Autumn wildlife watch in the Surrey Hills

All seasons are about change, but arguably autumn is the season where the transformation is most dramatic. The glory of autumn colour on trees; the rapid shortening of the days; the change in temperature - that sudden nip in the air. Embrace this transformation by enjoying autumn across our properties in the Surrey Hills. Right now the heather is showing its glory in late summer, and we’ve also highlighted some of the best bits for you to savour over the coming months.



Crowning glory

The leaves of trees begin to go yellow in September, but it is really in late October/early November that the most stunning colours are seen.

How does it happen? The shorter days and cooler temperatures slow down the production of green chlorophyll in the leaves. This reveals yellow and orange pigments (carotenes) which exist in leaves but are usually masked by the chlorophyll.

At the base of the leaf stalk a layer of corky cells creates a barrier trapping sugars in the leaf created over the summer. These sugars in time form anthocyanin pigments which are coloured red, purple or pink. A warm, dry autumn will produce more anthocyanin in trees resulting in more and brighter red leaves.

What trees are best for colour? Tall beech, craggy hawthorn, magnificent sweet chestnut and shrubby dogwood all turn a rich red colour. Trees that produce a wonderful yellow-orange display include hearty oak, elegant silver birch, multi-stemmed hazel and airy rowan.  

Special appearances

’Season of mellow fruitfulness’ was how poet John Keats memorably described autumn. Apples, of course, are harvested in autumn but there is also a wide range of fruits which can be foraged. Popular fruits include blackberries from brambles for jam or crumbles; sloes from blackthorn for sloe gin;  jewel-bright red rowan berries for jelly, jam or wine; and  yellow crab apples for jelly, or toffee apples. When foraging beware of long thorns, especially on blackthorn and wear appropriate clothing especially gloves.

Some plants produce seeds rather than fruit. Think hazelnuts, or conkers, sweet chestnuts (traditionally roasted at Christmas). If you are very lucky you may find walnuts or juniper berries.

The fly agaric is a hallucinogenic with nasty side effects
A close up of the fly agaric toadstool
The fly agaric is a hallucinogenic with nasty side effects

Fungi also appears in autumn, as if by magic, bursting through the leaf litter typically after rain.  Many are natural decomposers, breaking down dead wood and returning nutrients to the soil. Good places for finding fungi are around birch and beech trees and on the greensand  hills.  

The Big Sleep

For some parts of wildlife, autumn is a time to disappear. As the days get chillier and the nights get longer, some creatures decide it’s time to hide away. In woods, dormice will creep into a nest in October/November until April, slowing their heartbeat and dropping their body temperature. It is a tough period, since they can lose up to half of their weight. Bats and hedgehogs also hibernate to conserve their body temperature.

Snoring dormouse at Holmwood Common
Dormouse at Holmwood Common
Snoring dormouse at Holmwood Common

Other mammals, such as badgers, voles mike and squirrels become less active and go through longer sleeping periods, emerging from time to time to forage for food.

Queen bees hibernate as do some butterflies in the UK, such as brimstone, peacock, comma, small tortoiseshell and red admiral.

Bird migration

The autumn migration of summer visitors is not obvious as the spring arrivals. Some visitors disappear very early - nightingales may go in August, soon followed by nightjars, cuckoo and wood warbler in September. October sees the departure of birds such as swift, whitethroat, willow warbler, common tern, sand martin and winchat. Birds of prey such as hobby and osprey will also leave in October. Iconic summer visitors such as swallow and house martin may actually hang on until November before flying south.  

Geese flying over the Commons
Geese flying over Bookham Commons Surrey
Geese flying over the Commons

At the same time, there are visitors coming for the winter. October and November will see geese plus whooper and bewick’s swans. Water birds such as long-tailed duck, scaup and velvet scoter will begin to appear. Birds of prey arrivals include merlin and hen harrier, while fieldfare, redwing and brambling can be seen in fields and woodlands.