They think it's still summer...

As October draws to a close, there are still home-grown strawberries in the shops and wasps in the garden. Meanwhile, snowdrops are sprouting in St Austell. What's going on? Jonathan Brown reports
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Phenologists are confidently predicting the appearance of frog spawn in the South West "within days". It has become one of the most common indicators of the encroaching mildness of British winters and the early onset of spring. Last year the first sightings were in the first week of November; this year it is expected to be earlier still. But early activity poses a major problem for spawning species, particularly frogs that only have one breeding cycle per year. This year the Meteorological Office says there is a two-thirds chance that the winter of 2005/6 will be among the coldest third on record. This could kill off large amounts of spawn.


It was a poor spring and summer for Britain's six varieties of bumblebee and two common wasps, said Matt Shardlow from the invertebrate conservation charity Buglife. Cool and damp conditions meant they were thin on the ground in some areas, but the warm and wet October means many of the queens are active. "Last winter a lot of hibernating invertebrates were attacked by mould but this year these insects could do well." Evidence from the south of England, with its recent mild winters and where pollen and nectar are readily available, has shown some types of bumblebee going through two colony cycles a year.


Arctic-nesting barnacle geese have such a short gap between the end of their nesting season and the onset of winter that it is possible to predict their autumn migration period to within a few days. The first few hundred of the population breeding on Svalbard can be expected in their winter territory at Solway Firth by the end of the third week of September. Over the next few weeks the number of birds should rise to more than 15,000.This autumn, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust says only 6,000 have been counted. One explanation is that Norway's weather is becoming milder so the geese are under no pressure to move. Another is that the break-up of the pack ice means polar bears are turning to land prey like the geese rather than eating seals.


Rare moths more likely to be spotted in the warmer climes of Europe than a chilly British October have been seen in record numbers this autumn. No less than 26 Golden Twin-spots have been sighted in the past week, mainly in East Anglia. Sightings of rare sandy-coloured Clancy's Rustics have also soared. The Oleander Hawkmoth, with a 110mm wingspan, has also been seen in Dorset.


The old rhyme "Here we go gathering nuts in May" refers not to nuts but knots of May blossom from the hawthorn bush, Crataegus monogyna. An unconfirmed report made to the Woodland Trust claims a hawthorn in St Ives in Cornwall is in full blossom. In a normal year, the blossom has disappeared by June and the bush is bursting with ripe fruit and preparing to drop its leaves.


A tiny bird that has changed its normal pattern significantly this autumn is the yellow-browed warbler, which nests in Siberia and winters in south-east Asia. However, some go off course every autumn and end up in Britain - since the 1980s, the average number has been about 300 per year. Several times that number have been recorded in Britain this autumn and the final total is expected to be considerably above the record of 739 in 1988. With UK ornithologists unaware of the situation in the Siberian forests where they nest, the reason for this autumn's glut remains a mystery.


No autumn is complete without a sighting of Araneus diadematus in its splendid web. It is a treat that gardeners have been enjoying later into October than usual this year. With plenty of flies, wasps and moths hanging around as well, the garden cross spider has had a ready food supply and has been putting off hibernation. "Last year a lot of them survived the winter and went on breed again early. This weather is good for things that stay active but bad news for invertebrates that hibernate early as they use more energy," said Matt Shardlow of Buglife.


Wimbledon may have finished four months ago, but there are still home-grown strawberries in the shops after a bumper year for growers, who are producing record-breaking yieldsdue to unseasonably warm weather. Carole and David Tasker were forced to give away 40 tons at their 35-acre Nottinghamshire farm this week. The problem was that overseas students employed for the harvest had to return home for the beginning of the academic year, with £40,000 worth of the fruit still unpicked.


Red Admiral butterflies (Vanessa atalanta) with their distinctive red, black and white patches, have been in particular abundance this autumn despite being usually found around Southern Europe and North Africa at this time of year. Dr Martin Warren, of the charity Butterfly Conservation, said: "I saw up to 50 Red Admirals around a single buddleia bush in September." This despite a general decline in butterfly numbers.

And they think it's winter!


Shirley Clemo made national newspaper headlines yesterday after discovering snowdrops in her 30-acre gardens near St Austell, Cornwall. "I've never seen them come out so early," she said. Tony Dickerson of the Royal Horticultural Society said there could be two explanations. The first was that the flowers are examples of Galanthus reginae-olgae, autumn flowering snowdrops from northern Turkey. Or it could be that they are the native Galanthus nivalis that have been physiologically tricked by a sudden dip in the temperature after an extended period of warm weather. "Some plants occasionally get confused and they will start flowering assuming they have gone through the winter," Mr Dickerson said.