Early this morning I was privileged to see 2 black storks flying over fields near our house in France on their way to Africa. These are rare, shy birds that nest atop tall trees in remote northern Eurasian forests. Recently, I have also seen white storks going the same way. White storks are not shy, however, and tend to nest on church towers and other high buildings, trees and pylons across Europe, but only rarely in Britain. Also, I’ve seen wheatears passing to a similar destination from northern latitudes. Pied and spotted flycatchers have been sallying forth from our elm trees to catch flying insects on the wing as they sojourn before flying to West Africa. Swallows and other hirundines have also been gathering on overhead cables ready to fly as far as South Africa. These are in turn hunted by a small falcon called the hobby.
Chiffchaffs, a type of small leaf warbler, still sing their name as they migrate south, past where we are. You may also hear them in Sussex as they head for the coast and beyond. Chattering starlings are also gathering. They do not usually migrate far, but they can form vast flocks that fly at sunset wheeling and diving like a single organism, often chattering as they do so, in an aerial dance called a murmoration.
It is not often realised that some butterflies also migrate south in the autumn. One of these is the painted lady. Painted ladies donate their Latin names to humans as they are in the genus Vanessa and the sub-genus Cynthia. Apparently, they often fly south to Africa in the autumn and back to Europe in the spring. Considering that they cross the English Channel, the continent, then the Mediterranean followed by the Sahara Desert, it is an incredible journey for a tiny butterfly. Some may be taken in flight by insectivorous birds making the same journey, but others clearly succeed as the annual routine continues.
There is a plant that is also a harbinger of autumn that also has a feminine name and that is autumn ladies tresses. This is a delicate white orchid that can turn up almost anywhere, but usually in low numbers. Like most orchids, the seeds are profuse but tiny, like grains of dust and settle everywhere, but only a few survive to flower. I have even seen them flowering in Manor Park, Uckfield. They are fairly frequent on the chalk Sussex Downs where the grass is short. Their charming Latin name is Spiranthes spiralis.
Dr. Martyn Stenning