Summer for me …
starts with the first of the Spring and Summer migrants – Swallow, Whitethroat and Chiffchaff, although the very early ones of the latter may have overwintered. Soon followed by Swift, which for almost as long as I have been in North Wales – 25 years now – have turned up on May 12th.
At some point – when I seemed to have more time – I used to walk in the summer meadows; to sit under an old tree – to rejoice in the sheer beauty of Nature ….
I cannot leave it; I must stay under the old tree in the midst of the long grass, the luxury of the leaves, and the song in the very air. I seem as if I could feel all the glowing life the sunshine gives and the south wind calls to being. The endless grass, the endless leaves, the immense strength of the oak expanding, the unalloyed joy of finch and blackbird; from all of them I receive a little. Each gives me something of the pure joy they gather for themselves. In the blackbird’s melody one note is mine; in the dance of the leaf shadows the formed maze is for me, though the motion is theirs; the flowers with a thousand faces have collected the kisses of the morning. Feeling with them, I receive some, at least, of their fulness of life. Never could I have enough; never stay long enough—whether here or whether lying on the shorter sward under the sweeping and graceful birches, or on the thyme-scented hills. Hour after hour and still not enough. Or walking, the footpath was never long enough, or my strength sufficient to endure till the mind was weary. The exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal. The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from the inevitable Time. ‘The Life of the Fields’ – The Pageant of Summer – Richard Jefferies
Summer fields clothed in gold …
In the woods, and hedges bordering the fields, the Hawthorn is still in full flower; cascades of white, although past its best; and the giant white and pink Horse Chestnut candles add a touch of Georgian elegance. Yet the Ash, Queen of the Woods, is just now coming into full leaf – a pale green-yellow.
In field edges and corners yellow vetch, pink Herb Robert, and Ragged Robin all add colour. While roadside verges and banked walls are covered with yellow Dandelion, Hawkbit and pink and white Valerian. The hedge-bottoms along the lanes and fields are coloured with white Cow Parsley, purple Foxglove and Red Campion.
And with the flowers and hint of warm summer days to come the butterflies start to appear: Red Admiral, Orange Tip, Large White, and Speckled Woods.
But while the Gorse has faded to a shade of old gold; the fields glow bright yellow-gold with Buttercup.
All a Bustle in the hedgerow …
Hedgerows and dry-stone walls are a haven for birds, providing nesting habitats and sources of food for Yellowhammer, Song Thrush and Dunnock. The dry-stone walls, such a feature of the North Wales landscape, are especially favoured by Pied Wagtail.
Hedges typically border the lanes and byways here rather than as field dividers which are more likely to be of stone or boulders topped with straggly gorse, wind blown Hawthorn and the occasional stunted Oak or Sycamore.
They comprise Blackthorn or Hawthorn with Ash, Holly and Sycamore; occasionally Crab. Hazel and Elder too with Alder and Birch in damper places and Woodland boundaries. Honeysuckle, Field Rose and Ivy. And of course Bramble. Wild Strawberry and Dog Violet in early spring along with Snowdrop and Garlic Mustard, or Jack by-the-Hedge. Wild Garlic in places too. Gorse and Bracken and Foxglove locally on stone banks. Meadowsweet in the ditches.
The old Elder across the lane near the marsh – where I think the community well once was – is now in full flower; saucers of creamy white. The Dog Rose in the hedge bordering our garden is cascading arches of pink. A couple of ancient Yew in the church reputedly 2000 yrs old with some appearing in nearby hedges, angrily and arrogantly guarded in Winter by Mistle Thrush. But also home to Goldcrest. Nuthatch favouring the Beech stand.
We are encouraging natural regeneration of our hedge – mostly Blackthorn with Dog Rose and Bramble – as the old Black Poplars are having to come down as they are too large and close to the house and electricity supplies. I have planted Wild Cherry and a Crab Apple to help with its diversity and later hope to replace the poplars with Hazel, Rowan and Italian Alder. It is an exposed hedge so hopefully this will be a sound plan both as a windbreak but also as shelter for wildlife.
Further along I have planted the makings of a willow hedge with Scarlet Willow saplings and cuttings – now in its first full year.
I’ll be sad to loose the Poplars – they have been a feature here for at least 45 years and not only provide us with shelter from wind and rain but also provide an attractive ‘fly line’ for feeding Swallow, House Martin, and our small local population of Brandt’s bats. I never tire of watching them on warm summer evenings.
We have left a lot of the felled timber which is particularly attractive to Dunnock and Wren.
My Notes for this Summer read :
Heard the rather scratchy jingle of a Whitethroat from the hedges bordering the lane early today (May 8). First time in years. Here is a rather crackly recording by Ludwig Koch from 1938.
It is a singularly extrovert warbler, bursting high above the hedgerow with a scratchy burst of song, before diving back into the shelter of the hedge. It’s almost as if he is saying ‘look at me – here I am’.
The Yellowhammer has disappeared as a breeding species here – I’m sad not to hear it’s jingle of …. ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ ….. as I walk the lanes around home anymore. It epitomised the sound of Summer.
Richard Jefferies once wrote ‘There is sunshine in the song – I remember the Yellowhammer most, whose colour, like that of the wild flowers and the sky, has never faded from my memory’.
Here it is on record:
‘The colour of the yellowhammer appears brighter in spring and early summer: the bird is aglow with a beautiful and brilliant, yet soft yellow, pleasantly shaded with brown. He perches on the upper boughs of the hawthorn or on a rail, coming up from the corn as if to look around him—for he feeds chiefly on the ground—and uttering two or three short notes. His plumage gives a life and tint to the hedge, contrasting so brightly with the vegetation and with other birds. His song is but a few bars repeated, yet it has a pleasing and soothing effect in the drowsy warmth of summer’. Birds of a Southern County – Richard Jefferies
On June 8, late morning, a Male Bullfinch was feeding on hawkweed, growing on a pile of rubble in the corner of the garden. They are only occasional visitors, but a pair can usually be seen near an old Ash just up the lane a bit. This is a favourite spot especially in Winter.
We have a pair of Pied Wagtail in the garden that I watch from the kitchen window as they chase after flies on the sun-warmed lichen encrusted slates of the barn roof or run about the lawn, among the daisies and primroses, occasionally flirting in spring courtship dances. They are never still.
Pied Wagtail often a farmyard resident is common here in N.Wales. Travelling country lanes around home it would be unusual not to see one fly out from the stone walls that border all the lanes and fields.
We have had the occasional Grey Wagtail visit the garden – they do breed locally on some of the lower stretches of fast flowing mountain streams. Along with Dipper. Although this bird is far less fussy in its choice of habitat from small rivulets to seashore.
Ravishingly pretty little birds – To call these wagtails “grey” somehow sells them short. Of their plumage, the gleaming dove-grey wings, white eye stripe, black gorget and canary waistcoat, WH Hudson, wrote that “the effect is most beautiful, and pleases, perhaps, more than the colouring of any other British bird”.
Eric Ennion also wrote of the Grey Wagtail in “Bird Holidays” …
‘A Grey Wagtail bounds away along the stream to alight on a boulder under the bank, the reflection of its brilliant yellow plumage in the pool beneath more evident than the bird itself. Even in the winter, when the clear white eye strips and black throat-diamond of the male is lost,or dimmed; even the paler plumage of immature birds and females, this brilliant yellow tint is still retained on the belly and under the tail. And that ceaseless pendulum swing of the tail never fails to draw attention to it. I do not think I know a lovelier bird.’
A little later some ‘pink fizz’ as two male Chaffinch, still in fresh spring garb, were in a face off on the fence. Crests raised. Their pink pink call seems to match their plumage. Some people describe their call as ‘chink chink’ – however whether ‘pink’ or ‘chink’ the title is aptly appropriate.
About a week later – June 14 – I stopped the car on the way back from the village shop to gaze over a damp meadow – roughly 20, maybe even 30 acres – mostly of Juncus, which was a riot of pink and yellow, with Marsh Buttercup and Ragged Robin. The latter absolutely covered the field.
A few days of sunny weather – a mini heatwave – with June 19 being the hottest day of the year. Mid afternoon there is little bird song to be heard; excepting the Blackbird, Wren and Goldfinch, which all continue to sing strongly. Pausing a while from some weed clearing in the garden I could hear, from among the ‘hum’ of a hot summers day the twitter of Swallow and the incessant chatter of House Sparrow.
Later in the evening one of those serendipitous moments – on chancing to look out the kitchen window – I saw a Barn Owl hunting the fields along the woodland edge. I had given this bird up as a resident so it was heartening to glimpse this one. It was picked out really well in the last few moments of the setting sun. Very special.
June 21, was a good day for birds … After a few weeks absence a very disheveled and tatty Coal Tit made a brief appearance at the feeders mid morning. One of the resident pair of Raven seeing off an intruding Crow overhead. I wonder whether the Raven have a late brood as they have been very vocal and aggressive today. Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Great Tit, Chaffinch, House Sparrow, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Wren, Dunnock, Nuthatch and Robin all in and around the garden – many if not most this years birds. A marked absence of Blue Tit. A male Blackbird still sings early morning and late evening.
On June 24, I noted: Yellow Flag Iris, Meadowsweet and Rosebay Willowherb are all in flower now in the damper spots along the ditches by the roadside and ponds in the corner of some fields. Soon Rosebay Willowherb will cut a swathe of purple-pink along the roadside verges left uncut by the Council mowers.
A male Sparrowhawk flipped over the hedge and hurtled through the garden like a bullet on June 27, probably attracted by the birds on the feeders. Unsuccessful this time, I think put off by the dogs running around. Moments later he was high up over the garden circling on blunt wings and fanned tail being mobbed by Swallow before giving up finally, and flying off over the fields.
June 29, saw a Willow/Chiff in the garden early morning hunting insects in the Virginia Creeper covering the wooden fence next the garage. An occasional visitor to the garden – this is the first I’ve seen this year. Reminded me of a similar occasion when staying with friends in Alkmaar one summer – 1966 the year England won the football World Cup; on happening to look out the bedroom window being thrilled to see an Icterine Warbler in the creeper growing over an old outbuilding.
We are now into the The Dog Days of Summer (traditionally the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11), which coincide with the morning rise of the Dog Star, Sirius. Often a time of long, hot, sultry, energy sapping days. The fair weather fluffy cumulus clouds of early summer can rapidly build into huge thunder clouds of cumulonimbus.
However it’s also a time when many birds seem to disappear; there’s no song – the garden and countryside can be eerily quiet – and few birds to see. What’s more, when birds do appear they can look quite strange – yellowish blue tits, blackbirds with speckled heads, brown-headed starlings. Birds are moulting.
The first Meadow Brown in the garden today, July 15, but generally a very poor showing of Butterfly this year – only single Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral, and Whites, with the odd Speckled Wood and Orange Tip.
A very hot day today, July 17, with only a light breeze. The farmer has been out early cutting for hay to be turned later then wrapped in huge round black polythene bales.
A female Kestrel on the wires just up the lane a bit from home. While the Buzzard sits atop a pole a bit further down the lane. If I’m lucky I may spot a Little Owl later tonight as he sits huddled against one of the poles opposite the Church.
Telegraph Poles have patterned our landscape for over a hundred years and have become almost as much a part of the roadside hedgerow as some of the more established trees – love them or hate them (pylons are a different matter) they have a certain rustic charm. And are used as a matter of course by many birds as vantage points or perches – Crows, Gulls, Starling, Thrush, Pipit, Sparrow, Finch and Swallow.
The Kestrel or ‘windhover’ has only taken to perching on the wires between posts especially where these border a field – in the last 50 years or so – using them as a lookout point for small rodents in the verge or field edges below. However he can still be seen hovering as his name suggests as he ranges wider for food. No matter what the weather.
‘Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye / His wings hold all creation in weightless quiet / Steady as hallucination in the streaming air / While banging wind kills those stubborn hedges’ (Ted Hughes, The Hawk in the Rain).
As Richard Jefferies writes in his 1884 collection: The Life of the Fields, “The truth is, he can hover in a perfect calm, and would do so in a room if it were large enough.”
“A kestrel can and does hover in the dead calm of summer days, when there is not the faintest breath of wind. He will, and does, hover in the still, soft atmosphere of early autumn, when the gossamer falls in showers, coming straight down as if it were raining silk. If you puff up a ball of thistledown it will languish on your breath and sink again to the sward. The reapers are sweltering in the wheat, the keeper suffocates in the wood, the carter walks in the shadow cast by his load of corn, the countryside stares all parched and cracked and gasps for a rainy breeze. The kestrel hovers just the same. Could he not do so, a long calm would half starve him, as that is his manner of preying.” Jefferies dismisses the idea that kestrels exploit thermal updraughts. Such ascending currents are rare, and when they do exist, local. The kestrel can hover anywhere, in the face of a stiff gale, and in a perfect calm. “The only weather he dislikes is heavy thunder, rain or hail, during which he generally perches on a tree, but he can hover in all ordinary rain. He effects it by sheer power and dexterity of wing.”
The Buzzard can also be seen ‘hovering’ on such hot days but uses thermals to help. I see them often then off the bluff over the road a little way up from home.
July 20, – A beautiful mid-Summer evening – the newly mown fields, after the frenzy of hay making over the last couple of days, green-gold in the late evening sun. A raggle taggle group of Jackdaw put up from the nearby copse by a Buzzard sailing across the fields. The last cloud shadows chasing across the mountains. Sunset.
August sees the countryside clothed in a drab green eiderdown – no longer the variegated patchwork quilt of spring and early summer – perhaps a more accurate description is a faded green – everything looks a bit tired and jaded. Yet in an few weeks the cornfields will be golden and the countryside will be a hive of activity again. The Summer visitors becoming restless before their long flights to winter quarters.
August 1, was a good morning for birds after rain overnight, an early morning bit of sun and fresh wind. Two Nuthatch, Three Coal Tit, and all the usual Great and Blue Tit. Greenfinch Chaffinch, Robin and Dunnock – both adults and youngsters. Wren and the star bird of the day – a single Whitethroat – a first for the garden, foraging insects on the logpile. Thirty or so Herring Gull in the fields, along with the odd Lesser Black Backed Gull. A field day.
Our Garden is bang on trend – over the last few years we have been lucky to have a family of Great Spotted Woodpecker visit the feeders. Initially just the male but last year and again this year both adults visited during the Winter and Spring. Later bringing their youngsters.
August 8, saw three young Great Spotted Woodpecker on the feeders during the morning. Not quite sure of themselves yet. Not really aggressive towards the other birds but a bit ‘cocky’ in their manner. Mind you the Magpie, even the youngsters, put them to flight.
This evening the adult male was feeding a rather dowdy looking youngster at the feeders. Much smaller than the other three so perhaps the last to fledge.
Garden BirdWatch records show that Great Spotted Woodpecker fledglings tend to be accompanied by their parents during early June but then, later in the month, arrive alone.
This year, however, our family is still coming to the feeders well into August.
A glorious afternoon – August 9 – sun and a freshening breeze – with huge cumulus clouds racing across the blue sky with high altitude cirrus merging with the vapour trails of jets. Lower down Swallow and House Martin flitted and twittered about. A Buzzard lazily cruised the landscape while below a group of five Brown Hare (a family party/Leverets) were sunning themselves in the late afternoon sun. They were out in the open some four fields away across the valley on a rise near to a small spinney of Oak and Sycamore. I watched them on into the evening. Hares seemingly without a care in the world – one would occasionally get up stretch and turn round before settling back down. Later as the sun got lower they started to feed a little but still not moving much. A Kestrel briefly hovered above before sliding off out of sight. They became more active and quite playful chasing each other about as the sun set. Watched them until it got too dark to see – 21.30hrs.
On August 20 a single Red Kite over the fields at the top of our lane at lunchtime. This is the fourth sighting I’ve had of these birds here over the last couple of years. A non-breeding or immature bird perhaps!
August 22 – A moment in time – a pastoral Interlude – just a few minutes around lunch time today, watching the bird life in our local churchyard. The sun was shining from a watery sky; sheep could be heard in the fields beyond. Idyllic.
A family of Mistle Thrush were feeding on the berries on the ancient Yews, believed some 2000 years old, along with young Starling. Parties of Chaffinch and Great Tit were active in the treetops of the few Beeches while two Willow Warbler were feeding on insects in the lower branches of the yews, occasionally darting out from the dark green layered depths of foliage to capture a passing insect, Flycatcher-like. A Pair Goldfinch were feeding young on telephone wires opposite the Church. Swallow flew between the gaps in the trees. A Robin on the headstones.
August 30 – All the birds are looking very dapper now with fresh new feathers. Two Coal Tit, a single Nuthatch, a few Chaffinch and many Great Tit and Blue Tit have been on the feeders all morning. Dunnock, Wren, Magpie and House Sparrow also on the feeders. Swallow beginning to flock on the wires. Grey Heron passing over.
Serendipity in Summer
Rosamond Richardson has written about the serendipitous nature of watching birds- the unpredictability of it – the certainty of uncertainty and the futility of expectation – the inevitability. Of the beauty of the mundane like hanging out the washing in the garden in summer and listening to a Blackbird singing.
I too have had those serendipitous moments while hanging out the washing – both literally and metaphorically – a Red Kite lazily cruising the fields, Peregrine high in the sky, gambolling Raven, the ever present garden Robin and of course Blackbird singing …… Wood Warbler in a springtime suburban wood, near Plymouth; Hobby in a Scots Pine by a river in Wiltshire; Woodlark from a lay-by on a busy road out of Bath; Nightingale in a canal side wood at dawn in Oxfordshire; Snipe drumming from a riverside caravan park near Henley on Thames; Stone Curlew flying across the road on Salisbury Plain; Quail in a wheat field while having a picnic lunch in Gloucestershire; Osprey on a fence post near a reservoir in mid west Cornwall; Whitethroat in an allotment hedge in a suburb of Bath; A churring Grasshopper Warbler in a young forestry plantation by the side of a road near Longleat Wiltshire … the list is endless … precious moments in time – eternity in the here and now.
But to end this post – an excerpt from The Spectator written a few days after his death in the Summer of 1887.
Richard Jefferies knew the ‘mindfulness‘ of Nature – expressed admirably in this charming picture of a garden – a place to eat and drink and think of nothing in ….
….. listening to the goldfinches, and watching them carry up the moss, and lichen, and slender fibres for their nest in the fork of the apple; listening to the swallows as they twittered past, or stayed on the sharp, high top of the pear-tree; to the vehement starlings, whistling and screeching in the chimneys; chaffinches ‘chink, chink;’ thrashes, and distant blackbirds in the oaks; ‘cuckoo, cuckoo;’ `crake, crake;’ buzzing and burring of bees, coo of turtle-doves, now and then a neigh to remind you that there were horses, fulness and richness of musical sound; a world of grass and leaf, humming like a hive with voices ….
27 August 1887 The Spectator