As blooms fade, take a look at the flowering ivy attracting insects and birds, says Chris Chappell.
The autumn colours are already looking glorious, and it seems that this year will be spectacular for wild berries. Hawthorn, spindle, elder and pyracantha have heavy crops, highly coloured and decorating hedges and gardens. These are all good food sources to help wild birds get through the winter. As many plants die back, ivy is in full flower, and buzzing with insects.
The last of our winter visitors are en route south, swallows and martins winging their way in large flocks, along with warblers, wheatear and whinchat. And as they leave, others arrive from the north and east. Goldcrests, mainly from Scandinavia join our resident population, trebling the number of birds from around one million to three. One has to marvel at a bird weighing 5-6gms crossing the North Sea, a few even travelling from Poland and western Russia. They feed on insects, larvae and spiders, favouring evergreens often in yew and cypress trees. The goldcrest feeds restlessly in order to maintain their tiny weight.
October also sees the arrival of the winter thrushes; redwing and fieldfare, both striking in different ways. They will soon be seen feeding on the 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.
Mixed crows may be seen combing the fields for worms and insects, sometimes joined by buzzards, which are quite happy to eat worms if there are plenty to be found. Herring and black headed gulls may join them, often following the plough, a classic rural sight.
Most of the wintering ducks will 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.
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 possible places to explore.
In The Garden
It is the time of year when you may feel the urge to tidy up the garden. While a neat garden may please some of your neighbours, it will inevitably support less wildlife. Hedgehogs, slow worms grass snakes, frogs, newts and toads all need suitable places to hibernate. A heap of grass cuttings or leaf rakings can make all the difference, and be crucial to the survival of these creatures over winter. Dead trees provide natural food for great spotted woodpeckers to find the insect larvae they feed on. Green woodpeckers are often seen in urban gardens, feeding on ant hills. Windfall apples provide a good source of food for birds, mammals insects and molluscs.
Ivy, not always the gardener's favourite plant, is a very valuable source of late nectar for insects. In bloom from September to November, ivy will attract wasps, hornets, hoverflies, and butterflies, red admiral in particular. Later in the winter the ivy berries are a good source of food, as they soften with time, many birds, from blackcaps to blackbirds and pigeons, will feast on them.
Autumn is a good time to plant new shrubs and bushes as they go into dormancy. Choose plants that will benefit wild creatures, be it flowering bushes such as buddleia for butterflies, or those producing a lot of berries, like cotoneaster. All these factors will determine how many wild creatures visit your garden.
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.
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, such as robin, as many birds struggle to cling on to a wire feeder. The roof will also add some security from predators. A supply of water in a bird bath will attract sparrows, blue tits, robins and blackbirds. Any surplus apples spread on the ground will encourage blackbirds, redwing and fieldfare.
All photographs courtesy of Chris Chappell.
Great white egret grabs a pair of darter dragonflies