|In September the
tide turns from Summer to Autumn, though the weather can still be
delightful. Morning mists hang low in steep sided valleys and
cloak the meadows; gossamer webs are laden with ephemeral pearls.
Autumn will bring great changes. Many plants die back to their
storage roots below ground, overwinter as seeds or remain as a shadow of
their former self above ground; deciduous trees and shrubs loose their
leaves to protect them from the winter when the ground may be frozen and
water scarce; animals fatten up for their winter hibernation, insect
numbers decline massively as adults of many species die to leave the
caterpillars or pupae to survive the winter; summer breeding birds move
to their wintering grounds in Africa where they can be sure of food,
whereas birds from the north descend in their thousands to the
countryside, estuaries and even gardens of Britain. This is the
month when these changes start, but it is not until November when Autumn
comes to a conclusion.
By September the horse-chestnut trees (conker tress) have been
showing signs of the changing season for several weeks, already with
their large palmate leaves browning at the edges like they have passed
too near to a naked flame. The horse-chestnut also yields
up its seeds this month in the form of conkers which drop to the ground
in their spiky green cases. The conker seed possesses a skin that,
when fresh, looks like the finest wood veneer, with a rich brown and
shiny grain. Other tree species such as ash, beech
and sweet chestnut are also turning with tinges of yellow, orange
and light green tinges.
The hedgerows are full of ripening berries with hawthorn haws
and rose hips shining red, while sloes, blackberries
and elderberries are midnight black. Some trees yield their seeds
up with wings such as field maple, ash and sycamore.
The wings help the seeds to float away from the parent tree where it has
more chance of germinating with less competition. Acorns have no
such help and fall directly below the parent. However the acorns
have an exclusive set of allies. Jays and grey squirrels
pick these up and stash them in the ground to get them through the
harsh winter to come. Not all are found again however, and with a
lot of luck these may germinate to grow into new oak trees, which
bear their own fruit.
Certain insects are noticeable at this time of year. Around the
time of the harvest in August onwards the craneflies (or
daddy-long-legs) appear in their greatest numbers and seemingly fly
in a hap hazard rather inebriated way. The craneflies' legs
break off easily as a way of escaping predators (including small boys).
The larval stage of this family of insects (there are many species) is
known as a leatherjackets. It is a destructive maggot like larva
which feeds on cereal and other roots, but which is an important food
source for many birds.
On sunny days on riverbanks and in areas of wetland, a real highlight
of early September are the large dragonflies. They hunt for
insects moving with great agility and speed, darting one way and then
the other, sometimes defending territories. They are hardly ever
still, but do sometimes alight on a prominent leaf or stem, only to dash
out once more. The stunning darter dragonfly, the red common
sympetrum can be quite tolerant of close inspection and this group
is less restless than the hawkers, but approach quietly. The
enormous hawker type dragonflies, such as the common aeshna, are
always on the move and are more wary.
a darter dragonfly
Ivy is one of the few late flowering plants and the nectar
forms an important food sources for bees and wasps.
There are seven different wasp species in Britain. Common
and German wasps seemingly suddenly appear in September but this
is because their pattern of obtaining food has changed. Their
summer past time of killing insects to feed to the larvae in the nest
has come to an end (the larvae provide a sweet saliva in return).
This is because their queen has now stopped laying eggs and the food
incentive has gone. As a result they then move onto other sweet
substitutes, such as the sugars of fallen fruit or the jam in your
picnic sandwiches. Unfortunately it
is now that wasps, with their ability to sting and not die,
become particularly unpopular in the garden.
Of the many fungi of note, one that you may smell before you see, is
the rather shocking stinkhorn. Follow your nose to seek out
this species in the woodlands where it thrives. The rancid smell
attracts flies which feed on the sticky tip and carry off the fungus's
spores to a new location. A rather more attractive species is the
edible giant puff ball which can be found, if you are lucky.
littering permanent pastures, by the dozen. This species grows to
an enormous size and eventually dies to yield its many spores when it is
ruptured, maybe by a passing cow!
The birds have now stopped moulting and are in their winter plumage.
Family groups are often still together with some young pestering the
adults for handouts. Many small birds however such as tits,
chiffchaffs and others move through countryside together in flocks
helping each other find food. Whilst this month there is no
difficulty in uncovering insects, later in the year food will become
harder to find. By moving together prey is disturbed out of its
hiding place and anything missed by one bird will be found by others.
On warm days it may be possible to hear warblers (e.g. willow
warblers) sing once again.