It’s the season of change and we’re all adjusting to the cooler temperatures. This can sometimes be the best time of year to spot wildlife, with less people out and about in our woodlands, and our wildlife busily preparing for winter, furnishing comfy dens and stockpiling food. Our woodlands are glorious with autumnal colours - golds, browns and reds amongst the greens. So take every opportunity to get outdoors – revel in the nature around us - it’s a great way to escape from everything that’s going on in our world right now!

Autumn Migrants

Our woodlands are rich with food for our feathered friends that are arriving to spend autumn/winter with us. The trees and bushes have apples, plums, elderberries, blackberries and sloes to feast on as well as the berries from dogwood, hawthorn and rowan. These berries form an important food source as there are less insects about to feed on in autumn and as we pass into winter and the frost arrives, the ground becomes too hard to dig for worms. So while you’re out walking you could do a birdie (and berry) bingo and see which of these autumn visitors you can spot…

In the Wetlands Nature Reserve you should be able to spot Teal, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Shoveler, Gadwall, Grey Heron and Little Egret.

Teal are a type of dabbling duck (because they dabble in shallow water for food), and enjoy a varied diet of aquatic invertebrates and seeds.  Many of our autumn/winter visitors are from North-Eastern Europe and they like to group in flocks, known as a ‘spring’ – because when they take off in flight they almost spring vertically upwards.

Another dabbling duck is the Wigeon; the males have a yellow forehead and pink breast while the females are a rusty brown.

Shovelers are a surface feeding, dabbling duck, with a long shovel-type bill which they use to sift insects and plant matter from the water.

Gadwall are a grey dabbling duck, with a black rear, often referred to as the pirates of the duck world as they steal food from other ducks.

Teal Wigeon Shoveler Gadwall

Teal (photo credit Martin Green), Wigeon, Shoveler and Gadwall

Tufted duck males are black and white with a long tuft of feathers at the back of their heads; the females are a chocolate brown. They dive to feed on water insects, weeds and seeds.

Pochard have a red UK conservation status and have a distinctive reddish brown head and black breast (males), and visit during autumn/winter from Eastern Europe and Russia.

Tufted duck Pochard

Tufted duck and Pochard (photo credit Martin Green)

Grey heron are water fowl that many people recognise, with their long legs and bills. They feed on fish, but also ducklings, small mammals and amphibians. They have a wing span up to 6 ft and in medieval times they were a popular banquet feast.

Little egret are a small white heron with long white tufts on its head and chest and yellow feet.

Grey heron Little egret

Grey heron and Little egret (photo credits Martin Green)

Away from the wetlands, there's lots to see as we’re expecting our migrant thrushes, including fieldfares and redwing, to arrive soon, if they haven’t already!

Fieldfares are a large thrush, with a grey head, black tail and speckled chest, found near hedgerows where they like to feed on hawthorn berries.

Redwing are a small thrush with a red UK conservation status, which like to gather in large flocks, often joining with other thrushes. Named because of distinctive orangey/red patches on their sides they visit us from Scandinavia.

Fieldfare Redwing

Fieldfare and Redwing (photo credit Martin Green)

You can also look out for our finch visitors, including Siskins and Lesser redpolls. Siskin are a small finch, yellowy/green in colour with a black ‘cap’ on its head. They like woodlands, but are also a common garden visitor. The Lesser redpoll is a tiny finch, with red patches on its head, which like to feed on seeds by hanging upside down in trees.

Siskin Lesser redpoll

Siskin and Lesser redpoll

Getting ready for lockdown – I mean hibernation!

Badgers don’t hibernate, but they do sleep for longer in the winter so try to pack on the pounds in autumn to build fat reserves to see them through. They’re also very active now collecting grass and leaves to make their underground setts cosy for the colder months. Sadly this increased activity often leads to a spike in road deaths. Badgers mate any time between February and October, but the fertilised egg doesn’t start to develop in the females until December – called delayed implantation. The cubs, usually 1-5 of them, are then born about 8 weeks later.

There are a couple of tell-tale signs that a sett is nearby – there’s often a scratching tree close to the sett, which the badgers use to keep their claws sharp, and there will also be a latrine, with a sweet musky smell. Badgers are very clean animals and dig these little scrapes to poo in. These latrines can serve an additional purpose of marking out the boundary to their territory and make it easier to identify badger poo because other mammals don’t do this. The poo will look different depending on the badger’s diet – you can see lots of berries in the poo in the photo below, but if the badger’s diet includes lots of worms, its poo will be slimier and darker in appearance.

Badger poo

Badger poo (photo credit Martin Rogers)

Hedgehogs are one of our most well-known hibernators and, like badgers, they build up their fat reserves to sustain them through their winter slumber. They don’t sleep the entire time, but will wake on milder days to move nests or top up on food. Hedgehogs choose a variety of places to nest – under sheds, in compost heaps, leaf or log piles – and you can help by adding a hedgehog house to your garden. You can make your own from scraps of wood, just like the one below made by Nicola, our Senior Ranger.

Hedgehog house

Photo credit Nicola Ceconi

Another way of helping is to leave food and water out for them. You can buy specialist hedgehog food, but tinned dog or cat food and crushed dog and cat biscuits are good too. BUT don’t leave them milk – hedgehogs are lactose intolerant and it gives them diarrhoea!

News from our sites

Nicola, our Senior Ranger, is working with the Newt Conservation Partnership to create new newt ponds in some of our woodlands. So far two sites have been identified – Wiles Wood and Conquest Wood – and the plan is to put in the ponds over the spring/summer. We’ll let you know more as the project develops.

Nicola is also now our resident culvert expert! A culvert is a pipe or tunnel carrying a river or open ditch under a road, railway or footpath. We tend to prefer culverts to bridges on our sites because they last longer and usually need very little maintenance. They also tend to be safer to walk across as they don’t get as slippery as wooden bridges in wet weather and don’t have trip hazards where the bridge meets the soil.

Last year we had a report of a broken culvert at Wiles Wood. The culvert was cordoned off and we started the lengthy process of getting quotes and permissions – all slowed by COVID. Now the pipe has been repaired and re-sited, the old headwall knocked down and a new concrete sandbag headwall installed in its place.

Damaged culvert Repaired culvert

 Wiles Wood culvert before and after (photo credit Nicola Ceconi)

And finally a bit of local WW2 history…our Waypost Wood site in Cranfield has a Type 22 pill box in it. There are actually a line of three of these pill boxes which were built to provide a line of defence for Cranfield air base during the war. The brick pill box now has a new defensive role – providing shelter for wildlife over winter. We’ve had to block access to it because of antisocial behaviour and for health and safety reasons, but rather than sealing it completely we’ve installed a steel grill (designed and installed by Steel World Ltd). This will allow wildlife to access the pill box, but hopefully keep people out. Old, damp buildings like this are great places for over-wintering invertebrates and small mammals to shelter undisturbed, including the small tortoiseshell butterfly, peacock butterfly and bats (if there are small holes or crevices for them to use inside the pillbox).

Waypost Wood pillbox Peacock butterfly and Herald moth overwintering

Waypost Wood pillbox (photo credit Nicola Ceconi) and example of overwintering Peacock butterfly and Herald moths (photo credit Countrycare).