Britain's best autumn wildlife spectacles
Step into the British countryside this autumn and discover some of nature's most magnificent wildlife spectacles, from rutting deer and foraging squirrels to mass bird migrations
September is the month when autumn really takes hold, as hedgerows bustle with activity and the landscape starts changing. By October and November, autumn is in full swing, and with it comes a host of incredible wildlife spectacles.
Here's our guide to the UK's best wildlife spectacles to spot this autumn, including the best places to see them and wildlife facts.
Some of the most magnificent spectacles in nature’s calendar are the starling murmurations that grace our skies from autumn, peaking in late November and early December. Thousands of starlings can be seen taking flight and forming dark shapes, which rise, dip and turn in perfect unison. Sometimes these hypnotic clouds can be made up of over 100,000 starlings as hordes of new migrant birds continue to arrive in Britain each week. Early evening is the best time to view this soiree as starlings take flight to choose their night-time shelters. Malltraeth Marsh in Anglesey, RSPB Leighton Moss in Lancashire and Ham Wall in Somerset are all great places to watch the birds in action.
Foraging red squirrels
In autumn, red squirrels are busy searching for tree seeds, fungi, berries, birds’ eggs and even sap to fatten them up for winter. They love hazelnuts but have trouble digesting acorns, unlike grey squirrels, who love them. Red squirrels like to look after their teeth by gnawing on pieces of dead deer antler, which are full of calcium. Squirrels have an exceptionally good sense of smell. They can find buried food underneath a foot of snow and know if a nut is rotten without opening it.
Come autumn, the aim of the salmon is simple – to reach spawning grounds in the higher reaches of clean, fast-flowing rivers where they themselves were born. This is perfect for eggs and milt to intermingle to secure the next generation of this king of fish.
Countless obstacles block the salmon’s progress from sea to spawning beds; some, such as nets, otters and fishermen, are ephemeral; others are far more formidable barriers, of which waterfalls are the most spectacular and challenging.
Scotland is one of the best places in Britain to see the salmon run.
Migrant birds departing
September is the perfect time to watch migrant birds depart. Popular species such as swallows and house martins begin their journey south, seeking the warmer weather in Africa. Other birds, like puffins and gannets, leave our shores to spend the winter in the sea.
Islands and coastal areas are the best places to watch migratory birds, with the Isles of Scilly famous for their brilliant vantage points for spotting rare birds from North America, Europe or Asia that have been blown off-course by bad weather. It is particularly important to choose the right time of day – early morning and dusk often guarantee the best chance of spotting the birds.
This month the UK also welcomes species that spend the winter in the UK, enjoying the milder weather. Fieldfares, redwings and many kinds of ducks and geese will arrive on our shores. Wetlands are excellent spots to witness the return of thousands of geese and wading birds.
Although they began arriving in September, the size of wintering geese flocks peak in the the depths of autumn. Geese including Canada, Barnacle and Greylag will continue to arrive in vast numbers as they stop off in Britain to feed on their journey from the Arctic Circle. Expect to see impeccable V-shaped formations flapping across the skyline in one of nature’s most intriguing displays. Areas on the west coast are most likely to see the greatest numbers of arrivals, but there are a huge number of potential roosting spots dotted around the UK, including wetlands and nature reserves.
The annual deer rut is iconic of autumn. A steely sky provides the backdrop for an awe inspiring and violent contest that sees stags lock antlers in battle. Because does are only in their fertile stage for about a day each year competition is ferocious. The rut is a truly tremendous display of power from Britain’s most majestic creature and is certainly one of the highlights on nature’s calendar. Some of the best places to view such a spectacle are the Inner Hebrides, the Isle of Arran, Exmoor, Dartmoor and the New Forest. Watch from a safe distance and be careful not to disturb deer during the rutting season.
The changing colours of autumn are the most visible and obvious of all the spectacles. Trees are beginning to blaze with intense yellows, reds and copper and will continue to do so in the coming weeks. Combined with the golden veil of low autumn sun, treelines will soon become nature’s own enchanting canvas. These magnificent sights will adorn the whole of Britain, but Stourhead Gardens in Wiltshire usually boasts one of the best autumn pallets. Other places include Carbisdale Castle in the Highlands, Elan Valley in Powys, Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire and Grizedale Park in Cumbria.
An unassuming but charming spectacle is to be found under your feet this autumn. From September a glut of fungi began to populate forest floors, trees, meadows and fields. This makes for a forager’s wonderland but also presents a brilliant sight to simply observe. A great variety of species have already sprung up so draw your eyes away from the transfixing autumnal trees and onto the ground. The iconic fly agaric is certainly one to look out for.
The giant puffball is the largest fruitbody of any fungus and appears around this time of year, often the size of a large football or bigger. It is found in nutrient-rich grassy places such as parks, fields, roadside verges, scrub and woodland. This mushroom is edible when young and still white inside but should not be eaten after it has begun to decompose. The mushroom has also been used in bee keeping. Fumes from smoldering fruitbodies calm bees when placed beneath a hive.
September marks the start of conkers season and a flurry of activity on school playgrounds across the UK. The conker is the seed of the horse chestnut tree and is found in a green, hard, spiky casing. As the casing turns brown, it cracks and the conker falls out. An age-old favourite, the game of conkers involves attaching a piece of string through a hole in the conker and then swinging your conker with the aim of hitting, and eventually destroying your opponent’s conker.
After the successful pollination of rose plants in spring and early summer, the fruit of the rose, the rosehip, starts to ripen in autumn. Rosehips can be eaten and are widely used to make jam and herbal teas. They are also used frequently to make rosehip oil and are particularly high in vitamin C. Rosehips can be eaten raw but care should be taken to avoid the hairs inside the fruit. It has been claimed by some scientists and well-known actor Larry Lamb that rosehip is a brilliant pain relief for those suffering from arthritis or joint pain.
Goldfinches feeding on seed heads
Keen gardeners should avoid cutting off the seed heads of plants in the autumn, as some species, including goldfinches, love to feed on them. September provides lots of seed heads for goldfinches, allowing them a broad diet of groundsels, ragworts, dandelions and more. Male goldfinches are the only birds that are able to extract seeds from teasel heads, clinging to the stem and tearing into the seed head with their long, pointed beaks. Female goldfinches have shorter beaks and so are unable, like their male counterparts, to exploit the teasel heads.
Barking muntjac deer
Also known as barking deer, September is the perfect time to listen out for muntjac deer and their loud, characteristic bark. With a large population reaching almost every English county, and even a few in Scotland and Ireland, most people could spot, or at least hear, a muntjac deer relatively easily. Numerous circumstances lead to the distinctive bark, and other sounds include screaming by alarmed deer and squeaking by maternal does and kids. Their preferred habitat is woodland, but muntjac deer have increasingly been spotted in urban areas.
August and September are the best months to pick blackberries. Legend has it that after the end of September, the devil spoils the blackberries after a blackberry bush broke his fall from heaven. This may be a legend but it holds good advice – as the weather gets colder, the blackberries are not as good to eat. Remember to pick carefully, avoiding the lowest berries as foraging animals may have spoiled these. Jams and crumbles are the most popular uses for blackberries, but try making blackberry sorbet or blackberry wine this September. The berries can also be frozen for use at a later date.