Throughout 2010 I am revisiting the little green nature book that accompanied my childhood and trying to track down the plants and animals featured in its monthly sketchbook pages. I’m learning a lot as I go along.
The book is “Wild Life Through the Year” by Richard Morse and it was published in 1942. You can read about earlier months here.
October 2010 in South Wales has been typically autumnal, with some very nippy, dry, clear days and some wet and blustery, depending on the wind direction, cold North/East or warm South/West. There was also sometimes a rumble of thunder and some hail. The first white frost of the year came on October 25, with Jack Frost’s leaves all over the windows of cars on the street.
Everyone I know has suffered from a cold or worse as the weather has changed.
In the garden the Mahonia media Charity is in full yellow flower, attracting bees, the Hydrangeas are going brown, the Fuchsias are hanging on in there but the Nasturtiums will soon be smashed by a harder frost.
The colour in October comes mostly from the autumn leaves. The native trees tend to turn golden, while the non-native trees give a wonderful red – you can see those in my red leaves of autumn blog post.
It has been a rather unsuccessful month on the wildlife observation front. The orb-web spiders are still growing and I have taken some more pictures, some with my new DSLR camera, although I now need a macro/micro lens. I managed to get a reasonably clear image of a fly.
I also caught sight of a shield bug on a door frame in the dark in the early part of the month.
On another occasion I held a little black beetle that refused to stand, so I assume it was dying. They eat slugs so are NOT a garden pest.
On October 30 I was delighted to see a red admiral from my window. It was attracted by the yellow Mahonia flowers but then settled on the Choisya ternata.
I was able to grab my trusty old Olympus compact camera in time…
I have seen no rare birds, only the usual suspects.
There was one interesting scene, although I didn’t catch it on camera. A feral black cat ran across the garden, a dead grey squirrel floppy in its mouth. I chased it and a fox met it from the other direction. There was an unseen kerfuffle behind a bush and the fox reappeared with the squirrel in its mouth.
Here is what you would expect to see in October in the 1940s…
1. Ripening beech nuts 2. Ripening sweet chestnuts 3. Winter moths, female and male 4. Fieldfare 5. Yarrow 6. Corn marigold 7. Redwing 8. Death’s head moth 9. House spider 10. Cypress feather-moss 11. Pixie-cup lichen 12. Footprints of house mouse
1. Ripening beech nuts – Fagus sylvatica
There’s a big beech tree at the bus stop I use every day, just as there were huge beeches at one of the village bus stops when I was a child. They grow so tall and the canopies start so high that it’s hard to see the beech fruit until they ripen and fall.
The seed cases are hairy and when they open into four lobes two triangular seeds fall out. The fallen seed cases are very light and dry and make a distinctive tickly (not quite tinkly) sound as they swirl around on the hard road or pavement. But I don’t expect this until next month.
As a child I was told they were called beech masts, so I thought each seed case was a mast, but the word “mast” means all the fruit or forest trees on which swine feed – oak, beech, chestnut. The word comes from the Old English maest, meaning feed.
2. Ripening sweet chestnuts – Castanea sativa
While the beech nuts arrive later here than in the little green book, the sweet chestnuts arrive earlier. I saw some on my Taff Trail walk in September and have even seen them in August on a trip to Yorkshire.
3. Winter moths, female and male – Operophtera brumata
I don’t see many moths – apart from on the outside of the glass of the back door at night, attracted to the light. I now realise I saw one of these in just such circumstances a week ago.
I had to squeeze around the edge of the door to look at its top side without letting it into the kitchen, dismissed it as pretty boring and squeezed back in again. I didn’t even take a picture, to my regret.
But seeing this image from Wikimedia I’m pretty sure it is what I saw. According to Richard Morse it is a newcomer in October and “The females are totally incapable of flight”.
4. Fieldfare – Turdus pilaris
& 7. Redwing – Turdus iliacus
See my January wildlife blog post for this, as in this part of the country we are more likely to see these cold-weather relatives of the thrush in snowy weather after Christmas. I used these same images then…
Says Morse of October: “Regular and irregular visitors of the most varied kinds are flocking almost daily to this country from the colder lands to the north and the east, and even our own resident birds may be changing their quarters in surprisingly large numbers.”
He goes on: “Among the most familiar of the October new-comers are the redwing and the fieldfare – two foreign thrushes from Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe.”
These usually keep to the countryside, but very cold weather can drive them into gardens. I have seen a redwing several times, but a fieldfare never.
5. Yarrow – Achillea millefolium
I have also heard yarrow called milfoil but according to Wikipedia and Botanical.com it is also called yarroway, gordaldo, nosebleed plant, old man’s pepper, carpenter’s weed, devil’s nettle, devil’splaything, bad man’s play thing, sanguinary, bloodwort, staunchweed, knight’s milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, herbe militaris, thousand-leaf, thousand-weed and thousand-seal.
The name yarrow comes from the Anglo-Saxon gearwe and many of its other common names come from its ability to staunch bleeding. Apparently its Latin name comes from its use by Achilles and his soldiers. The millefolium part means thousand leaves.
Yarrow tea is also supposed to be good against colds and there are many other uses according to the herbal.
One lovely piece of folklore from the Eastern counties of England is divination by putting a yarrow leaf up your nose:
“Yarroway, Yarroway, bear a white blow,
If my love love me, my nose will bleed now.”
6. Corn marigold – Glebionis segetum
Thanks to ukwildflowers.com for this information.
The corn marigold is an introduced cornfield weed, an east Mediterranean native which has spread throughout the Mediterranean and the British Isles.
It is much less common than it once was on arable land. It is most common near the coast and is not found on high ground.
I have never consciously seen this weed, but maybe that’s because I don’t come from an arable farming area.
8. Death’s head moth – Acherontia atropos
Oh, I wish I had seen one of these on the wing – apparently they can have a wingspan up to about 12cm. The death’s head hawk moth is the largest moth you are likely to see in Britain, but it is not native.
According to ukmoths.org.uk Immigrants arrive from southern Europe, usually several in each year, during late summer and autumn.
The moth has the unusual habit of entering beehives in search of honey and, if handled, emits a loud squeak by forcing air through its proboscis. This noise is supposed to subdue and control the worker bees, whose honey it is stealing.
The large caterpillar feeds on potato (Solanum tuberosum), and is sometimes found in potato fields in October during good immigration years.
Halloween has prompted an appeal by conservationists to keep a look-out for these spooky moths and the article mentions the beliefs that go along with sightings of the moth-with-a-skull-on-its-back…
Throughout Europe, the moth was thought to be a harbinger of war, pestilence, and death to man and beast alike. Its appearance in a candlelit room, especially if it managed to snuff out the candle, was an omen of death in the house.
In France, dust from its wings was thought to cause blindness if it entered the eye. The moth brought fear and panic in Brittany when large numbers appeared at the time of a widespread pestilence.
The moth was seen as an emblem of evil in the book and film of The Silence of the Lambs.
9. House spider – Tegenaria duellica
Oh gosh, another one suitable for Halloween…
I’m sorry. this is a complete cop-out, but I cannot bring myself to include a photograph of the big house spider Tegenaria duellica (formerly known as Tegenaria gigantea) here in my blog. I’m OK with garden spiders, but this one totally psychs me out.
Even Googling it gives me the willies…
Luckily, I haven’t seen one in our modern house for maybe a year. This is probably the season when we see one or two, and I used to think they were coming in from the cold, but more likely it’s just that any born in the house in summer are now big enough to be sighted.
I’m afraid that despite the old saying…
“If you want to live and thrive
Let the spider run alive”
… I just can’t abide a house spider to live. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
However, we do co-habit OK with the many flimsy Pholcus phalangioides found in the corners of rooms.
10. Cypress feather-moss – Hypnum cupressiforme
Earlier in the year I thought I had moss identification nailed, but not any more. I haven’t quite given up, and some species are clear to me, but I need to put in more work. I was so confident when I posted this moss blog back in April.
According to Wikipedia Hypnum cupressiforme typically grows on tree trunks, logs, walls, rocks and other surfaces. It prefers acidic environments and is fairly tolerant of pollution. It was formerly used as a filling for pillows and mattresses; the association with sleep is the origin of the genus name Hypnum (from the Greek Hypnos).
There is currently only one moss in fruit in the garden and I think it would be a stretch of the imagination to conclude it’s Hypnum cupressiforme…
11. Pixie-cup lichen – Cladonia pyxidata
I love lichens but I have never seen this lovely one, although I used to think Ramalina fastigiata was the same thing.
Cladonia pyxidata is much prettier and I have learned a new word – squamules - it means those loosely-attached lobes of green thallus at the base of each cup…
12. Footprints of house mouse – Mus musculus
I have never seen a house mouse in the “wild” – when I lived in the country any mice in the house were wood mice, Apodemus sylvaticus, and I’m afraid we caught them in old-fashioned spring-traps with cheese. They would chew up newspapers and books to make their nests.
Traditionally the house mouse lives only in association with humans and it is not competitive enough to thrive in the wild.
Today descendants of house mice are found as pets and as laboratory white mice.
You can find more pictures from my October garden here.
See other wildlife months in the Wildlife Through the Year archive