Wagtails come in several colours but here Chris Chappell concentrates on three for you to track down.
Frosty nights and strong winds have prompted the deciduous trees to shed their leaves, and the bare branches now reveal the characteristic shapes of the various species. The frosts have also shrunken much of the vegetation, as the countryside takes on a winter hues. The bare branches also make bird spotting that much easier. Winter thrushes, fieldfare and redwing are now settling in, and may be seen gorging themselves on the various berries. And the berries are particularly luxuriant this year. Rose hips, hawthorn, spindle and pyracantha are abundant, plus a heavy crop of yew berries.
Conditions are now good for fungi, and there have been impressive eruptions of the common edible field mushrooms, and the not so welcome honey fungus. Perhaps the most famous fungi, fly agaric, grows well in birch woods and heathland, and will be seen through the autumn until cold weather sets in. Look for the classic red cap with raised white spots.
The starling roost at Ham Wall is growing in numbers, and there are already more than enough birds to give an impressive display on a fine evening. The sound and sight of the starlings swirling in the evening sky is an experience not to be missed.
The water level on Catcott Lows is now rising, and the winter ducks are beginning to arrive. Wigeon, teal and shoveler will spend the winter on the levels, and with luck some pintail will arrive, a special bird, rather more elegant than most ducks. Pintail are bottom feeders, characteristically up-ending with their long tails in the air, while they dabble for nutrients among the vegetable matter and invertebrates below. The male is a striking bird, with white neck extending up to the head in a stripe, while the head is a subtle chocolate, and the beak pale blue. Grey flank, black rump with white between , and patterned black and white wing feathers complete the picture. The female is very understated by comparison, in mottled browns. Sadly, the pintail is still a 'quarry' species, and may be legally shot.
The new scrape (area of shallow water) at Catcott is settling down, and is attracting a variety of species, from cattle egret to kingfisher. The hide provides a good view over the scrape, and patience will always be rewarded. A very special winter visitor to this area is the hen harrier, already seen this year. This very rare and beautiful raptor is under threat from persecution due to their fondness for grouse chicks on the moors in the north of England. The male is pale grey and white with black wing tips, the female has a white band to the base of the tail, which distinguishes it from our resident marsh harrier. A small herd of roe deer can usually be found browsing in the distance. In addition to the cattle egret, little and great white egret can also be seen, along with a number of grey heron. Soon, snipe and lapwing will join the throng.
While you are at Catcott, it is well worth exploring the small woodland to the east, and the tower hide overlooking some open water. There is an attractive boardwalk through the wood, giving access all year. The woods are good for spotting lesser redpoll, siskin and tree creeper, and the roe deer may be seen skulking among the trees.
At this time of year pied wagtails move in to our towns and villages, where they will feed on roof tops, looking for spiders, seeds and insect larvae. They are vocal birds, calling repeatedly as they flit around the rooftops. They frequently form large roosts in major cities, gathering in noisy flocks. Pied wagtails may also roost in the levels reedbeds, arriving just before dusk.
The grey wagtail is sometimes confused with the yellow wagtail, as the underparts are largely yellow. However, the yellow wagtails head south in autumn, and overwinter in Africa, so are currently absent. The grey wagtail likes fast running water, but can be found on almost any small stream, feeding on insects and their larvae. They will only be found near water, where they like to land on a prominent rock or tuft of grass midstream. Grey wagtails have to longest tail of the wagtails, and it is a striking bird, the yellows, grey, black and white a delight to see, but actually well camouflaged when feeding on a rippling stream. They are relatively rare, and as such are red listed in conservation terms.
The Polden Hills are comprised of a ten mile ridge running from the village of Street westwards toward Bawdrip. Almost parallel to the Mendips to the north, and the levels to the south, this is an interesting area to explore, and provides great opportunities for a good winters walk. The Polden Ridge originally carried a Roman road running all the way from the fort at Ilchester to the coast at Combwich, and is an area steeped in history.
The SWT has three reserves on the Poldens, Breach Woods, New Hill and Tannager, and Dundon Fort. On a fine day the Polden Hills provide a lovely place for a walk. SWT reserves New Hill and Tannager, plus Great Breach Wood can all be explored in a day. In addition, the National Trust own adjoining land at Collard Hill and Walton Hill to the west. The area offers mature trees, where you may find nuthatches and woodpeckers, and also open areas where buzzards will soar overhead, or you may hear the deep croak of the raven. Kestrels hunt for voles and mice, identifiable as the only falcon that will hover for any length of time. The kestrel's ability to hold a position on a blustery day, while they scan the ground for prey is a wonder to watch. The noisy cackle of the green woodpecker, or yaffle, rings through the oak woods. The yaffle likes to feed on ants, of which there is a good supply on the Polden ridge. There are fabulous views from the Poldens across Kings Sedgemoor to the south, showing the Somerset countryside in all its autumn glory. Ancient hawthorn bushes are heavy with berries, and old man's beard looks its very best, sprawling over the landscape with the silver seed heads sparkling in the sun
All photographs courtesy of Chris Chappell.
Glastonbury Tor from Ham Wall
Fieldfare on hawthorn