After a week of mild, bright weather that really felt autumnal, snow fell on the hills and a cold wind blew in, stripping the last of the leaves off the trees and whipping up those on the ground into mounds and lines, heaping them up against any object that got in its way.
The last vestiges of autumn were blown away and we could not longer pretend - winter is with us again.
On the ‘last week of autumn’ as I will call it, I actually found a butterfly fluttering against the window of the greenhouse. I gently moved it to the dark shelter of the shed, where it can escape should it really wish to, but where it is more likely to find itself a dry dark corner among the struts of the wooden roof and settle down to hibernate. I have kept meaning to check and see if it is there, although the darkly marbled undersides of their wings when they are folded up make it quite difficult to spot in a murky shed.
I have noticed in the evening, just as the darkness is falling, that some small birds are going into one of the nest boxes. They must be roosting there. I have cleaned the remains of the old nest out of the box, so it should be relatively hygienic place to spend the night. I cannot tell what species of bird they are, as the light is too poor by that time of the evening and I do not want to get too close for fear of disturbing them, but it is enough to know that the box is being put to good use in the winter as well as during the gentler seasons.
Birds, particularly the smaller ones, can be very creative in finding cosy spots to find shelter from the cold, wet, winter weather. Many choose deep evergreen trees and bushes to roost in. A tawny owl often roosts in a large yew tree that I know of or sometimes in the top of the Scots pines in my wood. Starlings in their thousands, find the security and shelter they need either among reed beds in the country or if they are city slickers, along the ledges of buildings where not only are they safe, but a few degrees warmer than their country roosting cousins.
Wrens are known to roost crushed tightly together in cavities in trees, or empty nest boxes. I once accidentally came across this, and at first glance, the nestbox looked like it was just full of loose feathers, so tightly packed and puffed up were they.
One of the oddest roosts I have seen is in the bark of a Wellingtonia tree. Tree creepers will excavate a small hollow, just the right size to take their body comfortably. The bark of Wellingtonia is very soft and fibrous, so will be easier to hollow into and also I would imagine the fibrous quality will be a good insulator. I have only once been privileged enough to actually see three birds in different holes on the lee side of a tree - heads, feet and bodies tucked well into the tree, feathers puffed up, they looked like strange growths on the tree. The person who kindly took me to see them in Perthshire says that she has seen as many as eight at a time on this particular tree. They seemed in a deep slumber as, although we were quite a distance away, I would have thought that our voices and torches would have disturbed them, but no, they slept on peacefully.
During the day, I re-visited the tree and the whole of the one side of the tree, plus part of the two less sheltered sides, were riddled with these little tree creeper-sized indentations. I have heard that they do not always use the same hole, so the expression ‘making your bed’ takes on a whole new meaning. The dents were all on the lower part of the trunk, the highest being about nine or ten feet up. There were quite a number of these large tree specimens all over this particular wood and most of them contained some roosting spots. The high tops of these trees also supported a huge roost of rooks that poured in at dusk. The tree creepers may have found a cosy spot, but quiet it was not at least until the late evening revellers, the rooks, settled down for the night.
We used to call Wellingtonias ‘punch trees’ when we were children and some of the older boys used to impress the younger ones by ‘punching’ the tree without harming themselves . The ‘punch’ I have to say was what you might term ‘pulled’, consisting more of noise and a big swing rather than a hard impact, a bit like an old cowboy movie punch, but it still gained the awe of the younger ones.
The fibrous tree is a bit spongy and will absorb a certain amount of impact, but it is not to be recommended, as some of those younger children discovered, ending up with sore, bruised knuckles!
Funnily enough, large supermarket car parks can be a great place for birdwatching. Much of the area surrounding the car parks have berry-bearing trees and shrubs and attract many birds, but the dense growth, often evergreen, so that it looks good all year, attract large numbers of roosting birds too. I watched ‘Autumnwatch’ a few weeks ago as they observed a pied wagtail roost containing hundreds of birds in a some bushes alongside a city building and I remembered that I saw just such a spectacle about five years ago in some large evergreen bushes alongside the car park of a supermarket in the centre of Perth.
If you are late night Christmas shopping in December, maybe you could fit in a bit of birdwatching too if you keep your eyes open. During the day too it is worth watching out as you battle your way through the crowds, as the waxwings are back in town! Visit my website: www.janemilloy.co.uk <http://www.janemilloy.co.uk/>