This month is often still warm and summery and insects are busy stocking up on autumn nectar. On our Norfolk coast a species of mining bee will be feeding on Sea-asters which continue to flower as late as October; if you were born in September the Aster is your birth flower. Most types originate in America but the Sea-aster is native to Britain and grows on salt marshes. Although the male Sea-aster Mining bee will feed on a variety of plants, the female collects her nectar and pollen almost exclusively from this flower.
They are called mining bees because they excavate little holes in the soil in which to lay their eggs and, although they often nest close together, sometimes in many numbers, they are solitary bees and the female works alone. She creates a chamber for each egg and leaves a supply of pollen and nectar to feed the developing larva; the adults all die as winter approaches. A lot of bees are known as ‘Cuckoo Bees’ because they lay their own eggs in the nests of other bees and their larvae will feed on the legal occupants and their food supply; the Sea-aster Mining bee suffers from this intrusion. Those that are left alone will over-winter in their cells and emerge the next summer as adult bees.
Wasps will be feeding on fruit sugars and now that their queen has finished laying eggs, and does not need as much food as before, the workers have very little to do except feed themselves. They get a bit tipsy on the fermented fruit and can be quite aggressive at this time of year. Watch out for stings! Some butterflies also enjoy fruit and will drink the juices of anything sweet, so leave your windfalls for them to feed on.
Autumn is berry time, with many trees providing food for wildlife, particularly birds. The Sloe, which is the fruit of the Blackthorn tree and like a wild damson, is also popular with us, as it makes the delicious liqueur, sloe gin; make it this month and it is ready for Christmas. I don’t think gin was around 5,000 years ago but the fruit was found in the stomach contents of a mummified man, discovered in the Austrian – Italian Alps, estimated to be 5,300 years old. He must have had a more obliging palate than we do – sloes are very tart! The Blackthorn was thought of as a tree of ill omen and was associated with the devil and witches, which were often burned on a pyre of the branches. The wood is very hard and is used to make an Irish fighting stick, the Shillelagh.
Some fruit is also relished by foxes and if you come across faeces that are black this means the animal has been feasting on blackberries. I always leave the lower ones for them to enjoy, that is if my dogs don’t get them first! It is a bumper year for this fruit after the hot summer weather.
This year’s fox cubs are starting to establish their own territories. They should be quite grown up, now, and having learnt from their parents how to forage and hunt, will be ready to be independent. There are many town foxes, now, and the young may appear in your garden at this time of year, so to feed or not to feed? Some people like to have them around and encourage them, while others find them a nuisance. If you do decide to feed them don’t do it every night and don’t give them too much as this could make them dependant on people and discourage natural foraging. Also make sure you put the food well away from the house and NEVER be tempted to hand feed. They are wild animals and will behave as such. Another creature that is increasingly seen in towns is the Muntjac deer. Our friends, who live in the middle of North Walsham on a busy road, had one running around their garden recently, much to their little Lurcher dog’s intense irritation!
Swallows are lining up on wires, like musical notes on a stave, getting ready to leave for warmer southern countries, where they will spend the winter. We had two nests this year but, sadly, I found one lot of chicks dead on the stable floor. An unmated male will often kill the chicks of a mated pair and try to take over the female to produce his own brood. We did see three adults flying in and out, so maybe this is what happened. Other birds, geese ducks and waders, will be starting to arrive to spend the winter with us; the salt marshes of Cley and Titchwell are wonderful bird watching places at this time of year.
Tawny Owls are very vocal in the autumn and will be calling to reinforce their ownership of territories. The chicks have matured and are moving away from their parents and trying to establish their own patches. Some don’t succeed and are driven out of occupied territories by the resident owl, which will not allow the strangers to hunt, consequently they face starvation. The calls that you will hear will be the hoot, made by the male, and the ke-wick, by the female. But both sexes make yelps, warbles and pale versions of each other’s call; the fighting call, usually between two males, sounds very like a cat fight. The Tawny is our most common owl and is found in both town and country. They feed on small mammals – rats, mice, voles and shrews – and will take young rabbits; amphibians, worms and insects also feature in their diet. Small birds, particularly sparrows, which are snatched from their night roosts, make up a large part of a town owl’s food. Urban parks, gardens and churchyards are ideal habitats where they can find plentiful prey.
The Tawny is well camouflaged, with brown-grey-buff streaky plumage which blends in with tree trunks when they are roosting during the day. Sometimes, though, small birds or squirrels will spot them and announce to the world that there is a predator around. If you hear a commotion going on, look carefully and you may see an owl, on a branch against the trunk, trying to get some sleep. Breeding starts in March when they will nest in holes in trees, or occasionally abandoned buildings; squirrels’ dreys are also sometimes used. There is usually just one clutch a year, with an average of 2 – 5 eggs being laid but more have been recorded; they are incubated by the female alone. After a period of about a month the chicks hatch and are fed by both parents until they fledge in 32 – 37 days.
A day comes in September, when there is something different in the air – do you feel it? I do, and I think, ‘It’s here, autumn is starting’. It’s a slightly sad feeling – maybe because this is when the summer holidays ended and we all went back to school – but there is definitely a touch of nostalgia, suddenly there one morning, that wasn’t there the day before.
Events this month include:-
• Miraculous mini-beasts – Roydon Common and Hickling Broad.
• Introduction to Churchyard wildlife – Ludham and Gayton.
• Wader watch – Holme dunes.
Details www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or call 01603 625540
• Bat walk – Holkham Nature Reserve.Call 013128 713111 or email firstname.lastname@example.orgFamily fun – RSPB Titchwell Marsh.Call 01485 210779
© Sheila Sims 2014