The latest report from Michael Walter:
Russet, orange and red are rapidly becoming the order of the day, now that summer has very definitely lost its grip. One of my favourite shrubs is the guelder rose; not very frequent at Blean Woods, it is providing some fiery colour now, but is interesting for much of the year. In early summer it produces exuberant plates of white flowers, rather like the flattened parasols of cow parsley, except that an outer ring of much larger, but sterile, flowers helps attract insects’ attention to the inner fertile ones. But not all insects move in just to oblige guelder rose with fertilisation duties; some are more interested in eating its leaves, which the viburnum leaf beetle can quickly reduce to green lace. But at this time the bush really comes into its own as, if growing in plenty of sunlight, its leaves turn a rich vinaceous hue while its berries ripen to a temptingly lustrous red. Mildly toxic to humans, the berries are also apparently avoided by most animals, as they can linger on the stem, gradually shrivelling up, for weeks. Did guelder rose evolve in a part of the world where a mammal that doesn’t occur in the UK gorged on the luscious fruits?
Another spark of colour is provided by the small orange fruits of lily-of-the-valley, which is native to this country and behaves like a wild plant in Blean Woods, where it occurs as occasional bright green carpets. Flowering is rather sparse in the generally heavy shade of the wood, and fruiting even less common, but this September more lilies than usual have produced their colourful berries, often only one or two on each old flower spike, and easily overlooked so close to the ground.
Siskins, and to a lesser extent redpolls, have been much in evidence already this autumn, and I have even had flocks of up to 13 in my garden on two occasions this autumn. Siskins tend to be transient visitors in the wood, peaking in early autumn and again in early spring as they move to and from breeding areas that are predominantly in Scotland, northern England and Wales or further afield in Europe. Formerly only a winter visitor to Kent, siskins are now breeding in the county in small numbers as their favoured conifer habitats mature. The fortunes of the lesser redpoll have followed a very different trajectory: this species prefers the younger stages of conifer plantations, so benefited from the numerous afforestation projects in Kent during the 1960s and 1970s. It didn’t start breeding in Kent until 1960, and was numerous across the county by the late 1970s, but as the plantations developed so the redpolls moved out, and it is now primarily a winter visitor here. Unlike the siskin, it tends to remain on the reserve right through the winter months, although its numbers vary markedly from year to year.
I saw my final second generation heath fritillary on 15th September, by which time the butterfly season had fizzled out disappointingly, after such a splendid display of insect fireworks in early spring, when the colour was provided mainly by numerous peacocks and brimstones. But, then again, one of the great pleasures of observing wildlife is that every year is different.
Guelder rose berries
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