When the weatherman announced that the 1st of September was, in meteorological terms, the beginning of autumn, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who inwardly sighed at the loss of summer. This summer has been good, it’s been hot and mostly dry, and as such it has felt long, leisurely and reminiscent of childhood summers long gone.
I will not dwell on the summer past, however, but embrace the coming autumn. For autumn is the result of the summer’s growth and, in terms of wildlife, the conclusion of reproductive work completed, which sees young birds and other animals finding their way in a new world, developing their crafts. Some will be embarking on epic journeys, travelling unassisted to wintering grounds many hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. The wonders of migration are still not fully understood, many of its mysteries have only recently been discovered and there is still much more to learn.
Here at Ashridge Nurseries the swallows are regular summer guests, and will soon set off on an epic journey to Southern Africa, flying at the rate of 200 miles per day to cover the distance. This is a truly remarkable feat when you consider that a swallow weighs in at a mere 20 grams –put two £1 coins in your hand to feel the weight of that.
They make their mud nests high up inside the packing barn, using its large open doorways to fly in and out. And at the day’s end, when the barn doors are closed and locked for the
evening, these beautiful little summer visitors enjoy unhindered access through special openings in the walls. Such thoughtful considerations make this chosen nest site a huge success, and given that these birds return to the same nesting sites year after year, it makes a huge difference to be welcomed back and not shut out.
During the summer months, the swallows may have two broods, laying four to five eggs for each. Egg incubation takes about eighteen days, and the young swallows fledge after about another twenty-one days. This is breeding in the fast lane, but with a typical life span of two years and a breeding age that starts at a year old, there really is no time to lose. Nine pairs of swallows nested in the Ashridge barn this year, each raising multiple broods –it certainly brings about a feeling of parental pride which is felt by all at Ashridge Nurseries.
During the busy lives that now most of us lead, it is increasingly important to create the time to wander a little, to find some favoured place - somewhere quieter, somewhere wilder - to stop and stare; wandering mentally as well as physically. It is in such quiet, idling times that the wild world can be best observed.
In late summer as I walked on Salisbury Plain, I saw a distant bird powering along low to the ground, then swooping up and over a hedgerow. I thought it a sparrowhawk. But there was something about it that made me stop and wonder. Was that a glimpse of the dark wings of a kestrel?
A little further on and the bird was back in view, powering low again, then upwards, before once more swooping down. Soon it was joined by a similar looking bird, and then another. They were all active in flight, but one concentrated attacks on the pigeons and crows on the ground. These were not proper strikes, however, but more like feigned ambushes.
As I watched these antics I realised that these were not sparrowhawks but kestrels, young kestrels.The faux strikes were made again and again; pigeons and crows were repeatedly harassed, along with a couple of magpies in the hedgerow and some rabbits at the field’s edge. Although the kestrel put much effort into these strikes, the pigeons, corvids and rabbits were plainly aware they posed no real threat. They simply hopped slightly off to one side each time they were swooped down upon, seemingly more out of irritation than in fear.
Were these kestrels playing? Chris Packham doesn’t like the term ‘playing’. No, these were young kestrels learning their craft, practicing their skills and flexing their little muscles. They may be one of our smaller birds of prey, but I know from handling young kestrels that soon those compliant chicks grow up to be juvenile birds that are seriously feisty, and those talons are needle sharp. All this practice will be put to deadly effect on their chosen prey of mice voles and beetles.
But it is in our towns and cities that many of us live and here too there is wildness. I recently walked through the busyness of Central London, from Waterloo station, alongside the river, to Westminster Bridge. The walkway was its usual chaotic self, crammed with tourists, entertainers and passers-by. And amongst the throng I could hear the distinctive chatty calls of starlings, but where were they?
Outside County Hall I saw them, not flying by or perched up high, but down amongst the rest of us, walking on the pavement. They were completely unfazed by the towering, passing legs and the foot-fall all around them. They too were juvenile birds, resplendent in their new plumage, golden-flecked and iridescent with all the colours seen reflected on an oil-slicked surface. They had discovered a rich and regular food source which they were pecking up with relish from the pavement: crusts, crumbs and scraps. No doubt they had quickly learnt that this was both a productive and safe activity, and they were totally at home in their busy city surroundings.
So, as summer days shorten into autumn, we are reminded that ‘summer’s lease’really does ‘hath all too short a date’. But we should resist any feelings of melancholy. Instead we should be thankful for the successes of the summer past, grateful for all the young birds and other animals that will continue to develop into adulthood over the winter. And as we say goodbye to our summer visitors, we can greet our new winter guests, some will be our own birds moving south for the winter and others will be from abroad, escaping harsher climes. Fieldfares, redwings, golden plover, hen harriers, merlins, and the beautiful short-eared owl, along with many ducks and waders. Oh and, of course, thousands of starlings that will wow us in spectacular murmurations. There is plenty to keep us entertained for this new season. I, for one, am looking forward to their arrival.