Header image: House martin at nest in barn, Credit: John Markham (rspb-images.com)
Summer might be drawing to a close but there are plenty of opportunities to see some amazing wildlife whenever you’re out and about. Look up, look down…it’s waiting for you!
We’re at the time of year when summer visitors and their new young are starting to leave the UK, returning south to sunnier shores. But the breeding season isn’t quite over for everyone. Some pairs of house martins are now onto their second or even third broods, so there’s still a chance to see fledglings leaving the nest.
Most active in the mornings and evenings, house martins can be identified by their forked tails, pure white undersides and blue-black upper parts (except for the white rump on their back). If you’re having trouble telling them apart from swifts or swallows, take a look at this handy guide.
They collect mud to build their cup-shaped nests, which are typically found on the outside eaves of buildings. Four or five eggs are laid at daily intervals, and after 14 to 16 days the chicks will hatch together. The juveniles will remain close to the nest site after fledging and often choose to roost in the nest for several weeks. Keep an eye out for pre-migratory groups as house martins gather together in preparation for their long journey south.
Photo: House martin adults and young gathering on a TV aerial in preparation for migration, Credit: Nick Upton (rspb-images.com)
You may soon start noticing that winged visitors to your garden are starting to look a touch scruffy. This isn’t the result of a few too many big nights out, but rather because at this time of year our garden birds are moulting. This year’s young will be losing their juvenile feathers and gaining their adult plumage, while older birds gain a brand-new coat to see them through the winter months.
Feathers come in for a fair bit of wear and tear during the summer, so by shedding these damaged ones and regrowing a new set, adults are ready to take on the cold and wet winter weather ahead. Robins are only six or seven weeks old before they begin what’s called a partial moult – shedding their speckled juvenile feathers and growing new plumage that gives them the iconic orange-red breast and olive-brown back. They keep their wing feathers though and won’t moult these until next year.
Photo: Juvenile robin moulting into adult plumage, Credit: Brian Ludwig (rspb-images.com)
Whenever you’re out and about in the countryside, it’s always important to watch your step. Over half of England’s most threatened breeding bird species nest on the ground, so sticking to footpaths and taking care where you place your feet is an easy way to help keep nests safe during the breeding season. What’s more, by keeping an eye on the ground at this time of year, you might be lucky enough to spot a grass snake.
Photo: An adult grass snake flicking its tongue out, credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Grass snakes are one of the three native species of snake we have in the UK. The other two are adders and smooth snakes. They are greenish in colour, have distinctive yellow and black collars around their necks, and black markings down the length of their bodies. Grass snakes are also our largest reptile, but don’t worry, they’re non-venomous and very shy, typically making for cover at the first hint of danger.
So where are you likely to see a grass snake? Wetland areas are your best bet, especially if there’s a good supply of their favourite food – frogs and toads. You might also be lucky enough to find one in your garden, especially if you have a pond. Grass snakes are fantastic swimmers and will confidently take to the water to find prey.
Being cold-blooded, grass snakes need the sun’s heat to warm themselves up. As long as the weather holds, you should still have a few weeks left to see these wonderful reptiles basking in the late summer sunshine. From October, they’ll disappear underground or seek out a cosy space in a compost heap, hiding themselves away during the colder months before emerging from hibernation in March or April. If you have a compost heap in your garden, always be sure to turn it with care to avoid disturbing any visitors.
Photo: Grass snake basking in the sun, Credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
If you’re keen to make your own green space more attractive to wildlife, and perhaps introduce a water feature that might catch the eye of a passing grass snake, be sure to take a look at our Nature on Your Doorstep series of blogs and videos. Here you’ll find handy hints and tips to encourage garden visitors, as well as more advanced projects to get your teeth into.
The UK is home to an incredible variety of butterflies and moths. If you’re relaxing in the garden or enjoying a walk over the coming weeks, be sure to keep an eye out for some of the amazing caterpillars that can be found in our gardens and open spaces. As mentioned above, our Nature on Your Doorstep series is a great place to find information on the right plants to attract butterflies, moths and bees to your garden.
While the adult cinnabar moth is known for its distinctive bright red spots and stripes, cinnabar caterpillars can be identified by their black and yellow stripes. Female moths lay their eggs on the underside of ragwort leaves, and you’ll be able to see the caterpillars feeding on the plant from July to early September.
Image: cinnabar moth, Credit: Chris Shields (rspb-images.com)
Large white butterfly
Cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts might not be to everyone’s taste, but they certainly go down well with large white butterfly caterpillars. In fact, the caterpillars can severely damage brassica crops so they’re typically not best friends with keen gardeners and allotment holders. Female large whites lay between 40 and 100 yellowish eggs on the undersides of leaves, which after a few weeks hatch into green-yellow caterpillars with bold black spots.
Photo: large white butterfly caterpillar, Credit: Jenny Tweedie (rspb-images.com)
Glance at a comma butterfly caterpillar and you might well mistake it for a bird dropping. This impressive ability to blend into its surroundings allows the caterpillar to stay under the radar of potential predators while it munches its way through nettle leaves. Keep an eye out for this species in open woodland and on woodland edges.
With their green bodies, pale yellowish stripes and a blue ‘horn’ at the tail end, lime hawk-moth caterpillars are certainly distinctive. They usually frequent parks and gardens where they feed on the leaves of lime, birch, alder and elm trees after dark. Once mature, the caterpillar changes colour to a purplish-grey. You’re most likely to see them between July and September – be sure to keep an eye on the trunks of lime trees and on the ground at this time of year as they’ll be looking for a safe place to pupate.
The buff-tip moth is another master of disguise. The adult moth bears a startling resemblance to a broken silver birch twig. The caterpillars are easier to spot with their hairy yellow bodies and black markings, and black heads. Watch out for them between July and early October in areas of open woodland, particularly on the leaves of goat willow, birch, oak and hazel trees.
Whether you’re planning to spend more time in the garden over the next few weeks, explore your local park or head out into the countryside, keep an eye out and you’re sure to be treated to some amazing late summer wildlife spots.
Looking for inspiration? Be sure to check out what’s happening at RSPB reserves in your local area by visiting our events page.
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