Birds feast on rich autumn pickings
During a particularly cold autumn in the early 19th century Thomas Hood wrote the depressing lines: “No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
“No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, “November!” Fortunately, our climate has warmed since that bleak period and although the leaves are falling fast they open up new vistas in our ancient woods, where we may see among the trees old crab apples, still with small, yellow sharp-tasting fruits, and butcher’s broom, an odd member of the lily family with stiff small spiky leaves and tiny flowers that occasionally produce a bright red berry.
Small branches of butcher’s broom were once bound together and used by butchers to scratch clean their cutting boards. In the wild, those prickly leaves help provide a sanctuary for many small creatures, including wood mice.
Beautiful yews in churchyards and elsewhere now bear deep red fruits, beloved by birds, which shed the seeds with their droppings, helping to spread the trees, but all parts of the yew are toxic except for the flesh, and the seeds exceptionally so.
In hedgerows spindle trees are at their most beautiful, with four-lobed bright pink fruits splitting to reveal orange seeds. The fruits are poisonous to humans but eaten by birds and mice. The hard wood of the spindle tree was used to make knitting needles and as its name implies spindles for spinning.
Dogwood is also fruiting, producing small black berries that were once used to make ink and lamp oil. But, like the spindle tree, it is best known for its hard wood used to make skewers and daggers.
Chaucer called dogwood a whipple-tree as its wood was also a vital part in the connection of the drawpole of a cart to the harnesses of horses. Today it is widely admired in the wild and in gardens at this time of the year for its young bright red stems.
If mild spells become a feature of the pre-christmas weather, holly berries may ripen early and will no doubt be gobbled up by hungry birds during any cold spell. Mistletoe is already bearing ripe berries.
Hawfinches are not a very common bird in this part of Kent but have been seen tackling good crop of haws. Immigrant redwings, regular autumn visitors, are already here busy eating berries.
Fieldfares, another immigrant thrush, have been reported in quite large numbers by the everactive members of the Kent Ornithological Society. I haven’t yet heard of any reports of waxwings, birds from Scandinavia that sometimes arrive at this time of the year to eat the berries of the rowan trees often planted in supermarket car parks.
Buzzards are well established in east Kent to the annoyance of crows, which see them as year-round competitors for carrion and small birds. Mobbing is the crow’s answer to this perceived threat, in a bid to make the buzzards fly away, which they usually do for a while before returning.
With the recent mild weather, badgers are still active building up their winter fat, but they do not forget the comfort of their setts and can be seen taking in brush and dry grass to create a deep warm home, well below the surface. Here families will group together, sharing their body warmth, but they do not hibernate and will venture out on warm days.
Thomas Hood was very despondent about the November weather in the early 19th century. Perhaps it was the smoke-filled skies and blackened buildings. These days we may see red admiral butterflies, and perhaps a small copper, note the peacock butterflies seeking a safe corner in our sheds, or small tortoiseshells tucking themselves behind the wardrobe. We may hear the song and twittering of the robin, and perhaps feel that we live in kinder times than Thomas Hood.
Bright red spindle berries
Black dogwood berries