Chris Chappell advises us to look ourt for arrivals, admire spiders and clean the feeders.
The Somerset countryside is full of colour at this time of year, every shade of green and yellow develops as the cold nights bring on autumn. Horse chestnut trees have already turned golden brown, the conkers are bursting from their shells, and their leaves are falling steadily. The fields are now bare of crops, and crows, rooks and jackdaws pick their way through the stubble, looking for insects and worms. Buzzards often join in, happy to feed on worms when they are abundant.
October sees the arrival of the winter thrushes; redwing and fieldfare, both striking in different ways. They will soon be seen feeding on berries. The redwing is a small thrush with a very strong supercilium, and a rufous patch under the wing. The fieldfare is a larger bird, with speckled front, grey head and rump, but most easily identified by a noisy cackle. They are accompanied by migrant blackbirds, a huge influx of blackbirds, doubling or trebling our summer residents numbers of 5 million to 10 -15 million.
Most of the wintering ducks also appear this month, as wigeon, teal, shoveler and pintail settle in on the meres and lakes on the levels. They are joined by snipe, lapwing and golden plover. On the coast, large flocks of dunlin, knot, grey plover will gather.
And as these species arrive, the last of our summer visitors will leave, you may see the odd warbler of house martin, but they will have largely gone by November.
Bird migration is endlessly complex, and not entirely understood, but in an uncertain world it is always a welcome sight to see the return of the many species for which we provide a winter home.
Exploring the Woodlands
It is the perfect time to go for a woodland walk, and enjoy all that the Somerset countryside has to offer. 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. Check the SWT Reserves listings for some ideas of where to go.
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, but 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.
The Grey Heron
The heron is a common site in Somerset, where they flourish on the rhynes and marshes. Often seen standing on a river bank, waiting to snatch a fish or frog, they miss nothing, and will move if you get too close. Once disturbed, they will emit a loud 'craik', only heard once airborne. Herons will eat just about any creatures that they can swallow, including mice, voles, young water birds and snakes. They will stand for long periods waiting for prey to appear, and then grab their meal with a quick stab of the beak.
Standing around a metre high, herons are not long lived, at about five years. and many young do not survive the first year. They are very vulnerable in hard winters, when they may struggle to feed, if open water is frozen. At this time of year you may see the juvenile birds feeding in a pond or river, as they tend to be more approachable than adults. They lack the black head stripe, and the abundant plumage of the adults.
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.
Fill the feeders - watch the birds
This is the time of year to give your bird 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
Siskin (with ring)
The River Cary