Late migrant birds
The last of the migrant birds are now arriving. Swifts will soon dart about the Somerset villages, returning to nesting sites in church spires, and the roofs of old buildings. They do almost everything in the air, excepting incubating and rearing their young. They quickly raise and fledge a brood, ready to head back to Africa by the end of August. Swifts can be distinguished from swallows and martins by their larger size, and dark brown colour, a pale bib being the only variation. Before they leave, flocks of swifts will be seen flying at speed through towns and villages, their distinctive call something between a whistle and a scream. Swifts are sadly down in numbers, possibly due to modern building techniques providing no suitable crevices for nesting.
Hobbies are arriving on the Levels, anticipating the emerging dragonfly which they like to feed on, catching and eating them on the wing. Slightly smaller than a kestrel, the hobby has a dark swift-like profile. It will also prey on swifts, martins, swallows and starlings. They can be seen in numbers on the levels when the dragonfly nymphs are hatching in the reed beds.
Spotted flycatchers are happy to nest in larger suburban gardens, a pretty delicate bird, slightly larger than a robin. It has a characteristic habit of flying from a branch to catch insects, and repeatedly returning to the same spot. Sadly now also much diminished in numbers, possibly due to land use and climate change in Africa.
Train your ears
Listen out for cuckoos, they call for just a few weeks. One of their favourite prey species is the reed warbler, abundant in the reed beds. If you are lucky you will hear a nightingale, usually in a deep copse, often by a river or stream.
There are great numbers of warblers singing now. Identification is easier if you get to know their calls, as they are often hard to see. Chiffchaffs, willow warblers and blackcaps can be heard singing in hedges, copses and woods. With patience, you can see them, they are all exquisite. Whitethroats are easier to see, and identify, with white throat, and grey head, often nesting in a bramble patch, and making their short call from the highest point. Noisy Cetti’s warblers are a feature of the Somerset Levels.
It is well worth rising early one morning (before daybreak) and visiting nearby woodland to hear the dawn chorus, at its peak now. All the birds compete at high volume, and it is a spellbinding experience.
Snakes and lizards will need to find a sunny spot as the days warm up. Common lizards are usually seen scuttling away through dry leaves. Grass snakes too usually see you before you see them, and slither off at some speed. They can sometimes be seen swimming across rivers and ponds. Slow-worms (legless lizards) conform to their name, and are easy to catch. This makes them vulnerable to cats, dogs, and cyclists! Adders will not move unless they really have to, but obviously they need treating with respect. The chances of a bite are statistically very low, but it can be serious when it does happen.
The buzz of Summer
As the bluebells fade, foxgloves will begin to appear on the edge of woodland, and in hedgerows. The countryside is filled with wild flowers of all kinds, buzzing with insects and butterflies. Common vetch and wild clematis (Old Man’s Beard) climb through the hedges, creating dense cover for nesting birds.
Bees and wasps are starting to build their nests. Bumble bees build small nests, often in a mouse hole in the ground, comprising a few dozen cells, laying an egg in each, with a supply of food. Hornets will build a nest of chewed up wood, in a conical shape suspended from a branch. Masonry bees are fond of old buildings in Somerset. They find an existing hole, enlarge it if required, and deposit their egg or eggs, and then seal the hole with damp mortar, leaving the egg to hatch.
Old Man's Beard
Swift, Old Man's Beard and Masonry Bees courtesy of Wikipedia.
Slow Worm © CJC