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A year at Shapwick

Starling Raptor murmeration

WINTER (January, February, March). The year starts with plentiful bird activity and is also a reminder of how open the Somerset Levels are. Views and skies are all around.

Large numbers of Starlings can often be seen in our trees in the early evening before they join the main murmurations over the Avalon Marshes. These Starlings are often predated by harriers and Sparrowhawks, with the flocks making amazing shapes in their efforts to escape – truly one of our most incredible wildlife spectacles. The fields around the reserve are invariably very wet now and, as a result, regularly attract visiting wading birds.

Ravens start to nest this early in the season and their display flights, including flying upside down, can often be seen close to the reserve entrance. The wetter fields host large numbers of Snipe but unless you see one take off vertically in their characteristic zig-zag flight they can be hard to spot in the grass, as they go about their feeding. The very low booming of breeding Bitterns echoes around the Somerset Levels and can usually be heard from our main hide.

As spring approaches, Hares and Roe Deer can often be seen on the fields in the early morning and the first of the summer migrants return, with Wheatears frequent along the main tracks. Overwintering butterflies, such as Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Brimstone are visible in good numbers on sunny days.

HareHares graze in the fields. Photo H&OT

SPRING (April, May, June). Hobbies start to arrive mid-way through April, returning from southern Africa to find breeding territories on the Levels and beyond. Initially they hunt St Mark’s Flies, but they are waiting for the emergence of the first dragonflies and they can be watched agilely hunting them. Our Fen Field is at its best at this time of year as well, with numerous wildflowers and the accompanying insect life that takes advantage of this bounty.

As May unfolds most of the birds on the reserve are busy breeding, with song everywhere. Reed and Sedge Warblers are common along our ditches but listen out for the reeling trill of the scarcer Grasshopper Warbler. Skylarks are nesting on our fields and their songs are a constant background noise to any visit. Evenings in June bring good sightings of Barn Owls and Badgers. Look out for the places Badgers get under the fences, betraying their activity by leaving their obvious, coarse black and white hair in the barbed wire.

SUMMER (July, August, September). Activity kicks in on the fields, with the main hay cut occurring. With all the newly exposed dry grass, birds such as Red Kites and Buzzards seem to appear instantly feeding on insects and small mammals and using the new bales as perches. The whole feel of the reserve changes and, as the heat rises, the amount of bird song is much reduced as breeding for the year is over and the birds are busy feeding their young or moulting their worn feathers. Sedge Warblers are active along the ‘linear’ reed beds of our ditches and summer is the time for insects, with numerous butterflies on the wing with Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper and Common Blue appearing in large numbers. Gatekeeper 2Gatekeeper butterfly. Photo H&OT

There is a definite feel of the summer ending by September, with the first of the winter migrants starting to appear. Wading birds, that nest in the short Arctic summer, come back to us first, often re-appearing in mid-summer and are the first sign that the season is turning. Snipe and Lapwing are found in increasing numbers around our scrapes together with the occasional Whimbrel and Common Sandpiper.

AUTUMN (October, November, December). October marks the start of our busy volunteering period. Often the smoke of bonfires can be seen in our fields as we go about our maintenance tasks. Willows grow incredibly quickly on the marshes and they need cutting down on a four-year cycle to keep our ditches open which benefits many of our rarer species including Water Vole and Lesser Silver Diving Beetle. As winter tightens its grip large numbers of Lapwing settle in our fields and Starling numbers start to build up. The birds can be seen feeding in the wetter fields during the day. The feeders in front of our hides start to have a more varied species list if the weather turns cold and, in those cold conditions, visiting Merlin can often be seen perching on fence posts. Now is also a good time to hear the high-pitched calls of Kingfishers as they hunt along the main drainage channels.