The end of summer
It’s my sad time of year: such a sense of endings. Many summer visitors have already left – swallows, swifts, martins, migrating warblers and, of course, cuckoos. The adult birds, free of all parenting duties leave by August. The BTO send me news of radio-tagged cuckoos so I know that the tagged birds are already in Africa. What is amazing is that this year’s young, raised to gigantic size by their hardworking foster parents, set out alone and find their way to the wintering grounds in Africa: no guides, just genetically built in instinct!
My garden hedgehogs, already looking like stout plum puddings on legs and well over the 500gm. weight necessary for safe hibernation, are on the lookout for suitable places and even greedy Seamus, the badger, rarely visits now – he spends the colder months either snoozing in his sett or foraging very near to home. We are animals too, and I can feel my moods and behaviour adapting – less time out of doors, more time napping and a developing taste for vegetable soups and hot buttered crumpets. A subtle blend of shortening daylight and dropping temperatures effects the behaviour of us all.
Our wild neighbours have developed a whole range of strategies for facing the winter with its low temperatures and lack of easily available food. Some, as we have seen, spend the winters further south and return to breed when long days provided optimum opportunities for feeding young. Some of them – eg blackcaps, chifchaffs – now brave it out in the UK. The chance to be first in choice of breeding territory presumably outweighing the risk. It’s proved beneficial for the more robust blackcaps, and no doubt we’ll see more of this as Climate Change bites.
The pile-on-the fat-and then-sleep strategy favoured by dormice, hedgehogs and, to some extent, badgers, is no use to birds. You don’t wish to ground yourself! In a hard winter many small birds that require constant food to keep going, like wrens, goldcrests and long-tailed tits, die of cold. The survivors have the best nest sites and an increased share of food and they also have larger broods so numbers tend to yo-yo from year to year. Others stash food. Jays currently compete with squirrels to collect and secrete our acorns and the coal tits are busy taking individual seeds from the feeder and flying off to hide these in their various larders. Our garden feeding stations will hopefully keep many other species alive.
It’s a busy time: as swallows leave, flocks of thrushes (fieldfares, redwings, mistle thrushes) arrive from Northern Europe to gorge on our wild fruit harvest. Not an end but a new beginning.