Chris Chappell has detailed information on bird activity in autumn with a focus on ravens. And don't forget the 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, Noisy nuthatches are feeding on acorns, hazel and beech 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.
Garden spiders are busy weaving webs, making a spectacular display on a dewy or frosty morning. Wasps and hornets will make the most of the remaining warm days, the wasps feeding on ivy flowers, and the hornets feeding off flies, hoverflies, and sometimes the wasps themselves. The colder nights bring on the Autumn colours, a good reason to get out with your camera. And compact cameras, and phones take very good close-ups too.
Over wintering birds are now arriving from the northern Britain, and northeast Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. The winter ducks include wigeon, teal, shoveler, pintail and gadwall. These species do not generally nest in the southwest. The Somerset Levels are a key winter habitat for these ducks, and the lagoons will soon become noisy with the whistle of wigeon, the high pitched peeping of teal, and the grunt of shoveler. These in turn will attract the attention of peregrine falcons, and during a hunting foray, the ducks will rise noisily in huge numbers, providing one of the spectacles of Somerset wildlife. Lapwing arrive in great numbers, and they will also join the throng when the alarm goes up. Small groups of common snipe will race around the skies in a tight group, and then suddenly drop to the ground. Winter thrushes, the fieldfare and redwing, also 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 joined by migrant visitors. The population of our smallest bird, the goldcrest, is hugely swollen by visiting birds, numbers rising from about 600,000 to several million. They are most likely located by their squeaky see-saw call, as they move rapidly through shrubs and trees, often in the company of other birds, such as long-tailed tits.
Ravens were relentlessly persecuted in the 19th century, due to their reputation for taking lambs and game birds. This unjustified slaughter, combined with the attentions of egg collectors, taxidermists and the pet trade, drove the population to extinction in many regions. Intelligent birds, they made very entertaining pets, Charles Dickens had two ravens. We live in more enlightened times, and the raven is now fully protected under the law, and populations have recovered. The raven is the largest member of the crow family, and now reasonably common in Somerset. The size of a buzzard, ravens can otherwise be distinguished from the smaller crows by the strong large bill, ruff on the neck, diamond shaped tail, agility in the air, and the call. The adults make a variety of noises, but you are most likely to hear a loud low cronk-cronk-cronk, sometimes more like a barking deer than a bird. Adult ravens can now be seen with three or four offspring in tow, the juveniles still dependent on their parents to find food. A family group may be watched performing aerial acrobatics over the Polden Hills, the Mendips or along the rocky coastlines. Ravens build a large nest at the top of a tall tree, or on a cliff face. Mating for life, and living for around 20 years, they stand apart from other crows. Their main source of food is carrion, but they will eat almost anything, including small birds or animals, and their eggs and young. In the breeding season they are subject to mobbing by rooks, crows and jackdaws, as they are rightly perceived as a threat if they get too close.
Bonfire Night - 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.
Fill the feeders
It is a good idea to give your feeders a good clean before refilling them, as there is some evidence that diseases can be spread by mouldy or stale bird seeds and nuts. A surprising range of birds will use feeders and tables, great spotted woodpeckers, nuthatches, long-tailed-tits, and increasingly birds such as reed buntings and over-wintering blackcaps. You must expect the occasional visit from a sparrowhawk, which will attempt to take prey. In addition to hanging feeders, a table feeder with a roof will encourage more species, as many birds are not easily able to cling on to a wire feeder. The roof will add some security from predators. Any surplus apples spread on the ground will encourage blackbirds, redwing and fieldfare. If the badgers don't get there first.
Photographs by Chris Chappell
Hornet eating a fly