Saturday 12 September 2015

More to autumn than bird migration?

What The Flicking-tail-of-a-Redstart has got into me?! OK, I’ll admit, as I wander the Hemel moors and Bovingdon scrub, my ears are pricked for that unusual call; eyes peeled for the leap of a Pied Flycatcher or the hint of grey of a skulking bruiser (aka Barred Warbler). During the last couple of weeks, it seemed like every birder in the county was finding a Wryneck, so, yes, I had hopes. But, how ever warm the welcome or suitable the habitat, the birds aren’t stopping. My piqued senses have to alight on something other than our feathered friends.

Instead of bird calls, it’s the crunch of acorns under foot. There’s a particular Oak at the Brickworks which really is a very fine specimen. I’ve spent many hours stood beneath its branches, hoping for Purple Hairstreaks. This autumn, it’s produced acorns to fit the palm of an angry Bruce Banner. Whoppers, they are!

At Roughdown Common, prompted by Steve Gale’s recent post, I went looking for Autumn Lady’s-Tresses (not that it’s ever been recorded here before). Instead, I found the very pretty Autumn Gentian (Gentianella amarella). Its tiny tubular flowers are just beginning to open. I don’t know much about it other than it’s late flowering and favours these dry calcareous grasslands or sand dunes. There's a detailed write up here by someone far more knowledgeable. It’s listed as one of the plants contributing to the SSSI status of Roughdown Common so it’s obviously not commonplace. And, it's clearly spread since the SSSI survey. There, it's listed as present on the slopes of the chalk dell (Lower Roughdown). However, I found an abundance of flowers all across the grassland of Further Roughdown, to the west.

It’s autumn amongst the butterflies too. The most abundant species at the Brickworks this week was the Speckled Wood. There are at least 9 of them around the site with a few remaining Common Blues, Small Whites and the odd Red Admiral and Comma. Four Southern Hawker dragonflies were also still around, which is a bonus.

At home, an autumn moth, an Orange Swift (Triodia sylvina), dropped in for supper one evening this week, landing on the outside of the kitchen window. I potted it up, photographed it and let it back out into the night air. It's a species of "waste ground, moorland and wild places". I'm not sure which of those best describes my postage stamp of a suburban back garden!? The larvae feed on a variety of plants.

And, finally, on Friday, I could resist the draw of the birds no longer. I returned to a stretch of land I used to watch fairly regularly, just north of Hemel, along the River Gade. It’s not Ivinghoe Beacon (a migration watch point) but I’ve had a few nice surprises here. Migrants have included a Spotted Flycatcher, Stonechat and Yellow Wagtails and, one winter, a male Pintail joined the Teal and Gadwall on the fishing pools.

Anyway, my luck was in on Friday and, along with a pair of peeping Kingfishers, I found a flock of 11 Yellow Wagtails amongst the cattle. It’s one of my favourite sights and sounds of migration. Little yellow birds scurrying around the feet of hoofing great cows, chirruping, posing, preening and fluttering together. And, such a lovely mix of colours and markings: from the bright yellow of the adult males to the almost pure white chests of the first winter birds. It was a shame the grass was so long as many of the birds were barely visible on the ground. I managed to photograph 5 of the 11, 3 of which seem to be admiring the big cow casting the long shadow. It is entirely deliberate that not one of them is in focus!

So, there we are. Trees, plants, butterflies, moths, birds and I didn't even mention the abundance of fungi everywhere, thanks to the wet August. Autumn spans the species...


  1. Was at RSPB Langford Lowfields yesterday, lots of Common Darter and Migrant Hawker. Had a few orange swifts last year on the front door window, but none this year.

    Definitely speckled woods are the commonest species around at the moment. Your picture has fabulous detail!

    1. Thanks Simon. I hope it didn't take too long to recover from the 40km you cycled to get to/from the RSPB site!

  2. Another excellent post Lucy, and very well done on the Autumn gentian, a plant I've still not seen, great find!

    1. Hi Martin, it's lovely to hear enthusiasm for the little gentian, thank you :o). It seems it must have spread from the slopes of the Lower Roughdown chalk bowl onto the grassland of Further Roughdown over the last 20-30 years (since the SSSI survey). I had no idea it was there, lol. I hope you get the chance to pop over to see it and thanks again for your encouraging comments.


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