Animal Antics

With the days getting shorter, we sometimes feel like hibernating along with some of our feathered and furry friends. But apply some simple detective work and there’s still plenty of wildlife to keep little ones entertained outside this autumn.

Wellies on? Check. Waterproofs packed? Check. Spotter sheet at the ready? Check. You really don’t need very much to begin your journey to becoming a fully fledged nature hunter.

And, while it may take a bit of practice, once you learn to follow a few ‘clues’, there’s a whole new world just waiting to be discovered.

Whether you live in the town or country, autumn is a wonderful time of year because there’s so much going on in our many different habitats. And it’s by getting outside that young children learn to recognise the changes taking place around them. Trees put on a dazzling display of colour, berries ripen, ponds fill up and red spotted toadstools, straight out of a fairytale, appear as if by magic. With animals, birds and the insect kingdom particularly busy, as they get ready for the colder months ahead, watching their behaviour is a great place to start.

“You’ll see lots of different things depending on when you go out,” says Danielle Evans, The Woodland Trust’s Senior Learning Projects Officer. “Autumn is spider breeding season, so they’re often more visible at this time as they run about looking for a mate.” Delicate webs, spun between branches, will be sparkling with morning frost or dew and should be very easy to spot.

Look out too for oak trees and you might see grey squirrels and jays out and about, as they collect and bury acorns. Or listen closely to rustling in the undergrowth, this could be a hedgehog munching on a beetle, in its mission to store up winter energy. According to Danielle, “It’s about using all of your senses.”

High up in the sky beating wings signal flocks of migrant birds on the move. While close to water, dragonflies could be swooping, a lizard sunning itself or, if you’re very lucky, a little water vole might paddle by.

Keep alert, and there could be an unusual smell to follow, or some tracks that lead off in another direction. While binoculars can be handy in a search, getting a bug’s eye view of the world by crouching down on hands and knees, and really taking a close look at what’s under your feet, may also deliver some surprising finds. If you can’t identify these straightaway, take a photo or do a drawing.

Using specially built hides and viewing platforms in woodland and waterfowl parks is helpful in scouting for wildlife as these allow you to blend in with the surroundings. But don’t forget, you’ll also need to try and stay as quiet as a dormouse to improve your chances of catching a glimpse. Organised bat walks and other Halloween-inspired events at this time of year are worth looking out for too, revealing some of the shyer, nocturnal species living alongside us.

As Jane Booth, an Education Ranger at Alice Holt Forest, says, “Children are naturally inquisitive. It’s lovely to let them explore.”

Self-guided trails around established wildlife areas provide an ideal taster of nature hunting for little ones. It’s worth checking if these can be downloaded in advance or there might be a podcast with tips for what to do and see. As you get more adventurous, perhaps try an alternative, longer, route. Danielle Evans suggests it can also be fun to go off-piste, “Sometimes if you do explore a little more, by yourself, you are more likely to see things,” she observes.

If you like the idea of joining a ‘safari’ with other young families, then outdoor classrooms and half-term holiday play events can be the perfect introduction. “Parents tell us that they enjoy the chance to interact with their children. They’re also delighted because it equips them with simple ideas that they can recreate for themselves, when they go on their own adventures in the forest,” says Jane Booth speaking about the Babes in Woods sessions she runs. Whether it’s discovering a woodpecker’s feather, or hunting for molehills, Jane knows there are plenty of, “Wonderful magic moments,” waiting to happen.

Last year, a survey carried out by the National Trust suggested that we all need to do more to help children reconnect with the natural world. But the good news is that experts believe if you can get the under 12s hooked on playing outdoors, that they’ll have a lifelong passion for the environment.

Wherever your search for wildlife takes you this autumn – woods, meadows, heathlands or watersides, rest assured young explorers will be in their element. Ever heard a tawny owl screech, stalked an otter, or watched a wasp take a drink? CBeebies has nothing on this.

Play nature hunters in London…

Camley Street Natural Park
This acclaimed nature reserve on the banks of the Regent’s Canal is a wild green space that includes a pond, meadow and woodland. Kingfishers, bats and butterflies are all regular inhabitants and there are plenty of holiday play activities, as well as a visitor centre to help you find your way around. Winter opening hours apply from October, with private hire available on a Saturday.

The London Wetland Centre
Imagine being able to watch playful otters feeding, go pond dipping for water scorpion and frogs, or take a reptile walk. Stop-off at one of the six hides as you tour the lakes, pools and gardens. There’s even a hi-tech version of a traditional village pond; use the underwater camera and you might see one of the centre’s famous water voles. TV’s Nick Baker is giving a family-friendly talk about nature tracking on Sunday 1 September (bookings 020 8409 4400). Entry charges apply.
SW13 9WT

Sydenham Hill Wood
What remains of the Great North Wood includes nine hectares of ancient forest and the famous Monkey Puzzle Tree. Download an autumn activity trail to spot a nuthatch or woodpecker above your head, rare insects, or if you’re really lucky the elusive woodland mouse. The path of a disused railway line leads to an old tunnel, now home to families of roosting bats, while the small ponds dotted within the woods are a haven for ducks and toads.
SE26 6RZ

The LookOut, Hyde Park

A jewel of a natural habitat in the heart of the city; the monstrous jaws of the dragonfly nymph, the sound of a chirruping cricket and the wriggling secrets of the sunshine pool all await your discovery. Bug safaris, using traditional fishing nets alongside digital microscopes, run during the school holidays from the Isis Education Centre. There’s an open house weekend on 21 and 22 September (free), and a Go Batty for Bats family workshop, including a bat trail, on Sunday 29 October (bookings: 020 7036 8056).
W2 2UH

Greenwich Park
It’s a park famous for squirrels, birds and deer, but don’t miss the Wildlife Centre and Nature Reserve. Head straight to the viewing gallery to get up close to the mammals inhabiting the Wilderness, or explore the nature trail with one of the trained guides. If you can tear yourself away from the stag beetle logger and the hedgehogs’ nesting boxes, there are indoor wildlife themed activities. Drop-in sessions are on the last Wednesday of every month, plus there’s an open day on Saturday 24 October.
SE10 8QY