How to spot wildlife in Derbyshire during October

Woodcock, adult at nest, Peak District, Scolopax rusticola

Woodcock, adult at nest, Peak District, Scolopax rusticola - Credit: Archant

Paul Hobson reveals some of the fascinating wildlife there is to be found in this month of transition

Group of Honey fungus, Armillaria mellea, on the base of a tree

Group of Honey fungus, Armillaria mellea, on the base of a tree - Credit: Archant

From a meteorological perspective we are now in the second month of autumn. However, with our ever-changing climate October can often be amazingly warm and the first hints of autumn colours could be a month away. Depending on the preceding summer’s rainfall (and this summer certainly had an incredibly dry start), the fungi season should now be in full swing.

The term ‘fungi’ really embraces the whole body of the organism (it is neither plant nor animal), and includes the often incredibly large part that is underground or within the body of a tree. This branching body is called the mycelium and to most of us is normally invisible. However, if the woodland floor is damp and leaf-littered then you may be able to find small, white, finger-like growths on the underside of rotting leaves. These are the feeding parts of the fungi and they are digesting the leaves and returning their nutrients to the soil.

The part we usually associate with fungi – the mushroom or toadstool – is actually the fruiting body which will produce millions of spores.

October – and if the frosts keep away November, too – is the best month of the year to head out into the many woods in Derbyshire in search of fungi. Deciduous woodlands are usually more productive, although grassland and coniferous woodlands can also be rich hunting grounds. The age of a habitat can be a significant factor and ancient parklands such as those at Calke Abbey and Longshaw are incredibly fungi rich.

Black darter at dusk, Sympetrum danae

Black darter at dusk, Sympetrum danae - Credit: Archant

Many toadstools are easy to identify, such as the two stinkhorns: Dog – the thinner of the two – and Common. These two certainly live up to their names, particularly the common stinkhorn. I can often find them by tracing the powerful, slightly unpleasant whiff before I spot them protruding out of the leaf litter. The putrid smell has a purpose: it is used to attract flies which will feed on the grey goo that contains the spores. Older specimens have often lost the slimy goo at the top and are almost skeletal in appearance.

A lot of mushrooms have the more familiar umbrella shape, so if you are considering a little wild foraging caution is essential as many are deadly if eaten. If you want to learn more about toadstools local to you, search out fungi forays which many local natural history groups often run in October.

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October is the first month when we should start to see mass migration and a changing of the guard as the last of the summer migrants, such as swallows, head south and a new wave of winter migrants fly in.

If the late summer has been damp enough then these will hope to take advantage of hedges laden with hawthorn berries, and woodland floors sprinkled liberally with beech mast and acorns. However, whilst the dry early summer saw many trees really struggle, with many actually losing their leaves, the berry crop this year looks to be a bumper one.

Fungi art, Sheffield

Fungi art, Sheffield - Credit: Archant

One bird that arrives in autumn and normally winters with us in good numbers in Derbyshire is the woodcock, and it is a real enigma of a bird. A nocturnal wading bird, it prefers damp woods to mudflats and lake shores. For many people the only glimpse of one is when it ‘explodes’ at your feet if it’s disturbed and then rockets away with an incredibly twisting flight through the wood. However, if the bird makes a loud racket as it leaves it is far more likely to have been a pheasant.

If you are a keen walker on our moors, you will find many of them much quieter this month. Although there is always something to reward the attention of the naturalist. If we don’t get our first frosts for another month, then some of the larger moorland ponds will still have active dragonflies patrolling the water’s edge. Black darters are one of the last species to emerge and good numbers will still be present in October. A larger, more dramatic cousin that is often found on the same pond as the black darter, is the common hawker. This has a blue body and its flight is strong and purposeful.

On small lakes and large ponds away from the moors the other two hawkers – southern and migrant – can also be seen searching the banks and darting out over the open water.

October is in many ways a month of transition. The last of summer species such as dragonflies and wasps are still clinging on, almost waiting for the first icy blast to consign them to the grave. In contrast, for some butterflies, such as small tortoiseshells, October is their last chance to fuel up on nectar-rich ivy and late thistles before they head for a long snooze until next spring. In many respects it is this transition that makes October such an exciting wildlife month.

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