Waterway wildlife in autumn

What’s your favourite thing about autumn? The amazing colours, the musty autumnal smell in the air or the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot?

One of our favourite things about this time of year is the wildlife that you can see. There’s plenty to spot along our canals and rivers before the cold weather sets in.

It doesn't matter if you're in a town or the countryside. Come and visit us to find out why spending time by water will help you feel refreshed and happier than you were before.

A bug's life

Stag beetle on log reared up Stag beetle

Look out for piles of fallen leaves. Tiny insects living on the ground are ready and waiting to munch through the decaying matter, turning it into fertile soil.

We often don’t think about these creatures of the underworld, but they are one of the most important parts of our ecosystem. It’s their job to tidy up the mess which autumn brings.

Sniff the ivy 

A bee in the ivy on the Stourbridge Canal A bee in the ivy on the Stourbridge Canal

If you spot some ivy, go and have a sniff. It’s not the most pleasant of scents but that punchy smell is heaven to the insects. The pollen and nectar produced by ivy is one of the last sources of these precious commodities before everything shuts down for winter. So in autumn ivy is often buzzing with life.

Holly blue butterfly caterpillars feed on ivy, many birds nest among it, bats often hide during the day between its leaves and the tree trunk, and its flowers are probably the best pollinator magnet from late September onwards.

Autumn sunshine warming ivy can create a buzz to be heard at some distance, as honey bees, hoverflies, wasps and hornets all gather there. You'll occasionally see red admirals, commas and peacock butterflies on ivy too, as well as a host of moths during the night.  

Berry bonanza 

Sloes by the canal Sloes by the canal

Berries are a brilliant source of food through the winter months for small mammals such as wood mice and bank voles. These furry creatures need to stock up on food whilst it’s plentiful and store it in a secret place.

Sometimes, if you peer into a small hole in the trunk of a tree, you might be lucky enough to spot one of these stashes, hidden away ready for a midwinter feast.

Fungi

Fungi next to the canal Fungi next to the canal

Fungi are essential for life on earth. They recycle nutrients back into the soil and have complicated relationships with plants allowing them to grow better.  

We tend to think of mushrooms and toadstools when we talk about fungi, but there are thousands of species in the UK alone, and most go unnoticed. The actual mushrooms and toadstools that we are familiar with are just the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of fungi are out of sight, in an underground network of threads called hyphae or mycelium.

It's only when the fungi reproduces that the familiar shapes are produced as fruiting bodies. Fungi can also be indicators of environmental quality, with some of the highest diversity occurring in unspoilt ancient woodlands and unimproved grasslands.

There's plenty of fungi to look out for by the side of the canal in autumn. Fly agaric is large and red capped, with white scales. It grows near to trees, where it will be entwined underground with the tree's roots. This fungi is extremely poisonous and made famous by Alice in Wonderland.

Walking the towpath, you may find shaggy ink cap, brightly coloured wax cap, parasol and even horse mushrooms. If you're lucky, you may find the huge football-sized giant puff ball, so called due to its ability to puff out spores when it rains.

Where woodland runs alongside the canal, look out for scarlet elf caps, dead man’s fingers, the earth star and the unappealing stink horn, which is usually surrounded by flies attracted to the stench it gives off. There may also be fungi present on trees, sometimes feeding on already dead wood and occasionally killing the tree, depending on the species.

Chicken-of-the-woods are particularly prominent. Look out for the many types of bracket fungi on standing and fallen tress, such as the grey fire bracket, razor-strop fungus and many-zoned bracket.

Although many of our UK fungi are edible, you should never eat fungi without research and guidance from an expert. Many are poisonous and very difficult to distinguish from the edible ones.

Last date edited: 2 December 2020