The times they are a-changing
There’s a new season on the way and it’s one that brings colour, flavour, sounds and smells, as our nature
The season is turning. Our senses tell us; we can see the hedgerows ablaze with hips, haws and ripe fruits of elderberries, blackberries and sloe, we can smell the damp earth and the tang of mouldering leaves returning their goodness to the soil, we can hear the robin’s mournful autumn lament and the chuckling of newly-arrived fieldfares. You can sometimes smell and feel the subtle changes.
After the wonderful but sometimes stifling summer we have experienced it is almost refreshing to return to cooler days. I always think there is something special about the atmosphere of crisp autumnal mornings when the rays of a weakening sun shine golden through multi-hued foliage, or perhaps when the ground is blanketed with shimmering gossamer spun from countless small spiders.
We may have hopes for an Indian summer, but the natural world is getting ready for winter. Apart from the aforementioned robin, birds have stopped singing; no need now to advertise your prowess and claim a breeding territory. Instead the cast is changing; there is a marked movement north to south. Our summer visitors have largely
departed to escape the rigours of a northern hemisphere winter and spend six months under African skies. Conversely those species electing to breed in the Arctic will be arriving on our shores to spend their winter in relative balm.
Geese, wildfowl, waders, together with many smaller birds will flock to our East Anglian coast and marshland to plunder that fruitful bounty offered by our shrubs and trees, to feast on discarded sugar beet tops, gorge themselves on molluscs, crustaceans and insects and delight us on garden feeders.
Keep an eye on blackbirds in your garden, one morning you will look out and see several chasing one another; the local birds have suddenly found themselves invaded by overnight arrivals from Scandinavia or beyond. Keep your ears tuned on overcast evenings for the contact notes of redwings and starlings migrating unseen overhead. Small signs all around that foretell big change.
Some of our mammals will be stocking up ready for their hibernation or enforced shelter. The wood mice in the garden will raid the hazel and cherry plum, grey squirrels will create a larder of buried acorns in the lawn alongside jays. Hedgehogs will seek a safe, dry spot under the compost heap or a suitable pile of logs to curl up and see out winter’s chill snug and warm. Badgers will take to their setts.
Likewise, amphibians will be changing their habits. Frogs will spend the winter buried in mud at the bottom of a pond or at the bottom of log piles where their bodies will enter a state or torpor. Toads will find a favoured nook to squeeze into and although they do not hibernate as such, will slow down their activities, only becoming active during milder spells. Newts will similarly seek out a frost-free spot away from water to see out the worst of the winter weather. Several smooth newts use tiny gaps in a pile of discarded bricks at the bottom of my own garden. Here they are still able to keep relatively warm as well as having a ready supply of small spiders and other creatures to snack on.
In the insect world it is a different story. Many will simply die having completed their adult task of mating and laying eggs. The vast majority of moths and butterflies will rely on overwintering eggs and larva to propagate the species the following year.
Some, however, will hibernate, small tortoiseshell, peacock and brimstone for example. Time was when these insects would spend the winter secreted away in cupboards and pantries of houses not fitted with modern day central heating. In my youth it was a common sight to have a few in our house in Norwich. Each March there would be frantic beating of wings against the windows heralding the return of spring warmth. Not so in our 21st century homes; this connection with nature is sadly missed. It is nonetheless important to ensure any hibernating insects in sheds and outbuildings are left undisturbed. Crucially leave ivy alone; not only is it a superb source of late nectar but it also provides ideal hibernation conditions for brimstones and other insects. Your reward will be to see them colourfully fluttering around your patch next year.
The season is irrepressibly turning, but what better time to get out and experience the opportunities autumn can bring. Red deer are rutting and can be seen at such places as RSPB Minsmere, fungi will proliferate and can be encountered anywhere.
Maybe you can get yourself to one of our brilliant coastal nature reserves to see the massing of wild geese or a roost of raptors. Maybe even connect with an unusual Siberian stray bird or watch starlings and thrushes pour in from the North Sea. There is always plenty to experience in the natural world, use your senses and celebrate.
You can read more of Barry Madden’s brilliant nature notes at his online blog site at www. easternbushchat.blogspot.co.uk