Every May comes the annual trip to the woods at the Blickling estate in Norfolk to see the bluebells, and it never disappoints. Vast carpets of delicate purple flowers lay across the woodland floor and hundreds of people turn up each year to see this spectacle.
What’s not to love about autumn? The falling of the leaves; the darkening of the nights; the retreat of certain species and the emergence of others.
This post is about the first signs of autumn and what to watch out for.
Probably one of the first signs of the changing seasons, fungi start to pop up in woodlands in late summer, especially after rain. But it’s not just woodlands – lawns, small patches of grass in cities, too, and even on piles of dead logs. Not knowing a damn thing about identifying fungi, I steer clear of harvesting any of it. If you are interested, however, you can learn about which species of fungi are poisonous and how to ID them in this helpful guide.
The deer rut
Now is the time of year that stags develop their antlers to fight other males and compete to attract a harem of females. The fights are an impressive display of power and fascinating to watch.
Leaves changing colour is a spectacular autumn sight. I remember holidays in the Lake District and the incredible display of yellow, green and brown leaves on huge trees around the lakes. It’s interesting to see which trees start to change first and how quickly, especially when half the tree still has green leaves. In fact, a project by the Woodland Trust called Nature’s Calendar wants us to track what trees we see changing colour and when to build a better understanding of how weather and climate affects wildlife.
Fruits, nuts and seeds
Trees use this season to disperse their seeds and reproduce. Blackberries come into fruit in late summer and early autumn and are a known marker of the changing season. Acorns, of course, are cached by squirrels and other mammals to store in their winter larders – but did you know that jays also do this?
Many bird species gather in flocks to spend the cold autumn evenings roosting together or preparing or recovering from migration. Geese flock in large numbers by the coast, rooks go to roost in large flocks in the evenings, and starlings start their murmations. The wildlife-friendly gardener will have thistles and late-flowering plants such as sedum to provide insects with sustenance for the long winter ahead, ensuring a supply for birds in the spring. Look out for the arrival of fieldfare and redwing.
It can come as a shock in autumn to discover just how many spiders there are in the world – not just in the world, but in my house! The less said about spiders the better.
Ever wandered through a woodland glade and thought: what’s that strange flower? What’s that bird chirping away? Identifying flora and fauna is a lost art, one I’m learning to acquire, and luckily there are plenty of apps to use when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and desperately want to know what some plant is (though if you can get 4G then you’re probably not remote enough).
Here’s a short guide focusing on what flora to look out for in woodlands and how to identify common species. Let’s do this by season.
Spring: the best time to be in a woodland. Bluebells, birds building nests, everything growing green again after the cold months. The first pilgrims are the bluebells, which emerge and carpet ancient woodlands between late April and throughout May. Swiftly following the bluebell comes the early purple orchid, usually between April and June. Also look out for wood anemone, foxglove and, of course, nettles.
Summer: as the Spring bulbs and flowers die down they are overcome by honeysuckle, dog rose, and enchanter’s nightshade.
Autumn: my favourite season because of the colour, because of the dying. The leaves of trees take on red, orange and brown shades and slowly drop, covering the ground in those crisp leaves that we all love to walk through. I get all cosy just thinking about it! In woodlands some flowers like honeysuckle continue to bloom through the autumn, but also we see ivy flowers, providing one last drink of nectar for all those bees entering their hibernation.
Winter: the holly berries and mistletoe of Christmas time are so evocative and familiar but actually most of us probably don’t go for enough walks in woodlands in the winter to notice them. In January, snowdrops are the first to rear their tentative heads, and snow leads to gold as the lesser celandine emerge with their bright gold star-shaped flowers.
There’s so much happening out there if you just stop and look but it’s so difficult to identify flora if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Here are some of the apps I find helpful in getting me to know my local woodland patch. I could do a whole other post on useful apps for nature lovers so maybe I just might do that.