The call is unmistakeable. A harsh, grating chak-a-chack chack as a stocky, long-tailed thrush, or more likely a small flock of them, rises up from a field or from the hedges where they have been feasting on the autumn bounty of hips and haws. Fieldfares. We often associate birds with particular seasons and times of year – the first cuckoo of spring, the skylark pouring out his heart in high summer, and the swallows gathering on the wires in early autumn. For me, the fieldfare’s chattering call – like a piece of rusty agricultural equipment – is the sure sign that winter is really upon us. Their arrival in East Anglia often coincides with the first influxes of cold air from Scandinavia, and it’s hard not to think of them as Viking invaders, come to plunder our rich native berry stocks. They usually arrive in company with other ‘winter thrushes’ like redwings and continental blackbirds and song thrushes, but the fieldfares are the largest and most dominant of these. They are a slightly paradoxical combination of shyness and boldness. They are easily alarmed by any human approach and before you can get close they tend to rise up in a loud clacking flock, flashing their silvery-white underwings. They’ll then perch warily high up in a tree, where they all face in exactly the same direction rather than distributing themselves in a random pattern, as most other birds do, before suddenly taking flight again with a further volley of alarm calls. Maybe this nervy anxiety is some sort of biological folk-memory from Victorian times when roasted fieldfare was a highly regarded amuse bouche for gourmet dinners and the birds were hunted and shot in large numbers.
By contrast with this apparent timidity, fieldfares are fierce in seeing off much larger birds like crows and birds of prey, which they buzz and dive-bomb in formation. On the ground, they also bully smaller birds competing for the same food supplies. In really hard weather they’ll come into orchards and even into our gardens to gorge on the fallen apples and you can watch them driving off blackbirds in a flurry of aggressive short-range assaults. When you see fieldfares close-up like this they are very handsome birds, with a grey head and rump, a reddish-brown back and a prominent arrow-head pattern of markings running down the chest. Chaucer called them ‘the frosty fieldfares’, which neatly connects both their time of arrival and their physical appearance. That description also catches something of their robust defiance of wintry weather. It’s their time of year and they know how to handle it.
It’s a quiet time of year in the woods. You can sometimes ramble through the rides for quite a while before coming across a single bird. But sooner or later you’re likely to hear a harsh cry, rather like the tearing of an old piece of linen. Watch closely and you may spot a plumpish, pinky-brown bird about the size of a jackdaw swoop on floppy wings from one side of the track to the other, flashing a conspicuous white rump. If you get a closer view, you’ll see the bold black moustache and a splash of azure-blue on the wings. It’s a jay, a common but shy member of the crow family.
They have reason to be shy. Game-keepers have often regarded them as a threat, though jays are in fact vegetarian for much of the year. And those bright blue wing feathers were once greatly prized by the millinery trade as accessories for ladies’ hats, and they are still coveted by salmon fishermen, who fashion them into enticing ‘flies’.
Jays are highly intelligent birds. That distinctive rasping call is only one of the sounds they can make. They are great chatterers and mimics, imitating not only other birds, but also cats and dogs – and even telephones. Their scientific name is Garrulus glandarius and while the first part of that refers (accurately) to their voices, the second part refers to their favourite food – acorns (Latin glandes). They secrete hoards of them in autumn every year to keep themselves going when food gets scarce in winter. They pluck the acorns directly from the trees and cache them for future use in little holes in the ground or under dead leaves. Then later they exhibit their amazing powers of memory in retrieving these gourmet snacks from their hiding-places. It has been estimated that a jay might hide and relocate some 5,000 acorns this way. If you have ever wondered where you last left your spectacles or your car-keys you will appreciate the feat of brain-power this implies! Of course, they do miss a few and we then get an unexpected harvest next spring – new oak trees, planted in ideal conditions to foster their growth.
Which reminds me of a nice story I heard about the ancient Suffolk woodland called Staverton Thicks, near Butley Priory. The ground there was farmed by monks up to the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Henry the Eighth’s reign. The monks were then given notice to quit, but at their request they were granted the right to take just one more crop from the land. So they planted acorns …
In the Just William stories the hero was once asked to empty his pockets to see if there was incriminating evidence of some misdemeanour in them. He turned them out but all they contained were conkers and a bit of string. Good for him. I’ve been happily filling my pockets with conkers on recent walks, too. I love the bright mahogany colour and polished surfaces and the gentle ‘ping’ they make if one drops onto a hard surface; but above all I love their tactile qualities – the heft of them in the hand and the soft, slippery feel when you jiggle a few of them round together. Deeply therapeutic, and a reminder that touch is the first of the senses we acquire in exploring our world, and also the last to go as the others fade. It’s also the only one of the five senses that isn’t based on just one sense-organ but gives us an all-round bodily awareness. I must confess to being a bit of a tree-hugger for the same reasons. Don’t think I’m promiscuous, mind you – I have my standards. I’m especially attracted to trees with heavily corrugated barks like oak, sweet chestnut and black poplar. If you run your hands over one of those you can almost feel the life running through it and share something of its ancient strength and endurance.
Oaks, of course, also give us acorns, another sensory delight, with that satisfying spherical shape, topped off with a rough warty cap. I also collect acorns in my pockets at this time of year and add them to the conkers to dress a bowl with autumn’s finest fruits. There is a tiny perfection about them, which was celebrated in a wonderful image by Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century visionary (and author of the first book in English by a woman). She held an acorn in the palm of her hand and declared it a symbol of the whole, living world.
Conkers used to be a common children’s game (hence William’s piece of string, I expect), before well-meaning authorities decided that it posed an insurance risk. We paraded our best conkers in competition, trying to convert a oncer into a twicer, or even a champion tenner. This led to all manner of underhand tactics like baking or pickling them to improve their concussive powers, but it did at least give children direct some contact with nature. We learned some years ago that the Oxford Junior Dictionary was dropping words like Acorn, Bluebell and Conker in favour of the new children’s ABC of Attachment, Blog and Chatroom. A terrible warning: lose the experience and you lose the language too.
I was walking along the sea-wall the other day when I caught sight of a red kite cruising over the fields. Wow, what a gorgeous bird, glinting red and gold in the late afternoon sun. An aerial genius too, constantly adjusting its speed and direction with the subtlest of tail and wing movements. I noticed a young person approaching me from the other direction, so I pointed up and shouted excitedly, ‘Look, red kite!’ No response. Then I saw why. He was bent over his mobile phone, his eyes about six inches from the tiny screen, and he was wearing a large pair of headphones that were tuned into some throbbing beat music, audible from yards away. Blind and deaf to the world, effectively. The incident reminded me of some troubling research I had read about. An Oxford Professor had conducted a survey of his first-year biology students to discover what knowledge they had of the natural world and where they had learned it from (books, TV, parents, friends, school, social media or wherever?). To his amazement, 42% of them could not even correctly name five British birds. Can you believe that? At Oxford and studying biology …
What does this say about our changing relationship to nature? The new technology makes it possible to insulate yourself entirely from the living world around you. Yes, you can communicate ever more easily from within your private bubble to like-minded friends who may be miles away. Communicate after a fashion, that is – the exchanges one overhears (‘I’m on a train’) don’t seem to be very rich in content.
You can even write about nature now without ever experiencing it. I tested this out by asking the new AI wonder, ChatGPT, to draft me a ‘Nature Note’ for September. You can see the result in the facing column (or below on mobile screens). It’s quite impressive as a technical exercise – it works by scanning thousands of documents and then regurgitating a secondhand summary based on word frequencies. But that’s also why the prose is so bland and clichéd, with nothing personal or particular to bring it to life. ChatGPT doesn’t understand anything or feel anything. And there’s one give-away mistake in that it mentions the migration of Monarch butterflies – an American species! Anyway, I don’t feel redundant just yet.
I walked on along the seawall. A curlew called as it flew over, red admirals fluttered among the late-flowering brambles. Then to my delight I found traces on the bank of an otter – in the form of a fresh spraint, which had a sweet fishy smell to it. There isn’t an app for that experience.
As the summer sun gradually softens its rays, September arrives, signalling the beginning of a captivating transformation in the natural world. With its gentle breezes, vibrant colors, and a sense of tranquility, this month offers an enchanting invitation to immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature. Let us explore the wonders that September has in store for us.
One of the most captivating sights during September is the gradual change in foliage. The lush green canopies give way to a stunning array of reds, oranges, and yellows, painting the landscape with a mesmerizing palette. Walking through the woods or strolling along tree-lined paths becomes an exquisite experience, as the falling leaves create a symphony of rustling sounds beneath our feet.
September is a month of abundance, as it marks the peak of the harvest season. Fields and gardens are brimming with ripe fruits and vegetables, offering a perfect opportunity to indulge in the flavors of nature’s bounty. Farmers’ markets and roadside stands proudly display their harvest, providing a chance to connect with local growers and support sustainable practices.
September also heralds the start of a remarkable journey for many species of birds and butterflies. As they prepare for their long-distance migrations, flocks of birds gather in awe-inspiring formations, painting the sky with their graceful flight. Monarch butterflies, with their delicate wings, embark on an epic journey to warmer climates, creating a spectacle of nature’s resilience and adaptability.
With the arrival of September, forests beckon us to explore their hidden wonders. The air is crisp and invigorating, making it the perfect time for hiking, camping, or simply taking leisurely walks amidst towering trees. The forest floor becomes adorned with mushrooms and wildflowers, adding a touch of whimsy to the landscape. Nature enthusiasts can also witness the rutting season of deer and the playful antics of squirrels as they gather acorns in preparation for winter.
September brings with it the autumnal equinox, marking the transition from summer to fall. This celestial event reminds us of the delicate balance in the universe and the importance of embracing change. It is a time to reflect on our own lives, shedding old habits and embracing new beginnings. Many cultures celebrate this equinox with festivals and rituals, highlighting the significance of this transition.
September is a month of profound beauty and transformation, where nature effortlessly captivates our senses. From the vibrant foliage to the abundance of the harvest season, every aspect of this month invites us to appreciate the wonders of the natural world. As we bid farewell to summer, let us embrace the arrival of September with open hearts and open minds, ready to immerse ourselves in the splendour that nature so graciously offers.
Saturday 7th October 2023 Hoffman Building, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape Bridge, Snape IP17 1SP. Informal drop in 11.30pm to 1pm Presentations and Q&A 2pm to 4pm
Improvements to the Alde and Ore estuary flood defences.
The East Suffolk Water Management Board, The Alde & Ore Estuary Trust and the Alde & Ore Community Partnership are delighted to host an informal opportunity to chat about plans for increasing the resilience of the estuary flood defences against a catastrophic flood. This will include the progress of the Upper Estuary works and the development of the business case for the Lower Estuary.
The team will be there from 11.30am to 1pm to discuss the whole estuary approach.
Then, in the afternoon, from 2pm to 4pm we will be presenting an overview, exploring the project links and interdependencies between the Upper and Lower Estuary. We will outline of the work of The Alde & Ore Estuary Trust and the Alde & Ore Community Partnership, followed by an update on the progress of the Upper Estuary phase of the project.
There will then be ample opportunity for questions and answers during a panel discussion. We do hope that you can join us.
Daniel Defoe is best known nowadays for his desert island novel Robinson Crusoe, but he also wrote an important work on social history, A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724). On his travels through Suffolk he records that he witnessed ‘infinite numbers’ of swallows gathering for autumn migration on the coast. We still see swallows and house martins (did Defoe know the difference?) gathering on the telephone wires here in September, often chattering communally as if to psych themselves up before take-off on their huge journeys south. It’s always a moving spectacle but it’s also an elegiac reminder that summer is drawing to a close for us too. Defoe’s birds weren’t on telephone wires back then of course, but were, appropriately, ‘congregating’ on Southwold church. They sometimes also use other buildings, as illustrated in this photo showing a host of house martins clinging to the Shingle Street Martello tower. The big difference, though, is that sadly we no longer see them in this abundance. Forget about Defoe’s ‘infinite numbers’ in 1724 – since this photo was taken in September 2004 the number of breeding house martins in Britain has declined by nearly 40%. Swallow numbers are down too, as are swifts, which have declined by a whopping 60% in the same period. Swifts are often confused with swallows but belong to a different family altogether – one called Apodes, literally ‘without feet’, because they only have stubby toes that couldn’t grasp a telephone wire anyway. All these delightful aerial acrobats are suffering from the same problem: a corresponding sharp decline in the winged insects on which they feed.
We’ve all noticed that ourselves. Think of the ‘splatter test’ – the number of insects smeared on your windscreen and headlights today, compared to the ‘moth snowstorm’ we used to drive through at night a generation ago. And how we miss what Tennyson happily described as the ‘murmuring of innumerable bees’. But there’s also a new factor now – climate change – and that may cause other dramatic changes. As the world’s climate heats up, the swallows’ journeys back to Southern Africa over barriers like the fast-expanding Sahara Desert become ever more arduous. Suppose the costs of long-distance migration no longer prove worth the physical risks and effort they have to endure. Perhaps the swallows might never come at all one year. Or suppose they were to come and stay over, taking advantage of our milder winters now. If we had swallows at Christmas, what would that do to our emotional responses – to swallows, spring and autumn? Are we at risk of losing the seasons as well as the insects and the birds?
The film-producer Sam Goldwyn (a Polish Jew, born Szmuel Gelbfisz) was famous for his inventive use of the English language in pronouncements like ‘a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on’ and ‘I’ll give you a definite maybe’. One quote that stuck in my mind today was Goldwyn’s formula for a good story, ‘Let’s start with an earthquake and build up to a climax’. My day did indeed start with an event high up on the Richter scale of excitement for a naturalist, a shark at Shingle St. No, not Jaws – no need to clear the beaches – but a moth of the same name, so-called from its sleek grey profile. It’s a rare species though it once gained a certain notoriety from its appearance on a pub sign in Harlow when the New Town was founded in 1948 to accommodate London overspill. The enlightened council of the time decided to name all the new pubs after moths and butterflies, so along with The Shark you got the whimsy of a Willow Beauty by the cricket ground and, for the more committed customers in town, The Drinker Moth (geddit?).
Anyway, my day ended with another thrill, involving a much commoner species of wildlife. Oystercatchers are one of the most easily recognisable wading birds on our coast, sporting that boldly pied plumage and striking orange-red bills. I’ve been tracking the progress of a pair of them who bravely attempted breeding on one of the pools just to the south of Shingle Street. They nested on an exposed little islet where they were very vulnerable to threats from dogs, foxes and predatory corvids and gulls. I often sat on the sea-wall opposite watching over them like some proxy-grandparent, admiring the tremendous vigilance and courage of the two adults who would drive off crows by flying up like fighter-jets to intercept them and see them off with piping cries as shrill as smoke alarms. After about three weeks they did to my relief eventually hatch four eggs. The young birds were immediately very mobile, but I knew it would be another thirty days before they acquired the flight feathers that would lift them to safety when necessary. The four youngsters were soon reduced to three and I feared the worst when I couldn’t see any of them today. But then I found them again – a quarter of a mile further on – and I realised they’d earned their wings and made their first solo flights. Even if the earth didn’t move for me in quite the way Goldwyn hoped, I punched the air and enjoyed a strong shot of adrenaline.
Immigration is an emotive subject. In the natural world, that is, never mind the human one. People are rightly very keen to protect what remains of our natural heritage of native plants and animals – we’ve lost so much in the last 75 years or so, most of it through our own doing. But that has also made us suspicious of foreign competition, particularly when it seems to threaten some favourite native species. It’s true that historically there have been some disastrous introductions of invasive species: whether accidental, in the case of the beetles in imported timber that gave us the Dutch elm disease which changed our landscapes for ever; or deliberate, in the case of North American grey squirrels that were released at Woburn Abbey in the nineteenth century and have since been displacing our native red squirrels (and hence get blamed, like the American wartime GIs, for being oversized, oversexed and over here).
It gets historically and emotionally complicated, however, when we start to challenge the origins of anything we regard as a pest or a public nuisance. Take the case of Alexanders, the wild parsley with the glossy green leaves and yellowish heads we see flourishing now on roadside verges in coastal districts. I’ve heard the most xenophobic descriptions of it as a ‘foreign’ or even, on an ascending scale of hostility, an ‘alien’ plant, to be eradicated before it overwhelms all our hard-pressed natives. And there are regular patriotic campaigns to decapitate all these unwelcome invaders.
Hang on, though. The Alexanders came here with the Romans some two thousand years ago, valued as an all-purpose spring vegetable. The leaves were used in salads, the roots roasted like parsnips and the black seeds ground as spice. The monks used to cultivate Alexanders in their herb gardens in the medieval period. And the name itself has nothing to do with Alexander the Great’s all-conquering invasions but is an English corruption of the Latin name Olus Ater (‘Black Herb’). If you’re going to say Alexanders are non-natives that don’t belong here, how about our much-loved Brown Hares that arrived about the same time? How about our glorious Horse Chestnut trees, which came from Turkey in the sixteenth century; or the cute Little Owls, introduced only in the late nineteenth century? What about buddleia for that matter– imported from China in the 1890s – which nature-lovers actively plant to support our native butterflies? It’s hard to be consistent.
In deep history, the most invasive species of all has of course been Homo sapiens, populating the whole globe and continuing to displace its wildlife everywhere. Who is the real menace?
Is it a bird, is it a butterfly, is it a drone? What on earth is this exotic creature visiting your garden on a hot summer’s day? It buzzes like a bee, zigzags rapidly from plant to plant, helicopters away and then zooms back again, hovers over flowers like a humming-bird … Ah, there’s the clue – it’s a humming-bird hawkmoth. This super-moth defies all our preconceptions about moths. It is active by day. It can fly fast, with a top speed of 12mph. It migrates here from Europe, just as our summering birds do. It has a proboscis (tongue) an inch long, which it inserts deep into flowers to sample their nectar. And to do this with the necessary surgical accuracy it has to hover, immobile, in front of each bloom by beating its wings at an unimaginable 80 times a second. You then also see its showy colours, with the orange flash on the whirring hindwings transformed into a glowing blur. No wonder the novelist Virginia Woolf described this summer sprite as a creature of ‘tremulous ecstasy’.
The whole hawkmoth family is very striking. Their caterpillars were thought to resemble the ancient Egyptian sphinx, hence their scientific name Sphingidae. Among these, the hummer, as it affectionately known amongst naturalists, is one of the few moths familiar and recognisable enough to have garnered traditional folk names. Their old country nickname in English was ‘merrylee-dance-a-pole’, while the French called it variously fleuze-bouquet (flower-sniffer’), saint-esprit (‘holy spirit’) and bonne nouvelle (‘good news’). Hummers have in fact long been thought a good luck omen and there is a story one would like to believe that on D-Day, 6 June 1944, a small party of them was seen flying over the Channel from France heading for England. In recent years they have been getting commoner and it is believed that a few of them now overwinter here, to emerge from hibernation in the spring. A very welcome addition to our native wildlife, if so.
The favourite food plant of their caterpillars is lady’s bedstraw, while the adult moths are especially drawn to flowers like lavender, verbena and above all red valerian – all common here. When they find a flower-bed they particularly like they exhibit another remarkable ability known as ‘trap-lining’, after the practice of trappers visiting their line of traps at regular intervals and in a fixed sequence. The hummers return to exactly the same patch of flowers at the same time each day, demonstrating an excellent visual memory for particular colours, routes and locations. Check it out yourself. You may have heard of song-lines and ley-lines – let’s plot our local hum-lines.
I have in my hands a wonderful book. It was a treasured possession of long-time Shingle Street resident, Tricia Hazell, whose life and memory we recently celebrated. The book is rather battered and weather-beaten (like the rest of us), but has been honoured by years of constant and loving use. Over twenty years use, in fact, as I can deduce from the spidery annotations in Tricia’s hand over lots of the pages. It’s her moth book, a field guide with her dated records of the many moth species that visited her secluded garden at the southernmost end of Shingle Street.
Tricia would often invite over local moth expert Nick Mason and myself to set up an overnight moth-trap and then early next morning inspect the host of bejewelled beauties that had taken refuge there, before releasing them safely into her garden again. Sometimes we’d invite over a larger group of residents to share the experience and the event would take on the character of a moth-séance, with an attentive circle of devotees gasping reverentially at each new winged spirit summoned up and announced by Nick as our moth-medium. Thinking of them as spirits isn’t a bad analogy, in fact. In the ancient world moths were thought of as ‘souls’, which were released from one’s body at the moment of death to flutter away and disappear into thin air. They continue to be magical creatures of the night, whose presence amongst us feels like an epiphany.
One thing that impressed me about Tricia was that she wasn’t, like some naturalists, just interested in identifying the moths and keeping a tally of them. She asked other sorts of questions, too. Whenever we extracted a new specimen from the box she would carefully note the date we’d seen it, but then insist that we pause so that she could discover in her field guide what specific habitats it was found in, what food plants it preferred, and what time of year it would typically emerge. For example, we’d learn that the gorgeous Small Elephant Hawkmoth we’d just caught could be expected ‘between May and July’, was ‘largely coastal’, had a particular liking for ‘heathlands and shingle beaches’, and was attracted to ‘viper’s bugloss, valerian and honeysuckle’. ‘Well, that all fits perfectly’, she’d conclude cheerfully. Although she’d be amazed to hear me say it, Tricia was an ecologist. The word ecology literally means the study of wildlife in its ‘home surroundings’ – that is, in its relationships with the whole web of life on which it depends. And the mark of a good ecologist is not how much you know but in asking the right questions.