Natural phenomena to spot in autumn

From the haunting image of a broken spectre, to spooky cloud inversions and horrid fungal blooms, the great outdoors can be eerie at this time of year – here is our guide on the best natural phenomena to spot in autumn.

Curbar Edge with a cloud inversion looking towards the Chatsworth Estate - Getty Images

Autumn is the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but it is also the best time of the year to spot natural phenomena in the countryside. Here is our guide on the best natural phenomena to spot in autumn.

Broken spectre

One of the eeriest tricks of light you can witness in the outdoors is often associated with cloud inversions, and thus more likely to occur from this time of year onwards. When walking with a layer of cloud or fog beneath you and the sun directly behind you, a spectral shadow is cast upon the mist, framed by a queer halo of multi-coloured light around its head.

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Spectacular misty landscape of Winnats Pass and Mam Tor in Derbyshire. Morning sunlight creating the natural phenomena of a Brocken Spectre. The shadow of the photographer surrounded by a halo in the mist. Credit: R A Kearton/Getty
Spectacular misty landscape of Winnats Pass and Mam Tor in Derbyshire. Morning sunlight creating the natural phenomena of a Brocken Spectre. The shadow of the photographer surrounded by a halo in the mist. Credit: R A Kearton/Getty

Most disturbingly, it appears vastly exaggerated and can loom quite unsettlingly when caught out of the corner of your eye. It’s often quoted as a possible explanation for the Bigfoot-like Fearlas Mor (“Big Grey Man”) legend of Ben Macdui, a dreadful presence which prompted mountaineer Professor J. Norman Collie to tell a meeting of the Cairngorm Club in 1925 that “there is something very queer about the top of Ben MacDhui and I will not go back there again by myself I know”.

Autumn colours on The River Spey, Aviemore, Cairngorms National Park

Black moon

Occurring roughly every two-and-a-half years, this not so common lunar pattern is named for the second new moon in a single calendar month. And it just so happens that one occurred on 30 October 2016, rising at 06:14 in southern England and setting at 16:57. But that doesn’t mean that tonight isn’t special too. Whilst the measurable amount of illumination of the moon’s visible face was around 0.2 per cent yesterday (as compared to nearly 100 per cent when “full”), it will lift to a bare 0.7 per cent tonight.

Black moon
Black moon – Credit: Getty

Being a new moon, a black moon is aptly named as there will be little to no natural light to obscure the stars, the northern lights, or even perhaps the supernatural entities and pagan spirits traditional associated with All Hallow’s Eve.

Cloud inversion

Typically the relationship between altitude and temperature is a clear one: the higher you climb, the colder it will get. However, when natural processes reverse that relationship cold and moisture-rich air can become trapped in valleys and lowlands – creating a sea of cloud beneath crisp and fog-free summits.

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A cloud inversion over the Hope Valley, Peak District/Credit: Getty

This phenomenon is most commonly witnessed in the winter half of the year, of which Halloween traditionally marks the start. To predict them, look for stable high pressure systems, moist sea breezes and clear, calm nights in the hills. With these secured, pick a suitable high spot on which to wild camp and keep your fingers crossed and your alarm set – they’re best seen at dawn.

Fungal bloom

Being the prime of autumn, this is the finest time of year to witness the wealth of fungi in the British outdoors, and to marvel at the ethereal shapes and colours they can manifest, as well as the very practical acidic and alkaline toxins inherent within. There could be little vegetation more apt for the modern image and associations of Halloween.

fungal bloom
Fungal bloom – Getty

Species commonly found around the fields and woodland of the UK include the dull yellow and edible butter waxcap, the psilocybin-rich (and thus hallucinatory) liberty cap, and the ivory-coloured and ornate snowy waxcap. But perhaps the most iconic is the bright red cap and white spots of the fairytale stalwart fly agaric – a psychoactive, hallucinogenic and unpleasantly toxic fungus best appreciated from a distance.

Starling murmuration

Most commonly seen throughout November, vast murmurations of starlings – in which thousands or sometimes hundreds of thousands of the small triangular-winged birds swoop and twist in unison – can occur as early as September.

This makes the days and weeks from Halloween and beyond the time to witness such mesmerising behaviour. The theory is that starlings form these writhing, constantly evolving masses in order to evade predators, exchange information, keep warm and to gather before settling into their roosts for the night.

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Starling murmuration/Credit: Getty
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They most commonly occur at dusk and can be spotted across Britain from Brighton Pier to Gretna Green to Somerset’s Avalon Marshes.