Hares, hobbies and herons are out there for your delight, says Chris Chappell.
This is the most exciting time of year, as the natural world completes the transition from winter to spring. The remaining winter birds leave, and most of our summer migrants will have arrived by May. Soon the familiar chatter of barn swallows will be heard, and house martins will start to refurbish their nests. Many birds are already nesting, encouraged by early spring weather.
Wild flowers are attracting butterflies; orange tip, peacock, lesser tortoiseshell, and the rarer green hairstreak may be seen.
Bird song is building up, blackcaps call noisily in woods and gardens, as they establish territories, and attract a mate. Many of the small warblers nest near or on the ground, so are vulnerable to domestic pets, and over- zealous mowing.
Adders, grass snakes and slow worms may be seen warming up on sunny days, as they prepare for the breeding season. Common lizards will also appear on a sunny wall. If you are lucky the very rare sand lizard will appear on sandy heathland, the male turning bright green as spring warms up.
Hares are now well into their breeding season, they may have three litters a year, of two or three young, so are quite prolific, but they are not long lived. normally just 3-4 years. Look for black-tipped ears poking up above the vegetation.
Wood ants emerge from winter hibernation, busily recreating huge piles of pine needles, up to half a million insects live in one colony, half of which is underground in tunnels and cavities.
By the end of the month cuckoos should have arrived, having journeyed from Central Africa. This iconic bird is under severe threat, having declined some 65% since the early 80s, but we are lucky to have good numbers in parts of Somerset, and look forward to hearing the unmistakeable call on the levels and up on the Quantock Hills.
Wren and Long-tailed-tit
Wrens are noisy, restless birds, and you will hear male wrens trilling from a small shrubbery outside a supermarket to woodlands, marshland and heathland. The male builds several shell nests and the female will choose one which will then be lined with soft material, usually feathers.
They make a dome out of leaves, bracken and moss with a small entrance hole. Wrens will use tit or open fronted nest boxes, but more usually will build in thick ivy or hedge. They are solitary birds, except when roosting in winter, when they may bunch together for survival. If alarmed , they will make a very persistent tik-tik-tik call.
The long tailed tit leads a very different life, having spent the winter in large groups, flitting through woodlands with other tit species, they will now pair off and are busy building nests. They have a delicate call, a squeak, followed by a rasping trill. As the wren, they also build a dome shaped nest, but prefer to use moss lichen and spiders webs, giving a distinct, but highly camouflaged appearance. The advantages of the domed nest is that it gives good protection, and as wrens and long tailed tits have large broods, the nest can expand as they get near to fledge.
Both birds are common, fairly easy to find, and very entertaining to watch.
This small falcon travels from tropical Africa each year to breed in southern Britain, arriving from late March. Prior to their dispersal around southern Britain to breed, they will gather in some numbers to feed on insects, and the Somerset levels is a particularly fruitful area for them to find food. Migrant birds need to regain weight prior to attempting breeding. They feed by catching prey in the air, anything from large insects to small birds, but they are very fond of dragonflies. Once caught, they will hold a dragonfly in one claw, pluck off the wings and legs and eat the edible parts whilst the hobby is still on the on the wing. They are fast, dashing falcons, in profile they resemble a large swift, but in good light look quite like a small peregrine, but with a large rufous patch under the tail. It is possible to see 30 or 40 birds over Shapwick Heath. Initially, they may feed on the large black St Mark's fly, which emerges well in advance of the St Mark's day (25th) these days. They are best seen at Shapwick or Westhay. As May approaches, they will disperse, a few pairs staying in the area to breed. Hobbies always use the old twig built nest of other birds such as crows or sparrow hawks. An estimated 2000 pairs migrate to Britain each year, and it is good to report that they are on the increase. Watching them hunting over the reed beds, or high in the sky is a thrilling experience.
Warblers are now settling in to the countryside, Having travelled from southern Europe and Africa, and can be heard calling from trees, hedges and reedbeds. An expert birder can tell the difference between similar warblers by their appearance, but this isn't always easy, and the calls will often remove any doubt for the amateur. The chiff-chaff has the most recognisable call, which distinguishes it from the very similar looking willow warbler. But you may soon get to know the falling crescendo of the willow warbler, the loud and tuneful blackcap, or the modest trill of a whitethroat. The blackcap and the garden warbler have fairly similar songs, but getting sight of either will remove the doubt. The birds are often so pre-occupied with their efforts to claim territory or attract a mate, they are easier to approach, and while the leaves are just budding, there is less cover for them. Finding the bird using your binoculars, and then watching it perform, is a great way to learn the songs. There are many excellent aids on line to help you perfect your skills.
Swallows, sand martins and house martins are arriving, and will spread out across the countryside. The larger swift will follow on at the month end.
Woodpeckers are also calling. The green woodpecker, or yaffle, has a unmistakeable loud descending cackle, which echoes through the woods. The great spotted wood pecker advertises itself by drumming on a hollow tree. You may hear two competing with their drumming, the tree trunks producing slightly different tones. The rather rare lesser spotted woodpecker also drums, but has a quieter more rapid tap. Sadly you will be very lucky to see one.
It is well worth making an early start and getting out before daybreak to hear the dawn chorus. This is usually led by blackbird, thrush and robin, but all birds will join in, from pheasant to gold crest, and it is a great challenge to see how many you can distinguish.
Swell Wood is situated on a wooded ridge above the levels of West Sedge Moor, just West of Curry Rivel. It hosts the largest heronry in the West Country. From the new hide you can look up to the numerous grey herons’ nests, large untidy constructions built at the top of the tall oaks and ash. Around 100 pairs of herons breed here, and they make an impressive sight preening in the bright sunlight. Grey heron is a misnomer really, as they have an almost white neck, and a black cap, and crest, and now in full breeding condition have a cascade of white feathers, flecked with black stripes, sprouting from the lower neck and look magnificent. As the young hatch, the adults will become very active collecting food from the moor; frogs, eels and fish, and the noise level will increase as the chicks squawk for attention. The herons have been joined in recent years by a few pairs of white egret, now breeding at the site. Below the canopy, the woods are full of small birds, blue, coal, great and long-tailed tits; nuthatches abound. You may spot a goldcrest, our smallest bird, as voles scurry about in the leaf litter, and a roe deer will be feeding in the background.
All photographs courtesy of Chris Chappell.
Song Thrush (with ring)