Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Urge for Going

"I get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
And summertime is falling down
With winter closing in."

(Joni Mitchell 1966)*

Joni Mitchell is from Canada so she knows a thing or two about winter. I've met a lot of Canadian "Snow Birds" who spend their winters in Florida and the Caribbean, moving out after the harvest and before the frosts.

And it's harvest time here in Cambridgeshire now. The combines are out in the wheat-fields, kicking up great clouds of dust and creating mini twisters over the Fens, but the meadow grasses are only just turning brown. In most years our lawns and pastures are pretty well burned off by August but there's still some greenery here and there.

At Paxton Pits we took our crop of hay off the meadow at the end of July and the grass is swiftly growing back. Some farmers might even get a late silage crop but we will let ours grow-on for cattle to munch at in the autumn.

We always leave a decent margin of uncut herbs and grasses for the insects. It is in those margins and corners that you might see the late-flowering plants such as knapweed, scabious, fleabane, wild carrot and wild angelica. In the boggy bits there are dense clusters of great willow-herb, purple loosestrife and white, frothy meadowsweet. They all attract swarms of hover flies and small beetles that are preyed upon by spiders, dragonflies and birds.

Late summer often brings an invasion of butterflies to the grassland. Painted ladies and clouded yellows may come in from the continent while our home-grown whites, peacocks, commas, red admirals, brimstones and small tortoiseshells have a late fling before hibernating. Almost un-noticed among the big, showy Nymphalid butterflies there are some little gems to be found. This week I have seen common and holly blues, but my favourite has to be the tiny brown argus, which is actually a kind of blue butterfly!

By moonlight, the butterflies are replaced by a stunning array of moths; the goat, the swift and the drinker. There are even some moths that visit by daylight. Silver Y's are common at the moment (another migrant) but there are also the black-and-red cinnabar and burnet moths.

But let's not be fooled. Winter is closing in and a lot of us are getting the urge for going. Almost everyone I know is either on holiday or about to go and "get some rays" before it's too late.

Have you seen a swift this week? Probably not because one clear evening at the end of July they just climbed higher and higher above the village and disappeared into the inky sky. They will be in Africa by now. If you keep looking over the ponds and lakes you might see a few stragglers among the swallows and martins but swifts only rise one brood of chicks and they don't hang about.

No-one sees our nightingales leave. They have been silent for over a month while the adults went through a full moult ready for their big trip. They slipped away quietly by night without telling a soul.
A young cuckoo was being fed by a dunnock in the Great Meadow last week. The cuckoo's real parents will never see him because they left weeks ago and his foster parents will stay here all winter. Young cuckoos are born with a flight-plan inside their heads. It's simply a bearing to fly along, roughly SSE. Young cuckoos released at different longitudes will all take the same bearing and fly on parallel courses.

You may not have noticed that autumn migrants from the Arctic have been dropping in and passing through since late June. Green sandpipers look black and white and remind you of house martins when they reveal a big white rump. I have a picture of one taken by Phil Smith on the edge of our dragonfly pond. Common sandpipers fly on down-turned paddle-like wings and almost always totter about when they land. This weekend we were visited by a grey plover, some dunlin and by our first autumn osprey of the year.

I wonder what other migrants this autumn will bring? You can go on your seaside holiday and maybe you will see some real rarities but I'm staying here to find out what turns up.

* If you don't know this song have a look on You Tube to see Joni play it live on Canadian TV. The other musicians look pretty well blown away by her performance. She was 23 and quite unknown. Crosby, Stills and Nash covered the song with a full drum-kit and electrics. It sounded more like the Byrds, but still worth a listen.