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PMcS 2006




This month look out for:

Plants and animals in seashore rock pools
Limestone\chalk downland butterflies
Heathland reptiles
Dragonflies and damselflies near water
Moorland heather flowering
Bats on the wing

August is the month when high summer turns to late summer.  Schools are on their break and thoughts turn to visits to the seaside.  This is a great time to search along the foreshore, and investigate rock pools for goby fish, shrimps, crabs, sea anemones, snails and shellfish.

jelly fish and shells found on the strandline of a beach


If the weather is hot, the countryside starts to look parched and tired, as grasses brown and even tree leaves start to wilt.  In the hedgerows the blackberries have already started to ripen, going from green to red then finally black and delicious.  Elderberries also ripen and are feasted on by hungry birds such as starlings and blackbirds.  Other berries are ripening too, such as hawthorn ('haws'), sloes and rose hips.  These will provide sustenance for many species through the harsh winter months.  For now food is plentiful, although the dry ground can cause problems for the ground feeding birds.

Early in the month grey squirrels are impatient and insist on cracking open the pale green hazel nuts, even though there is little reward inside.  They can be heard chattering and squealing at one another.  Aggressive confrontations can lead to tree top chases.

Hot days also bring the restful sound of grasshoppers calling ('stridulating') from the long grass, advertising their territories.  They are difficult to spot due to their green or brown colour, but soon hop to reveal themselves if disturbed, only to disappear again.  In Britain the species most likely to be spotted are the common green, common field and the meadow grasshopper.

Other insects on the wing include the meadow brown, small skipper butterflies and large whitesGatekeepers are particularly attractive orange and brown butterflies that are currently on the wing, and can be found near hedgerows.

Waders are returning to the estuaries, having bred in highlands pastures or wetlands in Britain or further north.  Some are just passing through on their way back to Africa.  Lapwings and golden plovers join knots and bar-tailed godwits feeding on the mud.


ripening blackberries

Habitats and species
Parks and gardens:  As the breeding season draws to a close birds will return to the garden but as some are moulting may rather skulk around.  Put out water for the birds now as other sources may not be available.
Woodlands (including wood pasture):  Woods are quiet except for the occasional robin starting to sing its plaintive and melancholy Autumn song.  Some trees may start to show changes in colour.  Seeds are ripening and soon large-leaved lime, sycamore, field maple and  hornbeam will drop their winged seeds.  In August though, the wings are all still green and growing.
Arable and hedgerows: Invasions of house sparrows may be a thing of the past now, but they can still be seen as the wheat ripens, enjoying the feast.  Whilst the flocks of yester year are not so likely to be seen, they do seem to be making a slight comeback.
Road verges:

lords and ladies


In the bases of many hedges lords and ladies have totally died down other than the ripening fruiting stem, with its poisonous red berries.  This is the 'lady' part.

Chalk and limestone grasslands:  Where grassland is allowed to grow unchecked by grazing late flowering species such as marjoram, lady's bedstraw, black knapweed, harebells and field scabious thrive.  This month devil's bit scabious is also flowering.  It acquired its name as a result of folk tale.  Its roots are unusual in that they stop very abruptly and the story goes that the devil, in a fit of peak, finding the plant flowering so beautifully and prolifically late in the year bit of the bases of the roots from below.  Take a look at the W2WW field guide for help identifying the key plant species (including grasses) on limestone.

marjoram and lady's bedstraw


clustered bellflower


Meadows (neutral) and flood plain grasslands:  Where grasslands, be they pastures or meadows, are overgrazed the ground is often exposed (poached) and plants such as ragwort and creeping thistle colonise and thrive.  This often happens in hard grazed fields supporting horses.  Ragwort is poisonous to livestock and they avoid grazing it.  Is a result large areas can be seemingly dominated by its bright yellow ragwort flowers at this time of the year, and earlier.  The cinnabar moth (the adult is black and red) feeds on this species at its caterpillar stage.  The caterpillars are black and orange to ward off predators who may view them as a tasty snack. The caterpillar stores alkaloids from the plant which means that birds do indeed find them nasty to eat.
Acidic grasslands:

Dorset heath




Heathland is purple with heath (e.g. Dorset heath) and heatherBilberry fruit are now ripe and ready to eat.

Mountain and Moorlands (uplands): August sees the start of the red grouse shooting season, on the 'glorious twelfth'.  Many upland moorlands owe their existence to this sport although conflicts can occur when other species, such as hen harriers take a liking to the same habitat and young chicks.
Rivers and ponds (including bogs and mires):  Rivers are thickly fringed with white flowered meadow sweet, great willowherb, purple loosestrife and emergent grass species such as reed-canary grass.  The water crowfoot will be lush and wide spreading in the clean and fast flowing rivers.  Where the river is slower, and hence more silty, yellow water lily may be present, and will have been in flower now for some time.
Sea and the sea shore (including estuaries): Sea birds have now raised their young which are taking to the air.  Waders are returning to the estuaries for the winter.
Mammals: Bats can be spotted from bridges at night flying over water whilst hunting for insects. These are likely to be the fairly common Daubenton's bats.  Many bats can be lured to fly close and investigate you if you flutter a paper hanky in the air above your head.  Go on give it a go - they won't hit you!
Birds: House martins are finally emerging from their mud cup nests encouraged by adults who swoop and chatter around them. If the weather turns bad again they may return to roost in the nests.  Large flocks of martins and swallows can be over fields.  Sometimes swallows, particularly, can be seen lined up together on telegraph wires preening themselves.  Many birds are in the middle of their moult in August and can look extremely down at heal.  Feathers are replaced gradually so as not to ground the bird.

August sees the departure of the majority of swifts.  Their short stay in Britain reminds us just how fleeting summer can be.  Most migrant birds are, however, with us for a while yet.

Woodpigeons, buck the trend at this time of year and may still be sitting on a repeat brood of eggs.  They call with their five note 'song' and swoop down through the air with several wing claps, displaying and defending their territory.  Starlings, jackdaws and house sparrows may also be spotted tending to their young in the nest.  The starlings chatter and whistle at each other from the eves, and other prominent places.  They are great mimics and can be mistaken for other birds, and will even emulate man made sounds.

Amphibians & Reptiles:
Insects: On certain days around this time of the year black ants simultaneously emerge and swarms fill the air.  The females are the ones with the temporary wings which, after their short flight, they bite off and then proceed to find a new location to colonise.

Damselflies and dragon flies continue to be common in August, where there is permanent water.


common darter dragonfly

Fungi:  It is too early for most of the Autumn fungi, but some species such as bracket fungi, that grow on silver birch or beech for instance, can be found.


All images and text are copyright PMcS 2006