Nature Notes for September with Malcolm Cox

Orange footman moth
Orange footman moth
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The end of summer or the start of autumn, September asks. I was planning to offer some sort of summary of our local butterfly and dragonfly season, but should also mention moths I suppose as there is much interest in these insects now, even if they usually take second place to butterflies.

Most observers will know that 2016 was not a good year for the above mentioned. That mini heat wave in late July gave a bit of jolt, however if you blinked you may have missed it, so any worthwhile summary can wait until autumn proper is with us. We were pleased when a new neighbour announced that he was an avid “moth-er” and even though his moth trap is not yet permanently set up he did produce a moth that was new to me. The orange footman is by no means uncommon, but I was pleased to add it to my list. Elephant hawk-moths were also caught on the same night and of course summer has produced those regular day flying moths, silver Y’s. Not a single painted lady has appeared within the garden’s boundaries but we recorded a few peacocks and red admirals, and strolling Church Bank here in St Clement reveals a second brood of brimstone.

A juvenile pied wagtail

A juvenile pied wagtail

Only two dragonflies have been seen in the garden, both zoomed by before they could be identified. One blue-tailed damselfly entered the house looking weary before promptly expiring. We do however hope for a few more of these ordonata before the first real chills descend.

This period also offers a chance to assess the garden’s failures and successes. Despite the purchase of brand new raspberry canes I have a fence lined with dense foliage but barely a berry in sight. Our strawberry crop was likewise grim. Advice from readers would be welcome. Our regular blackbirds look accusingly, it has long been a delight to sit on our bench and watch these thieves approach to within arms length before seizing their prize, then flying for cover.

We had no garden nesters at all this year, even dunnocks ignored the tangle of clematis and honeysuckle which normally offers a refuge. Blackbirds which nested beyond our boundaries however have as usual been indulged with daily mealworms, irresistibly high protein packets. Now, youngsters from at least three broods are especially confiding. They appear whenever we enter the garden, hopping at our heals into the garage where they know their food is stored. I like to think that they have come to appreciate our company. Hopelessly anthropomorphic of course, yet when they flaunt and flap in the bird bath at such close quarters and fix me with those black beady eyes, I imagine an acknowledgement, a connection. These juveniles will soon be chased away by their parents as they claim winter territories.

We were delighted at the recent appearance of a young pied wagtail. We usually see adults between November and April. I wondered just how long our pale grey youngster will take to achieve the smart black and white of adult plumage. Other small birds such as robins and tits have been rather inconspicuous while jackdaws, rooks and magpies have grown boulder scooping up large food items that we leave out even if they have to beat the gulls to it. Perhaps not all are welcome by neighbours but their noisy aerobatics we find irresistible.

Green Woodpecker

Green Woodpecker

Sunflowers thankfully have again been very successful. I cosseted home-grown seedlings during cold and windy weather. Planted out in late June they now stand tall. They will provide a larder of seeds for finches and the occasional mouse brave enough to risk the climb. At least two green woodpeckers have foraged the green area opposite our house. They cast all caution aside announcing their arrival with ridiculous “yaffling”, then probe the turf for whatever invertebrate prey they can find. Neighbours report visits from great spotted “peckers” but they give our garden a miss.

A lady dog walker seeing my binoculars stopped to chat as I walked the footpath that runs alongside St Clement Parish Church (splendid 14th Century font hood). She recounted a sad tail of her nest box housing a family of blue tits being raided by these birds. Sadly they will sometimes do that. We remind ourselves that they too have young to feed, nature does not allow for sentiment.

The phacelia that I grew produced a decent amount of bee visits. Readers will probably be aware that once again the subject of neonicotinoid insecticides is on the agenda. Withdrawal from the EU will ease controls which will please some farmers. I knew nothing of phacelia until about fifteen years ago when I noticed that a local apiarist filled most of his garden with this wonderful crop. It is now occasionally grown as a field margin crop for foraging honey bees and their wild bumble/humble cousins. Alas this subject is far too complex for all but the briefest mention in these notes. Next month’s notes will inevitably feature those “mists and mellow fruitfulness” subjects, so make the most of what is left of summer.