Chris Chappell advises the wildlife to watch out for as the season changes...
The change of season accelerates in October, with cooler nights, shorter days, the leaves starting to fall, and fungi sprouting from rotting logs in the woods. But it is also a beautiful time, the autumn colours on misty mornings offer great scope for the photographer, with dew on the spiders webs, dripping foliage, and the myriad shapes and textures of fading greenery.
Waders are starting to gather on the coast, Bridgwater Bay will soon host murmurations of dunlin, a mesmeric sight as they turn in the sun, glittering white and silver. Many curlews will gather here, their mournful cry ringing across the shore. Ringed plover, turnstone, knot and noisy oystercatcher will add to the soundscape.
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 summer 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 8gms 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. They travel at night, calling as they go. 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.
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.
Common snipe are starting to appear, beautifully patterned, and highly camouflaged among the sedges and reeds. If you are lucky, you may spot the smaller and rarer jack snipe, it has subtly different markings, but is identified mainly by the size, and a quirky bobbing motion while feeding.
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 perish 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 windfall apples spread on the ground will encourage blackbirds, redwing and fieldfare.
All photographs by Chris Chappell