The Great British Year: 10 things you might not know about autumn

From recognising bird calls to what a good berry crop tells us, wildlife expert Stephen Moss guides us through the month of playing in the leaves...

The Great British Year is set to guide us through the changing seasons of Britain, with amazing time-lapse camerawork capturing even the tiniest moment in glorious detail.


Ahead of the new series, wildlife expert Stephen Moss, author of the accompanying book, reveals some fascinating facts about autumn, and clears up a few myths…

1. If you hear a bird singing, it’s a robin

Or at least it’s likely to be! Male birds sing in spring and summer because they are defending a breeding territory, and need to attract a mate and repel rival males. But robins – both males and females – also hold a territory in autumn and winter, so they sing at this time of year too. Other species such as the wren will also sometimes sing, especially on warm, sunny days.

2. A good berry crop doesn’t mean a hard winter to come…

Our hedgerows are currently heavy with fruit – haws, sloes, blackberries and elderberries – attracting hordes of hungry birds. But despite the old wives’ tale, this glut of berries doesn’t mean there will be a hard winter; it is simply a reflection of the weather so far this year, not what may be to come.

3. …nor does the early arrival of geese!

Huge numbers of geese and swans come to Britain from the north and east each autumn to take advantage of our relatively mild climate and plentiful supply of food. But if they arrive early, as they sometimes do, it is again to do with the current weather conditions, and does not mean we will suffer from a hard winter!

4. The breeding season is far from over

While most birds and mammals breed in spring and summer, to coincide with the greatest abundance of food, some buck the trend. Grey seals give birth in October or November, one of the harshest times of year, when autumn gales are at their peak. The tiny pup relies on its mother to provide fat-rich milk, enabling it to grow rapidly before she abandons it to its own devices.

5. The deer rut is all about the females, not the fighting males

The rutting stag may get all the attention, but like most mating rituals and courtship displays in nature, the watching females are the ones that ultimately make the choice – selecting the male most likely to have strong genes to pass onto their offspring.

6. Daddy-long-legs spiders are not the most venomous creature on the planet

According to urban myth (and Ricky Gervais), the weedy looking spider in a flimsy web in the corner of your downstairs toilet has venom so poisonous that if its jaws were strong enough to pierce human skin, you would die instantly. It doesn’t, and you wouldn’t.

7. You cannot tell if a mushroom is poisonous or not by where it grows, its colour, or any other foolproof method

The only way to know if a mushroom is edible or not is to identify it with complete and utter certainty. Some highly poisonous mushrooms, such as the false morel or death-cap, look like or mimic edible ones; even the experts can sometimes be fooled. So if you have any doubt at all, DON’T EAT IT!!!

8. Starlings are not just bird-table bullies

It’s easy to dismiss starlings as noisy, squabbling bullies that chase smaller birds away from the bird table. But visit a starling roost in late autumn and winter and your opinion will be transformed, as millions of birds gather overhead to create the most extraordinary, fluid shapes in the darkening sky.

9. Tawny owls don’t sing ‘too-whit, too-whooo’

Or rather they do, but not on their own! The male tawny owl makes the familiar hooting sound (the ‘too-whooo’), while his mate, the female, makes a higher-pitched ‘kee-wick’ (the ‘too-whit’ of popular folklore). Even Shakespeare was fooled by this duet into thinking that only one bird was calling.

10. Autumn isn’t a time of death, decay and disappearance…

There’s a lot more to this complex season than that! OK, so many summer visitors are leaving our shores, flowers are setting seed and insects are no longer on the wing. But winter visitors such as ducks, geese and swans are arriving, many mammals are at their most active, and nature is putting on spectacular displays of colour in our woodlands. So get out there and enjoy!

The Great British Year is tonight at 9pm on BBC1

The Great British Year by Stephen Moss is available to buy via the RT Bookshop

Picture: David Tipling via RSPB images