Chris Chappell suggests you watch out for walnuts falling from the skies and take care of hedgehogs on Bonfire Night
October brings the change of season, with shorter, cooler days, but there is a lot to see, as late butterflies and dragonflies are still on the wing, the hedgerows are full of berries, and fungi are sprouting in the woods and fields. Noisy nuthatches are feeding on acorns, hazel and beach mast. They will be heard high in the trees, a loud boyish whistle, or sometimes just the tapping as they break the shell of a hazel nut, having lodged it in a convenient crevice in the bark of a tree. The loud cackle of green woodpeckers echoes through the woodland, well hidden as they blend into the branches oaks and beeches, but perhaps they are more often seen making holes in your lawn, as they seek out their favourite meal of ants with their long sticky tongues. Great spotted woodpeckers are there too, their alarm call a sharp 'chip-chip'. Roe deer watch from the distance, feeding on young shoots, always on the alert. Buzzards often gather in the freshly ploughed fields, looking for worms and beetles, brought to the surface by the recent disturbance. You may see the strange spectacle of a dozen or more, spaced over the field, and there will be an occasional spat with the crows and rooks competing for the food source.
This small crow has grown to rely on man for nesting sites, in chimneys, church towers and steeples, and any old buildings with suitable holes. Just a few now nest in tree holes and cliffs. Now the breeding season is over they leave their overnight roosts in towns and villages each morning to search the fields for grubs and worms, returning at the end of the day in large, swirling flocks, before dispersing to their various roosting spots among the chimneys. Seen close up, the jackdaw has startling pale blue eyes, which combined with the silver shroud, rather wrinkly legs, and a funny walk, lends them a rather eccentric appearance. Jackdaws are intelligent birds, like all the crows, and a sure sign of autumn arriving is their habit of collecting walnuts and dropping them onto the pavements in local villages, in order to crack the shells, before diving down to retrieve them. They are also rather good at breaking into nut feeders, having very strong beaks.
During October the arrival of winter migrant birds will be largely completed. Winter ducks are a speciality of the Somerset levels, Catcott Lows Reserve being an attractive place for them, once the water levels have risen with autumn rains. At the time of writing it has been exceptionally dry, so we will have to wait for some proper English weather. The ducks you should see are wigeon, teal, shoveler, pintail and gadwall. Winter thrushes, the fieldfare and redwing, come from northern Europe to feed on the berry crop in our hedges and woodland. Our populations of starling, blackbird, robin and jay are also swollen by migrant visitors. Many waders spend the winter here, including golden plovers, and the closely related lapwing.
On Shapwick Heath, just west of the Ashcott Corner car park, Meare Heath attracts a good selection of winter wading birds, where the 'scrape' provides the right conditions for them to feed. You are likely to see the lapwing in numbers, feeding on the water's edge. Standing in the water, probing for invertebrates and insects, a large flock of black tailed godwits are regularly seen. The black tailed godwit is a large wader with a long straight bill, and distinctive white mid section to the wing and white rump, and of course a small black tail. These migrant or passage birds, (very few breed here) make a fine spectacle, especially when in flight. Interestingly, male and female black tailed godwits have different length bills, which means they don't compete directly for the same food. These may be joined by a flock of knot, a smaller wader, grey, with almost white underparts, and a short slightly curved bill. A few common snipe should be seen, hard to spot, as they are well camouflaged, but with patience and a good optics, their movement will give them away as they feed. They are beautifully marked, mottled and striped, and blend well into a background of reed stalks. The much smaller, and rarer jack snipe also occurs on the levels, even harder to see, but also given away by a slight bobbing movement when feeding. A few rarer waders may arrive, such as ruff and curlew sandpiper. When a sparrow hawk or marsh harrier appear, this will put the smaller birds to flight, something which helps to establish which species are feeding at the time. Kingfishers, great and small white egrets, can also be seen at this spot, while a bittern will make an appearance from time to time. If you are lucky a troupe of bearded tits will move across the tops of the reeds, their 'pinging' call revealing their whereabouts.
Bonfire Night - just a reminder
Please bear in mind that if you build a bonfire well in advance of November 5th, hedgehogs and reptiles, such as slow-worms, may try to use the heap as a suitable refuge for hibernation. The best way to avoid the risk to these creatures is to build a pile next to the spot where the fire is going to be lit, and if at all possible to rebuild the fire on the day. You can then rescue anything that might have crawled into the heap. Hedgehogs have declined dramatically in recent years, and need all the help they can get. If you have a suitable garden, you might consider installing a hedgehog box for their safe over-wintering.
Photographs by Chris Chappell