Header Image © Luc Viator, creative commons licence
The leaves are turning orange, and the conkers and acorns are dropping. The change from summer to autumn is one of the most magical times of the year for children. But what plants and animals should we look out for, among the fallen leaf litter?
This guide picks out the natural wonders that would particularly appeal to kids, and which you might find without too much trouble if you keep your eyes and ears open.
Think squirrels are the only creatures to cache acorns in the autumn? Not so. Catch a flash of pink and blue and you’ve probably glimpsed a jay. These large, beautiful birds (pictured above) are closely related to crows, but without the bolshy attitude. During the summer months, they hide away in the woods, a tricky bird to glimpse. Come autumn and they get a little bolder. You may find one pecking around on the edge of a park, particularly near oak trees. They’re looking for their favourite food -- acorns, which they’ll then bury for winter -- and do so with a distinctive screech. Indeed, the jay’s Latin name is Garrulus glandarius, which means ‘chattering gatherer of acorns’.
Blackberries and other fruit
Even the most nature-dodging indoors-lover must be aware that September means blackberries. The fruits are everywhere right now, poking out of hedges down every alley and parkway. Sloe berries and damsons are also very common. Both are blue-purple berries with a white patina, and are easily mistaken. The surest way to tell them apart is to look at the wider bush. Sloes have sharp thorns, while damsons do not. Sloes also tend to grow closer to the branch, while damsons dangle.
Clouded Yellow Butterfly
Most UK butterflies are on the wing during spring and summer, with fewer sightings in the autumn. One distinctive exception is the clouded yellow, which is also seen in September. It’s the only yellow butterfly you’re likely to spot, and so is easily identifiable (the brimstone, also active in September, is more of a yellow-green and lacks black markings). They prefer countryside settings (especially chalk grassland), but can pop up anywhere -- particularly where clover grows.
As the famous song asks: “What does the fox say?” Well, if you live near any kind of open space, you’ll probably find the answer on a September evening. Open the windows to the night air and listen out for a variety of shrieking and wailing noises, disturbingly reminiscent of an injured child. Those be foxes. They get particularly vocal in September and October, as the next generation reach maturity and start leaving the den. You’re also most likely to encounter a fox on the streets at this time of year, particularly around potential food sources, like open bins. They are bold yet careful creatures, not afraid to venture into the human realm. One was even discovered at the top of London’s Shard skyscraper during its construction phase.
Voles can be a tricky spot. They’re small and shy, and quickly scamper away if they sense humans. You’ll need to head to a river bank, preferably somewhere away from roads and other noisy places. Late September is your best bet for catching sight of one. The young generation will have reached a size where they’re beginning to head out, plus the diminishing vegetation makes them more visible. Their burrows are quite distinctive -- small holes in the river bank close to water level. If you sit still -- preferably at distance with binoculars -- you may see these charismatic creatures popping in and out.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.