There is a lot to see in April, as it is the key month for birds and animals to start their breeding season. Warblers, dragonflies and spring flowers might be your priorities, suggests Chris Chappell. Can you tell your Four Spot Chaser from your Banded Demoiselle?
As you may have noticed, spring isn't quite here yet, at least at the time of writing. Hopefully by the end of April things will have warmed up. Having said that, the length of the day and the height of the sun are stimulating changes in the natural environment. Chiff-chaffs have now arrived, and their distinctive call can be heard from the tops of trees throughout the county. The male bitterns are booming to attract their mates, their call resonating through the reed beds.
Reptiles have emerged from hibernation, adders, slow worms and grass snakes will seek a warm spot once the sun appears. Sand martins fill the sky, seeking insects to build up their bodyweight for the breeding season. Winter flocks of finches are dispersing into pairs for breeding. Goldfinches, greenfinches, bullfinches and chaffinches will all nest in gardens and hedgerows, and the cock birds will be heard singing loudly from nearby trees. By the end of the month swallows, house martins, and swifts will have arrived, along with the cuckoo. Badgers are very active at this time of year, cleaning out their setts for their next litter. There is a lot to see in April, as it is the key month for birds and animals to start their breeding season.
The difference between chiff-chaff and willow warbler was mentioned last month, but Somerset hosts populations of most warbler species, and for identification purposes of some species you really need to learn their respective calls. There are some good websites were you can access recordings of the various sounds. Most warblers are summer visitors, the main exceptions being Cetti's and Dartford.
However, some species, especially blackcap and chiff-chaff, have started to overwinter. The resident Cetti's warbler is now well established on the Levels, having first arrived in the 70s. This bird is hard to ignore, as it has a loud explosive call, usually made from the depths of waterside vegetation. Seeing one is more difficult, but with patience they will emerge, being quite curious.
The male is a very pretty bird, brown with cream underneath, and a wide rounded tail. Good numbers of reed and sedge warbler will shortly arrive, and set about making nests of fine grasses, deep in the reed beds. They both maintain chattering restless calls, the reed warbler being more tuneful and rhythmic, and the difference becomes clear with a bit of practical experience in the field. Reed and sedge warbler are popular targets for cuckoos, which will perch in a tree near the reed bed, looking for a suitable host for their egg. Garden warbler and blackcap are both good songsters, and have a similar song, but again careful listening to them will reveal the difference.
The ponds and lakes on the levels that have been created from the old peat workings provide the perfect environment for dragonflies and damselflies. Eggs are laid in the summer, either in water, or near it in mud or plant material. The precise cycle varies with each species. The eggs hatch into larvae or (nymphs), which head for the water (if not laid directly into it), and feed voraciously from first hatching. The nymphs repeatedly moult their outer skin as they grow. The larval stage can last from 2 months in some damselflies, to five years in the case of gold ringed dragonfly. Once mature, the nymph will climb the stem of a reed or iris, and attaching itself firmly, will break through the larval skin and emerge as a mature dragonfly or damselfly. You may find the discarded larval cases still attached to the vegetation.
Some of the early dragonflies to look out for are the four spot chaser, broad bodied chaser, common darter, black tailed skimmer and the banded demoiselle.
There is a very good photographic guide by Dave Smallshire and Andy Swash published by the Wildguides organisation.
April will hopefully (!) see our woodland floors carpeted with flowers. Wood anemone, bluebells, primroses , or just a thick bed of dogs mercury.
Primroses abound in hazel copses, while the cowslip prefers more open ground. Early orchids will flower including the very pretty green winged orchid.
Four Spot Chaser
Cetti's Warbler courtesy of Wikipedia. Other photographs by Chris Chappell.