Chris Chappell invites you to take a walk along a neolithic track and gives advice on what to look out for, from hunting hobbies to darting damselflies - their prey.
Burdock and teasel are now growing tall in meadows and hedgerows, and elder flowers are turning into berries. Fledgling birds are learning how to feed for themselves, now hidden in the dense undergrowth. Families of warblers or tits move through the foliage, calling quietly to keep the group together. Juvenile gold and green finches will come to your feeders, the young birds being a pale version of the adults. Orchids are at their best now in meadows an boggy areas.Swifts, swallows and house martins are busily collecting insects for their broods. You may see the pretty spotted flycatcher, one of the last migrants to arrive, catching flies, repeatedly returning to the same branch, a distinguishing characteristic of the species. Sparrow sized, a delicate bird with a sharp bill, the breast is more flecked than spotted, they are sadly increasingly rare. Up on the Mendips, as night approaches, nightjars swoop over the open heath, mouth open to collect moths and flies. The nightjar will sit on a post or branch, its churring call echoing across the land for long periods. This bird too is becoming scarce, and being a ground nester, is very vulnerable to disturbance by humans and dogs.
The kingfisher is a much loved emblem of the countryside, and the rivers, ponds and lakes of Somerset have a good population. Kingfishers are very vulnerable in hard winters, as they are unable to feed during periods of hard frost, and as a result they may migrate to the coast in search of open water. Their numbers therefore vary substantially. They are also very sensitive to environmental factors, pollution of rivers and streams, and disturbance of their nesting sites during dredging, floods, or predation by mink. Male and female are broadly similar, but the female has a red lower mandible, if you are close enough to see. The kingfisher digs out a horizontal burrow in a the river bank, and hollows out a nest chamber at about 90cm depth. Here the female will lay a clutch of around six shiny white eggs, and the pair will take turns to incubate them. They may lay two or even three clutches in a season. The call of a kingfisher is a short high pitched whistle, not audible to all of us. While the bird is usually seen just as a flash of blue, with patience they may be seen feeding from a post or stump, repeatedly diving for small fish. And if you are very lucky, you may see a row of youngsters sitting on a branch, waiting to be fed.
The Sweet Track
The Sweet Track was a Neolithic trackway through the Somerset marshes, and thought to be the oldest constructed path in the country. Parts of the wooden planks were found preserved in the peat, and dendrochronology tests have revealed them to be circa 6000 years old. It is named after the man who discovered the path. The route of this wooden track is now a very pleasant walk, taking you from the western access to Shapwick Heath through to Decoy bird hide. The habitat is quite varied, starting with reedbeds, leading into birch and willow stands, and then an area that has recently been opened up, with a lot of wild flowers, irises and ferns. The woods are full of bird song, willow warbler, chiff chaff, song thrush and many others. The area is frequented by cuckoos, albeit the adults will soon leave for Africa. This is a good area to search for butterflies and dragonflies, moths and beetles. Moving on, the path crosses a track where there are some lovely mature oaks, and then enters a meadow, where you will see orchids in profusion.
The magnificent royal fern, Osmunda Regalis, flourishes in the damp conditions along the route, as well as common fern and myrtle. The royal fern has huge fronds, up to 5 feet in length, and has two leaf forms, sterile and fertile, the fertile being upright and carrying the sporangia for dispersal of spores. The path then joins the main track round to decoy hide, and on the left you can see a reconstruction of how the sweet track would have appeared. From the hide you may see a hobby hunting for dragonflies, a marsh harrier quartering the reedbeds, and young coots moorhens and great crested grebes. Age number of non-breeding swans feed here, a lovely site with the Tor in the background. Hundreds of damselflies skim the surface of the water, along with a variety of dragonflies. Keep an eye out for grass snakes by the water's edge, or swimming among the lily pads hunting for frogs.
All photographs © Chris Chappell
Southern Marsh Orchid