While my birding friends have been filling their boots with this autumn’s fest of rare birds, my eyes have been firmly fixed on the ground for the last few weeks.
My best friend Ade was lucky enough to be in on THE birding moment of the year when an adult male Siberian blue robin was found on North Ronaldsay on Sunday. I was excited to be one of only a handful of people who knew about it before the news broke late on Sunday afternoon. He texted me while watching it minutes after it had been discovered. I can only imagine how he felt to be watching such a beautiful bird that has only occurred a handful of times before in the UK.
Although it may well be the best year ever for the number of bird species recorded in the UK, including many wonderful birds like this super rare “Sibe”, another exceptional natural event has unfolded since late August.
Yellow stagshorn fungi, like many species, is having a good autumn (Mark Ward)
It is the autumn 2017 fungi bonanza which has captivated me. It has been the best year I can recall for fungi and that goes for both the numbers of fungi, but also the diversity and number of species to be seen. I’m sure the plentiful rainfall helped with the early flush.
I’ve been lucky enough to see several new species already this year, including some real rarities.
One of the many, many things that makes so many of us bird lovers is the fact that birds are everywhere. Can you think of may places where you can stand outdoors without seeing, or hearing, a bird? It's a good test to do when you get a chance! This is also true of fungi and I’ve found myself in all sorts of places this autumn on the hunt for it, from checking out cow pats in meadows, friendly neighbour’s lawns, rummaging among the heather on heaths and most recently checking the stems of dead reeds hoping for the hard to find handful of species that grow there. On Sunday, I did manage to find a single little toadstool clamped to a reed just an inch above the water at a Fenland site not far from me. Here it is.
Wetland toadstool awaiting confirmation from the experts! (Mark Ward)
My photos of this are currently with the experts at the British Mycological Society who I am hoping can confirm the identification for me. I’m hoping it is something really good...
I hope you read the Autumn colours blog I wrote last week here on the Nature's Home blog and have sent us your photos of the best autumn colours you've captured. Jack also captured the autumn beautifully last week, including some rather fine fungi shots. There are so many species to be seen now but one group has been continually catching my eye over the last couple of weeks. Waxcaps are looking great at the moment from the slimy greens of parrot waxcaps and the bright yellow of golden waxcaps to the more subtle orange of meadow and white of snowy waxcaps to the glorious red of scarlet waxcaps. Get down on your hands and knees and search among the blades of grass for these lovely fungi. That sudden burst of colour among the green is a real treat.
Waxcaps are looking at their best on short turf and lawns now (Mark Ward)
On the back of our ask for your autumn photos, I have seen some wonderful images, including one sent by a reader from the Midlands of a butterfly I haven’t seen before in the UK: a Camberwell beauty! More on that jealousy-inducing sighting and your other sightings this autumn to come, so stay tuned, enjoy the next few weeks and make sure you email firstname.lastname@example.org with your stories and photos.
There are lots more wildlife-watching tips in Nature's Home magazine every quarter and it is free to every RSPB member. We're now bringing you the action month-by-month, so you'll never be short of ideas and advice to help you make the most of each season and find the best wildlife!
On Tuesday, our Bristol-based Nature's Home magazine team headed out on a mission to ‘get under the bonnet’ of the RSPB’s work, get our hands dirty (literally - seriously, they got good and filthy!) and enjoy a day’s volunteering on a wetland island at RSPB Ham Wall, in the Somerset Levels.
We had a great time in splendid surroundings - in the shadow of ancient Glastonbury Tor. We were kept company by bitterns, great white egrets and marsh harriers - as well as huge hawker dragonflies and shoals of leaping fish.
Reserve staff Ali and Steve showed us around and explained the task ahead. Here’s how it went….
Our task was to clear this island of recently-felled reeds, to prepare it for winter waterfowl and provide them with a safe roost. (Don't worry, the reeds will grow back in the spring)
The only way to reach the islet was in this little reserve boat, which carried all of us (in two trips), all our lunch, drinks and refreshments, plus safety kit and the all-important rakes and pitchforks! It was great fun rowing through a reedbed - even if we had to row back again every time someone needed the loo!
October soon felt like midsummer as we got stuck into some heavy-duty raking.
We cleared areas where we could safely burn the cut reeds.
Then we used huge metal rakes to roll giant reed sausages, and pitchfork them into a pile. We then carefully fed the fires from these piles using pitchforks, to make sure that any lurking island creatures were not put at risk.
In the realm of the bittern... Reeds generally like having their feet wet, but the water levels were low this week so I was able to poke my nose (albeit only a few centimetres) into a mysterious new habitat.
By clearing the island we found lots of evidence of wildlife using it; from caches of maize carried in from nearby fields, to this rotting pike's head - leftovers from an otter's feast.
By lunchtime we had over half the site cleared... and developed huuuuuggge appetites! Fortunately, Steve and Ali had brought vast quantities of cake, tea, coffee and water to supplement our packed lunches.
We disturbed several toads of various sizes among the cut reeds, so I relocated them all to the safety of sheltered, muddy areas at the water's edge. This one was pretty cute!
We were determined to finish the job and leave nothing but the bare ground the waterfowl need - so we worked extra hard through the afternoon to clear it all. We're all usually desk-bound so it was a physical challenge - but not a single one of us would swap this for a day in the office!
By about 3pm we'd cleared and burned all of the cut reeds, leaving nothing but a few smouldering patches and an area of clear ground, all ready for the winter arrivals to come and make use of.
That allowed us a bit of time for some birdwatching, so we rowed back to shore and wandered around with our binoculars, watching a beautiful female marsh harrier gliding over the reedbeds, while another marsh harrier got bullied by some plucky crows. Late butterflies flitted beneath the trees, a great egret dozed in the middle distance, a skein of geese zoomed over our heads and came to land in the shallows.
We even saw a bittern, flying surprisingly high above the reedbeds before plunging into them, not far from where we stood. What a fantastic reward for our hard work.
It's incredible to think that the reserve - and many others like it - must clear areas of reeds every autumn to give a home to winter bird populations, only for it to return to lush reedbed the following spring. It's hard work, year after year, but just one example of why the RSPB needs volunteers.
Despite our sore muscles afterward, we found it empowering, rewarding, invigorating, interesting and fun. We learned a lot about habitat management and enjoyed working as a team.
It was a day we'll always remember, and I very much envy those regular volunteers who get to enjoy this nature-workout every week! Seriously, if you're ever at a loose end, contact the RSPB about volunteering opportunities. There's something out there for everyone!
Visit rspb.org.uk/volunteering to enjoy free, rewarding nature experiences of your own and keep an eye on your Nature's Home magazine for stories from other volunteers.
Nature ebbs and flows through art and culture. Projections on cave walls transcend time, and bridge the gulf between people now and people of the past. Those early images were of life; both humans and other animals. Ever since, nature has had an intrinsic bond with art.
I have the privilege of being invited to attend the Society of Wildlife Artists annual exhibition most years, and this year I had the daunting responsibility for choosing the winner of the RSPB prize. Many of the artists showing work are involved in RSPB projects, most recently documenting our work on Wallasea Island. The artwork produced during this project is an important cultural documentation of the relationship between people and nature, and was the source of inspiration for the 2015 winner, Greg Poole. His image of a short-eared owl against the background of the machinery being used to create its hunting grounds perfectly captured the rawness of the earthworks and hunter in action.
Alongside the art of SWLA members hangs the winners, runners-up and highly commended pieces from our children’s art competition: Wild Art. It’s a wonderful opportunity for young and not-so-young wildlife artists to enjoy each other's work and be inspired. You can read more about our Wild Art competition in this past blog.
I could talk about art and nature for hours and hours, but both topics speak better for themselves. Below are some of my favourite pieces, and of course pieces by this year’s winner of the RSPB award, Dafila Scott.
Little Auks, Hyttevika, Svalbard (Claire Harkess)
Dead Sea Swifts (John Foker, SWLA)
Scissor Bee-eater (Harriet Smith, PSWLA)
Barn Owl in Flight (Simon Griffiths, ASWLA)
St Abbs Kittiwakes (Kim Atkinson, SWLA)
Hen Harrier at Wicken Fen (Brin Edwards, SWLA)
Gatekeepers and Bees on Scabious (Greg Poole, SWLA)
Nesting Razorbills, St Abbs (Wynona Legg)
Rising Water and Curlew (Dafila Scott, SWLA) - I loved all of Dafila's work on show
Bittern over the Fen (Dafila Scott, SWLA) - the winning piece
Do try and get to the exhibition if you can. Click here for all the details.