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Wildlife in a Somerset Garden: Observing a Variety of Visitors; Birds, Animals, Butterflies, Moths and Insects

Wildlife is a passion of mine, especially birds; my garden allows me to experience a variety of species and I delight in their presence.

Wind in the Willows

Whispering Willows

Whispering Willows

Between the Sea & the Somerset Levels

I’m privileged to live close to the Somerset Levels where wildlife abounds. Also close to the sea, I have the best of both worlds.

Welcome to my garden, edged by waving, whispering willows and a ‘drain’, the latter being part of the rhynes, the original irrigation system which saw the end of ancient lake dwellers travelling by boat and resulted in exposing a rich countryside below sea level, where its occupants began to till the land, grow some crops and graze their sheep.

Marshy areas remain and flooding occurs from time to time but the sluice gates and rhynes generally do their job well. The terrain is therefore a wildlife haven; swans roosting in the fields, herons playing statues in the grids of water and buzzards mewing high on the thermals, keeping an eye out for mice or rabbits. Some of the wildlife spills over into our gardens, especially those like mine in a sheltered corner with plenty of foliage and undergrowth.

Our main delight comes from a wonderful array of birds, big and small, from the soaring buzzard to the shy, twitchy wren. Squirrels and foxes entertain us too and how about a privileged encounter with a large moth? More later!

Garden Accommodation

We have carefully sited a variety of bird boxes, to accommodate robins, blackbirds and blue tits. A water tray is provided as well as a simple bird-food stand in the middle of the lawn, with curved latticed roof to offer safety from cats and larger birds. We have seagulls here and they are quick to invade any food stations, including people walking along the prom with fish and chips, so we don’t encourage them to visit.

Insect hotels are available, offering free board and lodging for any type within the small apertures. Solitary bees, ladybirds, spiders and woodlice all avail themselves of the facilities and in return provide an education to my grandchildren.


Squirrel

Resting with a Snack

Resting with a Snack

Squirrel and Fox

Grey Squirrels cavort through the willows, showing off their elastic agility, propelling themselves several metres, branch to branch along their route from the nest to next door’s supply of nuts and seeds, occasionally stopping to take stock on our fence or to play chase with siblings. Each of them takes the exact same route, pre-determined by squirrel sat-nav and adhered to by all. I might observe one stop to eat a nut or one running with a mouthful of orange bigger than its head!

These squirrels arrived from America and have been the cause of the downfall of our indigenous red squirrel, though there are small, protected areas of Britain where those still thrive. Sadly, none near me.

In the small piece of copse and undergrowth surrounding the drain lives a family of foxes, year in, year out. They roam the area, occasionally our garden, and take a nightly stroll into town. We hear them squabbling and howling in the night. Soft of tread, their ethereal forms merge into the dark on the grass in front of our garden. A pretty russet-brown coat and a long brush of a tail are their common features, though they vary considerably in size. In the early morning the young can be seen gambolling as they learn how to fight and pounce on prey.

Whilst driving over the Somerset Levels to work one day, I rounded a corner and there were two cubs playing in the road, oblivious of cars. With no other traffic, I stopped and after a few seconds they realised they’d been spotted and scampered away; such a delight to see, it made my day!


Birdlife

We are privileged to have many avian visitors, no doubt due to the close proximity of shrubs and trees which give them shelter. No day passes without the joyful singing, chattering or squabbling of our feathered friends. They become familiar with our presence and seem to sense that we are not a threat.

The Blackbird is the first each day, heralding the dawn, claiming his territory. His notes slice the air, cleansing the soul, purveying a sense of pure joy. He enjoys a particular perch on a willow branch and will sing or sometimes scold ‘tch-tch’ if he doesn’t agree with something we do. Mr Blackbird is my favourite of the regulars and we have the occasional conversation.

A couple of years ago, a family of blackbirds entertained us on the lawn; a handsome shiny-black male with yellow bill and eye-rings, the female, brown and flecked, both teaching their three fledglings how to find worms and insects. They remain in family groups. The youngsters enjoy a dust bath too.


Robin

The Robin is much more bold. This bright-eyed cheeky chappy will come close if you’re digging over soil. He waits for insects, worms, any food for himself and his brood. Such is his impatience that he’ll flit to the spade handle, even get in the way.

At the time of writing, a pair of robins were feeding four chicks. They chose one of my empty plant pots on the outside wooden rack, sheltered behind the shed. Sitting with a cup of coffee one day, we watched their activity and realised where they were. Frantic food-gathering continued!

Robins have a chirpy song, shrill and demanding. They are perky, skip from tree to fence and fend off any opposition; in fact robins will fight for territory, to the death. They bring joy, as their unmistakable red breast catches the eye and their notes are loud and melodic. A feature of Christmas cards and many a winter’s scene, the robin is the quintessential British bird.


Common Garden Visitor

One of the smallest birds in the garden is the blue tit. Often in groups, the male will search for a good nest, offering his mate a choice, and will happily select a man-made box, sheltered from wind and the morning sun.

Petite, pretty and with a delicate, high-pitched song, the blue tit is a welcome visitor, carefully keeping an eye out for any disturbance before entering the nest, hoping that no one will follow.


Gossip of Goldfinches

Group of Goldfinches collecting Lavender Seeds

Group of Goldfinches collecting Lavender Seeds

Goldfinch

Small but forthright, the Goldfinch also congregates in large groups. Easily identified by its distinctive yellow and red markings, it is a joy to see and hear. The other day, I watched nine of them chattering, sometimes arguing, as they landed on my lavender bushes and busily removed as many seeds as they could find. One also removed the seeds of a daisy head. I had no idea that they would be partial to either of those! Like many groups, even with no apparent hazard, once one flies off the rest follow, a wave of yellow flashes.


Sparrows

Sparrows have a Dust Bath as Blackbird looks on

Sparrows have a Dust Bath as Blackbird looks on

House and Tree Sparrow

Sparrows, be they house or tree, are in decline. Happily, there are plenty in my garden. They live in the shrubbery beneath the willows, frequent the buddleia and lilac at the bottom of the garden, and generally busy themselves all around the area. Gregarious and noisy, sparrows are the bother-boys of the garden, resident just about everywhere in the British Isles and quick to benefit from any leftovers or offerings they find. Like the blackbird and robin, a sparrow enjoys a dust bath, making a depression in the ground which he will jealously defend.


Dunnock

Dainty Dunnock

A dainty bird often mistaken for a sparrow is the softer brown Dunnock, with a blue-grey underbelly. Though similar in size to a robin, the dunnock is shy and likes to lurk around at ground level, in the undergrowth. I find them pretty and I respect their reserved character.


Sparrow Hawk

Fast Predator

Talking of sparrows and the like, we need to be mindful of the Sparrow Hawk, or at least the sparrows do! As its name implies, this is a bird of prey, though small and suited to hunting smaller birds in undergrowth and gardens. We have seen one on our garden bench, as well as one perched in the willows, keeping a watchful eye for some unsuspecting creature to show itself – there would be no time to flee!

I saw another years ago, streamlined as a bolt, whizz down the garden and straight through the hedge. Next thing, there was a pile of feathers scattered; surprisingly, a pigeon had met its fate, even though twice the size of the hawk.


Wren on a Farthing

Wren as depicted on a Farthing, old sterling equal to one quarter of a penny

Wren as depicted on a Farthing, old sterling equal to one quarter of a penny

Jenny Wren

Charming, energetic, canny and easy to miss is the wren. It was used as a symbol on the farthing, a quarter of a penny in old sterling currency. This tiny, shy, brown bird slips through the undergrowth almost unnoticed. Stay still, look for the slightest movement close to the ground, and you could be lucky enough to see one. Though one of our most common garden birds, it is reclusive and difficult to photograph. Its tail stands upright from its body making it easy to identify. You might have heard it referred to as ‘Jenny wren’, so called as the female is angrily vocal when disturbed whilst protecting her brood. For such a small creature, the wren’s song is comparatively loud.


Starling

Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) in Toulouse

Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) in Toulouse

Squabbling Starlings

Starlings are the clowns of our garden. They’re the rowdy teenagers jostling for space in the queue on the telegraph lines, ‘squish up, squish up’, mimicking phones, car alarms and sirens. They invade the garden twenty or more at a time, dashing about to make sure they miss nothing, turning up the volume on their conversations.

Just an average-sized brown bird? Not at all! Look closely in the sunlight and you’ll see an iridescence of colours within their feathers. They make me smile as they waddle like Charlie Chaplin twirling his cane.


Collared Dove

Collared Dove with a bird's eye view

Collared Dove with a bird's eye view

Symbol of Peace

Pairs of Collared Doves sit in the trees, atop the telegraph poles and on the fence or wander on the grass from time to time. No wonder doves are a symbol of peace; their demeanour is gentle, with a quiet elegance. They sport a soft grey plumage adorned with a collar of darker grey.

Their presence brings a calm to my world, to my soul. They never seem to squabble or fight, instead they take the world as it comes and contemplate its mysteries.


Pigeon Plumage

Wood Pigeon's soft colours

Wood Pigeon's soft colours

Pigeon

In contrast, the cumbersome Wood Pigeon has no finesse. It crashes through the leaves of a tree, grasping for a foothold, and finally settles its ruffled feathers. Expressing bad temper when its territory is invaded, the poor wood pigeon cannot be taken seriously when it’s so clumsy.

It does have one attribute though; a handsome plumage. From dark grey wing feathers underlined with black and white to a soft grey head, it sports a beautiful blush of purple-pink-to-cream-to-white breast and undercarriage. Large white beauty spots, one on each side of the face, complement its white nose and red beak, echoed by the white-trousered red feet. What a shame its progress down the catwalk is a little unsteady!


Comma & Red Admiral

Comma sunbathing on warm stones

Comma sunbathing on warm stones

Red Admiral on a Holly Bush

Red Admiral on a Holly Bush

Butterflies

Butterflies abound here; we see commas, tortoiseshells, the cabbage (or small) white, red admirals, the common blue, and peacocks. A comma sunbathing on the gravel caught my eye. It was disturbed a few times, but returned persistently to capture the warmth of the spring rays, occasionally closing up, hiding its colour, before resuming its sun worship.

The Red Admiral, so aptly named, contrasts well with the glossy holly leaves.


Cinnabar

Moths

I have found two moths in our garden. One, the Poplar Hawkmoth, was asleep on a rose bush. I was tidying up the weeds and dead leaves and saw what I thought was a withered rose leaf. I put my hand round it to pull it off, then realised it was soft. Taking a closer look, I was astounded to find a hawkmoth. Also known as the Sphinx Moth, they often sleep on bushes, blending in for camouflage. Unaware of that, I was horrified to think I had almost scrunched it between my fingers. Briefly, I touched its downy wings and body; it didn’t flinch. Such a magnificent specimen, larger than I expected and sound asleep oblivious of the world.

I rushed in for my camera, thinking it would soon be gone, then kept an eye on it throughout the day. It stayed for several hours then woke and left in late afternoon.

Spectacular in a different way was the Cinnabar Moth. Its contrasting colours of black and red warn predators of its poison - do not eat!

It is named after Cinnabar, the red mineral ore of Mercury.

I came across one between the leaves of a large plant. It seemed so out of place, exotic, but is apparently common especially in coastal regions.


Bee and Woodlouse

Bee on Lavender Plant

Bee on Lavender Plant

Woodlouse - Looks like a miniature Armadillo!

Woodlouse - Looks like a miniature Armadillo!

Insects and Hexapods

Several insects seem to appreciate our bug hotel. It’s not easy to keep stock but I’ve seen a bee enter one of the rooms and woodlice go in and out.

Apart from our quota of worms in the soil, doing a sterling job of aeration, we see bumble bees and save a few from a lack of height for take-off, as well as solitary bees and honey bees collecting nectar. Wasps come and go but we’d rather they went!

Woodlice hide under pots where it’s moist, in between patio slabs too and seem to live in huge families of ranging sizes. Ants displace piles of sand from our soil and march with regimental precision holding aloft a cargo of leaves.

Then there are the springtails. Until we had chickens, I had no idea they existed but the chickens loved to eat them if we moved a stone or slab. Underneath would be shiny, jumping creatures which are hexapods, not insects. They are a shiny black, bigger than ants and can hop away with amazing speed, though rarely escaped the hens.


Song Thrush

Song Thrush in the Willows

Song Thrush in the Willows

Pure Poetry in a Song

My favourite of all the birds, for its pure, haunting voice, deserves its own tale.

The beautiful notes of a songbird filtered through the inside of my house one April morning. It demanded everyone stop to listen, it insisted on dominating the airwaves, being heard, telling its story.

I had my suspicions as to which bird it was but I rushed outside to verify the source, fearful that I would be too late.

A joyous sound met me, piercing the air, overriding all background noises. I searched the willow trees above me, following the varied song of chatter, whistle, melody, scolding, soft warbling and muttering, repeated on a loop. After a while I found the creator of these wondrous notes; in the branches was a bird which looked like a thrush.

Should I get the binoculars or just remain to enjoy it before the song-bearer flew? Entranced, I stayed a while longer then took a risk, ran to grab them, focussed in on the bird and found that is was indeed a thrush. More specifically, it was a Song Thrush; singing its little heart out like no other bird I’d ever heard.

I took another risk, slowly withdrew, sprinted to fetch the camera and returned to my viewing spot. My accommodating feathered friend had moved to a more suitable perch, standing clear against the sky.

He sang all morning, for the delight of anyone who wished to listen. What’s more, he took up his refrain later in the day. The evening vibrated to his melody, his poem, his own composition. I couldn’t stop smiling.


Information and Sources

rhyne: a ditch or drain, part of the Levels’ irrigation system


Bug hotels can be made from:

wooden pallets, pine cones, garden pots, bits of drain pipe or roof tiles,

logs, twigs rotting wood, dry leaves, bark, straw/hay, bamboo canes


Bird Families:

Blackbird Turdidae (thrush) - Turdius Merula

Blue Tit Paridae

Collared Dove Columbidae

Dunnock Accentor

Gold Finch Fringillidae, small passerine

Robins Muscicapidae (‘Chat’ family)

Song Thrush Turdidae (as the blackbird)

Sparrow Hawk Accipitridae

Sparrows Passeridae (passerines - songbirds)

Starlings Sturnidae

Wood Pigeon Columbidae

Wren Troglodytidae (reminds me of humans living in caves!)


Moths:

Poplar Hawkmoth: otherwise known as Sphinx Moth, Lepidoptera

dark brown on top, the underbelly a orange-brown

Cinnabar Moth: Erebidae

black and red (caterpillars black & yellow) - bright colours warn predators that they are poisonous - do not eat!

Named after Cinnabar, the red mineral, an ore of the metal Mercury.


© 2022 Ann Carr

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