Nature’s harvest is coming in on time. The bramble bushes that line the lanes offer their luxurious, bulbous, black fruits to any who follow the natural harvest and enjoy the making of bramble jelly and the like.
Those fruits sparkle and shine in the sunshine which seemed at the weekend as if it was almost promising an Indian Summer. However, the forecast dashes such hopes and instead promises something entirely different, with wind and rain set to dominate as the week evolves.
The goldfinches however, are making hay whilst the sun is shining, picking delicately away at the seeds of burdock just as they have been busy stripping the thistledown during recent weeks and giving themselves a good start to what the forecasters suggest is a rapidly advancing autumn – this week sees the passing of the autumn equinox. They busy away extracting those seeds - the ones you always find sticking stubbornly to your clothes - with absolute aplomb and at least are finding a different way of ensuring the spread of burdock, consuming them before depositing the seeds elsewhere.
The incredible sense of movement engendered during these past few days has been inescapable. I’ve watched swallows assembling on the overhead wires preparatory to launching themselves on incredible journeys which will involve them in crossing Europe, then the Mediterranean and the vast Sahara Desert on their way to South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Swallows fly as much as an immense six thousand miles to escape our winter and will remain for the winter months is South Africa’s balmy clime. Most of the other summer migrants have already departed, generally on marginally shorter journeys which take them not as deeply into the Dark Continent and will already be winging their way towards Africa where the bulk of our summer migrants retreat to each winter.
However, bird migration is of course a two-way street. Just as these summer visitors have been bidding us farewell and heading off to Africa, so the first of our winter visitors are already announcing their arrival here. The other day, the air around here resounded to the ringing calls and cackling of the first geese to complete their journey from the Arctic where they have bred this summer. Whilst the swallows may seek solace in the warmth of Africa, the pink footed geese travel to these shores for the benefits our winter months, which our so-called temperate climate, promises. During these forthcoming weeks and months, their homeland will be descending into deep winter when their habitat becomes utterly locked up by frost. Old Tommy used to say, “Listen for the first geese of the fifteenth day of September”. This year he was spot on, for the first time that gabbling was heard was indeed on that very day!
These are the first of the many winter migrants we receive, to make their presence felt and these first arrivals are probably the non-breeders making an early exit from their Arctic summer home. The bulk of their fellow pink-footed geese will eventually arrive in October when this year’s young goslings will be escorted by their parents during what is for the youngsters the first of their migratory flights across the North Atlantic from Iceland where they have gathered, many of them having begun their journeys in Greenland, Other geese will beat a similar course, some coming via Iceland, others travelling down the North Sea from Svalbard in their endeavour to find the kind of habitat that will provide plenty of grazing and sustain them through the short winter days that are on their way.
Other birds – multi-legions of them – will cross that same North Sea as they escape the winter conditions which for these next few weeks will be closing in on Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and even Russia. Among them will be snipe, woodcock, short-eared owls and tiny goldcrests, which were said at one time to travel courtesy of the short-eared owls! There was a time when the woodcock that undertake this journey were thought to summer on the moon! Such were the imaginary ramifications of minds which tried to explain the then unfathomable mysteries of bird migration. When such notions were commonplace, the world was a much smaller place with global travel, as we know it now, not a daily feature of people’s lives.
Finally, probably in late October, will come the majestic whooper swans, also making their way from Iceland into Scotland, whilst the Bewick’s swans will descend upon England from the north-east, many of them from northern Russia, and many of them heading for places along the east coast of England and some for the reserve created by the late Sir Peter Scott at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. I wonder if they might have company again this year? A year or two ago, these Bewick’s swans were accompanied by an extremely courageous woman – a niece of Dame Judy Dench - who was flying a para-glider all the way from Russia to record their every movement en-route.
The pink-footed geese that have arrived together with the rest of the pink-feet when they make that crossing of the North Atlantic to arrive in October will certainly fill the Vale with their clamour, a noisier chorus than that which has marked the summer months which are of course filled with a vast variety of sweeter summer song. Suddenly there is an awareness that winter is a coming! Shortening days lie ahead and they will initially be illuminated by the winter sound of flighting geese before the pink-feet then begin to disperse, many of them moving to locations around the Solway where conditions for them are excellent. Those that remain in this airt will seek out what grazing they may find which ensures that they will remain typically always restless during their winter sojourn here.
Right across the world, similar movements are occurring as birds, which have bred at the top of the world, fly south to escape advancing winter in the more inhospitable northern outposts. Thus, millions of birds migrate to escape the hostile conditions inexorably rapidly changing the nature of their breeding territories, just as those that have left here for their African wintering grounds make such journeys to ensure there is plenty of insect life to keep them well fed during those months when insect life here is dormant.
However, one bird still sings. His sweet tones echo across a landscape, which apart from the gabbling geese, is otherwise largely silent where a few short weeks ago could be heard merle and mavis, willow warbler and garden warbler. That new emptiness accentuates his song even more. As he sings, Redbreast still retains territorial ambitions however, this time around, it isn’t breeding territory he seeks to establish as he sings merrily away but feeding territory. No matter, he will defend that territory as doughtily as if it were for breeding. The one thing you can be sure about robin redbreast is that he is always up for it! His voice tells us of the declining year without doubt.