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Autumn Diary 2010

(Click on the images for a larger picture)

Wild Rosehips

Looking back at the summer it is hard to believe we suffered a severe drought in many parts of the UK throughout June and the first half of July. This was, of course followed by a wet August and indifferent September. Bring last winter's exceptionally cold weather in to the mix and you have the climate combination that has resulted in one of the biggest fruit and berry harvests I can remember.

A Good Summer for Berries

I first became aware of it in late August when for the first time in the twenty-four years we have lived here, there were more than sufficient cherries in our tree for the birds, the insects and us humans! Normally Blackbirds and Starlings strip the tree before the cherries are quite ripe but this year we all shared in the bounty.

As the autumn progressed it became evident that all the hedges were laden with fruit; sloes, blackberries elderberries, crab apples hips and haws a plenty. Not only will their be more sloe gin and elderberry wine flowing this Christmas but resident birds and animals are feasting well and out-going summer migrants have put on the extra weight necessary for their transcontinental migration. As I write in mid October the first incoming winter visitors are arriving and they will also be able to refuel on fruit and berries.

Chiffchaff at Dunsby Sewage Works

One of the places where the berry harvest abounds is a little sewage works in the next village to where I live. Merely a modern works with a couple of settling tanks it is surrounded by very old high hedges adorned with all the aforementioned fruits and several more. It also benefits from (if benefit is the right word) an abundance of midges, flies and other insect life which coupled with the berries makes for an exceptionally full larder for many species of passerine bird.

Spotted Flycatcher
at Dunsby Sewage Works
A friend and I have been paying many visits to this smelly hotspot and we have noted a constant succession of migrant birds since the middle of August when the first wave of warblers arrived. Occupying less than two acres it is surprising how many birds it can accommodate at once. Up to thirty Willow warblers and Chiffchaffs at one time; the former more abundant in late August and early September and the latter more common later on. An assortment of other species including both Lesser and Common Whitethroats, Blackcaps, one Sedge Warbler, up to four Spotted Flycatchers at one time, Whinchats, a Redstart, Grey and Yellow Wagtails as well as all the hirundines and Swifts. Good numbers of small birds are bound to attract raptors and on most visits at least one bird of prey was seen, my favourite being the narrow winged and superbly sleek Hobby in hot pursuit of the swallows and martins.

In addition to hedgerow fruits autumn is also the best time to look for the fruiting bodies of fungi. I have seen some superb specimens of Shaggy Inkcap which when properly prepared are not only edible but quite delicious. I have also seen toadstools large enough to accommodate a bus load of toads, their spotted red caps (the fungus not the toads) advertising their poisonous qualities.

Speckled Wood

Autumn is not too late to look for butterflies and even some dragonflies. Speckled Wood, Comma, Red Admiral, Small White and even Brimstone are all possible late in to October given clement weather and Migrant Hawker and Common Darter dragonflies should be looked for on the sunny side of hedges as they hawk for prey.

In previous additions of Country Eye I have written that my highlight of the autumn is so often the all day boat trip from Boston, Lincolnshire out to where The Wash meets the North Sea.

Sea birds are always expected and over the years we have turned up quite a list of rarities including Grey Phalarope, Long-tailed Skua and Lincolnshire's first King Eider. So it was not without some excitement and trepidation that twenty-one birders and six other passengers set off down the River Witham on October 10, on a fast falling tide that was one of the autumn's highest. According to the weather forecast it should have been light southerly winds and "Indian Summer" temperatures. However, those of us on the bow of the boat were soon donning waterproof and wind proof clothing as a brisk easterly met us and even in the river the waves were breaking across the bow.

Guillemots in the Wash

As we entered The Wash it became very choppy indeed and most of us were very quickly drenched. Under the skilful hands of Captain Rodney and his one man crew the Mystere motored out beyond Skegness through some very bumpy seas. Birds were in evidence but holding on to the boat's rail for dear life with one hand and trying to follow birds as they became obscured by rising waves through binoculars with the other hand posed quite a challenge! Never- the-less we began to accumulate a respectable list including both Great and Arctic Skuas, Gannets, Guillemots, Scoter, Eider and all the expected gulls.

Eventually the seas became a little calmer and we anchored near some sand banks where Common Seals congregated and we were able to eat our sandwiches and drink our coffee without spilling it.

Meadow Pipit on the Boat

It was not for the sea birds that our trip was memorable, even though we saw some splendid birds including a Black Tern on the return journey, but it was the wealth of migrant passerines that was really exceptional. A Meadow Pipit in beautiful plumage was evidently a bird born this year, probably in some remote part of Scandinavia, boarded the boat during the worst of the weather and stayed with us for three hours before flying off towards England.

Meadow Pipit in Hand
It was obviously unused to humans and ferreted about the recesses hunting for insects and spiders. It was so tame it even allowed one lady to pick it up and warm it in her hands before releasing it to carry on hunting. Other stowaways included a male and a female Goldcrest; Britain's smallest bird. How such a tiny thing can cross the North Sea is a miracle.

Goldcrest in the Cabin
But these too found no shortage of food on the boat, particularly the coiled ropes which proved to be a rich source of spiders.

How can I photograph you like that?!

Again these birds were very tame; frustrating the photographers by perching on their cameras!

A Robin also briefly visited the boat whilst passerines overhead included Song Thrushes, a Rock Pipit, Bramblings, Chaffinches and a late Swallow. Birders on the Lincolnshire coast were also recording falls of migrants from Northern Europe including some rarities.

So far from feeling depressed by the arrival of autumn, I love the transient nature of the season and relish the fact that we live in a country that has four distinct seasons each with its own beauty and drama.


Ian Misselbrook
October 2010.


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