Chris Chappell advises you to look out for passing migrants and scruffy moulters this month.
Whilst we have been enjoying the warm sun, the long dry spell has been challenging for wildlife. The parched vegetation does not support the caterpillars that need to feed on plants, while ponds and rivers are becoming stagnant, and choked with weed. However, it is a very good time for dragonflies and butterflies on the wing. A bonus for foragers is that blackberries are hanging heavy in the hedgerows, ripe a month earlier than last year. Elderberry trees are also fruiting well, for those with an eye to home winemaking.
Look for juvenile starlings gathering in noisy large flocks. They are plain brown, lacking the speckled appearance of the adults. Linnets and goldfinches will also flock at this time of year, safety in numbers means that they are more likely to spot a marauding sparrow hawk. Large flocks of linnets can be seen at Steart Marshes.
The swifts have moved on from their breeding areas, so as August arrives the noisy packs are no longer heard screaming through towns and villages. But you will still see some swifts, plus martins an swallows heading south, as they leave their northern summer territories.
Many other migrant birds are on the move, and this provides an opportunity to see some more unusual species. Birds such as wheatear and whinchat will feed up on insects before heading south to winter in Africa. Wheatear often gather on Bridgwater bay shoreline, feeding on the flies attracted by the rotting seaweed. Ospreys like to revisit the same area each year en route south, and have already made an appearance on the levels, taking advantage of the good fishing available. Waders such as sandpipers, green, common, and others, may be found stopping off briefly on any damp areas where they can probe for worms.
Moorland heathers are now flowering, adding colour to heathland areas, where you may spot reptiles on a stump or bare patch of earth. Adders and common lizards both enjoy the warmth of the sun. It is a good time to plan a walk on Exmoor, the Quantocks or the Mendips, take your camera and a picnic and enjoy Somerset's wild places.
This is the best month for much of the butterfly activity, and while the vagaries of our weather have led to variable populations of some species, it is looking like quite a good year for most. Where there are flowers and plants to attract them, there have been large numbers of the gatekeeper, small and large white, blues and small coppers, and many more. On a still sunny day, the male butterflies become quite frenetic, chasing and competing for females, time is of the essence as they need to mate and lay as many eggs as possible while the weather is fine. While it may seem daunting to acquire the knowledge needed to identify the different species, there are not so many (unlike moths). It is very satisfying as your skills grow, and the behaviour, habitat and appearance all begin to make sense. If you have a garden, try to plant shrubs and plants that attract insects. Buddleia is the best known, but many other plants will help to diversify the lure, such as verbena, lavender, marjoram and honeysuckle. And these plants will also help our beleaguered bees. Your local garden centre or nursery will advise on what is best for you.
Now that the school holidays have started, this is a very good time of year for a family outing to explore the delights of the Somerset coast. Running east from Glenthorne on the Exmoor coast, to Portishead and beyond, there are a great variety of coastal habitats to visit. There is a chance of spotting a grey seal bobbing about offshore, and a great variety of seabirds and waders may be seen. Peregrine and ravens breed on the cliffs, and can be seen hunting for food along the cliff tops. The rocky outcrops make a picturesque backdrop to the beach, where you may see rock pipits chasing insects, a ringed plover darting around. Soon the tideline will attract wheatear, an early departing migrant, which likes to catch the flies that hover over the washed up seaweed. The coastal environment nurtures many specialist plants and shrubs. Sea campion and thrift thrive on the shingle at Porlock. Climb Hurlstone Point for fine view across Bossington Beach to Porlock Weir, where flocks of linnets gather in the gorse. Try taking the tiny toll road west, for lovely views and good walks.. And down on the shore there are the rock pools to explore, seaweed, molluscs, crabs plus small fish trapped by the receding tide.
The exceptional tidal range in the Bristol channel fosters the great variety of living creatures, and in addition, there are some of the most extraordinary geological features in Britain, at Kilve beach, Watchet and East Quantoxhead, where bands of blue lias limestone, are interleaved with mudstone and shale, creating an extraordinary lunar landscape. And there are fossils. Try to take some pictures on your phone or camera and spend some time looking up the various species when you get home, extending your knowledge as you do so. The large tidal range does mean the tide runs in and out very swiftly, so take care, and check the tide tables.
Many bird species will moult at this time of year, and as a result they tend to skulk out of sight, as they are very vulnerable during this period. And birdsong has all but ceased, as there is no need to compete for mates, and no wish to attract attention. During the moult birds may suffer in wet weather, and also from predators, as their flight response is impaired. The moult allows fledglings to develop from the juvenile plumage into adult, or in some cases, there may be a two stage step to adult plumage. Adult birds need to replace their feathers as they become worn in flight, damaged, and attacked by lice. Some species will moult into winter plumage, as there is no wish to attract attention outside the breeding season, and less striking plumage is better camouflage. This is why in August you may get the impression that many birds have disappeared. The pale fledglings will begin to gain their adult colours of the species, while adult birds renew their worn out feathers. Some larger species, such as geese and swans, are unable to fly while the wing feathers are re-grown. If you do see rather scruffy and moth-eaten birds this is likely to be their normal condition for the time of year, and they will soon be resplendent in new plumage.
All photographs © Chris Chappell
Small red damselfly male
Marsh Harrier male
Bee on scabious