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Terry's Eye on Nature compiled by Terry Flanagan
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Autumn is well and truly here now. A walk along a country lane will quickly prove it. Most trees and bushes are laden down with berries. One of the commonest is the hawthorn. The hawthorn looks splendid with its crop of "haws". These are the red fruits which contain their seeds within.
The haws are generally not eaten by humans but are devoured by birds, enabling them to fatten up for the winter ahead. It was said that a good crop of haws or berries was a sign of a hard winter to follow. In fact, this is not true. What it means is that there was a good Spring and that conditions were favourable for pollination of the flowers at that time.
Birds will eat the the red berries. They are able to digest the outer fruit but unable to digest the tough inner seeds. These seeds then pass through the bird's digestive system, unharmed, only to pass out the other end, some distance away from the parent plant, where they will later germinate. This relationship suits both the bird and the plant. The plant is able to disperse its seeds whereas the bird gets a free meal. To ensure the bird sees the crop of berries, the plant produces red or orange berries. Ingenious!
Autumn really is the season of plenty. Wild rose bushes are full of red fruits, rose hips. The dogrose was a very valuable medicinal plant in olden times. generations of children were brought up on the syrup, rich in Vitamin C, made from rose hips.
Look higher up in the hedgerow. Trees like ash and oak are also laden down with their seeds. The ash tree produces seeds in large clusters which will remain on the tree throughout the winter and are known as "keys" as they resemble the old medieval keys.
The oak tree produces acorns. These form within small cups and are an important food source for many animals especially woodland animals. Squirrels are very active at the moment collecting and feeding on acorns, but the Jay (a colourful member of the crow family) - click here for a link to a documentary on the Jay - not only feeds on the acorns, but also disperses the acorns widely, allowing the Oak to spread out and colonise new areas.
Although wild flowers are past their very best at the moment, some continue late into the autumn providing a splash of colour on a warm autumn evening. One of these is the flower of the fuschia. Known in Irish as "Deorí Deí" or "tears of God", for the shape of its flowers, this plant grows wild along roadside verges and it thrives in the southwest of the country. Others that are just about finishing at the moment include the Budleia or "butterfly bush".
This is the month to see mushrooms at their best. The mushrooms belong to the Fungi and there are approx. 6,000 species recorded in the British Isles. A word of warning! Beware when picking mushrooms for human consumption. Although less than 20 are known to be poisonous, some can be fatal. The Death Cap mushroom, which is similar to the edible mushroom, is the most poisonous mushroom in the world. One of its most distinguished victims was Pope Clement VII in 1534. The Death Cap accounts for more than 90% of all fatal poisonings. The symptoms are not felt for 6 - 15 hours after it has been eaten. By this time the toxin has passed into the bloodstream and it is too late to perform a stomach pump. The nervous system becomes gradually paralysed and the patient gradually slips into a coma before dying.
The fairy ring mushroom produces an expanding ring of mushrooms that appear each year. That part of the mushroom that you see above ground is the fruiting body of the mushroom. Its function is to release spores to reproduce. Because these mushrooms appear, literally overnight, a common Irish name for them is "fás an aon óiche". The wild mushroom seen in fields can produce as many as 40 million spores per hour for 2 days!
One thing you will certainly notice on a walk this month is the absence of swallows. They have packed their bags and left leaving the meadow a much quieter place. By now they are all on their way back to Africa. (To listen to a documentary on the swallow click here).
Not only have the swallows and swifts left our shores but so too have our terns. These are sometimes referred to as "sea swallows". They are found mainly on the islands off the coast as well as on the mainland. One very important site for the Roseate Tern is Rockabill island off the coast of Dublin. Over 70% of the European population of these terns nest on this tiny island every year. But they too have left us for another year.
One bird to keep an eye out for along the river bank is the heron. The grey heron is the most widespread large predatory bird in Ireland. Its flight is slow and rather laboured with trailing legs - in fact you wonder will it topple out of the sky. If you have a garden pond, you will know all about the heron. He is the one who is removing your goldfish and carp. Pond owners often put out plastic herons to deter herons from landing. Unfortunately, the sight of one "heron" can act as a lure to its neighbours.
A visit to a bog at this time of the year will show it off to its very best. The bog is now completely covered in heather and a visit will reward you, not only with this wonderful sight, but also the most magnificent scent from the heather. For more information on bogs, contact the IPCC at Lullymore, Co. Kildare.
With autumn dews, an early morning walk will often reveal a spiders web in all its glory. The time and energy that goes into creating this work of art is immense. But it has a more functional role. It has to provide dinner also. See can you find the owner close by. It a poor unsuspecting insect is caught in the web, watch how the spider deals with it. Nature is wonderful, but it can also be very cruel.
This is the month that we associate with "Daddy-Long-Legs". These are large insects, often reaching 65 mm. They are correctly called craneflies. The adults have slender bodies with long dangling legs. At this time of year they can be a nuisance when they are attracted indoors by lights. They are clumsy fliers and for this reason often flap around the room, bumping into lamp shades and people. However, they are completely harmless and do no damage in the house. Scoop them up in your hands and release them outside where they belong and that's your good deed done for the day!