Cettis, Yaffles, Lords and Ladies - Chris Chappell will guide you to all of them.
Spring is a little late, after a cold end to April, but the countryside will soon be swathed in luxuriant growth, providing cover for breeding birds and animals and leaves for butterflies to lay their eggs on. Swallows swoop low over the fields, gathering insects, and are re-establishing their territories in barns and outbuildings. House martins will rebuild their mud nests, chattering noisily as they do so, most of them returning to established colonies.
Cuckoos are calling across the levels, and up on Exmoor. One of the last birds to arrive is the very pretty spotted flycatcher, a delicate beak, streaky chest, and as much identified for the habit of returning to the same branch or twig after forays after insects. The spotted flycatcher is becoming rare, down by over 80% in 30 years, for reasons unknown, but possibly due to environmental degradation in Africa, where it winters. The reed beds on the levels are ringing with the chattering of reed and sedge warblers, punctuated by the explosive call of the resident Cetti's warbler. Noisy blackcaps call in woods and thickets, with chiff chaff and willow warbler above them. But as the birds settle to the business of breeding, they will become quieter, so as not to attract attention to the nesting sites. Adult birds are busy feeding their broods, and blackbirds will be seen in the garden with a beak full of worms, or warblers collecting flies.
Blackbirds and robins breed early in the season, and their first clutch may already be fledged, skulking in the undergrowth, waiting to be fed by the adults. Many species will rear several clutches, as mortality is very high, the fledglings falling prey to predators.
Walking through woods, you will have seen the impressive heaps of leaves or pine needles, wriggling with life. Wood ants are starting to rebuild their huge nests of pine or oak leaves, having spent the winter in the subterranean part of the colony. A large nest will have tens of thousands, up to half a million ants. The huge heaps develop over many years, and are positioned at the edge of woodlands, where the sun will warm the nest.
Most of the warblers you will see and hear in Somerset are summer visitors, albeit increasing numbers of some species will now over-winter here. It is possible to find more than ten warbler species on one spring day in Somerset, from the widespread chiff chaff and willow warbler, to the rather more elusive grasshopper warbler. Most can be identified by their calls, but the difference between sedge and reed warbler, or blackcap and garden warbler is subtle, and takes some expertise to determine. There are some good on line videos that will help with this. Getting to know the calls is a crucial aid to warbler identification.
In the levels reedbeds, you will hear reed, sedge and Cetti's warblers. The reed warbler's call is a rhythmic chatter, usually unseen from the base of a reed stem. However their whereabouts might be revealed if you see the reeds twitching on a still day. Sedge warblers have a similar, but shorter, more musical song, and if you manage to see one, they have a very strong pale supercilium, (over eye stripe). The Cetti's has a loud explosive call that anyone treading the levels will be familiar with. More heard than seen, It is a stocky brown bird with wide tail This warbler has become a UK resident species since the early 1970s, and is firmly established here.
In the copses and woods, blackcaps, garden warbler, willow warbler and chiffchaff will be calling. The whitethroat is abundant in hedges, it has a rather tuneless little trill, but this is punctuated with a more elaborate call, when the male will perform a display flight, shooting up into the air, and returning to the same spot. The much rarer lesser whitethroat may also be seen, but it is a smaller bird, and reclusive in its habits. However, the song is very different, this being the best way to identify and locate the species. Once found you will see a bird paler than the common whitethroat, much less brown on the back and wings.
The grasshopper warbler prefers scrub and heathland, where it may make the eponymous continuous churring trill. It is now rather rare, and a skulking bird that is hard to spot even when calling. Also found on heathland, especially areas of mature gorse, is the resident Dartford warbler (after Dartford Heath in Kent), a striking grey brown warbler with red eyes, and long tail, often seen calling from the top of a gorse clump. This species was almost wiped out by the cold winter of 62-63, but has made a good recovery, but now threatened locally by heathland fires.
Cuckoos are now calling on the levels, across Exmoor and the Quantocks, the males hoping to attract the females. The females respond with a bubbling trill when they are ready to lay. The cuckoo is parasitic, and their unusual behaviour has led to many myths and folkloric tales. Cuckoos return to the same area each year, and are therefore bonded to the host species nesting in that area, be it reed warblers, meadow pipits, or the dunnock. But cuckoos are very opportunistic, and even wrens have been recorded raising a cuckoo chick. They bear some resemblance to a slim sparrow hawk, and have a quick dashing flight. However, they often perch on a high point, where the male can watch for a host nest to prey on. They have a characteristic pose, with wings dropped, but usually you will locate them from their repeated call.
This is the best time to hear the dawn chorus. The birds start to sing just before daybreak, so you will need to set your alarm. An early start will be well rewarded with the bird song ringing throughout the woods as numerous species compete for attention. It is an experience you will always remember, and is a chance to find out what is about. Song thrushes call from the top of a tree, their loud call consisting of short phrases repeated two or three times. You may hear the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker, as it claims its territory by hammering on a hollow trunk. The loud cackle of a green woodpecker, or yaffle, will echo through the oak trees. All this to a background of tits, warblers, finches noisily chiming in. Robins, dunnocks and the boisterous little wren will also join in. If you are very lucky you may hear a nightingale, with its unmistakeable warbling and trilling call, their song is not restricted to the night time. However, this now rather rare bird is at the western limit of its territory. The nightingale is a fairly undistinguished brown bird a little bigger than a robin, more heard than seen, as they like to sing from a dense copse.
Spring plants and flowers
May blossom is the flower of hawthorn and is now coming in bloom, lighting up the hedges and hillsides. The woods are full of the spikes of cuckoo pint, or wild arum, also known as lords and ladies. This strange plant will produce bright red berries later in the year, but is generally thought poisonous and best not handled. Wild clematis is starting to creep along the hedgerows. Yellow rattle, oxeye daisy, buttercups and spotted orchid will be seen in meadows that have escaped modern farming methods. Long Wood (just north of Cheddar) is the Trust's oldest reserve and has a good display of bluebells at this time of year. While in the area you can also visit the adjacent reserves of Black Rock, Velvet Bottom and Ubley Warren, which between them have too many attractions to list, but boasts snakes and lizards, and some rare bird and plant species. Plan a day out with the help of your SWT Nature Reserves Guide.
All photographs by Chris Chappell (including the Wood Ants below)
House martins gathering mud for nests