Busy time for birds and berries

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THIS is an exceptional year for berries, and hawthorns in particular are heavy with crops of deep red haws.

As more leaves are stripped by strong winds, the autumn sunshine reveals jewel-coloured fruits on other trees and shrubs.

Berry-bearing shrubs enliven what can be a sombre season in the garden, while also providing winter food when other sources are exhausted.

Blackbirds and thrushes prefer the berries of native species like elder, rowan, holly, and hawthorn.

They also eat the berries of viburnum and cotoneaster, those show-off shrubs with fiery autumn leaves and great bunches of red fruit.

Gardeners who would like a long-lasting display should plant shrubs with yellow or white berries, because birds prefer red or black ones, and will take other colours only as a last resort.

Starlings are the exception, as they strip elders and rowans while the berries are still green.

The visiting thrushes, fieldfares and redwings, come to Britain each winter to eat our berries and escape the Scandinavian winter. The first ones arrived in the Northern Isles at the end of last month. It’s too early to tell if we’ll have a large influx this year, which is supposed to be a sign of a hard winter.

If you fancy sloe gin for Christmas then you’ll have to get busy now. Many blackthorn bushes are full of the purple-black berries, though traditionally they’re left until after the first frost because this makes the berries sweeter.

Luckily, it’s easy to fool sloes by giving them a short spell in the freezer. After that the sloes must be washed, pricked and weighed.

Put them into a large bottle with half their weight in sugar, and then top it up with gin.

Seal the bottle and give it a gentle shake once a week. For a better flavour leave the contents for at least six months before straining, or even longer to develop a deep tawny colour.


The nights are drawing in now and as the sun sinks, barn owls come out to hunt.

They are sometimes seen at roadsides, a flash of white gliding along a hedgerow in search of mice.

Unfortunately, their habit of flying low across the road often leads to an early death.

Autumn is a busy time for tawny owls, as this year’s young males try to find a place of their own.

If one should wander into an adult male’s territory a hooting contest will take place, and if the youngster doesn’t take the hint, there might be a fight with much screeching and wailing.

The tawny is our commonest owl, about the size of a pigeon, but its shy, nocturnal habits mean that it is rarely seen.

It used to be called the wood owl because woodland is its preferred habitat, yet it’s happy in an urban park as long as it has mature trees with decent hollows and of course, food.

Tawny owls hunt in darkness, silently pouncing on voles and mice, but they’ll also take roosting birds and insects.

Tawny couples stay together for life, usually in the same territory.

The male tawny calls “to-whoo” to attract a female, while she replies with a sharp “kee-wick”.

So the traditional to-whit, to-whoo is the sound of two owls, not one.

Like other night creatures, owls used to be feared. They were birds of ill omen, and it was widely believed that their cries foretold disaster, or even death.

The screech of a barn owl, which is certainly startling on a dark night, was especially dreaded.

Writers from the 16th century onwards used the owl, raven or howling dog as a sign of approaching tragedy, and they became a staple of 20th-century horror films.

If you’re out at night listening for owls, you won’t be able to miss Jupiter.

The planet rises in the eastern sky as the twilight fades, before climbing high in the southeast.

Jupiter is brighter now than it’s been for years, and it can be seen all night.

Anyone with a telescope will be watching Jupiter’s belts, its famous Great Red Spot and its four brightest moons; the rest of us will simply marvel at this wonder of our solar system, hanging in the night sky like a giant’s lantern.