Autumn is with us again, the time of mists and mellow fruitfulness. The hornbeams, oaks, birches and especially the maples are transforming from verdant green to rich shades of yellow, red and brown. The chlorophyll is breaking down, revealing anthocyanins, carotenoids and many other pigments that were hidden by the green until now. As leaves fall, it becomes a good time to go bird-watching.
Spiders abound as they feed on senescing insects. Swallows and house martins have flocked together and raced over the seven sisters charging like squadrons of spitfires to get to France then on to Africa. Robins wonder what all the fuss is about and sit and sing from the hedgerows staking out their winter feeding territory. Robins are unusual among birds in as much as the females do this as well as males. The two sexes may even fight over ownership of the compost heap that is rich in winter food or the shed which may give them shelter from snow.
December will be the first true month of winter by which time our many winter visitors should all have arrived. Our Atlantic islands, warmed by water from the Gulf of Mexico, provide a winter larder for many species of birds escaping from the frozen north and east. We are currently experiencing a prolonged period of easterly airstreams across the country which will aid this migration. We have heard about the whooper and Bewick’s swans arriving from Scandinavia and Russia, but along the coasts there are little gulls and also great-northern, red-throated and black throated loons (divers) from the same areas. Also in coastal wetlands horned (shore) larks, water pipits and snow buntings can sometimes be found. In wetlands with open water and offshore there are horned (Slavonian), great-crested, black-necked, red-necked and little grebes. In the reed-beds – bitterns. On lakes and estuaries you can find at least five species of visiting geese and about 16 species of ducks. In places like heathlands a few merlins and great-grey shrikes arrive, and on the mud-flats about 10 species of waders such as dunlins. In the scrubby bushlands there are visiting long-eared and on flood-plains short-eared owls; in berry bushes waxwings and on fields redwings and fieldfares; in gardens and woodlands blackcap, firecrest, brambling and siskin. This list does not include species that augment our familiar natives such as many blackbirds and woodpigeons.
Dr. Martyn Stenning