September. The month that brings new school shoes, squalls and storms, the sense of a new season, and… the return of the ‘What to Look for’ blog series! As we feel our way back from summer holidays and settle into fresh yet comfortingly familiar routines, it can become suddenly startling how fast the year has passed by. Autumn is here, and it is worth noticing.
For me, September always has a feeling of new beginnings and fresh starts, often more so than the traditional ‘new year clean slate’ in January. Perhaps it is the memory of writing my name with determined neatness on the front of blank exercise books, or the way the air seems washed clean of summer dust by the first autumn rains. A second chance to refresh those new years resolutions that may have been pushed aside by summer holiday distractions in recent months.
Historically, both agriculturally and culturally, this is a time of harvest, of reflection on the year’s growth and of gathering in and preparation ready to turn and face the dark season ahead. Even as disconnected as many of us are from food production and land cultivation these days, we still have an inherited need, shared and personal, to pause and tune into the seasons… never more so than at this transition time from bountiful summer to grey winter.
Summer gave us endless hours of daylight and fine weather during which we could explore and connect with nature to our hearts content. But when we return to work and school, that natural world around us doesn’t suddenly disappear. Continuing to include an awareness of, and time spent in, nature during our everyday lives has a hugely positive impact on our wellbeing. It also means you can never be bored; even when waiting for a train, or stuck in traffic, walking the dog or running the kids to school, there is always something to look at.
What to look for in nature: September
Let’s mention the controversial one first before we move on to the more obviously beautiful and intriguing… spiders! September is the best month for encounters with spiders; particularly orb web species such as the Garden Cross Spider. (In fact, we see so many spiders this month that my partner who intensely dislikes the creatures, has re-nicknamed the month ‘spide-ember’!)
By September, Garden Cross Spiders among other species reach peak maturity, and hang around on vegetation in our gardens and hedgerows, plump and golden. There is nothing menacing about this boost in spider numbers; although present all year round, spiders become more apparent at this time of year as cooler nights create the ideal conditions for dew and early morning mists, which highlight the spiders webs that adorn brambles, gorse, and garden shrubs with shimmering gossamer threads of silk, picked out in silver by the low sun. Flies and other insects are plentiful now, their populations boosted by summer warmth, and it is these the spiders are interested in.
Although to many people spiders are a terrifying entity, with too many legs and a creepy presence about them, these underrated and often wrongly maligned creatures are well worth braving a closer look.
Take a moment to study a Garden Cross Spider, and you will encounter a beautiful, intricate creature of burnished gold or bronze with pearl and jet details. The name comes from the pattern of spots on the abdomen that form a cross, but individual’s markings are very variable and you’ll never find two spiders that look identical.
If you would prefer to distract yourself from the apparent invasion of 8-legged web spinners, there is plenty of other interest in the hedgerows now. As mentioned previously, September lies on the transition point from summer to autumn; harvest time. The countryside, and even our parks, canal-sides, and footpath verges are teeming with nature’s bounty. Hips and haws, berries and fruits of all kinds are maturing and ripening.
Folklore informs us that blackberries shouldn’t be picked after the Christian festival of Michaelmas (29th September), as ‘the devil spits on them and turns them sour’! In reality it is more likely that cooler shorter days means less sun to trigger the formation of sugars in the fruits, as the month wears on. Either way, it’s as good an excuse as any to remind us leave a few berries behind for the wild creatures.
Beside the fruits, flowers can still be found. One you might have previously overlooked, and may not even recognise as a flower, is the ivy. Insects throng to ivy at this time of year, as it is a rich nectar source when little else is flowering. The green clusters of ball-shaped blooms attract bees, flies, and wasps. Larger insects such as hornets, come to hunt the nectar feeders. Keep your eyes peeled for late season butterflies. Species including Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell and Comma often hibernate through the winter as adults, tucked away in the corner of our sheds or in a tree cavity. Ivy offers these winter lodgers an ideal source of nectar to feed up as the weather cools.
If you go down to the woods today…
You might be surprised to find strange organisms beneath the trees!
Autumn is the best time for finding fungi, as the warm damp weather conditions are ideal for triggering the growth of the fruiting bodies that we recognise as toadstools. The majority of the fungi is below ground; a network of threads transporting nutrients and minerals and breaking down organic matter. The familiar toadstool in all its myriad forms is produced for the sole purpose to spreading millions of microscopic spores across the woodland floor. The variety of shapes, sizes, colours and forms of fungi is staggering.
Sit quietly in a woodland for a few minutes and you will probably be joined by a grey squirrels, foraging for acorns, hazel nuts or pine cones as they begin to build their winter food caches. Another nut-forager is the Jay, a noisy colourful member of the crow family, which, thanks to its forgetfulness and penchant for acorns may well be responsible for planting a large number of the oak trees that grow in our woods heaths and hedgerows!
As the leaves slowly begin to thin, birds become more visible. With the breeding and moulting seasons behind them, many bird species are much more active and noticeable in Autumn, as they feed up ahead of the approaching winter, or move to new territories away from their breeding grounds. Mixed flocks of different tit species feeding and traveling through woodland together are a common sight in September and throughout the next few months. Safety in numbers, and multiple eyes on the look out for food, seems to break down species divides, and family groups will often band together in loose parties of a dozen or more birds. These flocks are often accompanied by other small bird species such as Goldcrest or Treecreeper.
Visit: Wonderful woodland! Rain showers and morning dew bring a dampness that speeds up decomposition creating that lovely earthy scent. Low sun picks out textures of bark, moss and lichen.
Wildlife recap: Look out for spiders and spider webs, mixed flocks of tits and other small birds, jays burying acorns, ripening fruits in hedgerows, toadstools and other fungi, insects on ivy flowers, and the last swallows gathering for migration.
Remember: Gardens often need a bit of a tidy up as summer flowers fade and herbaceous plants die back. Don’t be too fussy though; leave seedheads in place for birds to feed on in autumn and winter, the hollow stems provide hibernation spaced for insects. Leaf piles and log stacks create great habitats within gardens for all kinds of wildlife and autumn is an idea time to create them as material becomes available. If you are cleaning out your pond, leave any vegetation you remove on the side of the pond for a day or two to allow any creatures to find their way back in. Now the breeding season is over you can cut hedges again, but don’t trim off all the fruits. Not only are the vital for winter food for wildlife but they also make lovely colourful decorations indoors and in the garden, when flowers are few and far between!
Dates for your diary:
6th September – National Read a Book Day
15th September – Great British Beach Clean
21st-23rd September – Autumn Equinox