From skimmers to sporangia there's a wealth of wildlife out there. Grab your binoculars and follow Chris Chappell.
July is the peak month for butterflies, and they will readily take to the air on these fine days. Dragonflies and damselflies are abundant now, you may watch them depositing eggs into the water's edge on the levels marshes, or even in your garden pond. Just a small pond will attract them. Damselflies like to inhabit the fringes of rivers and ponds, these pretty miniature dragonflies are abundant, especially the common blue and the banded demoiselle.
While it is known for wintering ducks, it is always worth making a trip to SWT Catcott, as in addition to the excellent habitat for flying insects, the small herd of cattle put out to graze on the lows have been attracting numbers of cattle egret. The cattle egret is now breeding on the levels, and a bird that was very rare just 10 years ago, is now rapidly colonising the UK. Also do follow the signs to the tower hide and the woodland boardwalk, a shady spot where you may see roe deer peering at you through the undergrowth.
Most birds have raised a brood to fledglings, and may have started another. Smaller birds tend to raise two or three broods, and the largest species just one. This is related to survival rates and longevity. Therefore there are many fledglings skulking in hedges, trees and reedbeds, as their parents teach them to feed for themselves. The adult cuckoos have migrated south, heading back to Africa, leaving their host chicks to be raised by their host species. Once the young cuckoos have built up their weight, and developed wing muscles, they will follow on in the coming weeks. So there is a chance of spotting a plump cuckoo chick, waiting to be fed by their diminutive adopted parents.
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. Spotted flycatchers are very much at home in a small garden, all they need are the flies and a suitable perch. The spotted flycatcher has suffered a massive decline in numbers in the past 50 years, and a bird that was common is now rare, having declined by some 90% , almost certainly due to the decline in the large flying insects that they need to feed on.
The Steart Marshes project was commenced in 2012, after an extensive period of research and consultation, converting some 740 acres of grassland into saltmarsh by breaching the sea wall. This has the combined effect of managing the flood risks in the Bristol Channel and providing a major wildlife reserve for birds, mammals and invertebrates. The project was completed four years ago, and is now well on the way to becoming fully re naturalised.
Located adjacent to the Bridgwater Bay National Nature Reserve, the Steart Marshes now supports a breeding population of avocets, oystercatchers, little ringed plovers and more. Spoonbills are regular visitors, a bird of the egret family that has a growing presence in the UK. In July, you may see flocks of linnets, goldfinches and starlings, comprised of this year's fledging. Dragonflies and butterflies abound. Reed, sedge and Cetti's warblers are quieter now, as they have young to feed, but they may be spotted, and will make their rasping alarm call if you are close to the nest. As for raptors, buzzard, kestrel and marsh harrier are seen, and increasingly red kites, plus peregrine and merlin in winter months.
There are various walks on well constructed paths, enabling those of all abilities to explore the area. ideally you would take a picnic, as you are a long way from the nearest cafe or pub, but there are toilet facilities at the main car park. Allow a day to explore the area, there are numerous hides for the quiet observance of the wildlife, and numerous benches for picnickers.
This beautiful bird, which was driven to near extinction in the early 1800s by hunting and egg collecting, is making a steady recovery in the UK, and Somerset is playing its part in this process. The area where you will find them is the Bridgwater Bay and the river Parrett Estuary. From the Quantocks hides at Steart you may see several pairs caring for young at different stages of growth, which may be seen with a good pair of binoculars. Avocets are extremely protective parents, and will quickly rise and attack any passing predator, calling loudly while chasing them off. Visitors may also attract a bit of attention if you are too close to the nest or young. They have an unusual bill, curved at the end, which is used to sweep through the mud to sift out small crustaceans and worms.
Silver-washed fritillary butterfly
The silver washed fritillary butterfly is common in parts of Somerset, occupying broadleaf woodland glades. They are large butterflies, with wingspan around 75mm, and have a distinct swooping flight. Spending much of the time in the tree canopy, feeding on aphid honeydew, they will drop down onto bramble flowers to feed on nectar. They tend to patrol a favourite glade, so once spotted, with patience, you will see them again. The preferred plant for depositing their eggs is the dog violet. They are spectacular butterflies, and on the wing now.
The Sweet Track
The Sweet Track is 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 another 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 spotted 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. A number of non-breeding swans feed here, a lovely view with the Tor in the background. 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
Avocets in flight
Cinnabar caterpillar on ragwort