2nd October (Theale, Berkshire)

Autumn is making its presence felt by the Kennet & Avon. Leaves are increasingly tinted yellow or brown at the tips. Of summer, all that remains are the skeletal frames of hogweed and burdock, long since gone to seed. That and the rich legacy of fruit its energies leave behind, whether blackberries and haws or the newly expanded long-tailed tit family passing noisily from bush to bush. Summer does put up pockets of resistance: a few hogweeds are on their second flowering. The sun remains warm, animating the plentiful larger insects which remain active to feed on those blooms or a pungent ivy patch. Particularly where this autumn sun hits a bramble bank, the gentle chirps of dark bush crickets are also very evident. They sound not unlike the edges of a stack of paper being rapidly flicked; often several will call back and forth in busy bursts of communal song. To me this has become an essential part of the October soundscape.

Despite the continued abundance of thermopiles, the year’s slide toward midwinter feels well underway. Descending a short muddy slope to the banks of the gravel pit, I feel it acutely: even an hour and a half before sunset the shade has a frosty chill. The sun is already low and the rafts of coots, great-crested grebes and lesser black-backed gulls out on the water are stark in this light, whites dazzling, blacks and greys almost iridescent. By contrast, the kingfisher that shoots low and close across the water is seen only as a sleek, purposeful dart, colours entirely muted. I track it with my binoculars and almost don’t see the grebe which pops up like a cork even closer to the bank. It’s clutching a small red-finned fish, which it deftly flicks through 90 degrees before swallowing it with a single gulp. My rebirth as a birder was on the banks of lakes such as this, some autumns ago, so to spend just a few happy minutes in the company of wintering waterfowl is a bit like coming home.

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