Chris Chappell advises you to drop in to Catcott to see the new developments.
As summer drifts into autumn, the countryside changes colour, and now is in many ways the most spectacular time of year. There is plenty to see in the natural world, just watching the season progress is a fascination in itself. You may see a great variety of birds, as migrants head south for the winter, and our winter visitors begin to arrive. This means you stand a chance of spotting pretty well any bird species recorded locally, and a time keenly anticipated by birders. Look for sandpipers on the muddy fringes around water. Wheatear, whinchat and yellow wagtails are on the move south. Osprey routinely stop over to build up their strength on the plentiful fish found on the Avalon Marshes. And wintering waders are starting to congregate on the shore.
Autumn starts on the 23 September, astronomically speaking, and this is a lovely time for a country walk. Horse chestnut trees have already turned yellow and brown, and others will follow, the autumn colours are developing early after the hot summer, and there will be some good displays of colour. Great opportunities for some dramatic photographs.
The hedgerows are full of bright red rose hips, hawthorn berries, blackberries and glistening black elder berries. The wild clematis flower heads are turning to seed, and the furry spiral heads will remain for the winter, and take on the mantle of 'Old Man's Beard' as it sprawls along the hedges.
Wasp and hornet numbers are growing, thriving on windfall apples, or feeding on the nectar rich ivy flowers. Fungi start to appear, as damp nights provide suitable conditions for their growth.
Works have just been completed at the reserve to construct a new scrape, or area of shallow water and mud, in front of the main hide. This will attract wading birds in particular, and we would hope to see snipe, a good number of lapwing, and many other species. It will be an exciting time, as we wait to see what turns up.
A small flock of cattle egrets have been feeding at Catcott since the spring, but the number is growing, now amounting to forty plus birds, which is extraordinary. Cattle egrets are named from their habit of following cattle, and snapping up whatever is disturbed by the bovine foragers. However, they don't always depend on the cattle, and at Catcott they are already attracted to the new scrape, where they will find the fish, frogs and worms that they need to survive. The cattle egret is now breeding nearby, and juveniles (black beaks) may be seen with the flock. While common globally, it is still a rare bird in the UK, and this marks another stage in the colonisation of the UK by egrets, attracted by the climate changing and the wonderful habitat that the Avalon Marshes now provides.
Catcott is already well established as an important reserve on the levels, with the development of the fen area, and the construction of the tower hide, making it really worthwhile place to visit. The area of woodland has an attractive meandering boardwalk, and the mixed wood, with many mature alders, hosts a great many bird and animal species, and provides a refuge for roe deer.
The Severn Estuary and the Bristol Channel, fed by the River Parrett estuary and the Huntspill Sluice, provide the perfect environment for many wading and dabbling birds. In addition to the reserve at Steart Point, there is now the new Steart Marshes project. This has become a key area in the Southwest for waders, something we are very lucky to have in the county. Huge flocks of small waders, can be seen on the extensive mudflats: oystercatcher, dunlin, ringed plover, grey plover, turnstone, sanderling, along with larger birds, such as curlew and black tailed godwits. They make an impressive sight when they take flight, changing colour as they turn in the sun. Large numbers of shelduck can be seen on the shores and sandbanks, a bulky, distinctive duck in white with green neck and chestnut front, and a bright red bill. They probe the mud for small crustaceans, snails and invertebrates. Many rarer waders complete the mix, such as ruff, but you do require some good optics to see them. In addition, birds such as whinchat and wheatear may be found on the tide-line, feeding up on flies before they cross the Channel heading south. The best time to arrive at the reserve is just before high tide, as the birds are first forced to the shoreline, and will then move out as the mudflats are exposed by the receding water. The small birds and ducks in turn attract their predators; kestrel, buzzard, peregrine sparrowhawk and marsh harrier are all seen on a regular basis, plus our smallest falcon, the merlin, which will spend the winter here.
Late butterflies and dragonflies
Plenty of butterflies and dragonflies are still on the wing in September. Look for common darters, an abundant small dragonfly, the male is bright red and the female olive green. Many of the damselfly species are on the wing now, as well as the various large hawkers, Southern, migrant, brown and common. These are spectacular brightly coloured creatures, and can be quite obliging, landing nearby, or even on your clothing. Brimstone, comma, common blue, red admiral and small copper butterflies may still be seen on warm September days..
The beautiful colours in butterflies are formed by an unusual use of the natural light, , combined with pigments on the insects themselves. Butterfly wings are iridescent, so the appearance varies dependant on the angle of view. This is achieved by a complex interaction of fine films which filter the light to create the iridescent colours. Great for close up photography.
As the breeding season ends, many small birds will gather in large mixed flocks. Greenfinches, goldfinches and chaffinches will chatter noisily in the tops of trees, relying on safety in numbers and many keen eyes to spot an approaching predator.
The goldfinches favourite food source is thistle seed. A group of goldfinches clustered on thistle heads makes a great image. On the coast, large flocks of linnets feed on grassland.
Starlings begin to assemble in the towns and villages each evening, then set off to roost en masse, performing their spectacular patterns in the sky, now known as murmurations. Strictly speaking the murmur is of course the sound, as thousands of birds wings whir across the landscape. If you are out on the levels when a flock passes overhead, you will hear something quite unique, a great whisper across the land. As the birds approach their roost, they will swirl and gyrate in amazing patterns, settling, rising again, and moving across the reedbeds like running water. Their movement in the air is often driven by the appearance of a sparrowhawk or other raptor, hoping to pick off an easy meal. Once settled they start to chatter, rising into a crescendo of calls that may last some long time. While this phenomenon has been filmed and recorded, this cannot convey the full sense of awe that this spectacle inspires if you are actually there.
Corvids also now flock and feed together, and a freshly turned field may attract a mixture of carrion crows, rooks, jackdaws and the occasional raven. They spend their day working their way across the fields, picking up worms and beetles as they go.
Wheatear at Stolford
Cattle Egret at Catcott
Spider on blackberries