Leaves continue to change colour and fall from the trees in preparation for winter. As the nights draw in and temperatures drop off many animals begin hibernating.
Trees/shrubs… Sloes can be seen ripening on blackthorn, these are popular among foragers keen to make their own sloe gin. The general advice is to pick them after the first frost, but they can also be foraged and placed in the freezer at home to create the same affect. This is a bumper year for many tree seeds. Ripe hazelnuts and acorns offer energy packed food for dormice. Jays and squirrels are also keen to hunt down these nuts, some of which will be buried to feed them through the winter. However, they rarely remember where they bury all their stash, allowing some seeds to germinate and become the next generation of trees. The ripe red berries of yew are popular with thrushes, and the bright pink and orange fruits of spindle trees liven up woodland walks. Winged seeds of hornbeam and field maple mature and fall spinning to the floor. Ash keys also ripen to brown but remain on the tree long after the leaves have fallen. Ash is one of the last trees to leaf in spring and one of the first to lose its leaves in autumn.
Plants… Ivy offers many insects, such as bees and wasps, an important late source of nectar. Only mature ivy develops flowers and eventually berries and plays an important part in the UK’s wildlife. Birds will be attracted to teasel heads for the nutritious seeds they now offer.
Fungi/lichens… Autumn is a great time to see the fruting bodies of fungi bursting from the ground and adorning dead and dying wood. Their vital role in breaking down lignin and cellulose in plants (very few other organisms can digest these hard substances) cannot be underestimated. This month keep your eye out for wood mushrooms, purple wood blewits, the orange caps of velvet shanks, blushing wood mushrooms, scarlet waxcaps in open woodland and ancient grasslands, and the black trumpet shape of horn of plenty.
Birds… Berries on hawthorn trees will attract numbers of fieldfares arriving from Iceland and Scandinavia. They will winter in the relatively warmer UK climate before migrating back next year to breed. You may also spot them with overwintering redwings.
Mammals… Dormice will have prepared their underground nests and will hopefully have fattened themselves to begin hibernating over the colder, leaner months. When they wake again in April/May they will have lost half their body weight, but this survival technique is still more beneficial than trying to find what little food remains over winter. During hibernation their temperature drops to just above freezing and their heart rate and breathing slow considerably – this conserves energy and essential fat reserves.
Reptiles… Grass snakes seek out special ‘hibernaculum’, places under tree roots or rocks, or under leaf piles and in compost heaps that remain frost free over winter. Reptiles and amphibians enter a state of dormancy called ‘brumation’ that is a type of hibernation. Smooth snakes choose underground locations for winter, as do sand lizards. Adders often congregate communally in rabbit or rodent burrows, or under logs. Young adders often stay in the place of their birth.
Amphibians… Frogs and toads enter brumation as the temperature drops. They seek out spots at the bottom of ponds, under stones or logs or bury themselves in leaf litter.
Insects… Butterfly numbers decline rapidly this month as temperatures cool and foodplants dwindle. Red admirals are most common and can often be found feeding on the late nectar source offered by flowering ivy. Others that may be flitting about include comma, speckled wood, small white, peacock, small tortoiseshell, wall and brimstone.
Our VisitWoods website can help you locate many stunning woods in your area and across the UK. You can also record all your amazing finds on our Nature’s Calendar website and be part of a great citizen science movement.
Kay Haw, Assistant Conservation Adviser