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PMcS 2006





devil's-bit scabious


This month head for:

Autumn colours in the hedgerows and woodlands
Bird migration sites
Estuaries for the return of over wintering birds
Hedgerows for berries, late butterflies and small birds
Fungi in woodlands and grasslands


This is the month of the equinox, a marker that highlights the changing seasons.  Autumn is in full swing by the time October gets underway and although there can still be warm days, you may also see your breath on a cold morning for the first time since last winter.

The blackberries are over for another year, but hazel nuts and acorns are now ripening.  To get to the nuts you will have to race the squirrels and jays, who hoard them for the winter by burying them in the ground.  It is said that many oaks, particularly, are derived from such forgotten stashes.


fly agaric


penny bun boletus


A damp Autumn brings on many wonderful fungal fruiting bodies, e.g. mushrooms and toadstools.  Woodlands, both deciduous and coniferous, and old pastures are the best places to find fungi.  However they are everywhere and can be found on rotting wood and healthy trees, and in parks, gardens and on lawns for instance.  One noticeable formation of toadstools is the fairy ring, formed by Marasmius oreades, although it can fruit from Spring through to Autumn.  As the years pass the fungus spreads out further and further from the centre of the circle, and hence some examples can be proved to be decades old.


beefsteak fungus (an edible species that grows on oaks and chestnut trees)

In October autumn colour spreads through the hedgerows and woodlands, with the hazel being one of the earliest native species to turn brown.  Where the soil is alkaline old man's beard becomes particularly evident, swamping large areas of hedgerow with its abundant fluffy seed heads.  Sloes start to stand prominent on the spikey branches of the blackthorn, as its tatty autumn leaves fall away.


Horse chestnut leaves have long since taken on their seasonal hues and quickly look shabby, but also are the first to create a wonderful bronze spectacle in the bright autumn sunshine.  During October the remaining conkers drop to the ground to be gathered up for competitive reasons, or just merely picked up to enable their ephemeral to be admired that bit closer.  Other trees such as ash are much more subtle in their colour change, turning light green then yellow.  Often their leaves drop very suddenly and the bare branches give a stark preview of a winter landscape.  The opposite extreme is beech which form spectacular shows in woods where they dominate such as across the Chilterns.  Their leaves turn a bright, firey orange and bronze.  The branches hang on quite tenaciously to their dying leaves.  The field maple, which is native and common in hedgerows, has small lobed leaves which turn a wonderfully vibrant yellow.  The weather can have a dramatic effect on the whole landscape at this time of year.  One stormy night can strip hedgerows and woodlands of leaves, and some branches, in a flash.  A sharp frost will bring out the colours. Across the Scottish glens hairy birches provide a golden leaved spectacle, whereas on more southerly heaths silver birch takes its place.


red deer stag in his prime


October is a special time for our largest native land animal - the red deer, as this is the start of the rut.  The normally quiet male deer (the stag) seeks out a group of between 10 to 20 females (a harem), which can he call his own and with which he can mate with.  During summer he has been preparing for this period by growing a totally new set of impressive antlers, having shed the old ones in spring.  The antlers go through a set of maturing phases, including when they lose the velvet covering, until the point when they are fully hardened and ready for battle.  This battle is the tussle for dominance between adult males competing for the ladies (the hinds).  However in reality red deer try to avoid direct contact and instead emphasise their superiority to each other by bellowing and strutting along with their new shaggy mane of fur around their necks.  Very serious clashes are therefore relatively uncommon.

The males which are at around eight years old are the most successful, as they have the size due their their age and still retain the strength over their seniors, who may be in decline.  Mating with the hinds occurs when the hinds have reached two or three years old.  The calves are born in late May or June in the following year.  Red deer can be found in Scotland and some of the national parks of southern England such as Dartmoor, Exmoor and the New Forest.

In autumn very few birds can be heard singing, although they do call to one another as they move around in flocks.  The exception can often be robins with their melancholy autumn song.  A spell of warm weather sometimes persuades song and mistle thrushes to sing from some lofty perch, and this is always welcome.

Habitats and species
Parks and gardens: The flower boarders are probably fading by now.  Resist the temptation to cut down all this seed heads as they provide a home for insects, including ladybirds, and will also generate an abundance of seed.  These in turn are food for the birds over the coming winter.  Also fallen leaves and windfall fruit will attract birds and other animals.  Piles of logs in longer grass can form the home for toads and newts from a local pond.

So, don't just hang up peanuts and seed in an immaculate garden, or else you are not making the most of the potential nature reserve that you have out the back of the house.

Flocking greenfinches are amongst the birds now returning to the garden.  They can appear to have an insatiable hunger for the seed feeders and hanging peanuts enjoyed by the blue tits.

Woodlands (including wood pasture):  Woodlands are the place to go to see this month's speciality - fungal fruiting bodies.

penny bun bolete found in woodlands


Arable and hedgerows:
Road verges: Individual flowering plants such as creeping thistle, pricklysowthistle, hogweed, meadow sweet and greater bindweed may still be found along the road sides where they have escaped the mower.  However they usually look lonely and bedraggled.

a late hogweed flower


Chalk and limestone grasslands:  The last great flowering show of the year is the devil's-bit scabious (see image at the top of the page).  Although in flower during August and September you may find it in October as well.  It is a beautiful plant with elegant, but rather hairy, leaves and seemingly delicate purple domed flower heads.  As there are so few other plants on show now a large stand of it can stop you in your tracks.
Meadows (neutral) and flood plain grasslands:  These will be short and grazed until Autumn is out.  However where there is less grazing common cat's-ear may still be in flower.

common cat's-ear

Acidic grasslands:
Mountain and Moorlands (uplands): the breeding waders and summer migrants have now left, leaving the uplands to the grouse, ptarmigan, deer and mountain hares, where the ground is highest and countryside at its wildest. 

Some plants may still be found such as the exotic looking sundew, along side the butterwort, where the ground is at its poorest and wettest.






Rivers and ponds (including bogs and mires):  The riverside vegetation is still lush and full.  Many of the common reed, common reedmace and branched bur-reed type species that fringe the river will be bearing their seed heads and some meadowsweet flowers can still be seen.
Sea and the sea shore (including estuaries):  Estuaries are filling up with more waders and wild fowl.
Mammals: Mammals such as bats and rodents will soon be preparing for hibernation.  Some species such as the badger which do not hibernate will be fattening themselves up for the lean months ahead.
Birds: One of the delights of this time of the year (October and November) is the arrival of large flocks of winter thrushes moving slowly southwards - the redwing and the fieldfare. They come from Iceland and Scandinavia where they will have breed. The redwing is a smallish bird with a prominent white eye stripe and bright red flashes under its wings.  The fieldfare is quite a bit larger, has a slate grey rump and red, yellowy speckled front and brown wings.  They noisily respond to disturbance with a loud chattering noise.  The large flocks seek out berries such as on the hawthorns and fruit, particularly if the ground is frozen.  They will readily move around Britain and across the north sea depending on the harshness of the weather in search of food supplies.  These species migrate at night and when together frequently call with a high pitched, clear whistle.  Most nights they can be heard passing over head.

Migration comes to an end for most birds in October. Some warblers and house martins may still be seen into October but will not see out the month.

Amphibians & Reptiles: Around mid-October toads go into hibernation, finding logs or stones to hide beneath until Spring arrives once more.  Frogs also hibernate at this time, at the bottom of ponds or some other sheltered place, ready to emerge again in the following January.
Plants: The trees that bear their seeds with wings are now dropping them as they have matured and are dry, papery and ready to spin away from the parent tree.  Hornbeam , sycamore, field maple and ash all use this method of seed dispersal.  The ash keys will however hang onto their seeds well beyond when their leaves have made the journey to the ground.  The yew berries are ripening and attracting birds to the seeds, which hang amidst its dark evergreen needles like miniature stuffed olives.

yew berries

Fungi:  There are many forms (approximately 6000 in Britain) and the world of fungi is exciting and extremely varied.  What appears at this time of year above ground is the spore bearing part of the fungus and only a small part of this organism.  Under the ground, where many grow, are meters and meters of tiny filaments (known as hyphae) which reach out into the organic matter around which the fungus 'digests' as its food source.  They require the wet conditions of Autumn to be able to thrive.    Fungi play an incredibly important role in breaking down organic material (i.e. dead leaf litter, dead animals etc.) and recycling, and without them there would be mountains of the stuff!  Also they form very intimate links with the roots of all plants.  The fungi help the plants access nutrients and for which the fungus gets a place to grow and thrive.

All images and text are copyright PMcS 2006