Although the arrival of autumn signals the end of the breeding season for much of the heathland wildlife, it is arguably the most beautiful time to visit, with some of the special heath flowers just coming into their prime and plenty of fauna still to see.
The scarce marsh gentian, with its trumpet-shaped clusters of bright blue flowers, can be seen in bloom all the way through September. Look for it in the wet parts of the heath. The widespread common heather, or ling, and the more showy bell heather, with its bell-like flowers, colour the heathland purple and pink in August and September in the dry areas. Their close relative the cross-leaved heath, with its flowers showing a more delicate pink, thrives in the wet heathland. A valuable plant for wildlife, providing thorny cover for birds and nectar for insects, the hardy yellow gorse flowers throughout the year in some areas. All of these thrive on heathland because they tolerate the acid, nutrient poor soil.
Autumn is primetime for bird watchers, as thousands of migrant birds fly through Dorset, heading south for winter. Look out for osprey, a spectacular fish-eating bird of prey, which refuels in Poole Harbour on its way back to West Africa. Of the birds that breed on our heaths, you might still catch sight of a hobby, a spectacular small falcon which catches dragonflies, as it breeds later in the season, while the rare Dartford warbler stays with us all year round. Restricted to southern heathland, it does not migrate but survives the winter feeding on invertebrates in the thick growth of heather and gorse. Thanks to the relatively mild climate in east Dorset, Dartford warblers seem to have survived last year’s hard winter better here than anywhere else, making the Dorset heaths even more vitally important for them.
Dorset heaths, including Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Upton Heath, are also home to all six British reptiles, and they can still be seen basking in the September sun before going into hibernation.