October, 2009


We're about more than just birds (though obviously we like them a lot).

Notes on nature

We love nature... from every little bug on a blade of grass to birds, butterflies, otters and oaks!
  • Stoatally amazing!

    Stoat. Photo by Steve RoundOutside our window here at RSPB HQ, there's a massive pine tree. It's great for watching birds go about their business. Goldcrests hover among the needles, coal tits stash their sunflower seeds between the twigs, and sometimes there's even a nuthatch or a treecreeper wending its way up (or down) the rugged trunk.

    And, of course, there are plenty of grey squirrels climbing around in the tree. I often think about how much fun it looks to climb that pine tree; there are long, curving branches which look like they'd be just great if you were a small, furry creature. In fact, we often see pairs of squirrels chasing each other up and down, round and round and round...

    But enough daydreaming. We've just seen something astonishing!

    For some reason, I found myself looking out of the window and into the tree. And there, clambering up the trunk - which must measure nearly five feet across - was something brown with a white belly. It took me a few seconds to process what I was seeing.

    Not a grey squirrel.

    Can't be a red squirrel!

    Thin tail with a black tip...

    'There's a stoat climbing up the tree!' I squawked.

    I've seen stoats lots of times before: scampering across meadows, popping up from rabbit warrens and running along paths. But never up a tree.

    Higher and higher the stoat climbed. It was a natural tree-climber - it scampered up just as easily as any squirrel. A small crowd gathered by my desk to watch the intrepid mammal. Eventually, it got about two-thirds of the way up the tree, explored the branches up there and decided to come down again.

    'Hope we're not going to have to call the fire brigade,' I murmured. Not a chance. The stoat ran back down the trunk again - head first! - until it found one of the lovely curving branches which brought it down to a foot above the ground. From there, it peered down anxiously... and took a jump into the grass. And scurried off.

    Apparently, it's not uncommon for stoats to climb trees, especially during the bird breeding season when they go in search of nests to raid. But I'm impressed by our stoat's climbing prowess and exploring spirit. I'll be keeping an eye out for it in future...

  • Weird and wonderful

    There’s definitely a chill in the air and the nights are blacker, but don’t be afraid to go outside this Halloween. There are all kinds of weird and wonderful things cropping up in the natural world that you won’t want to miss!

    Fungi forays
    It’s a great time of year for finding mushrooms and toadstools and other fantastic fungi. They come in a huge variety of shapes and colours, and grow in all kinds of places – in the grass, among the leaf litter, on trees. They're excellent subjects for photography too so make sure you carry your camera when you're out and about. You should be able to find some in your garden too. Check your lawn for little toadstools that sometimes just crop up overnight as if by magic.

    Fungi have no green parts and don’t covert sunlight into energy using photosynthesis like plants. They get their nutrients from whatever they’re growing on, like roots and tree trunks and branches.

    There are thousands of different species in Britain and many have great names. King Arthur’s Cakes, purple jellydisk, yellow stagshorn, shaggy ink cap, slimy webcap, fairy ring champignon and plums and custard are some of my favourites. Beechwood sickener certainly sounds like one to steer clear of. If only all wildlife was as imaginatively named as fungi!

    There are all kinds of ancient superstitions – especially around toadstools. People thought toads sat on them and that fairies used them for umbrellas and danced on them.

    Many are poisonous (meaning you have to be very careful if you decide to pick your own mushrooms from the wild) and so were a natural draw for witches and their potion making.

    Spooky sounds

    The hooting of tawny owls is a classic spine-tingling sound from horror films - even those filmed in parts of the world where tawnies aren’t found! You should be able to hear tawny owls calling at this time of year. Females answer the hooting males with a sharp ‘ke-vick’ to make you jump if you're walking past in the dark with your senses heightened!

    Barn owls make a blood-curdling screech that would be right at home in a horror movie and foxes and muntjac deer can also startle you with their harsh barking calls.

    You might hear mysterious hisses coming from the night sky too, but don’t worry, it’s just the sound of flocks of redwings arriving from Scandinavia.

    Halloween specials

    Halloween is often associated with orange and black so I’be been racking my brains to think or orange and black wildlife. Let me know if you think of any! There are certainly plenty of orange berries out there at the moment and these are the very things that bring all of our winter-visiting thrushes here: fieldfares and those redwings I’ve already mentioned.

    And it wouldn’t be right to write a Halloween-themed blog without mentioning bats and spiders – those classic Halloween beasties.

    Spider’s webs glistening with early morning dew and the dusk flights of bats are both worth wrapping up warm and getting outside to see at either end of the shortening days.

    We've 17 species of bats in the UK and they'll be looking for places to hibernate in October and November because there isn't enough insect food for them in the cold weather. They need a cool place, like a tunnel, cave or building and actually slow down their breathing and heart rate. Their temperature drops when they are hibernating, so they use up very little energy.  You can help bats by putting up a bat box or two in your garden.

    And if you’d like to be shown great wildlife by experts, why not check out our events pages or visit a nature reserve near you?

  • Ears to the skies!

    Redwing. Photo by Steve RoundHere's a tip for tonight: go and stand outside in the dark, and listen. We're in the middle of that wonderful phenomenon that is bird migration.

    This morning, a few local birdwatchers went to stand on a hill near RSPB HQ in Bedfordshire (yes, Bedfordshire does have a few hills). They started just before 7 am. By the time 11.30 came round, they'd counted a gobsmacking total of 28,982 redwings, all flying west.

    You might say that standing around and counting birds flying over is a bit of a strange thing to do. Perhaps it is... but what an amazing number of birds for a landlocked location!

    Those thousands of redwings will have started their perilous journeys in Scandinavia last night. Redwings and other thrushes are nocturnal migrants, relying on the stars and whatever other mysterious means they use to find their way. The stream of birds will have continued all night, from over the cold North Sea, onto our east coast and pushing inland, even to Bedfordshire!

    If you fancy it, why not pop outside in the dark tonight. You don't need to go up a hill or to a nature reserve. Into your garden or street will do fine. Listen for a high-pitched call, a piercing 'ssiiiii', the sound of a redwing calling to its colleagues as it flies over.

    Or, if you're not much of a night owl, on an early walk tomorrow morning you might see flocks of redwings and other migrant birds zapping overhead. My friends also saw fieldfares, crossbills, woodpigeons, golden plovers, siskins and even five ring ouzels - close relatives of the blackbird which are Africa-bound! Here are a few of their photos.

    Even if you can't identify what you see, watch and wonder at the amazing feats of these feathered super-athletes. You won't regret it! But please tell us about your experience.