Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A late season

Up until very recently, it has felt as if the mild damp of autumn would never relinquish her grip. Warmer than average temperatures, trees reluctant to drop their leaves and a scattering of late summer migrants has blurred what should have been a clear shift in the seasons. It has been a strange autumn and now, with bare trees and clear night skies, we still have the odd day that feels more like a herald of spring than a harbinger of winter.

I am not alone in being caught out by the warmer, brighter days. Great Tits, thrushes and Blackbirds all engage in song, a cheerful chorus that will halt abruptly once the weather systems shift around to their more characteristic positions. A lingering Swallow on the East Anglian coast, together with a late tern and at least one Common Swift, are echoes of the summer that should, by now, be a distant memory. One thing that has remained unchanging, however, is the reduction in daylight hours. While it is mild enough to work in the garden with pleasurable comfort, turning over ground that is still loose and pliable, the short days slip rapidly into darkness from mid-afternoon.

The generally mild conditions leave garden bird feeders unused for days at a time, only for a sudden spurt of activity off the back of the occasional cold night. On such nights, it is reassuring to feel the bite of falling temperatures and to gaze up into the clear sky and watch the stars. On one such night the other week, I was surprised to make out the white form of a Little Egret passing low overhead. The lateness of this bird made me wonder if it had been spooked from a roost or had it continued feeding, as many shorebirds do, under the light of the autumnal moon.

A few creatures have read some signal of the changing season. Harlequin Ladybirds have suddenly amassed in the corners of rooms and outbuildings, hunkering down ahead of the winter that will surely follow. The large wasp nest above the kitchen has finally fallen silent, the last of the increasingly drowsy workers now stilled, and it will soon be time to explore its extent within the small attic space it occupies. There is still some insect activity around the ivy, a plant that provides late season resources for birds and insects alike but soon this too will fall silent. A late Red Admiral butterfly, seen on the wing in town, most surely seek shelter before it is too late. It has been a surprising transition from autumn to winter and one that makes one wonder about our changing climate. Will this blurring of the seasons become the norm?

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