I had the pleasure of showing a friend some of the best bits of Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve on the Somerset Levels yesterday and it turned out to be a corker of a day.
Our route to get this wetland reserve takes you through the flat landscape of small and medium sized grassland fields, surrounded by thick hedgerows or rhynes (pronounced "reens" which are wet ditches).
Many of these fields are down to permanent grassland, rich in wild flowers including orchids, yellow rattle, black knapweed, ragged robin and a whole host of different grasses, sedges and rushes. These only survive intact because the local farmers have continued a traditional farming management, which has not included herbicides and artificial fertilisers, and the ground has not been ploughed and reseeded in modern times (if ever). They are a joy to see.
We were hoping to see the large number of hobbies that stop off at the reserve on their migration each year and we were not disappointed, but more of that later.
Our first port of call was to see some of the orchids up close. At the moment the species in flower is the southern marsh orchid. Other flowers currently out are the tall and robust yellow flag irises. These are quite frequent here.
Here is an example of irises where they have been allowed to completely fill a rhyne:
There was a good number of insects of all kinds including this fabulous yellow darter.
The next port of call was the areas of the reserve where there are flooded peat cuttings which are now extensive reedbeds. Some areas have remained wet woodland and fen however.
Along the edges of of these areas the tracks were alive with dragons...well dragonflies anyway - I have never seen so many at this site during spring. Approaching a bramble bush sends up clouds of hawkers and blue damselflies. I was keen to capture a dragonfly in flight. I have not quite managed to get the shot that I'm after but here are the latest attempts - they're fast little beasts!
There is a stand of mature oak woodland adjacent to silver birch carr; this area with some fallen wood sometimes kicks up interesting wildlife - this time the highlights were a wasp beetle, hornets and brimstone and red admiral butterflies.
We were keen to see the hobbies which hang around for a few weeks on the Levels on their way to their breeding sites. As the clouds were high so were many dragonflies and hence most of the birds were quite far away. One or two did venture down to hear the water level and just for proof I took a few far off blurred pictures - you can see the hobby holding a dragonfly. Sometimes it is possible to see them clip of the wings off their prey in flight, which then tumble to the ground catching the sun as they fall.
Later on when walking back from Noah's hide (where this picture was taken) we were spooked by a sudden whooshing sound; a hobby had passed over our heads like a mini fighter plane - it was quite amazing.
There were no sounds of waterrails or sightings of kingfishers, which is perhaps a sign of the impact of our harsh winter. There were loads of willow and garden warblers, blackcaps and whitethroats. There were loads of swifts too. However the locally freqent Cetti's warblers were also few and far between.
We heard a few cuckoos too, but the best call of all was the bitterns with their unusual booming calls. We had some good sightings as the flew from one reedbed to another. At the scrape near the Ham Wall end of the reserve, the black tailed godwits (see below) were happily feeding, but the great white egret and heron seemed to have a bit of an issue as they squabbled together.