Nature Notes – October 2015

Once again it is time for our migrant thrushes, the Redwings and Fieldfares, to start arriving for the winter. Usually, they make a night crossing from Scandinavia, setting off at dusk and crossing the North Sea by night, to make landfall along the east coast. The success of this journey depends on favourable winds, those from the north-east being best of all. Watching the television weather forecasts will give you a good idea of what migrating birds face (although they themselves don’t have the benefit of this). With an area of high pressure, the winds travel clockwise around it; with low pressure they go anti-clockwise. So a depression sitting just east of the British Isles should produce the desired direction, with winds from Scandinavia to Britain. When this happens, you can imagine the Redwings gathering along the coast of Norway, waiting for the right night before flying off into the sunset!

Our smallest bird of all is the Goldcrest. These tiny creatures favour coniferous trees, and are sometimes to be seen in gardens. They often seem to join up with parties of other small birds such as Blue Tits, or may be seen on their own foraging among the roses or other garden plants. Their tiny size, small thin beak and beady eye help to distinguish them. Of course their crest, a thin central line of yellow or orange with black borders is their most distinctive feature, but they can keep it surprisingly well hidden. Luckily they also have another mark, a short pale wing bar, which breaks up the otherwise uniform dull olive colour. Although they are residents with us, almost unbelievably many more Goldcrests also make the long sea crossing from the north and east to spend the winter here.

After mentioning Grass Snakes several times, we have this autumn seen one for the first time in the garden. It was quite dark, with the bright yellow collar patches very distinct. From its size (I estimated about seven inches) it would be one of this year’s young. Grass Snakes lay their eggs, in places such as compost heaps or piles of old leaves, in June or July. The eggs hatch in August or early September, so that our little specimen would be very new. Breeding must have been nearby, which is good news, so I feel vindicated with the combination of pond, compost heaps and ‘rough’ areas we have achieved for them. They hibernate using the same sort of places as they do for laying, from the end of October until March.

Old Ivy is another of my regular hobby-horses, preferably on walls rather than trees. This autumn looks set to be a good one for the Ivy flowers, which are so useful in providing abundant nectar late in the year. Bees will benefit, and especially insects which hibernate such as bumblebees and Comma butterflies. Look for the queen Hornets, with their bright gold and brown bodies, building up stores in their bodies to see them through the winter.
Several people have mentioned a concern for hedgehogs recently, and there does seem to be evidence of a considerable decline. Certainly the number of sad flat corpses on the roads has dwindled, and locally a number of people tell me of fewer sightings in their gardens. In case hedgehogs are still around but have gone unnoticed, keep a look out for the distinctive elongated droppings (full of shiny bits of insects) on the lawn. Hibernation should start in late autumn so leave enough piles of garden rubbish for them, remembering to move any piles which are to become bonfires just before burning them!

By Geoffrey Abbott