in some numbers and they will be followed by swallows and house martins, and the swifts a little later.
This iron-age hill fort is managed as a nature reserve by Somerset Wildlife Trust. Compton Dundon is a picturesque Somerset village, with a beautiful old church. If you do go, take time to visit the churchyard, which has a wonderful ancient yew, dating back at least 1700 years. The trunk has a vast gnarled girth and a great spread of branches.
Climbing up to the top of Dundon Beacon by one of a number of ancient paths, you will find a plateau, which is currently managed with the aid of 100 or so mixed breeds of sheep. They are there to keep the undergrowth under control, as part of the ecological plan for the site. The trees on the slopes around the beacon are home to green woodpecker, nuthatch, chiff-chaff and many other warblers. If you are lucky you may hear nightingales singing. Ravens nest in the larger trees, and there is a substantial badger sett on the western slope. There are really impressive views across the levels from here, and you can look down on buzzards, kestrels and the ravens in flight. The woods are full of early spring flowers, wood anemone, celandine, bluebells and violets.
Swell Wood is situated on a wooded ridge above the levels of West Sedge Moor. It hosts the largest heronry in the West Country. From the hide you can look up to the numerous grey herons' nests, large untidy constructions built at the top of the tall oaks and ash. It is thought nearly 100 pairs of herons breed here, and they make an impressive sight preening in the bright sunlight. Grey heron is a misnomer really, as they have an almost white neck, and a black cap, and crest, and now in full breeding condition have a cascade of white feathers, flecked with black stripes, sprouting from the lower neck and look magnificent. As the young hatch, the adults will become very active collecting food from the moor; frogs, eels and fish, and the noise level will increase as the chicks squawk for attention. The herons have been joined in recent years by a few pairs of white egret, now breeding at the site. Below the canopy, the wood is full of birds, blue, coal, great and long-tailed tits; nuthatches abound. You may spot a goldcrest, our smallest bird, as voles scurry about in the leaf litter, and a roe deer will be feeding in the background. Great spotted woodpeckers breed in the dead trees, and you may hear their drumming call, as they hammer out a warning to rivals on a hollow trunk.
The Avalon Marshes are a good area to hear and see cuckoos, and they should arrive in Somerset mid month. They are travelling from the Congo in central Africa and are currently en route via Ghana and Cote D'Ivoire in West Africa. Cuckoos are attracted to the Somerset levels in part by the large numbers of reed warblers that nest there, as they are a favourite host species. But they will also prey on pipits and dunnocks. The reed warblers also winter in Africa, and it is curious to note that they are flying 1000s of miles with the cuckoos, only to be predated upon by their travelling companions. The male reed warblers are more often heard then seen, they have a characteristic continuous noisy chattering call. It is probably fortunate that there are many more reed warblers than cuckoos. It is the male cuckoos that make the iconic call, and are not too difficult to see, as they often call from a prominent dead tree. The females are similar in appearance, but have a very different rich warbling call, heard less often.
The return of bitterns to the levels has been a major success for what is still a very rare bird. The booming call of the males can now be heard in reed beds over the whole area. Given that they had been driven to extinction in the 1880s, largely due to the habitat destruction, it is a wonderful thing to have so many of these strange creatures in the county.
SWT Westhay Moor is notable for the variety of habitats preserved there. In addition to the reed beds and lagoons, formed from old peat workings, there are birch woods, some pine, scrub and a good area of heathland.
From the Viridor hide you can see bittern, kingfisher, great crested and little grebes. Hen harriers patrol the reed beds looking for prey. Taking the paths around the reserve, you may see kestrels hunting over the heath, while buzzards soar overhead. The woodland area is home to many birds, long tailed tits abound.
The various habitats available on the levels support many reptiles; adders, grass snakes, slow worms and common lizard can be spotted, warming up in a sunny spot.
Photographs of Comma and Great Crested Grebe © Chris Chappell
Photograph of Bittern © Brian Phipps