Look carefully in the hedgerows and along the treeline this autumn, and you might notice flocks of small birds twittering and squabbling as they fly from branch to branch. As quickly as you notice them, this flock will disappear, flying as one into the distance. Finches, in particular, flock in autumn and winter, with species including goldfinch, linnet, brambling and siskin all coming together at this time of year.
One of the main reasons for this flocking behaviour is safety in numbers. These birds mainly eat seeds, which they look out for as they move around. If the birds are concentrating on finding food, they are less likely to notice a predator lurking nearby. Extra pairs of eyes mean some birds can look for food while others keep watch and raise the alarm if a circling bird of prey or prowling cat should disturb them.
Many finches can be quite acrobatic in their quest to find food. You will often see siskins hanging upside-down in alder trees, manoeuvring the tiny seeds out of alder cones, and goldfinches can perch on the slimmest spines of a teasel plant to get their next meal.
As some of these species look very similar you may need to watch closely to identify all the species in a flock, especially as they are in their drab winter plumage. Look out for the white rump of bramblings amongst chaffinches or the black cap of siskins in amongst greenfinches.
One finch you would be lucky to spot is the hawfinch. Hawfinches are very scarce but have a local stronghold, in the New Forest. These finches have a huge powerful beak, giving them an unmistakable silhouette. They use their strong beaks to crack the stones in wild cherries and sloes or crunch through beech nuts. They are most visible in autumn when you can look for them feeding on these fruits and nuts on the ground.
Many of the finch species that join these flocks are coming more regularly to bird feeders. By providing food for your garden birds, you are helping them survive the coldest months of the year. This is when they expend the most energy, just keeping warm and moving around. It is an exciting time to watch the feeders as you may get some unexpected visitors arriving, should one of these mixed flocks descend on your patch!
There are lots of insects we might associate with autumn rolling in – spiders, crane flies, wasps – but what about ladybirds? These colourful little beetles are present year-round, but throughout this season you might notice them moving around more before they hibernate. There are close to 50 species of ladybird in Britain, meaning there are plenty of types to look out for this autumn.
The two species of ladybird that you are most likely to see around your garden or local park are the two-spot and seven-spot ladybirds. One of their favourite foods is aphids, making them a real gardener’s friend. Natural pest controllers like ladybirds should be encouraged in the garden and you can help them by quitting chemical pesticides. The beetles need to be well-fed, ready to wait out the winter when their food sources aren’t available. If they hibernate it might be months before their next meal!
Ladybirds will become inactive in the cold winter, and sometimes they group together for warmth. The dropping temperatures bring many of them indoors, as they get into the crevices by window frames or in the folds of curtains or blinds. Heated homes are not the best place for hibernating ladybirds. If you come across one sheltering indoors, it is best to remove it on a dry day and place it somewhere sheltered outside, such as under a hedge. They will naturally wake up in the spring, from March onwards.
Sadly, ladybirds in Britain are threatened by an invasive species – the harlequin ladybird. These invaders were first recorded in the UK in 2004 and have spread rapidly since then. To make things more difficult, harlequin ladybirds are very variable in appearance so they can be tricky to tell apart from our native species. If your ladybird is less than 5mm it is not a harlequin, and those with a very clear seven black spots on a red background are native 7-spot ladybirds. Initial research and data from the National Ladybird Survey have shown that harlequin ladybirds are likely to be causing declines in native species. If you are interested in helping to record ladybirds, monitoring the spread of invasive harlequin species, visit www.coleoptera.org.uk
A ladybird box could help provide somewhere safe and cosy for these little insects to hibernate, and it’s simple to build your own. All you need are hollow tubes like bamboo canes or twigs within a frame, giving the beetles somewhere to hide away from the cold winter.
Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, Beechcroft House, Vicarage Lane, Curdridge, Hampshire, SO32 2DP