Written by Heather Elvidge
The days have a feeling of autumn now, although many trees and shrubs remain green. Yet the season is changing; this weekend the clocks are going back.
It’s a bit cruel, tipping us suddenly into darker evenings. It takes days – up to a fortnight, say psychologists – to adjust to sunset happening one hour earlier.
As the sun sinks, Britain’s favourite birds are singing it to bed. Robins near and far declare ownership of their winter territories with a sweet, melancholy trilling, more restrained than their courting song in spring. A very different sound comes from skeins of migrating geese, calling to each other as they sail overhead.
Geese also fly at night. The approach of an invisible host, gabbling and barking in the dark sky, is oddly disturbing. People used to say this was the sound of lost souls seeking refuge, or hunters rounding up the souls of the damned.
In the north the unseen pack was known as the Gabriel Ratchets. The archangel Gabriel, God’s messenger to humankind, was also believed to be the angel of death; ratchet is an old name for a hound.
Other visitors have been arriving recently. Whooper swans from Iceland mainly spend the winter on northern lochs and lakes, although some venture as far south as Norfolk. They’re about the same size as our mute swans, but whoopers have a yellow and black beak and make a distinctive, trumpeting call.
Also from Iceland come flocks of little snow buntings. They’re sandy and white birds that tend to stay on the coast, where they pick up seeds left by the tide. A few speckled brown Lapland buntings are here too, and they’ve been spotted on the east coast.
The summer turned out to be a good one for butterflies, with many enjoying the warm sun of early October. But what happens to them when the weather turns?
It’s no surprise that they disappear. Butterflies, and most moths, need warmth in order to be active, and anyway there’s hardly anything for them to feed on.
Painted lady butterflies and silver Y moths avoid our winter by flying to warmer climes. Many others die, leaving eggs, caterpillars, or pupae hidden away in places where they can survive the cold months.
A few adult butterflies and moths over-winter in a dormant state. Brimstone and comma butterflies doze until spring. Red admirals will venture out if the day is favourable, heading for the one plant with nectar and pollen still on offer – evergreen ivy. At present it’s covered with small, pale green globes, made up of tiny flowers. These are a valuable source of food for insects up until Christmas.
The butterflies we’re most likely to come across now are small tortoiseshells and peacocks. They come into our houses, looking for somewhere cool and dry. This tactic backfires when we turn up our heating, because then they wake up.
If you find one in an unsuitable spot, catch it carefully. Take it to an unheated room, shed, garage, or porch, and encourage it onto the wall or ceiling. Remember it will need to escape, come the spring.