Basin Notes - September 2010

Autumnal Berry Bounty

Summer can be a hard time for wildlife as food can be in short supply. Those keen gardeners with slug ravaged hostas and dahlias may not agree, but birds can find it difficult to find the insects, seeds and berries they need in dry, hard ground and before natural processes have run their course.

The berberis bushes in our garden produce their dark purple-black berries in August and they provide the focus of interest for the local blackbirds who perform amazing acrobatics to wrest a berry from its stalk. The juvenile birds see their parents gleaning this food supply and spend a long time trying to emulate them with less success but good comic value for onlookers.

Needless to say, with all this attention the berberis are soon bare of berries and the paths nearby are spattered with the purple-coloured droppings of the blackbirds. This is of value to the berberis, of course, as it relies on birds to disperse its seeds together with a small packet of fertiliser to new fertile plots. We only started with one bush in the garden and now have four and are constantly pulling up saplings in the spring to prevent the formation of a berberis forest.

The rowan is a tree that is well known for its berry bounty in autumn and the blackbirds switch their attention to those bright red seed carriers. They do not seem as keen on them, however (perhaps the berries are not ripe enough yet), and the blackbirds quickly move onto the himalayan honeysuckle (or pheasant berry as it is also known) and are once more performing feats of flying to grab the dark crimson berries.

After a while this activity wanes, even though there are still berries to be had and clusters hang low and start to shrivel and break open. At this point, the pheasant berry becomes covered in hoverflies as they find a good source of sugar, now that the nectar source in flowers is declining. A few flies and the odd common wasp also arrive for the feast, but many different species of hoverfly predominate.

Hoverflies look like slim wasps, but have no sting and are harmless to humans. Their larvae are voracious eaters of aphids and hence are the gardeners' friends. There is nothing more evocative of summer than to see a hoverfly holding position on glittering wings in a shaft of sunlight.

After their feasting on the pheasant berry the hoverflies showed a great disregard for their own safety and would allow me to touch them, which is most unusual under normal circumstances. One can only surmise that the some of the sugar on the rotting berries had fermented and the alcohol had dulled their normal protective reactions.

Next on the menu will be the cotoneaster berries, which are attractive to redwings and fieldfares as well as blackbirds and after a fall of these migrants it is worth checking out any berry laden bush or tree to what has flown in for a feast.

The other major arrival of migrants are not after any berries though, and I am sure everyone in Montrose will have noticed the flocks of pink-footed geese over the past week - growing from about 40 on the 14th to over 2,500 on the 18th.