Autumn in Hertfordshire: what to spot in nature
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As summer gives way to autumn, drama unfolds in nature. Charlotte Hussey of the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust gives a guide to what to go looking for
It’s always an exciting time I think, when days begin to cool, nights get shorter and leaves start to turn golden brown. There’s something magical in the air – an anticipation of changes ahead and a whole host of fun activities – best enjoyed wrapped up – fireworks night, Halloween and, if we’re lucky, snowball fights!
It’s often the transitional periods that put on the best shows in nature too – as it wakes for spring with colour and new life, so it winds down for winter with similar bursts of vitality. If you know where to look, autumn can be a very rewarding season for wildlife spotting.
Autumn is a fantastic time to witness mass migrations as up to 50 per cent of UK birds head towards sunnier shores, or conversely, arrive to our comparatively warmer climate. Some, such as swallows, breed in the warm European summer before heading to the heat of Africa. Others escape the freezing areas of Scandinavia and Northern Europe to overwinter in the UK’s temperate climate.
The main reasons birds migrate are for food and to breed. Food becomes scarcer when temperatures grow cooler and other regions offer the numerous insect populations that birds depend on for survival. Different species require different environments for breeding – warmer climates are needed by those that usually live in the Arctic, and cooler areas are advantageous for those that live in the tropics.
Now’s the time to keep your eyes peeled for redwings in the fields and hedgerows; wetland birds including golden eye, pochard and goosander at the county’s wetland reserves, like the Herts and Middlesex Trust’s Tring Reservoirs and Rye Meads; and roving flocks of our native birds grouped together for safety as the leafy canopy reduces and food becomes scarcer. Flocks can vary from 10 to more than 100 in exceptional circumstances, such as when starlings gather in murmurations.
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Mammals & insects
Our local wildlife, such as hedgehogs and dormice, is all busy filling up on food in preparation for the cold weather ahead. Find where natural food sources like fruit, nuts and insects are plentiful to be in with the best chance of seeing these animals before they hibernate. Insects that are so prolific over the summer, such as butterflies and ladybirds, will now start to venture inside, finding a suitable spot to sleep over winter.
For some mammals autumn is the mating season. Look out for stags and bucks who have just developed their antlers and begin the dramatic rut with rival males to attract females. Deer can be quite vociferous, so if you live near a woodland you may hear them bark and roar. Bats go about attracting mates in a different way – much like many birds, they use calls to attract potential suitors. Purrs, clicks and buzzing can all be heard during this time, most reliably through a bat detector. Bats will also be increasing their food intake ahead of winter, and seeking a suitable site for hibernation.
Trees, plants & fungi
Head to one of the Wildlife Trusts local woodland nature reserves like Balls Wood or Gobions Wood to see a great display of colour as waxy green leaves turn crisp and fiery. The pallet of orange and red fluttering in the breeze, and the crunch of leaves underfoot, is one of the season’s greatest pleasures. October is also the perfect time to find fallen conkers from horse chestnut trees – rekindle (and inspire among youngsters) the joy of finding a perfect shiny, rich brown conker at your feet.
Plants use specially developed techniques to disperse seeds at this time, ensuring they continue to spread and grow the following spring. Animals do much to help this process, with mammals like squirrels burying acorns to be sure of sustenance throughout winter. Some of these will inevitably be forgotten and go on to become young oak trees. Sycamore trees have helicopter type ‘wings’ to help with dispersal, while many plants produce attractive fruit which is eaten and dispersed through digestion.
Fungi loves deadwood, damp and leaf litter so autumn is the perfect time to spot it. There are thousands of different types but some of the most easily recognisable in Hertfordshire include fly agaric – its bright red cap spotted with white evokes memories of childhood fairy tales. Chicken of the woods is another that’s easily spotted, with bright yellowy orange brackets growing on tree trunks or stumps, most commonly oak.
Visit Tewin Orchard on October 8 for a taste of autumn at Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s Apple Day. The free event runs from midday-4.30pm and includes guided walks, children’s activities and, of course, lots of apples.