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Signs of an early autumn in Cambridgeshire


By Martin Walters


I must apologise! I am afraid I am going to have to use the A word! No, not August, although it is. Rather I mean autumn, which I suspect has reached us earlier than usual, perhaps because we had that searing heat of an early summer, peaking in the record UK temperature of 38.7 degrees Centigrade, recorded in our own Botanic Garden towards the end of July.

A painted lady butterfly (15612249)
A painted lady butterfly (15612249)

The warm, even hot and dry conditions we experienced last month have benefited our butterflies, with huge numbers of painted ladies as well as healthy populations of red admirals, common and holly blues, meadow browns and gatekeepers, many appearing in gardens.

Meadow brown (15523147)
Meadow brown (15523147)

On still days between rain showers dragonflies are now active, mainly close to ponds, lakes and slow rivers. One of the most often seen is the common darter.

A common darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (15612094)
A common darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (15612094)

The male of this small, active dragonfly has an orange-red abdomen and it can sometimes be seen sunbathing close to the water. Britain’s largest species is the Emperor dragonfly. The male is a bright shiny blue, the female a slightly duller green.

A male emperor dragonfly (15612360)
A male emperor dragonfly (15612360)

I recently watched a pair of these magnificent insects patrolling the air over the fountain in the Botanic Garden, with common darters keeping a respectful distance! Both species were chasing other insect prey in the air above, pausing occasionally to deposit their eggs in the calmer water towards the edge of the ornamental pond.

Spiders have had a good season too and the spiderlings have spread out and are starting to build their own webs. This is a marvellous process, hard-wired into the DNA of each tiny arachnid as it labours long at the task of weaving its elaborate silken trap to snare insects. No lessons needed from mum for this tricky endeavour!

For much of this last of the summer months there has been a definite if unseasonal chill in the air, with rainy and windy conditions dominating, though normal summer weather has returned as we near the end of August.

Another clear sign of the turn of the season is the distinct lack of something.

Most fine summer evenings I sit in the garden, OK often with a glass of beer, gazing into the sky to marvel at the screaming parties of our local swifts as they swoop around, sometimes low down but often, when the air is still, high up in the sky, almost invisible.

Common Swift (Apus-apus) As ever, in flight.. (15612386)
Common Swift (Apus-apus) As ever, in flight.. (15612386)

But suddenly they have gone, at least from our district. They know we are heading to autumn, and their absence adds a melancholy twist to the natural scene, as do the steadily shortening days.

Fruits we normally expect to ripen later are already weighing down the branches of trees and shrubs. The spiny fruits of horse and sweet chestnut are well developed as are the soft, globular clusters of London plane and the orange-red fruits of rowan.

Rowan (15523150)
Rowan (15523150)

It has also been a great year for blackberries which have ripened earlier than usual. The bright red berries of guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) droop among the three-lobed leaves of this attractive shrub. Often grown in gardens, it is also found locally in damp woods and hedgerows or alongside streams.

Guelder rose (15523145)
Guelder rose (15523145)

The Mediterranean weather this summer has suited many southern species such as bladder senna (Colutea arborescens) with its unusual inflated pods.

Bladder senna (15523137)
Bladder senna (15523137)

This attractive shrub is native to southern Europe but is naturalised in dry places as well as being occasionally grown in gardens. It has pretty golden-yellow pea-like flowers but its most characteristic features are the bladder-like pods that develop at this time the year.

Another Mediterranean plant fruiting well after the hot July is the Cretan maple (Acer sempervirens), a delicate evergreen tree with small dark green glossy leaves and paired, winged fruits.

Cretan maple
Cretan maple

In nature it grows on dry, sunny hillsides in the eastern Mediterranean. Though perhaps hard to believe from the start of this month, the dry climate of Cambridge suits this drought-tolerant tree well and there is a fine example in the Botanic Garden.

Martin Walters is a nature writer based in Cambridge. Read more from him at martinwalters.co.uk

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