Winged foragers & secret snackers

Scan local hedgerows and bushes this autumn to see a range of birds, mammals and insects tucking into Autumn’s berry buffet – a vital energy source to many species.

A bird sitting among berries

Waxwing (c) Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

As anyone with a fondness for blackberries will tell you, mid-summer marks the start of a berry buffet that runs right through the winter. Hedgerows swell with bulbs of black, red, orange and white as different trees and bushes flower and grow fruit. Some are tasty to humans, others are toxic, but to the many species of wildlife that depend on them, each one of these energy-rich orbs is a lifeline.

Blackberries are one of the earliest to appear, unripe green berries sprouting amidst the tangled, thorny branches of bramble bushes as early as June. Each familiar berry is a cluster of individual drupelets, flaring red then fading to a bruise-dark purple as it matures and ripens. A berry-laden bramble often attracts herds of Tupperware-toting humans, but we aren’t the only ones harvesting nature’s bounty. 

Birds are easy to spot, from bustling blackbirds to blush-breasted bullfinches. Blackbirds gobble as much of the berry as they can, but finches tend to be more surgical, plucking off one drupelet at a time to savour. However, there are other, more secretive snackers at work amongst the brambles. Our smallest rodent, the harvest mouse, has a sweet tooth, too. They clamber through the bushes, performing amazing acts of acrobatics as they stretch to nibble the berries. Unlike dormice, they don’t sleep through the winter, so need as much energy as they can get.

Insects and other invertebrates also appreciate a blackberry banquet, with juicy fruit attracting wasps, beetles and dock bugs.

A bird sitting among berries

Whitethroat with blackberries (c) Margaret Holland

Another eagerly awaited late-summer delicacy is the elderberry, which grows in dangling umbrellas of tiny black beads. These small berries are as popular with certain warblers as they are with winemakers. Blackcaps, whitethroats and garden warblers can’t get enough of them as they fuel up for their autumn migration, storing up enough energy to see them through to their wintering grounds in southern Europe and Africa. 

Berry-filled bushes

As autumn progresses, more berries appear. The plump red haws of hawthorn, bright clusters of rowan berries and the oval, orange hips of dog rose add splashes of colour to the landscape. Shieldbugs use their sharp mouthparts to pierce the fruit and drink the juices, enjoying a change from their usual diet of plant sap. 

A small green insect on a red rosehip

Green shieldbug on rose hip (c) Maria Justamond

These later berries support the thousands of thrushes that flock to the UK each autumn, fleeing the harsher winters of their Scandinavian breeding grounds. Redwings and fieldfares roam the countryside in chattering flocks, stripping bushes of their berries before moving on to the next fruitful hedgerow. If you come across a berry-filled bush in late autumn, it’s worth staking it out in the hope of seeing these vocal visitors.

Berries are also the food of choice for one of our most prized winter visitors. With their punk-rock crest, jet black eyeliner and yellow-tipped tails, waxwings look incongruously exotic perched in a British bush, especially as they’re so often found in supermarket carparks. This might seem an odd place to go birdwatching, but thanks to the presence of ornamental berry-bearing shrubs like cotoneasters, these urban locations often become waxwing hotspots.

Late-season lifeline

With so many species delighting in eating them, berries can be harder to find by late autumn. This is ivy’s time to shine. A hero amongst plants, ivy is a late-season lifeline to a huge range of animals. Its autumn flowers provide pollen and nectar to insects when few other plants are blooming, the thick foliage is the perfect hiding spot for roosting birds and overwintering insects, and the berries that appear from November are a welcome restock for nature’s larder. 

For more advice on wildlife to spot during autumn, take a look at The Wildlife Trusts’ handy autumn guide

 

Magazine of the Ramblers