The countryside is teeming with life, Chris Chappell explains - especially Catcott Lows
With the arrival of June, the Somerset countryside is full of delights, be it flowers, insects, birds or animals. Many bird species have already raised their first brood, and may be starting on the next one.
The first clutch of house martins have hatched, swifts are busy settling in to their nesting sites, while swallows chatter noisily from a telegraph wire. Summer arrives after a turbulent spring, with below average rainfall, leading to low water levels in our rivers and streams.
Reed and sedge warblers chant noisily from every reed bed, their delicate nests woven between the reed stems, now containing the first clutch of chicks, unless a predatory cuckoo has found the nest, these species being a favourite host for cuckoos.
Adult swans are now guarding their broods of cygnets, and will warn off any intruder with loud hissing. The silver young, with shiny black beaks make a lovely sight, but it is best not to approach too close. The cygnets can swim and feed themselves as soon as hatched, dabbling noisily for duckweed.
Mortality among fledgling birds is often very high, therefore the adults need to maximise their opportunities. If a nest fails, most birds will try again.
Dragonflies and damselflies are emerging from ponds and streams. The larvae (or nymphs) climb a reed stem and cling on while they break out of their outer skin (exuvia) leaving the shell behind. Dragonflies are astonishing creatures, with their ability to accelerate or stop in the air, seemingly at will. Look for banded demoiselles, a damselfly with a dark blue band of colour in the wing, or the broad bodied chaser, the male powder blue, and the female an incredible bronze colour. There are just 57 recorded species of dragonfly and damselfly, including the rarities, therefore it is not too difficult to familiarise yourself with the main species you may find. Britain's Dragonflies by Dave Smallshire and Andy Swash is a good reliable photographic guide.
Bees and hoverflies
Even a small garden can be planted with flowering shrubs to attract bees and butterflies. Cotoneaster is a good plant to choose, with prolific flowers, and there will be berries for the birds in the autumn. There are some 250 bee species in the UK, comprising principally bumble, mining, mason and honey bees. They are essential pollinators for a huge variety of plants. The flowers will also attract hoverflies. A key difference from bees is that hover flies have just one pair of wings, and consequently move through the air in a different way, and have a much faster wing beat of up to 120 beats per second. As the hoverfly larvae hatch, they will feed on aphids, making them useful in the garden.
The reserve at Catcott is always a great place to visit, with the main hide looking out across the lows towards Glastonbury Tor, and the heathland, and the woodland area with boardwalk to explore. In addition, there is the tower hide overlooking he fen ponds. Catcott is teeming with dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies too. There is great potential for close-up photography enthusiasts. Be aware that roe deer are resident in the area, and there is always a risk of picking up ticks.
The creation of a scrape, an area of shallow water, in front of the hide has been a great success and attracted a wide variety of birds. Several pairs of lapwing are nesting on the lows, endlessly rising in the air to see off passing predators. A recent arrival is a pair of black winged stilts, a very rare wader related to the avocet, and a striking bird with long red legs and straight black bill. Other attractions are a flock of black-tailed godwits, a garganey, and numerous families of grey-lag geese.
Another regular attraction is a flock of cattle egrets, a bird now seemingly established on the levels. The cattle egrets, true to their name, will follow the grazing cattle as they disturb insects and amphibians, picking off the flies and frogs.
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.
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 just 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 deemed to be relatively stable.
House martins build rather more substantial nests made mostly 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 more exotic species. Each variation is geared to attracting different insects for pollination. However, the common spotted, and pyramidal orchids, which are relatively easy to find, are beautiful in their own way.
All photographs by Chris Chappell