One day this week, myriads of swallows were buzzing around me the way only swallows can, zipping low across the ground and showing off their remarkable aerial talents, the next day they were gone! Nothing surely expresses the mood of our summer days more gloriously than swallows. In their constant search for flying insect life, their sole source of food of course, they swoop, swerve, duck and dive like no other creature. They bring such fantastic verve to summer days and now that they are leaving us, our lives will surely be the poorer without them. As they go, they seem to take our summer with them!
We may yet see a few more swallows as more waves of them come and go during these next few shortening autumnal days. Birds that have been stationed further to the north for the summer months may pass through as they join the swelling southerly exodus that characterises this time of the year. Although migrating swallows may hurry on their way south as instinct drives them towards more insect ridden climes, they are constantly re-fuelling, replenishing their energy banks. As they progress, at nightfall they may seek out reed beds in which to roost during the hours of darkness. At first light they are on the move again.
So, I wonder, are we about to witness a brief and unlikely meeting of the later leaving emigrant birds heading inexorably towards tropical Africa and those recently departed denizens of the icy Arctic? Indeed, this could be the day that such meetings occur, for Friday, September 15 is the date upon which Old Tommy always reckoned that the first wintering geese would pitch up in this airt. Furthermore, he was very often right! And with the arrival of those first skeins of pink-footed geese, the mood of the landscape most certainly changes for if the athletic movement of swallows is symbolic of summer, the honking of geese is surely the sound of autumn and indeed of forthcoming winter. Their loud gabbling is to me, essentially reminiscent of the wild Arctic tundra they have just vacated.
These first skeins whether they arrive today, tomorrow or whenever during these next few days, are largely non-breeders. They represent the vanguard of much bigger family orientated skeins which usually arrive a little later in October, at a time when our skies are suddenly filled with migrant birds, not leaving these shores but arriving from places to the north and east of us. The arrival of geese is one of the more obvious signs of what is a surprisingly large-scale inward movement of birds largely making landfall along our eastern seaboard during the autumn. However, the pink-feet come to us from a slightly different direction - from Iceland and eastern Greenland, Iceland being where they gather before taking on the perilous, near thousand-mile crossing of the North Atlantic.
Next month, that same hostile stretch of water will be crossed by the rather more stately skeins of whooper swans as well as the bulk of the pink-feet and the Greenland white-fronted geese which will be arriving in due course on the waters of Loch Lomond. I'm sure that the high flying swans will, like the geese, be keeping a wary eye out for what is left of the procession of hurricanes that have been gathering around the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa. As the men from the Met. tell us, from relatively small beginnings these storms as they rapidly travel westward across the warming ocean, gather energy and vigour on the way. That energy explodes when landfall is made causing utter devastation. But although these storms moderate once they have vented their spleen on such places, they often continue across the northern waters of that great ocean, towards us!
If the presence of the geese is loudly signalled, the arrival of most of the other in-comers is somewhat more surreptitious. Indeed, few observers notice the likes of short-eared owls and minuscule goldcrests flooding in from Scandinavia. They are of course, identical to resident owls of that genre and goldcrests and so cannot obviously be picked out as resident or non-resident once they have moved inland. Nor indeed, can the incoming hordes of woodcock be distinguished from the woodcock that we play host to all the year round.
Woodcock are, without question, mysterious birds, some might even say, ghostly birds! In the latter context, my own experiences of seeing woodcock - or rather not seeing them against the backdrop of the autumnal woodland floor - could, I suppose, be interpreted as ghost-like. A bird, of which hitherto I was completely unaware, suddenly takes off from almost under my feet, flits silently away for a few dozen yards and then becomes utterly obfuscated again when it returns to the leaf littered floor ... before my very eyes! The mystery deepens and those of a more nervous disposition might indeed believe that they are seeing ghosts in such circumstances.
But then some of the traditions attached to these long billed waders, are even stranger than fiction. As recently as the mid-eighteenth century, before the concept of migration was understood, it was firmly believed that woodcock, departing these shores in the spring, actually summered on the moon and that in the autumn, they made their return! The following verse penned by Alexander Pope tells the story:-
"A bird of passage gone as soon as found
Now in the moon perhaps, now underground."
One 'expert' claimed that the birds took two months to reach their lunar destination and two months to return! Woodcock, well known of course to shooters for their fast, erratic flight, are also largely silent during the summer, save for their strange evening 'roding' territorial flight in which they croak and squeak, dare I say, in a rather ghostly fashion!
Mind you, there were those who also believed that it was to the moon that the geese leaving here in springtime, were also emigrating! However, the pink-footed geese I expect to arrive during these mid-September days certainly won't have travelled here from the moon but from Iceland, and Greenland. In fact, apart from a small population which breeds in Western Svalbard, these are the only places where pink-feet breed in the world. And whilst many of the geese from Svalbard winter in the Low Countries, the rest of the world's population winters in Britain and Ireland. In total, an estimated 360,000 birds currently winter in these areas annually. Over the space of the last thirty years or so, Pink-foot populations have more than doubled, bucking a trend in which most bird populations are declining.
Pink-feet are grey geese, rather more lightly built than the much bulkier but similarly greylag geese. Their quite darkly coloured necks are shorter than those of most other geese and their pink and black beaks comparatively slightly stubbier. Their voices too are pitched a little higher than most other geese, the sound they make often interpreted as a 'wink, wink'. Their arrival here in mid-September undoubtedly imbues the landscape with a different character and, certainly in my mind at least, brings a distinct air of the wild and barren north.
That we are day by day, slipping inexorably towards autumn and winter there can be no doubt. The v-shaped skeins patterning our skies, together with the far-carrying, echoing calls of flighting geese, which we may expect to see and hear during these next few days, most certainly appears to hasten us on our autumnal journey.