Whether you are a photographer or a nature lover Chris Chappell offers a wealth of information and advice this month.
As spring blends into summer, there is plenty to see and hear. Dragonflies and damselflies have emerged in numbers, feasting on smaller insects. While swifts are just settling in, many resident birds are starting on their second clutch. In the woodlands, birdsong continues to enthrall, and on the levels, the bitterns are still booming loudly from the reedbeds.
As butterfly numbers build up, there are many opportunities for the photographer. All butterflies are extraordinary in close-up, with antennae, proboscis and compound and single eyes making pleasing compositions. . A brimstone on a frond of purple loosestrife cannot fail to produce a pleasing shot. Ideally you need a still warm day, which will encourages the butterflies to settle long enough for a picture.
June is also the perfect time of year to explore the Somerset countryside.
The Quantock and Mendip Hills and Exmoor offer great scope for days out walking, and enjoying all that can be seen and heard. Alternatively a coastal walk will provide a great day out. The amazing geology at Kilve, seen at, low tide from the cliff above will delight. Each area has a great variety of fauna and flora.
The cuckoo arrives here in late April and early May, having travelled from Central Africa over a period of 10 weeks or so. Wintering as far south as Gabon, they will remain in the area for about three months before starting the long haul back to the UK, beginning their move in January, travelling up to 7000 kms each way. This involves crossing the Sahara, a challenge to all birds migrating to and from central Africa.
Whilst the cuckoo has declined dramatically in numbers, some 65% since the 1980s, they may be heard calling on many of the SWT reserves, and there is a good population on the Quantock Hills. The reasons for the decline are not entirely clear, but most likely due to the decline in host species such as the meadow pipit, and the fact that they have been breeding earlier, leading to a mismatch with the cuckoo's needs. In addition there is concern over the cuckoo's food source in areas such as Spain, where increasing drought is reducing the occurrence of caterpillars. The cuckoo is usually a timid bird, but once heard, you may be able to spot one perching on a treetop or thicket.
Cuckoos are bonded to particular areas, and therefore specific bird species fall prey to their nest parasitism. Favourite species are meadow pipits, dunnock and reed warblers. The female cuckoo will keep watch until it locates a nest, and then make its move. They will then proceed to lay 20-30 eggs in various nests. The female has an excitable bubbling call, made just prior to laying the egg.
The yellowhammer is a member of the bunting family and used to be a familiar sight and sound in the hedgerows of this country. Sadly, it is now conservation status red listed having declined by some 60% in England since the 1980s. They prefer open land with hedges and copses, and need a supply of insects in summer and seeds in winter. Changes in agricultural practice, and the removal of hedges, are factors in their decline. However, there are good numbers in parts of Somerset, and their classic call can be heard. The male is bright yellow, streaked with brown, and likes to sing from a prominent branch , and will call for long periods. Familiarising yourself with bird calls is a major aid to locating and identifying birds. The female is less striking, as with many birds, and has more brown then yellow, but this is better for camouflage whilst incubating on the nest.
Swallows and House Martins
Swallows and house martins are now settled in and starting to raise broods. They are distinctly different in appearance and behaviour. The swallow prefers to nest in an outbuilding, and are known to many as barn swallows. However, they are as likely to nest in a shed, porch or even a bird hide, if there is open access. The male builds a slight nest of mud and grasses, making a cup stuck to the eaves or beams. He will then sing noisily to attract a female. The nest is then lined with a few feathers, and a clutch of four or five eggs is laid. Adult swallows have long tail streamers, and the mature birds have the longest, which helps to attract a mate. The female will undertake most of the brooding, and the pair will both feed the young. The male is fiercely protective of the female, both against other males, or threats such as cats, which they sometimes dive-bomb. The swallow prefers to feed by swooping low over meadows, existing largely on flies. There are usually two broods, using the same nest, and the swallow has a high hatching, fledging and survival rate, and their population is not deemed to be under threat.
House martins build rather more substantial nests made almost entirely of mud, and nest in colonies, of generally just a few nests, under the eaves of houses. The house martin will be heard twittering from the nest a great deal of the time. Their feeding habits differ from the swallow in that they are often seen feeding on high with the swifts, and travel across the sky at some speed mopping up insects and spiders. The house martin can easily be distinguished in flight by the white rump. They are fertile breeders, having three clutches or more. But they are in some significant decline, and studies are attempting to analyse the extent and reasons for this. It is, of course, illegal to disturb their nests or nest sites while the house martins are present in the UK, if their presence causes a real nuisance, you may consider blocking off the problem area next winter with wire mesh, to encourage them to nest away from your doorway, for instance. Wildlife organisations will advise on the most sensitive way to do this.
There are about 50 species of orchid growing wild in the UK, and June is a good month to see most species, although a few, such as green-winged, may be past their best. While orchids have disappeared from some areas, there are protected wild meadows and unimproved land where they abound. They generally grow on calcareous soils with an underlying stratum of chalk or limestone. There are many weird and wonderful species offering great scope for photographers. Bee, fly and lizard orchid are among the descriptive nomenclature. But the common spotted or pyramidal orchids, which are relatively easy to find, are beautiful to see.
Dragonflies and Damselflies
Dragonflies and the related smaller damselflies are now emerging from their nymphs, climbing reed stems before breaking free of the exuvia, or larval case, which may be found sticking to the reed. Damselflies are distinguished by their smaller size, weaker flight and separated eyes. After a period of drying out in the sun, they will flex their wings, and set off to hunt the smaller insects they feed on. Dragonflies have very powerful wings, which enable them to accelerate rapidly through the air, and also very good eyesight, enabling them to hone in on prey. There are just 57 recorded species of Dragonfly (Odonata) in the UK, of which 40 might realistically be seen, so it is quite feasible to learn their identification if you become interested. The hairy dragonfly and the four spot chaser are among the first to emerge. There is some complexity, however, with variations in sex, and colour changes with age. Irrespective, they make wonderful subjects for macro photography, and on a still warm day they can easily be approached. the rivers and ponds of Somerset are superb habitats for many species
All photographs © Chis Chappell
Female Broad-bodied Chaser