Nature 2008 October

Nature’s own autumnal aerial display

Pioneering flyers, paragliders, hoverers, helicopters and parachutes

Here in this part of the Chilterns in the last week of August and first two of September, we had over three inches of rain. A squint at the Met Office website to remind me what had been predicted back in July about the late-summer weather brought amusement when I alighted on the words “… rainfall totals will be near or above the long-term average”. Well, whatever that means, does that level of precision provide confidence for the autumn forecast? “… The UK and north-western Europe will probably have below-average amounts of rain this autumn.” We shall see!

Whatever the outcome, the reality is that this pattern of relatively cool, wet summers and warmer, dry winters might come to be the norm rather than the exception. We are also told that during high-summer and early autumn we can expect more extreme weather events, sudden and heavy summer downpours or a blistering heat wave or both. At least we can take comfort from being at 650 feet plus, away from flooding rivers and with bedrock of porous chalk for insurance too.

To be fair, our weather has always been impossible to forecast. If it were otherwise we would not talk about it whenever we politely exchange a greeting and I would not be rambling on about it here! No surprise then that the media has developed a near obsessive focus on global warming as the simplistic cause of all unusual meteorological happenings. This ignores that the British Isles’ unique maritime position adjacent to the continent of Europe has always given opportunities for extreme or unpredictable weather. In other words, for us the unusual is the usual.

It has always been the case though that even on a busy news day there is almost always a story about ‘environmental disasters’ or impending climatic perils. But while these threats appear to be of increasing frequency, the terminology is not new, becoming a part of common usage back in the 1970s when the fear was not that the planet would over-heat but precisely the opposite, the fear that we were on the edge of a new Ice Age.

Another contemporary phrase ‘nature conservation’ had already ten years’ start and its emergence as an important public issue was denoted in the first set of newstyle commemorative stamps appearing in 1963. Depiction of an everyday crosssection of wildlife was more modest than today and those first stamps included daisies, buttercups, ferns, badgers, bees, field mice, deer, a butterfly and, more surprisingly, a woodpecker and longtailed tit. Compare that list to one from a recent set of stamps, which featured less everyday examples including a pine martin, wildcat, yellow necked mouse and Natterer’s bat: an illustration of how the public’s education and awareness of British wildlife has been enhanced by a long line of TV nature presenters from Johnny Morris to Bill Oddie, via of course, Sir David Attenborough.

October is when summer and winter wildlife meet. In the early part of the month the yellows of hawkweed, upright and fitter look-alikes of their relative the dandelion, and the pinks of willow herb and alien balsam flowers mingle with the reds and purples of autumn fruits, rosehips and sloes. The latter matures right on cue to greet the mass arrival of thrushes, redwings and fieldfares from far ’up North’. The former, not content with enticing eager goldfinches to spread their genetic materials, improve the odds by providing each seed with a pristine parachute to spread far and wide at the whim of air currents. In the hanger, the oak stands out as one of the last to give up its deep-green canopy.

Meanwhile, the crop of beech leaves is ageing more prematurely this year and will display briefly in yellow rather than their signature oranges, bronzes and purples. On windy autumnal days, the leaves on maples and sycamores will fall and expose greybrown winged fruits, whose graceful helical descent has been suggested as a possible inspiration for Leonardo de Vinci’s ‘helicopter’ designs.

Other gyroplane mimics choose this month to lift off. Pesky craneflies emerge from their subterranean caverns to lie in wait for any unsuspecting walker foolish enough to encroach on their territory. Prior to their all-to-brief flights of fancy, craneflies are known as leatherjackets. This alter ego lives but a few inches down, feeding on the roots of turf grass. Despite stories of venomous bites, both the larvae and the adults, which feed on nectar, may be ugly but are totally harmless to us. Spider webs glisten in the dew-soaked grass; their architects having launched themselves on silken strands to glide on undetectable currents of air across open fields.

The surprise of a warm sunny September Saturday morning brings a crop of newly emergent red admirals, drawn to some old fermenting sugar-rich raisins on which they binge close to intoxication bravely ignoring the attention of a marauding hornet. All the old textbooks will tell you red admirals do not survive our harsh winters and come afresh each year as continental migrants, but this is no longer always the case. Alongside the regulars, (brimstones, peacocks and small tortoiseshells), a few will survive our milder winters. This year’s cool and wet summer has dictated probably just two rather than the usual three broods. These late arrivals though are monster-sized versions of their spring ancestors. They need to be titans as endurance flying is essential, paragliding in the cooler air above hedgerows in search of over-ripened blackberries and nectar rich ivy flowers.

Another late display is provided by pheasants, which can be seen locally with plumage variations from bird to bird. The vast majority have the characteristic ‘vicar’s collar’ and blue/bronze plumage denoting they are the descendants of Chinese stock introduced for sport to estates in the 18th century. Occasionally seen are almost black pheasants, again specially bred to impress. These may owe their ancestry to the much earlier introduced Roman and Norman breeds, colloquially known as ‘British pheasants’. All are equally capable of giving the unsuspecting walker a start as they launch themselves haphazardly skywards. Meanwhile, look out for the aerial displays of juvenile rooks, jackdaws and crows. They assemble in larger and larger groups to practise their adolescent aerobatics, much hovering and stalling, accompanied by mutual squawking before breaking out of the congregation in all directions.

So for the next month or so I hope you find time and clement weather to experience the fresh air and open spaces roundabouts, as much as this autumn’s wildlife will be too.

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