Out in the field the other day I realised that it was autumn.
I had missed a fair few of the signs. There had been a pretty hard frost that morning. The birch trees were looking decidedly brown, and the only birds singing were robins.
What made me actually realise that it was autumn was the honking of geese. Pink-footed geese were moving south, in small skeins of up to about 80 individuals, several hundred feet above my head. Not a massive number, maybe 700 over the course of the day. But it was enough to jolt me into noticing that summer was definitely over and that I should really consider getting my winter clothing out of storage and stocking up on cup-a-soups.
With lots of creatures on the move, autumn is a great time to head out wildlife watching. So, without further ado, here are four things to look out for this autumn, and some of the best places to find them.
Every year thousands of ducks, geese and swans come to Britain from across Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia to escape the cold Arctic winter.
Pink-footed geese are among the noisiest, most numerous and most obvious of these birds. Over 30,000 ‘pinkies’ have already been recorded at the roosts at Loch of Strathbeg in Aberdeenshire. You would be forgiven for thinking that they are a fairly boring bird. At first glance they are small, brown geese with pink feet. But there are few more beautiful sights in Britain than that of thousands of pinkies erupting into the air simultaneously on a crisp, clear Autumn morning, or seeing huge skeins returning together to roost in the evening. Loch of Strathbeg and Loch Leven in Scotland and WWT Welney in Norfolk are among the best places to catch up with the species.
Other wildfowl to look out for include wigeon and teal, smart looking brent geese (head to Langstone harbour in Hampshire and Strangford in Northern Ireland), graceful whooper swans, their smaller, rarer cousins Bewick’s swans (Slimbridge in Gloucestershire), and gorgeous barnacle geese (Caerlaverock and Islay).
The red deer rut
One of the most evocative sounds of autumn is the bellowing roar of a stag ringing out through a cold, empty glen. Several species of British deer rut, but red deer put on the best show.
Every autumn the stags get all het up with testosterone. The rut itself is a sort of ‘king of the hill’ contest, where stags come together to fight for exclusive mating rights over all of the hinds. The stags perform a variety of roars and grunts, and even go so far as to cover themselves in the own urine in attempt to impress females and cow other stags into submission.
Fights regularly break out, however, and stags lock horns in vicious battles that are hugely dangerous for the participants.
Places to watch the rut include the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish highlands, Leighton Moss in Lancashire, Exmoor National Park in Devon and Somerset and, for those who prefer their wildlife a little more metropolitan, Richmond Park in London.
For twitchers (birdwatchers who specialise in looking for very rare birds), autumn is the most exciting time of year. Regular, roaring westerly winds bring vagrants (migrating birds which have gotten lost) all the way from America, while strong easterlies bring other species in from Siberia. No one really knows what’s going to turn up, but many twitchers will spend thousands of pounds travelling from coast to coast in order to ‘tick off’ as many exciting rare species as they can. The most unusual birds can generate enormous crowds of twitchers anxious to get another tick on their lists.
October is considered the best month for twitching. Today, for example, you can take your pick of Eastern crowned warbler in Yorkshire, American golden plover and sora in Scilly, White’s thrush in Northumberland and Swainson’s thrush in Shetland.
For those of us who are slightly less ‘into twitching’, the fun of autumn birdwatching is that rare birds can turn up anywhere. Even the briefest of visits to a local nature reserve or park may well turn up scarce species like yellow-browed warbler, firecrest or wryneck. Having said that, the best spots to find rare migrating birds are generally the most remote and most exposed places in Britain. Famous rare bird hotspots include the far flung archipelagos Scilly and Shetland, bird observatories on Fair Isle and the Isle of Mary, and the slightly more accessible Spurn Point in Yorkshire and Portland Bill in Dorset.
Mycology is enjoying something of a renaissance. Foraging for food has become fashionable again, while high-end restaurants are looking for exciting, seasonal, locally-sourced flavours. All this means that every autumn more and more people are discovering the delights of mushrooms.
Mushrooms’ newfound popularity has also become a source of some tension. Professional mushroom picking are accused of ‘cleaning out’ regular spots in the New Forest and Epping Forest, potentially endangering mushroom populations.
Not that you have to pick and eat a mushroom to enjoy it. As well as being a bedrock of ecological processes such as decomposition and nutrient creation, mushrooms are often rather beautiful things, and many have fascinating names and cultural histories. Have you ever seen, for example, Devil’s fingers, jelly ears or stinkhorns?
Mushrooms can be found pretty much anywhere, but particularly good places to look for them include ancient woodland and wet woodland, ‘unimproved’ meadows and even along hedgerows. The Caledonian pinewoods in Scotland and the woods and commons of the New Forest host some of the highest diversities of fungi in Britain.
Remember, if you go out mushroom hunting, not to touch, and definitely not to eat, any mushrooms unless you are absolutely certain that you know what species they are.
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