(Starling header photo credit to Martin Green)

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean”. We might not have mountains nearby to climb (though some of the hills at Rectory Wood feel like mountains at times) and a week in the woods may be a tall order, but John Muir is right, spending time in nature is good for us. Now we’re in lockdown 2.0 we need to look after our physical and mental health and a walk in the woods definitely helps. How about trying shinrin yoku, the Japanese practice of forest bathing – taking time out among the trees, observing nature while breathing deeply – it’ll have a positive impact on your mind, body and soul.

When is a tree not a tree?

When it’s a shrub! The main difference between the two are that shrubs tend to have several branches growing from ground level, rather than a single trunk. Shrubs also tend to be shorter than trees, which is why we tend to plant them at the edge of our woodlands, next to the pathways. Our research with locals has informed us that walking a path close to very tall trees can give an ominous feeling or sense of foreboding – think Red Riding Hood and the big, bad wolf hiding in the trees. So we line our woods with less densely planted shrubs, to let more light through and give a feeling of space.

Shrub spotter

We plant numerous shrubs in our woodlands, many of which contribute to the autumnal kaleidoscope, with their brightly coloured berries. Here’s some to look out for…

Wayfaring tree – just to confuse, this is shrub that’s called a tree, and it gets its name because it often grows close to paths. It features clusters of small white flowers in spring, but now you’ll see it with lots of bright red berries, which darken to black as they ripen. The berries are an important food source to birds and small mammals in autumn, but are highly poisonous to humans.

Berries of the wayfaring tree

Berries of the Wayfaring tree

Hawthorn – a hermaphrodite, with both male and female reproductive parts in each white flower in spring. It grows densely with thorny branches, and the autumnal fruit, called haws, are the staple diet for many autumn migrants, such as redwings, fieldfares and thrushes as well as small mammals.

Hawthorn in autumn

Hawthorn in autumn (photo credit Bob Hook)

Spindle – another hermaphrodite, whose white flowers develop into pink fruit with an orange seed, which are poisonous to us, but a tasty treat for birds, small mammals and even foxes.

Spindle fruit

Fruit of the Spindle

Dogwood – again a hermaphrodite, it has white flowers that look like little X’s, which after pollination turn into round black berries.

Dogwood berries Autumn dogwood

Dogwood berries and leaves (photo credit Nicola Ceconi)

Guelder Rose – has three-lobed leaves that turn orange to red in autumn, and bright red, round berries that hang in clusters.

Guelder rose berries Autumn guelder rose

Guelder Rose berries and autumnal leaves (photo credit Nicola Ceconi)

Eyes to the sky

Dusk is a great time to watch out for starling murmurations, when thousands of these birds swoop and dive in perfect formation, as they get ready to roost. It’s thought that the murmurations are a way of avoiding predators and keeping warm, but also how these acrobatic birds share information on good feeding sites. Here’s a video taken by Bob Hook of a murmuration over Stewartby lake.

Video credit to Bob Hook

News from our sites

Have you noticed the Exmoor ponies are back in the Millennium Country Park? Rocky and Breeze have been coming for years, but Orla is enjoying her first winter holiday with us. We manage our wet meadows using a combination of different grazing animals. In mid to late summer, cattle rip and tear at the long grass creating a mixed tussocky sward. In the autumn and winter, sheep and ponies are introduced to nibble the grass between the tussocks creating areas of shorter grass. Exmoors are really hardy and will also eat all the coarse grasses, rushes and thistles which the sheep will ignore. The combination of different grazing actions create a nice mixed habitat with longer areas for invertebrates and shorter areas which we hope will attract ground nesting birds, in particular, lapwing.

Exmoor pony

Exmoor pony at the Millennium Country Park

We’ve had some great wildlife spottings over the last week or so by volunteer, Bob Hook, who’s taken some video footage for us. The first is of a goldfinch feeding on teasel in the Millennium Country Park. They have a fine beak, which enables them to feed on the seeds of teasel and thistles, which many other birds can’t reach.

Video credit to Bob Hook

Bob also took a great video of the Common Darter dragonfly in the Wetlands Nature Reserve. It’s one of the most common dragonflies in the UK and can often be seen late into November. In the video you see the dragonfly ovipositioning – releasing a few eggs into the water at a time, while flying.

Video credit to Bob Hook