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Autumn brings its own joy

Outdoor Living

OUTFIT CHANGE Mallards are among the group of ducks that lose and replace all their feathers this time of year, rendering them flightless for two or three weeks.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

I walked home over uneven ground, with harebells and scabious nodding their purple heads either side of me as if to say ‘Yes, we’ve arrived, and summer’s eve is here’. And so it is.
These late flowers add a welcome splash of colour to these lakeside fields, but we don’t like to see the end of wild rose and those clusters of fragrant orchids that filled our occasional calm evening with their rich scent. It all happened too quickly.
Yet autumn brings its own joy; in fact, it is probably my favourite time of year. No more dead summer heat. No waiting endlessly for dusk to find the owl flighting over the fen and bats on the wing, fat moths along the bog road, late butterflies at every sunny turn, dragonflies, dew-covered and motionless at dawn, and fruit – so much fruit.
Bumblebees still make what they can from the day, although they seem to struggle through the tall grasses that the mower missed at the edge of the fields, whereas a month ago they forced their way through to their nest in the bank with ease. Cattle crop the new growth of the annual autumn flush of grass, leaving those wiry stems alone. Rabbits furrow through them, using the same pathways repeatedly and making life easy for the knowing fox, which has learned to lie in wait. Adult rabbits are wise enough to combine their senses, while younger ones, full of youthful exuberance, dash out to play in the evening sun and must pay the price.
What do they make of the changing palette around them? Nothing, I imagine. Earlier flowers have developed into seed heads and later ones soon fade. For now, the blue of speedwell and pale, yellow-eyed forget-me-not scramble to decorate their playground. Soon these will be gone, the grass will cease to grow and their means of living will be meagre for the first time in their lives.
When the wind blew in from the south it pulled thistledown from the hedgerow to send it spinning over the lake, where young swallows chased after it in play and soared away. The swallows increase in number daily as they gather to feed on the heavy hatches of insects that take place most evenings. Our own flew the nest to join the congregating throng, as one in a thousand or more.
A sparrowhawk chose his moment and chased into the cloud of swallows. Too fast for him, they gathered at his tail to drive him out. He conceded defeat immediately and flew back to his tree to watch for the slower starlings that are his mainstay.
As evening draws slowly over the woods and fields the colours of the day gradually fade. There is no fanfare; the world just eases its way to a gradual and restful slumber. Waterfowl voice their contentment with a wonderful variety of calls. Water rail and little grebe join with moorhen and coot, with shrieks, chips, clacks and clucks.
In a few days the resident ducks will find their voices once more. Right now they are lying low and staying quiet, for this is the time of their annual moult. Ducks are synchronous moulters, that is, they lose and replace all their feathers in a relatively short period of time. This renders them flightless for two or three weeks, and makes them especially vulnerable to predators.
Feathers are comprised largely of proteins, and replacing them all at once takes a heavy toll on the body. This can be alleviated by rich feeding on high protein food items such as insects – but how will the ducks get the boost they need while remaining out of sight?
They hide away in dense reeds by day and come out to feed late in the evening, a period of time when large quantities of insects are hatching. These heavy hatches bring the trout to feed as well, and it is often only the trout angler who fishes after nightfall that is aware of just how many ducks are on the lake.
The need to conceal themselves through the day must be purely instinctive, for the ducks have no real predators in this part of the world, apart from the fox, which might hunt through the reeds but certainly not over open water, and the mink, which isn’t native and so doesn’t count.
One of these nefarious animals sidled over the rocks at Ballygarries on Lough Mask, and came into the open to investigate my squeaking through my fingers. Had I a stick he would be dead. I hadn’t, and once he had decided I wasn’t edible, at least in my current state, he disappeared into the dense vegetation to send harebell and scabious nodding in the autumn sunset as he brushed them by.

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