Read Chris Chappell's tale of the female spider, shedding her skin and perishing of starvation for the sake of her genes.
Autumn is a magical time in the countryside, as summer fades and the land changes colour, and plants and animals prepare for winter. Reptiles are already starting to hibernate as the cooler nights arrive. The last of our summer bird visitors move south, and passing migrants stop off on the way. And as the winter season arrives, so will migrating birds from the north. The hedges and copses are decked with berries, sloe, hawthorn, elder, guelder rose and more. These provide a vital food source for birds, as they strive to gain weight prior to winter. The distinctive strands of Old Man's Beard, the seed heads now turning silver, decorate every roadside hedge. Robins and song thrushes continue to sing, and the occasional chiff-chaff can be heard. Large flocks of mixed finches will chatter noisily from the tops of trees. Starlings will gather in trees and on the wires, in villages and towns, prior to their flight to their overnight roost.
It is the perfect time to go for a woodland walk, and enjoy all that the Somerset countryside has to offer as the leaves turn brown, yellow and orange, and start to fall from the trees.. Fungi will be sprouting from the base of trees, forcing its way through grass and leaves. 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 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.
Spiders abound in the autumn, and the garden spider is the species you are most likely to encounter. They are just one of the 650 plus species found in the UK. Spiders are arachnids, related to scorpions, ticks and mites. Their ability to spin beautiful and complex webs is extraordinary to see, and on a dewy morning the webs prevalence and beauty is revealed. At this time of year you may find large numbers of garden spiders spinning webs across paths and doorways hoping to catch their prey. The webs are extraordinarily strong, and rather unpleasant if you walk into one face first. Spiders moult as they grow, shedding their skin several times. The female will grow in size until mature, mate, and then build an egg sac containing 50-100 eggs, which she will guard assiduously, until eventually perishing of starvation, leaving the sac to overwinter and the spiderlings to hatch in late spring. Garden spiders will bite, as most spiders can, but this is quite harmless, although a fully grown one will clearly be felt if you were to pick it up. But best to leave them in peace if possible, spiders are wholly beneficial in their role of catching insects that we might consider pests. And they provide the spectacular webs for us to marvel at.
Wintering ducks and waders
October is the key month for the arrival of winter visiting birds, and the Somerset levels is a globally important area for ducks and waders. Teal, wigeon, gadwall, shoveler and pintail arrive in great numbers to spend the winter months on the wetlands. They have travelled from eastern Europe and Russia to escape the harsh winters. Lapwing, golden plover and snipe will join the throng along with curlew and black tailed godwits. All these birds are beautifully coloured and patterned, if you can get a good look at them. The lapwing and golden plover will form spectacular flocks, sometimes thousands of birds, a truly stunning sight as they move to their roost against a setting winter sun.
The teal and wigeon are often very vocal, teal with a loud peeping shriek, and wigeon have a characteristic, slightly comic whistle. You may hear these birds calling some way from the marshland they may be feeding on. The teal generally feed dabbling in the water, whereas wigeon are fond of eating grass, and flocks may be seen waddling across grassy mounds as they eat. These are small ducks, wigeon a third smaller than a mallard, and teal smaller still. This makes them vulnerable to the peregrine falcon, a species that moves down to marshland and estuaries in winter, in order to feed on the ducks and waders that feed there. On the levels, a number of peregrines will prey on a flock of small ducks. It is thought that they work together, one will overfly the flock, causing panic, and the ducks will take to the air, allowing the other peregrine to pick one off. These attacks sometimes trigger a huge aerial display, whereby all the small ducks, waders, and snipe will take to the air with a great chatter of wings, and race around the sky until it seems safe to land again.
Our native populations of starling, blackbird, robin and jay are among the species 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.
Fill the feeders - watch the birds
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 struggle 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
Blackbird on cotoneaster salicifolius
Drake Teal preening