Autumn wildlife at Belton
Autumn's a great time of year to spot wildlife, from deer and fungi to birds and bats. With woodland and sweeping countryside to explore, take a closer look at the autumn nature at Belton.
As the last musical chatterings of the swallows and the final piercing calls of the swifts echo over the parkland, we say a fond farewell to our summer visitors as they embark on their long journeys back to their over-wintering grounds in South Africa.
Belton is an interesting place for migratory birds; as the weather turns colder we’ll welcome back the redwings and fieldfares, but we’re not a ‘destination’ for many migrant species – instead our convenient location makes an ideal stopover on many a long journey.
Autumn and spring are real transitory times, and its possible to see all sorts of unexpected avian visitors if you happen to be in the right place at the right time.
The redwings and fieldfares will stay, of course, and can be seen in flocks across the parkland throughout the autumn and winter, distinguishable from our native thrushes by their presence out on the open ground, and (in the case of the redwings) their distinctive red ‘armpits’.
With the drawing-in of the evenings, the chances of spotting some of our owl species become far greater. While our resident little owls are active throughout the day, our tawny and barn owls are mainly crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk).
Interestingly, despite both species being nocturnal, neither tawny owls or barn owls can actually see in complete darkness; their low light perception is excellent (hence those enormous eyes), but in pitch-darkness, they rely solely on familiarity with their home ranges for navigation.
Tawny owls are owls of woodland areas, so keep a look out around Old Wood and the Bellmount Plantations, whereas barn owls are creatures of open grassland so may be seen hunting out over the parkland or along the river corridor in search of field and bank voles.
Our herd of fallow deer have spent the long, hot summer looking after their fawns and growing some impressive sets of antlers. Autumn is show-time for the master bucks, who will set up rutting stands in favourite spots and try and attract as many does as possible.
The rut is a really special time of year in the park – the biggest males will face off with each other first by parallel walking (usually with a fence-line between them!), bellowing, and finally locking antlers to establish seniority over other males.
For the months of October and November they have one thing, and one thing only, on their minds; covering as many female deer (does) as possible – even to the exclusion of eating.
They will enter the hard winter months exhausted and having lost all physical condition, but their efforts will see the continuation of the herd with the birth of a new generation of fawns early next summer.
Along the river the butterflies and dragonflies will fade fast as the temperature cools, but our otters and water vole will remain active (if elusive) throughout the autumn.
As the vegetation begins to die back and the ground becomes wetter the signs and tracks from these secretive animals become easier to spot – look out for the five-toed print of an otter in the wet mud, or the neatly nibbled-off stems of reeds near the river’s edge that signifies the presence of a hungry water vole.
The still and silent herons can still be seen watching patiently for a passing snack, stood statue-like in the margins of river, ponds, and pools across the park; likewise their smaller, whiter cousins – the little egrets - both visiting from the heronry over on the golf course.
After a frantic summer of raising young and hunting for food, autumn is the time when the bats in the park will start turning their minds towards their hibernation roosts.
Bats will mate during the autumn and sometimes into the winter, but, due to a process known as delayed implantation (or embryonic diapause), the females don’t become pregnant until the spring.
Throughout the coldest months these tiny creatures will enter a state of hibernation or prolonged torpor in which their body temperature is lowered and their metabolic rate slows dramatically – this allows them to survive the harshest weather on their own body fat rather than wasting energy foraging for scarce food sources.
In order to have the best chances of surviving the hibernation period, they will spend the autumn months feeding as much as possible to build up reserves for the months ahead, before finally seeking out a roost of suitable temperature and stability where they will be safe until the temperatures rise once more.