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Autumn's majesty: a swirl of starlings, a forage for fungi, or a bit of bolving

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 22, 2012

  • Berries for the birds, feeding up for winter, glorious golden shades of the leaves, and the dramatic displays of rutting stags are all reasons why many would argue that autumn brings with it some of the finest natural phenomena that British country-lovers can enjoy

  • No-one knows how starlings can fly with such precision in such large, close, numbers, but somehow they seem to do so without ever colliding. Below: Fly Agaric fungi – these quintessential toadstools of fairytale folklore are seen as a herald of autumn

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Some see late autumn as a season of dark nights and wet, windy and gloomy days. Not Martin Hesp, who relishes the great natural displays as the year turns.

The changes in season can be so huge and all-embracing that sometimes we become inured to them so that appreciating the whole picture is a bit like failing to see the wood for the proverbial trees.

But many would argue that autumn brings with it some of the finest natural phenomena that British country-lovers can enjoy.

Certainly here in the Westcountry there are some truly awesome sights to behold – you only have to think of the increasingly vast flocks of starlings that roost each November and December nights on the Somerset Levels or the haunting roar of the wild mating stags of Exmoor to know that it is true.

Add to that the vibrant colours of our woodlands and heaths which turn bright red and gold at this time of year, and the extraordinary annual crop of fungi for which the warm damp Westcountry is a Mecca (we have a wider range of fungi than any other place in Europe) – and you really do begin to behold a seasonal landscape that is as breathtaking as it is fascinating.

Let's delve into that heady, whirling, swirling world of the starlings…

As many as two and a half million of these birds descend in giant flocks upon the Avalon Marshes near Glastonbury each dusk from late autumn through to midwinter.

Visit one of three nature reserves in the area at the right time and you could witness the remarkable sight of the sky turning completely dark as huge spirals and vortexes of birds come in to roost.

No-one knows how the starlings are able to fly with such Red Arrow-like precision in such remarkable numbers, but somehow they seem to veer this way and that without ever colliding with one another.

The memorable, awesome, spooky, swoosh sound made by millions of bird wings beating is enough to warrant a special visit to this most lonesome corner of the flatlands.

A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds told the WMN why the starlings are concentrated so heavily on The Levels: "It's a combination of good feeding habitat during the day and good conditions for roosting at night," he said. "There are good reed-beds in the area – you get several starlings clutching on to a single stem of reed – and of course there's water underneath so predators like foxes can't get to them.

"The huge numbers help confuse aerial predators like sparrow hawks which come in – I have also seen peregrine and there are marsh harriers around. Occasionally they do manage to get a starling but the confusion tactic really seems to work."

Asked how so many birds could possibly manage to avoid crashing in such crowded patterns of flight, the local RSPB ranger mused: "I'm not sure how they do it, but it is certainly impressive when you see it. Estimates here vary anything from between 250,000 birds to several million – so that's a lot of birds, usually coming in just before dusk. It can last for half an hour."

There are three excellent sites for watching the mass flocks of starling in the Avalon Marshes area – the RSPB reserve at Ham Wall, Natural England's site at Shapwick Heath or Westhaye Moor, owned by Somerset Wildlife Trust. All three have some degree of public access with car parks, footpaths, walkways and hides.

"Bolving" is the roaring that red stags make during mating season, known as the rut – and the world's only official bolving competition, which was staged on Saturday night near Dulverton, is all about finding the human who can emulate the sound so closely that the big jealous male deer out in the wild roar defiantly back.

It's not a sport for the faint-hearted. At times stags have been known to gallop in rage towards the source of the challenging roar.

At the weekend scores of hardy spectators gathered in a remote lane high above Dulverton to watch as a handful of brave bolvers uttered forth their terrible cries.

The best bolvers, like two-time world champion Elvis Afanasenko, tend to go for three long roars – each slightly shorter than the other – followed by a series of startling and rib-shaking grunts.

But it takes time to speak the real language of a rampant stag in rut. "I went out listening to stags when I was young," commented Elvis. "The judges are looking for the best talent – when the stag answers back, that's when you score points.

"It can be scary – I've stood here bolving and had a stag come running right up to the fence," he told the WMN.

The deer tend to disappear into the forests in daytime – so that even if you don't see them, you will be able to admire the amazing colours which the arboreal autumn brings…

Plants use sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into glucose (they do it for food and energy) – and glucose, as every reader probably knows, is a kind of sugar.

What we need for a really spectacular show now are some cold nights to turn this glucose into a red colour. The brown tints we see in many trees are made from wastes left in the leaves – actually, the autumnal colours have been in the leaves throughout their short life, but we haven't been able to see them because in summer they are covered by green chlorophyll.

Low temperatures destroy the chlorophyll, but we don't want it too cold… If the thermometer stays cool – but above freezing – the lower temperatures can promote the formation of pigments called anthocyanins which, in some trees, cause the yellowing leaves to turn red.

If the branches aren't bearing colourful leaves, they may well be weighed down with a crop of wild berries. The warm spring helped fruit development while rainfall of July and August helped the berries gain succulence.

And a good harvest of wild berries is good news for wild birds. Most birds will feed on fruit, but the ones that really benefit are birds like the thrush family, which includes blackbirds, and birds that come to this country in large numbers as winter goes on, like redwings and fieldfares.

Another visitor that benefits from berries is the waxwing which comes down from Scandinavia, but its numbers vary – some years you get thousands, others you don't get many. The birds go where the food is.

But it's partly a question of how long the berries are left in the hedgerows. Ornithologists prefer landowners to delay cutting back hedges until January – which many farmers do in any case – so that wild animals are not deprived of hedgerow food. Alas, no-one can really do anything to help or hinder our crop of wild mushrooms – exactly why the magical fungi either appear or fail to show their fruiting bodies is a mystery that many mushroom growers would love to know the answer to…

However, it has been established that mushrooms are not keen on chemicals. As one expert put it: "Modern breeds of farm animals are pumped full of all kinds of manufactured medicines to get rid of parasites and make them grow faster. The result is sterile dung instead of the rich community of fungi and dung-feeding insects you find with more natural methods of farming.

"By the same token," he added, "mushrooms thrive best in old grassland and not the nitrogen-hogging rye-grass swards that have replaced them."

Whether or not you find some field mushrooms for breakfast, you can enjoy searching for them while at the same time glorying in the Westcountry's landscape looking its autumnal finest. And if you make a little effort you can even get to see some of the most dramatic natural phenomena the region has to offer in the coming weeks.

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