The First Hints of Spring
The days are drawing out, and many birds are starting to sing. Robins are claiming their territories, blackbirds and thrushes, while not in full voice, are building up the vocal muscles that power their song. Great tits are early songsters too, they have many calls, but the see-saw 'squeaky wheel' call will be heard from the top of a tree. Wrens and blue tits will join in too. Wood pigeons perform their looping display flight, often with a single wing clap, as their wing tips touch below, and collared doves perform their aerial antics. Both these species abundance is mainly due to their long breeding season.
Early bulbs poke their shoots through the leaf litter, the days lengthen, as we begin our escape from the dark days of winter. Rooks and ravens are busy nest-building. Whilst still in the heart of winter, it is nevertheless a great time to explore our wonderful county for the natural delights it has to offer. And the bare trees and shrubs lend the advantage of our being able to see wildlife with ease.
On the flooded levels, winter ducks keep up a noisy cacophony, piping teal and whistling wigeon splash about noisily on the flooded meres. The majority of these birds breed in northern Europe and eastern Russia, but as winter draws on they start to compete for mates, and there is much posturing and display behaviour as the drakes aim to attract a suitable hen. The larger shoveler will join in, grunting and squawking.
Elsewhere, great crested grebes may be seen starting their elaborate courtship, always a joy to watch, involving head-wagging, parallel swimming, and much else, culminating in them presenting each other with some weed as notional nesting material. They don't call very much, but do have a loud and harsh grating call when threatened or seeing off a rival male.
With luck you may see bearded tits (or reedlings) feeding on the reed mace heads, pulling out the flowers to get to the seeds, leaving a swathe of seed debris floating below the plant. The 'beardies' are beautifully camouflaged, blending in with the rush heads, but their presence may be revealed by the descending cloud of cotton fluff. They have altered their diet for the winter, from insects to seeds, as the supply of food changes. Blue tits are also fond of these seeds.
Bridgwater Bay and Steart Marshes
The Steart Marshes project, undertaken between spring 2009, when consultations began, and early 2014 when it was opened to the public, is an amazing combination of working wetland, nature reserve and flood management scheme. The primary element in the project is the creation of new salt marshes. Rebuilding sea walls further inland, and breaching the old sea wall allows flood water that would otherwise surge up the Bristol channel to be absorbed in the marshes. In addition to being a flood prevention measure, this has myriad benefits for wildlife of all kinds. The rivulets that now run across the area provide shelter for fish fry, which in turn attract herons, great and small egrets, and even spoonbills and the odd glossy ibis.
At this time of year the area is host to many thousands of winter waders, and you may see huge murmurations of dunlin and knot glittering as they turn in the sun over Bridgwater Bay. Try to time your visit an hour before high tide, and, as the sea comes in, this will force the waders to take to the air, as there feeding area is covered by water. The bay is designated as a National Nature Reserve, and combined with Steart Marshes, offers a huge area of preserved natural habitat. In winter the area attracts the very rare hen harrier, and is usually winter home to a number of short-eared owls. The short-eared owls are daytime hunters, and a delight to see, as they twist and turn in their search for voles.
Out on the sandbanks, many thousands of shelduck will feed, along with curlew, oystercatcher, turnstone and redshank. Inland, look for stonechats, skylarks and meadow pipits. The reserve also has roe deer, badgers, foxes, weasels and stoats.
It will take all day to explore the reserve, and while there are very smart toilets at the main car park, you are a long way from any refreshments, so ideally take a picnic.
This intriguing small songbird is often hard to spot, subtly camouflaged against the bark of a tree, where it feeds by prising out insects from cracks and crevasses in the tree bark with a long curved beak. The plumage is streaked brown on the back, and highly camouflaged, while the underside is almost pure white. But now that the leaves have fallen from deciduous trees, there is a greater chance of a sighting. The treecreeper characteristically lands on the base of a tree, working upwards, and then dropping down to the next tree from a height. It has a high-pitched, descending call, a bit like a wren, but less boisterous. When disturbed, it can run up the trunk at speed, like a mouse, using its large claws to cling to the tree. It may be seen with other birds such as tits, but the call will distinguish it, once you know it. They do not travel far during their lifetime, and have established territories.
Along with the winter ducks, Somerset is a winter refuge for large numbers of migratory common snipe. These elegant waders have long beaks that probe the depths of the mud or soft soil for the worms and insect larvae. They may be seen feeding energetically, as they pace about probing for food. The snipe will also spend long periods just resting, and due to their elaborate camouflage, will disappear into the background of reeds and grasses, making them hard to spot. They may mix in close proximity with teal and other ducks. The feet are olive green, also blending in with the vegetation. They are rapid in flight, sometimes a group of 20 or more may drop down, arriving in formation, and dispersing just as they land. They make a hoarse rasping call when taking off, but are mostly silent. The males do make an extraordinary drumming sound during courtship, made by vibrating outer tail feathers, and produced while in a steep dive at speed. However, you will be lucky to hear this in Somerset as breeding numbers are limited, and this occurs mainly on restricted and inaccessible areas. The smaller, related jack snipe is much rarer, but a few are seen here in the winter. They are secretive, and tend to sit tight until the last minute, but if disturbed, they will fly a fairly short distance and land again, whereas the common snipe will fly in a zig-zag pattern for some and land some distance away. But if you are lucky enough to spot a jack snipe, their distinctive bobbing action when feeding will help when no size comparison is available.
Birds are already establishing territories, and looking for nest sites, therefore if you haven't already done so, clear out any nest-boxes you may have, check them for any damage, and put up new ones. It is easy to make your own, even out of scrap wood (the birds don't mind what they look like!) this link may be helpful.
All photographs courtesy of Chris Chappell.
Blue tit on reed mace head
Short-eared owl at Steart