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NATURE Savouring the shortening golden days

Outdoor Living

AUTUMNAL COLOURS ?A perfect match for bramble or bracken as he crouches low, the pheasant’s plumage fits him well.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

How we do love these autumn days.
This morning the sun was warm, though later than we would have liked. Each night minutes are added to the dark; to rise early becomes progressively more difficult and the semi-hibernatory state that surely resides within each one of us pushes itself to the fore.
But on days like this, when the sun pours into the dawn to flood our misty corner with such a spectacle of light, it can be harder to stay indoors. A rich and golden glow fills the fields and somehow accentuates the colouring leaves of oak and beech and tints already ripened haws more than red.
A brief wind gathers the carpet of mist as far as the tall trees where it climbs in an untidy column, thinning and disappearing at its upper end; just a thin, wispy trail remains over the stream. The fen becomes old-green again – half brown, really – filled with tired vegetation, above which rise a few late flowers of meadowsweet and purple loosestrife. Through the stems of these the pheasant creeps.
He still crows at first light, though without the urgency of summer. Then he had a territory to defend, other birds to keep at bay. Now his offspring are young adults themselves, with wings full of whirring flight that just might keep them from the gun. A year at the top, or maybe two, is all our pheasant can expect. Yet no sense of futility exists within his breast. He lives each day as if it were forever, finding food in abundance and security in the dark hedge. His crop is full, his roost in the ash tree a haven.
Bold and brassy in open sun, a perfect match for bramble or bracken as he crouches low at the sound of my footfall, his plumage fits him well. As I draw too close for comfort he crouches low over spring-loaded legs that finally throw him from his hiding place, and with a loud cry he flees, as if for his very life.
Don’t worry, pheasant, not on my account. Still, it is well to be on your toes, for there are others out there – not today but tomorrow maybe so – who would dull your eye in death.
The sunlit hedge holds a lining of finches, mostly chaffinch. At least I think so, although without spending time in observation it is impossible to know. Back in March and April the male chaffinch was almost gaudy, his breast pink with life, his voice with song, his eager cheek flushed with red ochre. His wings were brightly flashed with black and white and, when he flew, bars of waxen gold. For a cap he wore blue, the blue of a late spring sky when the sun has dipped beyond the hills. His very day was bright.
Now his colours are subdued, for through the summer months he lost his feathers. Not all at once, you understand, but gradually, so that those that fell away could be replaced while the power of light was retained. Ten or twelve weeks passed before our chaffinch was fully dressed once more, and what a different bird he has become!
His previously striking plumage has been replaced with feathers far more muted in tone. He appears rather dull, as if his summer jaunt among the thorns has tired him out. His new feathers have soft, almost chalky tips that wear away through the winter, so that by the time spring comes around again he will be the bird we knew once more.
We will feed him from the end of October, along with the rest of the flock.
A hare lopes along the cattle track where the finches have been feeding. They take little notice of him as he pauses to sit erect to take his sidelong look at the world around. Then as he stretches away into that last foggy corner they rise in a flutter and take their bounding flight in another direction.
Rooks are overhead, travelling south across the lake. The day will be fine, then. If they expect rain they like to feed closer to home. A pair of jays screech a noisy warning from a far-off corner; something is afoot.Autumn days are far too short.


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