Even though it’s not been that much of an unusually mild autumn, this morning’s first frost took me by surprise. I glanced out the window at a bright, fresh day and at first hardly noticed that the rooftops opposite were dusted matte white, that the outline of each blade of grass in our front garden had a new, contrasting glassiness, or that a number of our neighbours were having to scrape frantically away at their car windscreens before setting off for work.
Then, it hit me. It’s November! Cold nights are here! Frost inevitably follows.
It can’t have been long since I was chasing the tail end of summer’s insects or wildflowers – warm afternoons amid blooming ivy and late umbellifers – yet suddenly we are cantering towards the end of the year and the depths of winter, full climatological speed ahead.
Stepping out for a closer look at the garden, I found the signs of summer’s plenty were still evident, but frozen in time, state and place. A ragged remnant of ragwort, crispy under a thin veneer of ice, caught my attention, and I crouched low to hold it, testing its now limited flexibility between my fingers. How frost-hardy its few remaining straggly yellow blooms will be remains to be seen.
The birds fancy themselves a bit tougher. Climbing up the hill around the corner from our street, I came across a cacophonous band of great tits. Moving from garden to garden, two or three of them began singing as if in defiance of the cold, showing winter what they’re made of. “Is that the best you can do?!” they seemed to say. “Ha! If this is winter, bring it on!”
The next corner of my walk is marked by a tall cypress, and here a coal tit was belting out his own jazz-tinged tribute to the great tit’s strictly rhythmic seesaw. It’s very faithful to that treetop, as most coal tits are to one conifer or another, and I wonder how far into winter he’ll have the energy to keep up daily vocal exercises. A morning that bracing is enough to give anybody a sore throat.
Still, as a naturalist I feel as buoyant as that cheeky roving band of tits. Change is underfoot, overhead and all around, but the prospect of chilly tramps in search of winter thrushes, owls and harriers hawking in the half light, teeming flocks of wildfowl and many more of the season’s spectacles are all heart-warming to think of. As for insects, they’re still out there. Many will be keeping a low profile overwintering as adults whilst others survive the cold in hardier juvenile life stages, or as eggs. I might catch a December Moth! There’s something I don’t think I’ve ever looked at before.
Failing all that, for rainy afternoons I’ve a laboratory desk-full of preserved mystery beasts to contemplate, all collected during the course of the last eight months or so. I may find time to add some of them to my long neglected species list. And if that doesn’t appeal, there’s always feasting, drinking and merry-making. We’ll soon have a bottle or three of sloe gin maturing, and Christmas is but 37 days away.
Having thought about it, the first frost seems more a foretaste of joys to come than an omen of doom. So thanks, Jack, for visiting Reading. We’ll see you again soon!