Wildlife Watching - August

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Mammals

At around 21 weeks old, most fox cubs will be almost fully grown by now, although they still have a “lanky” appearance about them. As summer wears on, the family will spend much less (if any) time at the earth, choosing instead to lie up in cover nearby. The cubs will also be providing most of their own food now, largely in the form of insects and earthworms, as they practice their pouncing and hone their hunting skills. The parents may even bring back live prey for the cubs to practice on. The cubs will be moving over most of their parents’ territory by now and, consequently, August tends to be the month when fox cubs, particularly males, who range farther and earlier than vixens, are killed on roads. As we move out of summer and into autumn, tensions will begin to rise and the family unit will start to break down, resulting in many cubs dispersing to find their own territory.

Rutting Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus). Unlike most species of deer, which rut during the autumn, the Roe rut occurs during July and August. - Credit: Don Sutherland

Deer fawns, kids and calves are well-grown by now and can be found either in small groups within the herd or following their mother. The young deer will be grazing and browsing for themselves, although their mother will continue to suckle them sporadically for another few weeks. For most deer species, August is the last month of relative tranquillity before the rut gets underway and it is now that red, fallow and sika deer will start shedding the velvet covering their antlers in preparation. The roe deer, however, is different. By now, males (bucks) will have established territories on which they scent-mark, scraping the ground with their feet, urinating and thrashing small tree saplings with their antlers. Bucks also bark, both to notify other males that this patch is occupied and to draw in females (does) from the surrounding area. Some deer will have females hanging around and it is common at this time of year to see a buck in hot pursuit of a doe, frequently sniffing at her rear end check how close she is to oestrus.

Clashes may occur if a buck trespasses into an occupied territory and males will lock antlers for up to 15 minutes in a clash of surprising ferocity. As with all deer species, and contrary to popular misconception, the rut is really all about the females – it may seem like the males are calling the shots, but it is actually quite the reverse. The female solicits the buck to chase her, at increasing speed, stopping to encourage him if he collapses from exhaustion. This chase may involve running in circles around a tree, bush or stump, leaving a ring of trampled vegetation called a “roe ring”.

A roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) barking during the rut in the New Forest. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

This frenetic activity explains why it is not uncommon to stumble across roe bucks in quiet forest stands that don’t immediately scramble up and flee when they spot you; they’re exhausted from the rut. The does leave their usual home ranges, and their kids, to find the bucks, and it’s not uncommon to come across unaccompanied kids in August; does return home to their kids once they’ve mated. After successful fertilisation - and a doe may mate with several bucks - the embryo undergoes a few weeks of diapause (stasis) before it implants in the doe’s uterus and resumes development in November/December.

Hedgehogs are still breeding and hoglets are still coming into wildlife rescue centres thick and fast. Please remember during the dry weeks of August to leave fresh water out for your garden visitors, if at all possible – it can literally be a lifesaver and is often more important than putting out food. Water is particularly appreciated by female hedgehogs who, having recently given birth and suckling young, will be very dehydrated.

August and September are the months when a mysterious plague appears to have befallen the shrew populations, with many turning up dead without any obvious sign of trauma. In fact, we're now at the close of the breeding season and many simply die of exhaustion. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Stoats and weasels are very active this month as the family unit starts breaking down and the young begin to disperse. August is also a great month to look out for mice and voles visiting bird feeders checking for spilt seed, and this is the time of year when people notice lots of dead shrews around, most without any obvious signs of trauma. Has some sort of plague has hit the population? Previous authors suggested a wide range of theories to account for this die-off, including that late summer thunderclaps scare them to death. The actual reason, however, is nothing quite so dramatic; these small mammals are short-lived (only about 16 months) and, with their rather frenetic breeding season starting to wind down, many simply die of exhaustion. In fact, some authors suggest that the entire adult population dies off during the late summer and autumn. The strong scent glands in the skin of shrews make them distasteful to many predators, particularly domestic cats, and thus the bodies tend to remain in situ, when those of other small mammals (e.g. mice and voles) are quickly cleaned up by predators. It seems that only owls relish these insectivores. See my Wildlife Watching - October blog for more details on shrew natural history.

If you’re heading to the coast for your summer holiday, keep an eye out for marine mammals. Pods of common dolphins are often seen close to shore during this month, while harbour porpoises may be found chasing shoals of herring in our bays and estuaries. August is a prime month for whale watching, particularly along northern and western coasts.

Birds

The breeding season for our garden birds is over now, and you’ve probably noticed a lull in activity in your garden as many species are holed up moulting. Furthermore, most cuckoos have now left for Africa, adding to the relative quiet of our woods. Nonetheless, there are still some warblers to be found along with recently-fledged, and very vocal, birds of prey, particularly buzzards and goshawks. The corn bunting is also still in fine voice. This small, brown, easily overlooked bird can be found in the open countryside pouring out what is sometimes described as a “jazzy, free-wheeling ditty”.

Corn buntings are one of the few birds still in fine voice come August. - Credit: Peter E. Hart (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Most of our raptors will have finished breeding now, but hobbies are the latest and many will still have dependants, which means that there are still opportunities to watch their breath-taking aerial acrobatics as they hunt to feed their chicks. One bird of prey that is more commonly seen at this time of year is the osprey. Ospreys are usually seen around coastal areas and fish farms during August as they pass through on their migration to their overwintering grounds in South Africa. There are plenty of newly-fledged owlets around this month, too. Swallows are getting harder to find by now, but house martins are still busy; they’re also late breeders and may still be feeding chicks come October.

August is a great month for coastal and estuarine birds. A few to keep an eye out for are sandwich terns, oystercatchers, ringed plover, sanderlings, redshank, greenshank and turnstones. August is also an interesting month for duck-spotting. During the summer, male ducks moult out of their breeding plumage and, for a few weeks, they look very similar to the females and juveniles – this is known as eclipse plumage and, because all the wing feathers are moulted at the same time, a duck in eclipse is unable to fly. So, if you spot a duck at your local pond that looks a bit like a cross between a male and female, it is in eclipse.

The red crown and red breast of male linnets is a common sight in the countryside as we progress through August; the birds flock during this month which makes them easy to spot, but the red plumage fades as we move into autumn and winter. A splash of colour this month is added by the iridescent blue of kingfishers, the fledged young of which are out and about now, and the striking yellow of yellow wagtails, which are often found sharing pasture with grazing cattle.

Reptiles & amphibians

As well as being smaller than the adults, juvenile common lizards (Zootoca vivipara)are darker in colour (a dark olive green) and they often hang around in small groups. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

August is a great month for ‘herping’ (searching out reptiles) because it is the time when many of the babies are around. Recently-born common and sand lizards should be about this month, and August is the start of the hatching season for grass snakes; females will have deposited their eggs in a warm moist spot - compost heaps or other piles of rotting vegetation are ideal - back at the start of summer, and the 10cm (4 inch) long babies will hatch out between August and October.

It is also worth checking rockeries and under discarded carpet and metal sheeting for slowworms, which give birth to tiny red or gold replicas of themselves during this month. Slowworms, grass snakes and common lizards can be found almost anywhere, from parks and large gardens to coastal dune systems. The small olive-grey young common lizards often loiter in groups of three or four, making them a little more obvious. Overall, heathland is your best bet for reptiles, so if you have any locally it is well worth a visit at this time of year.

August is also a good month for finding froglets, toadlets and newtlets. Check areas of long grass or log piles for these miniature amphibians, which are most active at night.

If you’re by the coast, leatherback turtles are often found in the Irish Sea during this month.

Invertebrates

There are lots of grasshoppers and crickets stridulating (singing) at the moment and it pays to be careful if you’re cutting the lawn this month, because grasshoppers are more common in gardens than many people think – we have the occasional one on our small lawn here in the middle of Southampton. There are also still plenty of butterflies around and the second brood of peacock butterflies can be found on thistles and buddleia across the country, excluding the far north of Scotland. Red admirals, large whites, burnet moths, red underwings, marbled greens, small tortoiseshell, and the tiny delicate orange small copper can also be found – whatever butterflies you encounter, please take a moment to log them with Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count.

Hot days during August is a good time to go butterfly spotting and silver-washed fritillaries (Argynnis paphia) can be abundant early in the month. If you're out butterfly-spotting, please record your sightings on Butterfly Conservations' Big Butterfly Count survey. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

The pine weevil is a yellow-flecked black beetle that lives, as the name suggests, in conifer plantations, and the newly-hatched young of this beetle can be found towards the end of the month. The jet-black devil’s coach horse beetles start entering garden sheds at this time of year and are also often found under logs in deciduous woodland and grassland; confront the beetle and it will raise its tail in a scorpion-like manner.

A walk past a pond, stream or across a heathland is likely to turn up a variety of dragonflies and damselflies this month – keep an eye out for ruddy darters, common darters, the stunning golden-ringed dragonfly and beautiful demoiselles. There are also a variety of bees, wasps, hoverflies and sunflies around that warrant a closer look. Indeed, August is a great month to look for Britain’s 22 bumblebee species. One species in particular to keep an eye out for this month is the tree bumblebee, with its reddish thorax and black abdomen with white tail; please log any sightings with the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society.

July is the peak month for glowworms, but a few females may still be found glowing during August; check long grass, particularly chalk grassland/downland in southern England, as well as railway embankments, commons and orchards. For the brave among us, August can also be a good spider-hunting month. There are still a few wolf spiders in the garden carrying their creamy-white egg sacs; once these hatch out, the spiderlings will ride on their mum’s abdomen for a week or so. Garden spiders seem to be everywhere at this time of year, too.

Wasp spiders (Argiope bruennichi) can be found throughout spring and summer, but it's high summer when they're most noticable. The females make their webs high in tall grass or gorse and sit in the middle to attract mates. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Probably the spider “queen” this month is the strikingly attractive yellow and black striped wasp spider. The amorous female, who normally spends her time down in the long grass, climbs up and sits in the middle of her web during August to attract males. The webs of this originally Mediterranean species are easy to spot thanks to the presence of a thick zig-zag structure running down vertically from the centre. This structure is called the stabilimentum because it was once, erroneously as it turns out, thought to help stabilise the web; nobody knows its actual purpose, although it has been suggested that it attracts curious insects. First officially recorded in Britain in Rye, East Sussex, in 1922, this relative of the garden spider is an increasingly common species here and has expanded its range in the south of England in recent years.

Plants & fungi

Surprisingly-fragrant thistles are in bloom this month - look closely, they’re often being attacked by caterpillars, particularly of the cinnabar moth - as are large pale pink blooms of thyme that are often smelled before they’re spotted. Searching along stone walls may reveal the delicate pink flowers of ivy-leaved toadflax, grey woolly growths of grey cushion moss, and the bright yellow tubular flowers of the yellow cordylis. Another yellow flower, adding a splash of colour to shingly shores, is the beautiful but poisonous yellow-horned poppy, which is in bloom along coastal fringes of southern England during August. Deadly nightshade, with its shiny black berries mounted on a setting of five pale green sepals, can also be found; it thrives on chalk and limestone soils. Fungi-wise, it is still relatively quiet but some large parasol mushrooms can be found in grassland this month.

Wild blackberries are at their best during August and are a firm favourite of many British species, including foxes, badgers, blackbirds and woodmice. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Finally, August is a great month for fruits and berries, with many species of wild fruit (including blackberriescranberriescherrieshawthorn and sloe) quickly ripening. Hazelnuts are also starting to ripen now, although many can be found on roads and in fields, tossed down from the canopy by impatient squirrels. Along the roadside, keep an eye out for the delicate purple flowers of vetch, while heath and bilberries can be found on our heathland. Finally, if you’re out walking in farm fields and notice any cowpats, it’s worth taking a closer look for the pale yellow fruiting bodies of the yellow field cap (Bolbitius vitellinus) fungus.

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