The death of summer is not a sudden transition but a gradual one; it seems to me that autumn approaches apologetically, easing itself into the year an inch at a time. Perhaps that is why we get Indian summers in October – as the last gasping breath of a season kept from passing quickly by the new season’s empathy. As it happens we humans don’t let ourselves notice that summer is truly over until the first frost pinches us awake from our post-summer daze of disbelief. There are enough warm, sunny days and left-over flowers in September for us to fool ourselves that the odd north wind and dewy morn that appear at the same time aren’t signs of autumn but oddities of summer. It is this in-between period of the year where we are vulnerable to a bit of nostalgic or even melancholy moods in which we mourn what could have been done in the warm months but wasn’t or lament that we didn’t get out enough. Nature on the other hand is far quicker off the mark in tuning in to autumn than we are – in fact for some animals summer ended in July, the evidence for this is all around us.
The Swifts – birds of blue skies and heat-waves – have completely gone by the end of August, the adults having left as soon as their chicks fledged in late July and the young later following them to South Africa for the first time without any guidance. Most of the wading birds we see in autumn and winter breed in the high arctic, utilising the few months in the year when the sun never sets in those mosquito-ridden lands. Waders that either didn’t mate or whose nests failed or whose chicks fledged early can be seen heading south throughout Britain in July and August; peaking in late September when the early-birds are joined by the chattering hordes. Any birder knows to keep a look out on the marshes and waterways during the last weeks of summer as rare waders from Siberia or America who have flown off-course can occasionally be found on our shores. In times past we would also be saying goodbye to most of our warbler species as they headed off south, this is still the case in part yet thanks to warmer winters quite a few Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps stay on with us throughout the cold season; sometimes visiting bird feeders. The end of summer may seem like a dozy time for us, but for wild animals it is a serious rush of activity, tainted with the fear of winter. All birds and mammals and invertebrates must now build up body fat and stash stores of food or find a suitable site for hibernation. The juveniles from the spring are in the most danger as they will be facing their first winter without experience or help from parents, indeed the vast majority of young animals die in this first test of the wild.
When it comes to plants most floral displays reach a peak of heady beauty in late July or August; especially the turf found on the chalk downs or traditional hay-meadows such as those found in Yorkshire, where the abundance and diversity of flowers is overwhelming. But as summer dies so too do the flowers, in part naturally but mostly because of the late-cut of silage and hay fields by farmers preparing for the winter ahead. Autumn is not by any means flower-less though, in September can be found the Autumn Gentian; a deep-coloured but discrete purple bloom found on calcareous soils or sand dunes. Red Campion is a plant I have found in flower in almost every month of the year so it will still be brightening hedgerows and woods alongside another late summer flower – meadowsweet, which has a pungent but delightful fragrance. The big floral highlight though of the summer/autumn switchover period is of course the magnificent mass-flowering of Ling (or common heather, Calluna vulgaris) up on the moors and heaths of Britain. This is a must-see spectacle for any nature-buff or indeed any human being; the uplands literally glow with the purplish-pink of the tiny Ling flowers in their millions and the air is filled with the constant busy hum of bees exploiting this glut of pollen and nectar.
Insects, somewhat surprisingly, become even more obvious and active at the onset of autumn; bees, butterflies, moths, flies, and spiders appear regularly inside houses or gathered in large numbers on late-flowering plants. If like me you have an appreciation of Ivy then you will no doubt have noticed that when this climbing plant opens up its sticky, rich-smelling green flowers at the end of August they are immediately covered in Red Admirals, Tortoiseshells, hoverflies, wasps, and bees of all sorts. This may give us a great opportunity to observe them but for the insects it is a matter of life and death; the butterflies will be feeding up in preparation for sleeping through the winter, the wasps are mostly queens doing the same and the bees will be stocking up their hives to ensure the colony can survive until next spring. In fact this is what most of this late-summer activity is about; gathering as much energy as possible for hibernation and then searching for a dry, secure place to rest for the following months – which is quite often our attics, sheds or airing cupboards.
The passing of summer is one of those times of year often overlooked; the natural interest it does hold is subdued by the advent of a new school year, the ending of the warm season and the noticeably shortening hours of light which all combine to form blues in our minds. Yet for a naturalist such as myself it is an invigorating time where the inactivity and sleepiness of the dog days is cast off and replaced by the gathering momentum of autumn’s rush of activity. It is also a great time to get out into the country; the days are still warm and long enough to be useful, the hedges are brimming with nuts and berries, nature is changing the guard as the swallows leave and the fungi burst forth in their place. It is understandable to feel sorrow at the loss of summer, yet it would be a mistake to miss out on this fresh stirring of the winds and earth by miserably moping – leave that for the long nights of January.