September to November: The Micro Seasons of Elmley

  • 21/09/2023

Come, join us and hear about this most magical of micro seasons at Elmley.

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As the outside world prepares for the onset of autumn and back-to-school-inspired fresh starts, at Elmley our delicate micro seasons shift to embrace a time of new beginnings here on the Reserve too. These constant changes in our wildlife and landscape, from the minute to the dramatic, are a large part of what makes Elmley so special. And the story of September is one of great change…

As summer comes to an end, so does the life cycle of all the insects and pollinators who have made Elmley their home during the warmer months, such as our resident bees, including the UK’s rarest, the Shrill Carder.

September is the culmination of their life cycle, when the queen bee should be burrowing down. As they tend to show a bit longer into October at Elmley, we work with experts to ensure their life cycle is complete before moving on with projects on the Reserve that might have an impact, like the essential sea wall maintenance to protect it from the storms of the incoming winter.

As we head further into September and the autumn months, the major wildlife story that overrides everything is migration. Whether it’s birds journeying back to Africa or arriving to settle at Elmley for the winter.

A great example of the former is the Yellow Wagtail, preparing to return to West Africa, having made its way across the Sahara and up through Europe, to arrive in the UK back in May in their striking yellow plumage. They breed here in exceptional numbers feeding on the abundant insect life, maintained by grazing gently and cutting late.

Birds begin to dramatically congregate and gather, as they prepare to migrate or roost for winter, an instinctive act which research tells us is due to hormonal and chemical changes they experience as the daylight hours shorten. Visitors to Elmley might be greeted by vast murmurations of starlings, or hundreds of swallows gathering on the phone wires (once they have put on enough weight they will be off to South Africa).

The raptors, the birds of prey, react accordingly and you might catch a large peregrine falcon female harassing the swallows and the martins as they gather.

Captivating passage birds also form part of this seasonal scene. Birds that pass through in huge numbers for a few days en-route to their destination, such as the elegant Whimbrel journeying from Iceland to Africa. Or the Curlew Sandpiper, having bred in high Arctic Siberia, heading all the way down to South Cape in South Africa. Fascinating short stayers that can often be spied from our hides throughout late September and October.

By late September the birds that need warmer weather over winter will be gone, but in their place other species migrate south, from the colder climes of northern Europe. Wading birds and wildfowl, Wigeon and Teal, return in numbers, heading across the north sea and down the coast. A biannual changing of the guard.

While Little Owl and Barn Owl are here all year round and others arrive as the days shorten, the beauty of October is that you get to see them all at a more sociable time of day. And if you’re lucky you can see four of the UK’s five species of owl during an Autumn stay. Even the owlets that have fledged tend to be active and visible to those venturing out at dusk.

The return of the Short-Eared Owl is eagerly anticipated here at Elmley, watching these majestic birds of prey soaring over the reed beds in the late afternoon light, is a magical experience. The returning Long-Eared Owls roost calmly deep in the Kingshill Farm orchard, and if you can hone your ‘magic eye’ skills you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views.

With the meadows cut and the marshes grazed, in late September and October the landscape opens up again. A chance to finally see the leverets and hares that have bred over the summer after months of only fleeting glances. Something that doesn’t go unnoticed by the juvenile marsh harriers, waiting for unsuspecting prey.

Our healthy insect population isn’t just popular with the birds, in September and October we’ll often take a bat detector out on tours. While bat species numbers here are still relatively small, they might travel several miles to come here and feast on dung beetles and mosquitos as they fatten up for mating season and hibernation.

Smaller birds will also be moving though in October, including joyful warblers, often found in the Reserve’s scrubbier areas, the hedgerows and woodland. As well as the first winter songbirds, like the Redwings, who we believe make the journey from Iceland in just one night, relying on clear skies and the stars for navigation and a good wind to help them on their way. These “viking birds” come to raid the nutritional hawthorn from the hedgerows and are here for much of the Autumn, squabbling over the berries, and playing an important role in seed dispersal, before moving on when the supply is depleted in winter.

Feeding up on the fruit going over ripe on the trees too are our butterfly species who overwinter as adults. These butterflies - the red admiral, peacock, small tortoiseshell, comma and brimstone - have at least two broods in the summer. This late summer brood emerges as adults and are laying down fat reserves for winter, which sees them use crevices and holes as a safe place for their period of deep sleep, which is akin to hibernation.

In November, at first light our skies are often filled with clouds of wading birds, ducks and geese, as they leave their roosts and head out across the marsh to feed. An early morning spectacle saved for those staying on the Reserve.

November is also the best month to witness one of Emley’s most special events - the roosting of the Marsh Harriers.

Our largest birds of prey, with a wingspan of 130cm, the Marsh Harrier was down to just four breeding pairs in the UK in the mid 80s, but through protection have been carefully recolonised and have boomed in the last 20 years. Now at Elmley we are often lucky enough to welcome hundreds at a time.

One of our favourite activities is to take guests down to the reed beds with a flask of something warm to watch them as they start to arrive an hour or two before sunset to roost. It’s a rare opportunity to see vast amounts of these majestic birds of prey up close (and sometimes they might even be joined by an elusive hen harrier).

The magic of Elmley during these months can be that while it’s a tranquil backdrop at first glance, it’s secretly teaming with life. A tranquil time out on the marshes to explore simple serenity of the landscape, before we once again begin the march toward peak bird numbers in January and the swooping displays of Spring.

September at Elmley