Autumn sparks a riot of activity. Days and nights may still be mild but the creeping chill and blustering winds that strip the colourful dry leaves from trees increase the sense of urgency for winter preparations. Foraging and feeding become a focus for birds and mammals. Animals, including birds and flying insects such as butterflies not intending to stay for winter are making their travel preparations, storing internal energy if they are large enough, perhaps grouping together and taking practice flights before setting out on their migratory routes.
Species that remain overwinter might take on a new winter wardrobe. Growing denser, longer winter coats keeps out some of the chill for many mammals, whereas birds might thicken their plumage. Autumn might be the turn in the cycle leading to dormancy but new life is also created as the larger mammals such as deer have their rutting seasons, with dominant males bellowing and asserting their harem mating rights through shows of strength.
Explore the visually rich season with our autumn-themed carousel below.
Seasons: Autumn carousel
A feast of autumn harvest produce and spectacular display of senescing leaves.
Autumn harvest and leaves turning
Season of many colours
The beginning of August marks the old Celtic Lugnasand (start of harvesting). Harvest mice are active among the ripening crops, as are many birds. England might have one of the better climates for growing crops, but beating the changeable weather to get the crops harvested is another matter. An abundance of fruit, berries and seeds are maturing in the woodlands and hedgerows, ripe for eating or ‘squirreling’ away to make hidden winter food caches.
Blackberries ripen from red to black as summer ends and autumn advances. Technically, they are not berries as they are an aggregation of smaller parts. They are wild relatives of the raspberry, one difference being that blackberry fruit does not detach from its receptable when picked. Without their berries, the plants are often referred to as brambles. They are hardy plants that have adapted to many habitats from shady forests to sunny hedgerows, often noticed when their sharp defensive spines catch the clothing of walkers throughout the UK.
These distinctive fruit are food for many species, from insects to birds and small and larger mammals, such as foxes and badgers (not to mention large and small humans).
Inside the prickly horse chestnut seed casing is a shiny brown conker, or perhaps two.
Despite their name, horse chestnut seeds are poisonous to horses. Deer are able to eat the seeds as they can break down the toxins they contain. The horse chestnut is not a true chestnut like the sweet chestnut tree, so the 'horse' (meaning ‘inferior’) may have been used to highlight this distinction, but may also cause the confusion.
An autumn past-time for schoolchildren over the generations has been collecting the conkers that fall from horse chestnut trees. One game involves attaching strings and hitting the conkers together until only the winning conker remains.
Despite the appeal of conkers, it is not advisable to park your car under horse chestnut trees in autumn unless you don’t mind the dents caused by exploding seedcases as they land on your roof!
Beechnuts or beechmast fall in autumn from the heady heights of beech trees (they may reach 120ft!). These may be from ancient trees that have survived for a few centuries. Each autumn their leaves turn from green to golden brown and the prickly seed husks split and quarter, releasing the shiny triangular mast. These nuts are food for many woodland creatures, from rooting swine to the secret but brightly coloured jays that search on the ground for beechmast and hoard what they can collect.
Rowan or mountain ash trees have distinctive red berries in autumn and fans of odd-numbered leaflets that change colour to a deep orange-red. It has an old Celtic name of 'fid na ndruad', meaning wizards tree. In England and Ireland rowan trees were planted near houses or in graveyards to protect them against spirits. Their strong wood has been used for making cart wheels and other traditional tools. Further north in Scotland there was a strong taboo against cutting them down at all.
Autumn has definitely arrived when the glorious display of autumn leaves dominates the visual landscape. Oak leaves transform to a deep bronze, elms to pale gold whereas beech range from orange to deep copper and sycamores to scarlet.
Broad-leaved trees lose their leaves as they go dormant for winter. With reduced light levels and colder nights, less photosynthesis takes place; the green pigment chlorophyll is not replaced and starts to break down, revealing the orange- and yellow-coloured carotenes within the leaves. As this is a gradual process, a range of colours develop over time, from greens to browns, through to golds and reds. What sugars remain in the leaves that are preparing to be shed, are converted to anthcyanin, a purple-to-red pigment. If the weather remains dry, sugars concentrate in leaves, leading to deeper purple colours.
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn and are ripening now, turning a dusty blue colour. The dust is actually a yeast bloom that forms over the fruit and is thought to enhance UV light reflection so that the fruits really stand out to birds which have UV vision.
Elderberries attract squirrels, dormice, a variety of birds, butterflies and even deer. They're rich in sugars and take very little energy to pull off their slender stalks - making them perfect for small migrants such as warblers, blackcaps and whitethroats. They're also really popular with pigeons and blackbirds. Insects will also be drawn to the bruised fruit.
Damper, wetter conditions encourage fungal growth but also an abundance of leaf litter from fallen leaves makes autumn an ideal time to find different species of mushrooms and toadstools erupting. Sometimes they appear just for brief periods, above ground. The various species of honey fungus in the UK spread underground, killing plant roots and decaying woody tissue.
iSpot observations from Autumn
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There are plenty of opportunities to observe animals, plants, and lichens throughout this season. Do record your sightings of autumnal wildlife for the iSpot website so that together we can build a picture of life in the autumn months.
Getting ready for winter survival
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
For those species that remain to tough it out through winter, preparations may involve growing an insulating winter coat of fur, changing colour for snow camouflage, or going to ground by finding or making a suitable nest for undergoing torpor or a period of true hibernation.
In autumn, the tiny hazel dormouse prepares itself by eating more hazelnuts, seeds and fruit to increase in body mass, ready for long months in hibernation. It may have spent short periods of time during the spring and summer months in torpor curled up in a woven nest in undergrowth. For winter, it is likely to be nesting higher in trees or nesting boxes.
Our native dormouse is protected and should not be disturbed.
Hedgehogs make effective use of their spines as they curl up into a tight ball among leaf litter or in woodpiles, hibernating throughout the cold winter months.
Bats roost during daylight hours but will spend autumn nights feasting on crane flies and other insects to increase body mass, ready for longer periods in hibernation through winter. Mating season is from autumn to spring for bats such as the horseshoe, with females forming large maternity roosts.
Butterflies such as the Peacock do not migrate but overwinter in log piles or dark dry places. Their distinctive colours and markings are hidden while their wings are closed, with the drab underside providing effective camouflage. If they manage to make it indoors during winter they will become active again but it is best to send them back out to find a new hiding place.
Amphibians go to ground, with frogs, toads and newts overwintering under rocks or in other sheltered places. They may even be submerged under mud or vegetation in water as they are also able to breathe through their skins. Warmer weather may result in amphibians venturing out from their late-autumn and winter hiding places.
Time to eat, vacate or reproduce
Animals such as hedgehogs need to eat more during autumn, to build up their internal adipose (fat) stores. Red squirrels are busy eating and also collecting excess food into external food caches, to hopefully return to later throughout winter. Other species, from butterflies to birds, will take to the wing and sometimes move over amazing distances to warmer and more food-abundant areas to avoid the long cold winter.
Autumn is also the fertile time for animals with gestation periods that last over extent of winter. Reproduction takes place, with subsequent successful births occurring in the spring-to-early-summer months when new plant growth is most abundant.
The native red squirrel is much smaller and less common than the grey squirrel. Red squirrels gather up food in the form of nuts and seeds throughout autumn, making caches of food to help them through the leaner winter months. Other preparations for winter will include growing a thicker, darker coat of fur and large ear tufts. Several squirrels may share a drey (shelter) throughout winter, which helps them to keep warm.
Autumn is the fertile time for animals with gestation periods that last over the extent of winter, including many ruminants (such as sheep). Mating (or tupping in sheep) takes place as the days shorten, with subsequent successful births occurring in the spring-to-early-summer months when new plant growth is most abundant. Male deer can be heard bellowing and be seen engaged in contests of strength as the rutting season gets underway.
As autumn colours fade into winter, a new thicker fur coat is grown by mountain hares and changes colour to match the snow.
From autumn into winter, male foxes (tods) seek out receptive vixens. The barking call and wailing scream replies often mean the fox is heard at night, but rarely seen.
The colourful painted lady butterfly migrates in large numbers at high altitude.
Geese can be seen in training flight formations as they prepare for long migratory flights. Their distinctive honking can be heard long before they are seen.
The last sightings for the current year of swallows are seen in autumn. With their distinctive forked tail silhouette, they are more often seen flying and swooping, catching winged insects, than resting on overhead cables, before they head off south for warmer climes. Throughout their lifetime they may travel the equivalent of a few journeys to the moon and back.
Similar to the mountain hare, the ptarmigan changes into its winter plumage colouring. It also has ‘snow shoes’ in the form of feathered feet.
Adult spiders are fully grown and more visible in autumn, either outside hanging in their webs or inside your home as they scuttle through open doors or gaps seeking a warm winter shelter. Large male house spiders are seen more frequently as they venture out of hiding seeking females.
The wasp spider, Argiope bruennichi, used to be confined to the south coast of England. However, it has spread further north in recent years, perhaps due to warmer, longer summers. This spectacular spider can be up to 15mm long with a striking yellow and black-banded abdomen. They make large, vertical webs just above ground level.
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