Hints of Autumn
Hints of Autumn
Despite some delightfully sunny weather recently, a short walk in the countryside is all it takes to assure us that the seasons are on the turn. Not just the tinges of autumn colour which are appearing in the treetops, or the occasional dead leaf fluttering down – no, there are other undeniable hints too, as our experience on a short walk in the Harewood area clearly showed.
We parked beside newly harvested arable fields in which the rectangular straw bales loomed like monoliths, and watched about twenty pheasants, showy cocks with their long tail-streamers and gawky adolescents, gleaning in the stubble near the hedge. Further away, about fifty plump wood pigeons were also busy feeding, while overhead, the sky was full of martins enjoying the late afternoon sunshine and strengthening their wings ready for the long journey ahead. Later, in a small wood, all at first seemed very quiet except for the occasional plaintive whistle from a robin just tuning up for the autumn territorial singing match; then, suddenly a gang of small birds arrived, flitting and feeding in the treetops with soft contact calls – blue tits, great tits, tiny long-tailed tits and a treecreeper, his underside flickering silvery white as he moused his way up a nearby sycamore trunk. For a significant change has already taken place. The small family groups of summer have merged to form the larger flocks needed for life in autumn, the many eyes to detect food or predators, the protection of numbers should one attack.
As we had hoped, the wood was full of fungus, but our most unusual find of the day was in the damp margin between track and field-edge. Not very prepossessing at first glance – a couple of dollops of something looking rather like rice pudding apparently clinging to the grass blades – this was a species of plasmodial slime mould, and in pristine condition too. Scientists have struggled over the centuries to classify slime moulds. Superficially they resemble fungi – they release spores in order to reproduce – but they behave rather like animals. In fact each of our dollops was made up of unicellular blobs, similar to amoebae, which combine, spread out and actually move across the grass, engulfing and consuming bacteria in their path. When they reach maturity, they appear to harden and deteriorate, spores are released and disperse ready to restart the process. It’s worth keeping a lookout in autumn fields and woods. What might look like scrambled egg, a heap of lentils or rice pudding could well be an example of this paradoxical entity.