I’ve only witnessed a few tens of examples, thus far, but I begin to suspect the great annual cycle of seasons contains a good measure more overlap than I’d been led to believe. Spring, as bird-listeners will know, often starts early in the New Year, as thrushes begin once again to mark the start and end of each day. But mini-springs can happen any time, whether it’s the soft sunshine of a late afternoon in December enticing an early great tit into see-sawing song; or a crisp, bright, September morning that’s suffused with the lilting refrains of freshly moulted chiffchaffs, as I witnessed yesterday.
Properly hot, incandescent summer days often appear in late March and can crop up well into October. And that’s well beyond the start of autumn, which gets underway as early as July, perhaps even late June, when the earliest returning waders pass through on their trek from the Arctic to Africa. And can it ever be said to end? The odd sickly tree may cling on to a few brown, withered leaves through to the following summer, perhaps only to shed them in a sudden squall, a vague hint of woodsmoke lingering on the breeze as they whirl away.
Dark, dank days of bracing winds and scudding clouds – the archetypal elements of an Atlantic winter – are equally capable of occurring at any time of year, as all long-suffering residents of these islands know. But putting the unpredictability of the British climate to one side for now, it’s fair to say that the tilt of this particular year is now pointing firmly toward autumn. The ship of summer has finally hit the rocks.
That said, its precious cargo has not been lost. It has merely been scattered and then concentrated into berries, nuts, fungi and seeds galore, plus late-blooming flowers too, all flourishing at last after a whole season of unusually reliable sunshine (unusual for the last half decade, at least). Wherever these are concentrated creatures gather, of all shapes, sizes and classifications, gorging themselves on the rich food as if it is all too good to last. Find a good patch of ivy flowers or a heap of rotting, windfall fruit, and you’ll see what I mean.
The animals are absolutely right, of course, in that such bounty never lasts, and I’m left pondering what it is I should be seeking to salvage from summer’s wreckage – especially thinking as a naturalist with a penchant for drawing up lists. Fully one-third of the year still lies before us, but as the dark begins to gather I already find myself thinking of the butterflies I’ve missed (whither the small copper?!), insect groups I’ve neglected, plants that remain a mystery, and migrant birds that it would seem polite to catch up with before they flee south.
For whilst year-listing may be a seemingly pointless, artificial practice, it is not based on an arbitrary time period. The birds, bugs and bees are governed just as much – if not more so – by the rhythm of the sun as our calendar is. In this way, at least to my mind, keeping a twelve-monthly tally encourages the naturalist to seek as diverse an array of experiences, and species, as possible. And it helps to ensure our recording effort spreads out into less well travelled corners of the year.
Indeed, there’s plenty of wildlife about now which will have been difficult or impossible to spot thus far, from dapper, peachy-necked, juvenile curlew sandpipers – surely amongst the prettiest of waders – to ivy bees making their nest in a sand bank. So in between making much needed renovations to my dilapidated wildlife spreadsheets, I vow to make the most of what is actually my favourite season. A season in which there is much to be discovered, even beyond the obvious delights of autumnal birding (when we say fall, we’re not thinking of leaves – or radiation!). Whether or not you are also in the habit of geeky list-keeping, I hope you’ll join me.