August is a busy time for wildlife, Chris Chappell explains...
The swifts are starting to leave, and their familiar scream, as they dash around town, will soon be gone for another year. Woodland birds have all but fallen silent, the noisy wren no longer trilling from a chosen perch. Most birds go into moult after breeding, but there is much variation in timing. Blue tits and robins moult early, and during this period need to skulk, being particularly vulnerable without a full set of feathers. However, robins will continue to sing, and there is always the coo of the ubiquitous wood pigeon. But we look forward to their re-emerging in a few weeks with their fresh plumage. In adults, the moult replaces worn and broken feathers, and fledglings will develop their adult plumage. Therefore, if you see birds looking rather bedraggled, this is normal at this time of year.
Juvenile starlings gathering in noisy large flocks. They are grey brown in colour, just starting to develop the speckled appearance of the adults. Linnets and goldfinches will also flock at this time of year, feeding on teasel, thistle and burdock. Long tailed tits, often leading a mixed flock of other tit species, will travel through trees and bushes, feeding as they go, the calls a high pitched 'peep' and whispered 'tsk tsk' as the go. Families of warblers will do the same, but their contact call is a plaintive 'weep'.
Butterflies abound, and you may have heard of the arrival great numbers of painted lady butterflies (vanessa cardui) from the continent. The biggest influx for ten years, originating in North Africa these are beautiful creatures, and a joy to see clustered on burdock or buddleia. It is thought that they do not survive the winter here, and therefore we rely on these invasions to see them at all. A few individuals may make the return migration south in the autumn.
Unimproved meadows are full of grasshoppers and crickets, you may seem them jumping ahead as you walk. There are many species of grasshopper, they can be distinguished from crickets by their shorter antennae. Starting life as an egg, the grasshopper will hatch into a nymph, which will shed its skin five times as it grows, eventually developing wings and becoming a mature grasshopper.
Autumn migration seems to have started rather early, with many migrant bird species moving south. This provides an opportunity to see some more unusual species. Birds such as wheatear and whinchat will feed upon 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 usually make an appearance on the levels, at Shapwick or Westhay, 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 with the mainly warm and dry weather it is a good butterfly year. 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. As well as adding a lovely scent to your garden, 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. Porlock Marsh has much to offer for birdwatchers, accessible from the car park. 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.
The Sweet Track
The Sweet Track is a Neolithic trackway through the Somerset marshes, and the oldest known 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 fern. 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. 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 this is where you can see a reconstruction of how the sweet track would have appeared. From the actual 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. Adders are also seen in this area.
All photographs by Chris Chappell
Long Tailed Tit
Young Buzzard inspecting the fresh cut hay field