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Put your cursor on any photo for a caption, or click here for more September leaf fall photos. For the latest observations see @SWC_Nature.

11 September 2019 September is a strange time in the natural calendar. The previous nine months have all been about anticipation - looking forward to new delights. To fresh waves of wildflowers. To new generations of butterflies. To the leafing, flowering and seeding of trees. Suddenly all that is at an end, and I for one get slight withdrawal symptoms.

Wildflowers continue to be seen. There is an enormous list of those that you might see this month (see here), but the big displays are over and the quantity is gradually decreasing as blooms go over and are not replaced. There is a slight "come again" effect of spring flowers having a second go - dandelions and buttercups are both prone to this - and now and again one comes across a corner of a field or a slope on the downs where it still looks a bit like summer. Arable fields can also be fruitful places to look, as weeds spring up after crops are harvested. But generally it is now a matter of survivors, albeit that some last into October or even November.

Insects have also mostly quietly faded away. This is a process that is hard to measure exactly, since on a sunny day you might still see some bees or flies or other creatures. Apart from honeybees, which are around year round, bees at this time of year are quite likely to be carder bees, with their tawny thoraxes, or queen bumble bees looking for a nest site for the winter. You get those nuisance wasps too - former workers, now left to fend for themselves. Be charitable to them, as you hope people will be charitable to you when you retire.

There are also creatures that are just becoming adults at this time of year. Our familiar seven-spot ladybird, having spent the summer as a larvae, munching on vegetation, now emerges as an adult, feeds up, and then goes into stasis for the winter, emerging in spring to mate. Dock bugs and shield bugs have the same lifecycle. This is also a time when spiders make big prominent webs in your garden - again these are females, who have mated and are laying eggs. Male house spiders emerge from hiding and go looking for a mate, hoping not to meet us as they do so.

Butterflies are still about, but most I have seen this week have been whites, mainly small whites, but with some green-veined and large whites mixed in. Also a few red admirals, the occasional speckled wood and painted lady. Again, we are winding down and soon I will have to get used to not seeing butterflies till next spring.

On the birdsong front, this is absolutely the quietest time of the year. The occasional summer wood pigeon and collared dove still coos, and you get very shy contact calls from great and blue tits. But the ever-territorial robins, who usually fill the airwaves in September with their twittering, still seem to be rather muted so far, I don't know why. Like the house martins and swallows I mentioned last time, other birds are quietly heading south or soon will be - the blackcapswhitethroats and chiffchaffs. I was delighted to identify wheatears on the South Downs near Brighton this week: probably migrants en route to warmer climes, though just possibly they bred there.

As for trees and shrubs, notice that in a quiet way some at least are tinting or shedding leaves. Crack willow, hybrid black poplar, lime, bramble and elder all do this. I call this the "slow shed" and it carries on from now till the end of leaf fall as a kind of unnoticed backdrop to more dramatic tinting. The latter is some way off: it is usually late October at the earliest before you can take good leaf colour photos.

One more note on trees. Horse chestnuts, which since 2009 have been badly affected by a leaf mining caterpillar which causes their leaves to shrivel, have in many cases been less affected this year, at least so far. I still seeing some at least whose leaves are still green. Dare we hope that for the first time in ten years they might have a normal leaf fall? Horse chestnut leaves turning a lovely yellowy-gold used to be one of the delights of autumn. It would be good to have it back.



28 August 2019 I was swimming in the sea off Steephill Cove, near Ventnor on the Isle of Wight this week, when, in the space of 15 minutes or so, some 50-70 swallows flew past, some only a foot or two above my head.

I can't be sure that there were that many, of course, because it is possible some looped back and flew over me a second time. But they were all flying east to west and once they had gone, there were gone. If this had been just a local group feeding over the area, then I would surely have seen them again. But I didn't. I saw maybe one or two swallows the whole rest of the day.

I concluded from this that the swallows were probably migrating. The corner of the Isle of Wight formed by Bonchurch Down is often a staging post for this, being basically the last bit of land they come to before the Channel. In early September I have sometimes seen several hundred swallows in this very location.

There is always something very cheerful about swallows. They look sleek and cosmopolitan, and they fly with such energy and verve. At this time of year I am always rather envious of them, since they are off to spend winter in warmer climes. When very return, in April, they always look sleek and sun-kissed, while we humans are a bit drab and worn down after too long in the dark and cold.

It was particularly good to see the Steephill fly-past because it has been another disappointing year in the south east for swallows - and indeed house martins and swifts. I have the uneasy sense that I see fewer and fewer every year, though I can find no statistics online to back this up. Maybe I just have exaggerated memories of how many I used to see, since seeing them is always an event, making each encounter particularly vivid.

But what is well-attested is that they had a bad migration in 2018 - due to weather problems en route - and 2019 as far as I could see did not really see much of a recovery. I hope they are not going to go the way of cuckoos and turtle doves and lapwings and become a rarity.

Sometimes if you are lucky, you can catch swallows in the very act of assembling to migrate. A few years ago I was in Cothele, a National Trust property in Devon and the roof was covered with excited birds, taking off, landing again, chatting - behaving for all the world like a bunch of teenagers off on a holiday. If you see that, then you know that they are about to depart. You will wake up the following morning and find them gone.

You can also come across large flocks of both house martins and swallows even late in September. I saw a huge flock of both species feeding over the lagoons at the top of Hayling Island on 22 September last year (on a miserable wet day too), and maybe 100 house martins on a lonely part of the South Downs five days later. I am guessing that these are birds from further north and that the south coast is just a staging post on their journey. Poor old Gilbert White, the 18th century naturalist failed to make this deduction, however, and thought that these autumn appearances proved that swallows and house martins hibernated. It was one of the few cases in which this otherwise excellent observer of nature was wrong.



9 August 2019 It is not really a nature observation, but the weather not infrequently takes a turn for the autumnal at this time of year, with scudding clouds and rain making one feel summer has gone for good. But, touch wood, past experience is that summer does make a comeback. Cross fingers, anyway.

And from a nature point of view there are still high summer experiences to be had. This week I visited some favourite downland slopes near Otford and Shoreham, Kent and found downland flowers in absolutely riotous form. At this stage in the season, it is pinks and purples that abound - marjoram, knapweed, field scabious, clustered bellflower and harebells. Darting about the blooms there was still a wide range of insects - bees of various types, flies, hoverflies, flying creatures too tiny to identify, all giving a feeling of abundant life.

I also saw simply astonishing numbers of chalk hill blue butterflies, which was the target of my outing. We are in many ways very lucky in this part of the world in that having the most favourable climate in the UK we have butterflies that are found nowhere else in the country. The chalk hill, which in most of the UK would be a thing of wonder, is only found on south-facing chalk downland in this little corner of the realm, but if you are in the right spot, they are amazingly abundant. I must have seen several hundred over a couple of hours. In one place, when the sun came out after a big rain shower, upwards of 40 chalk hill males rose into the sky at once from a patch of grass 20 metres square. A magical moment.

There is always a frenetic quality to butterfly flight, and for good reason. They are creatures in a big rush to do one thing - mate. I was thinking of those butterflies today as some heavy rain showers lashed down. I wonder if there would be so many there if I went back to that slope tomorrow. I also noticed that more than a few of the chalk hills were looking very tatty and faded: butterflies are not built to last.  But then they don't have to last: just find a partner, lay eggs, and the job is done.

In the hedgerows things look increasingly autumnal. August may be a summer month for us, but it is really an autumn month, a month of fruitfulness. Ripe blackberries are abundant right now and this is the time of year you may start to find ripe plums, greengages, cherry plums and the like. Apples - both cultivated ones and wild crab apples - are not just groaning on the branch but falling to the ground and starting to rot. It is this rotting fruit that wasps feed on. They are redundant workers from colonies that have broken up who must now look for their own food. Our pub lunches or cream teas make a tempting target, but have some sympathy, as they are essentially insect pensioners.

Green berries are turning to red. You can see this happening to haws on hawthorn. Wayfaring tree berries on downland are going from red to black. Sloes on blackthorn are already blue in places, though still hard and unripe. Wheat is being harvested and the drone of combine harvesters can be heard in the distance. Straw is drying in neat cylindrical bales..

Soon the flowers will fade and the butterflies will be a memory. The insect abundance will quietly disappear. But this is not a negative thought. It makes one want to go out and enjoy it while it is still there. There is a sweet poignancy to the last phase of summer.

























































































































15 comments:

Em said...

Somewhere on this site you have written that it is perhaps sterile to spend time identifying birds, plants etc but I don't think so. I think it helps enjoy the rich diversity of what is there and appreciate the differences and variety in nature.

Peter C said...

I am glad you think so, and definitely agree!

ramblinros said...

Thank you for interesting nature blog
Found a new-to-me spring flower on Saturday
Spring Beauty - Claytonia perfoliata syn Montia perfoliata -
the stem is surrounded by a curious cup-shaped leaf
Was walking on the North Downs Way eastwards immediately after the Watts Gallery - very sandy -
up a slight rise and then the plant was on both sides of the descending path
for about the next 100m, and then no more
https://www.flickr.com/photos/ramblinros/13649168915/

Peter C said...

Nice observation, ramblinros! I have seen this plant once or twice and I do mention it in April Verge and Field Flowers (http://nature-and-weather.walkingclub.org.uk/search/label/April-verge)….

"Also in the wierd category is spring beauty, a plant of sandy soils which has tiny white flowers in the middle of large round leaves."

…….but it is a rather rare thing to see, so I am glad to hear of your sighting.

PeteB said...

On polling day 7 May I went for a long tramp over the South Downs starting in Lewes and eventually finishing in Eastbourne. At the start of my walk (Book 2 walk 25c Lewes to Glynde) I had just left the golf club car park and started on the path past a water trough where a herd of cattle were drinking and grazing when to my surprise I saw what I am sure was a single red? deer hind grazing with the cattle (it was too large to be a roe or fallow deer). The animal was frightened by my presence and seemed to try to hide among the cattle! I had my camera phone but did not want to start unsettling the cattle and I had a long day ahead so pressed on with my walk. The only deer I have seen before on the South Downs were fallow deer in the flat water meadows. I have never heard of red or sika deer on the South Downs and a web search has revealed nothing. Quite a sighting !

Peter C said...

A very interesting sighting, I agree. Of course, historically red deer were present throughout England but I had always understood that now they only live in places such as Richmond Park. The only other place I have once thought I saw one was in the Lake District. Perhaps you should report this sighting to some relevant association or other. I am not quite sure which. (If it was a butterfly or bird or flower it would be easier to think of suggestions!)

PeteB said...

Did walk 3.20 Sevenoaks to Wesaterham today after bailing out of it early on Sunday because of violent storm. Bluebells already showing well at Ide Hill and should be at their best in 2-3 weeks which seems a bit earlier than usual? Fields still pretty waterlogged in the morning but after lunch at the Cock Inn terrain and woodland trails much drier.

PeteB said...

Did walk 3.20 Sevenoaks to Wesaterham today after bailing out of it early on Sunday because of violent storm. Bluebells already showing well at Ide Hill and should be at their best in 2-3 weeks which seems a bit earlier than usual? Fields still pretty waterlogged in the morning but after lunch at the Cock Inn terrain and woodland trails much drier.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to learn that Yellowhammers have been detected on the walks this summer (considering their numbers have declined rapidly). I saw some on the Pewsey/Avebury walk recently. They were in a quiet country lane, flanked by tall *all important* hedgerows. I haven't seen this species for years. E.

Peter C said...

I have read that their numbers are declining, but I have to say I hear them quite a lot in the south east. They like hedgerows on farmland but are also heard up on the downs. A lovely song so I hope they don't decline further.

Sandy said...

Fantastic blog - I was particularly interested in the 19 September one about late-surviving flowers. I started noting down flowers still out in Nov/Dec a few years ago - e.g. 24 spotted on 3-4/12/2014 and 27 on 19-20/12/2015. It was astonishingly mild then of course. I don't seem to have any notes from last year but maybe I wasn't out walking at the right time. Look forward to comparing notes later in the year.

Peter C said...

Thanks for your kind comments. Glad you find it interesting.

December 2015 was indeed the weird mild one when all sorts of early spring flowers and even blossom started to come out. But some flowers in early December are not unusual. Before writing the blog I should perhaps have checked my own December Flowers page which lists several. See http://nature-and-weather.walkingclub.org.uk/2011/12/november-hedgerow-and-flowers.html

Peter C said...

I don’t know why the link in the last post says November in its url. But go to the main blue button menu above the Nature Blog and click December and you will find the page I mean.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter

Glad you are also enjoying the sunny weather and the May/June flora display. Hope your trip to Devon went well despite the train disruptions at
Paddington the day I went to Hartlocks nature reserve. I saw the lady, monkey and hybrid orchid. Also green hair streak and grizzly skipper butterflies.
Went to Homefield Wood nature reserve in Marlow yesterday. Great day out very sunny. Saw hundreds of Military (soldier) orchids, Greater butterfly, Fly,
Spotted, Scented, Bee and broad leave helloborine orchids. Plus a Marsh Fritillary orchid which is odd. Another frittary is the Green heath and silver
wash fritillary. I shall explore Warburgh nature reserve when I get back from Scotland. Off to Newtonmore on Saturday 9th and 23rd to Mull.
Regards Monica

Mike A said...

Wild tales from the Village
For those of you who haven't seen this program, you may wish to watch it on Iplayer at https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b086k8db/wild-tales-from-the-village?suggid=b086k8db
It's an animal drama that tells the story of a year in the life of an extraordinary village, hidden away in the timeless French countryside. Narrated by Tcheky Karyo, this tale reveals the parallel world of incredible tiny creatures that live side by side with the unsuspecting humans

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