In Autumn small birds seem even shier in Tuscany than in the UK, maybe a legacy of the old Mediterranean habit of shooting and eating anything that flies at this time of year. However this practice is less in vogue than before and is now frowned upon by most Italians, even in the countryside. We heard fewer gunshots that we would have a few years ago, but still occasionally came upon hides with evidence of elaborate decoys and perching posts carefully bent to be within range. The upside of this tradition is that scrubby margins have always been left to encourage the production of young warblers and finches for the pot. I hope these rich pockets of habitat will not be grubbed up in the name of agricultural improvement as their sporting value diminishes.
Later in the day the silence was broken only by the screeching of jays, and occasional calls of nuthatches, short-toed treecreepers, green, great spotted and lesser-spotted woodpeckers. These tree-huggers may have been less vulnerable to hunters than the songbirds in scrub, and therefore could afford to make more noise. In autumn Lesser-spotted woodpeckers are some of the most secretive birds in the UK, but to my surprise last week in Tuscany they were among most evident, and with patience I got some good views.
In spring nightingales are the undisputed lords of the Tuscan acoustic world, bubbling and sobbing ubiquitously above a supporting cast of warblers and exotic golden orioles. In autumn the real stars are not birds at all, but big-headed, awkward-looking male field crickets which call incessantly from afternoon until the small hours whenever the temperature exceeds 13 degrees. If you tune in and focus inside their their narrow pitch range their calls are subtle and varied, each transmitting information about age, fitness, and diet to females who cruise around in search of the best vocalist. When a female makes her choice and approaches, the male softens his tone and sings a brief courtship song before they disappear into his burrow together.
A highlight of these autumn walks was a wonderful variety of butterflies including silver-studded and adonis blues, spectacular great-banded graylings, woodland graylings, pearl-bordered and silver-washed fritillaries, common and Berger's clouded yellows, wood whites. Insects, (and therefore bird food) were everywhere, butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers, bees, mantises. Many of them settled photogenically on eryngium amethystinum (below), a cousin of sea holly whose amethyst blooms light up the dry september grassland.