September 2018

Crane fly
Sheila Sims

September is the start of the ‘Daddy-long-legs’ season when the adult Crane flies, of which there are many species, emerge from the damp ground where they have been spending the greater part of their lives as Leather jackets, so called because they have tough, leathery skins. These larvae feed on the roots of grasses and cause a significant amount of damage to lawns and crops. Most of the adult Crane flies do not feed at all and those that do will only take a little nectar in their short lives which are no longer than a few days. This time is spent mating and laying eggs which will hatch into the leather jackets. These spend the winter chomping away before pupating and eventually emerging as the adult Crane flies. Both the larvae and the adults are food for other animals; insects, spiders, bats, small mammals and particularly birds, all feed on them but the adults can sometimes escape before being eaten because they have the ability to shed a leg or two. There is a myth that says that these insects are venomous but this is thought to be a confusion with that other ‘Daddy-long-legs’, the spindly spider known as the cellar spider, which lives in our houses.

These, like all spiders, do possess venom but their fangs are not strong enough to penetrate human skin and as it is designed to kill the insects on which they feed, the venom wouldn’t be potent enough to do us any harm even if we could be bitten. Crane flies are attracted to light and will often come into houses on warm evenings where they float around upsetting those of a delicate disposition.

Great crested grebe
with young
Nicki Dixon

Migratory birds are starting to travel this month with some, such as Swallows, House martins and Swifts, leaving us for warmer countries in the south and others, geese, waders and some species of ducks arriving from northern countries and eastern Europe to spend their winters in Britain. Among the latter group will be Great crested grebes from Europe; the new arrivals will boost our resident population. These beautiful birds, which live in large lakes and coastal habitats, are well known for their mating dance which involves head shaking, diving and surfacing with beaks full of weed. They then swim rapidly towards each other with necks outstretched horizontally, meet and rear up, paddling their feet to keep upright. Quite a sight! Great crested grebes will take water-dwelling invertebrates but feed mainly on fish, which they dive for and as with many diving birds, Cormorants and Kingfishers are two examples, their legs are short and placed much further back on their bodies than on birds which find their food on land. Grebes’ legs are designed to propel them through water and not for walking; they do very little. The breeding season for these grebes is unusually long and can be from February until October, so you can still see chicks this month. Within a couple of hours of hatching the young birds will be swimming with their parents leaving behind egg shells which may vary in colour. If, while sitting on the nest, the adult bird spots a possible predator it will slip into the water and, if it has time, cover the eggs with weed which will often stain some of the shells. The chicks are sometimes carried on the parents’ backs, their stripy heads poking out from between the wings of the adult. The Great crested grebe is a stunning bird, especially when in breeding plumage.

Grey squirrel
storing for the winter
Sheila Sims

This year’s hot summer has meant that wild fruit has ripened earlier than usual and because of the lack of water the berries tend to be smaller than in previous years. Some have already dropped to the ground meaning that there will be shortage of food for the winter thrushes when they arrive in this country, usually during next month. Grey squirrels are busy burying nuts and acorns for their winter stores and rose hips are already being stripped by Blackbirds, which will eat them whole; the seeds are not digested but pass through the birds, some of which will eventually germinate and grow into new roses. Voles also like to feed on the flesh of these berries but mice and finches prefer the seeds which they can digest.

Rose hips
Sheila Sims

Unless we get more rain the other thing which may be affected by the drought conditions is the autumn colour. Trees need moisture to build up the sugars which give the leaves their bright reds, yellows and oranges. Without this they will wither and turn dry and brown before the usual time.

Wasps’ nest
Sheila Sims

One insect we have seen a lot of this summer is the wasp. The hot summer meant that the queens have produced more males and workers than usual and now that the queens are going into hibernation these offspring have nothing to do. No queen or larvae to look after and no sugar, which is produced by the larvae, to eat, so they are relying on fallen fruit for food. Much of this is fermenting and will be high in alcohol making the wasps a bit tipsy and consequently more aggressive; hand flapping makes them worse. Pest controllers have reported more call-outs to remove wasp nests than is usual at this time of year. It could be dangerous to try to do this job yourself, so always get a professional. People often ask ‘What use are wasps?’ Well, they do play a part in the big picture. They help with pollination, eat pests, such as aphids, and collect caterpillars, which are busy eating crops; these are fed to their larvae.

Speckled wood
Sheila Sims

Flies and butterflies, such as Speckled woods and Red admirals, have also been feeding on fallen fruit and taking advantage of the nectar produced by late-flowering plants; Ivy and Red clover are two that are visited.

Red admiral
feeding on Ivy
Sheila Sims

Red clover
Sheila Sims

Red clover is not only a useful plant for pollinating insects, it is particularly liked by bumble bees, but has many other things in its favour. It is a legume, a member of the pea and bean family, and like its relatives is able to convert the nitrogen in the air to a form that it can use in a process known as nitrogen fixing. When it dies, or is lightly ploughed in, the nitrogen is released and used by other plants and because this plant also has long tap roots it helps to stablise the soil. So it is a useful crop in agriculture, also, because it is high in protein, it is used as fodder for farm animals which seem to relish it; it can cause bloat but it has been found that if the animals are fed sufficient fibre this will eliminate the problem.

But there can be another downside to feeding clover. Because it contains a compound called isoflavones, which once eaten is converted by the body to plant oestrogens, it can affect the fertility of male animals that have consumed a lot.

Red clover also has many herbal medicinal uses. It can be taken as tea or in tablet form and is said to alleviate some ‘ladies problems’ but care is required here because of the oestrogen factor; best to take medical advice before using it.

Things to do in September:

  • Miraculous mini-beasts – Foxley Woods.

  • Nature walk – Holme Dunes.

  • BBQ and bat evening – Weeting Heath.

  • Birds at Cley Marshes.

    Details at www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.

© Sheila Sims 2018. Email: sheila@norfolknaturediary.uk

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