Autumn is Knocking

The light on the horizon has changed significantly this past week, casting long, broad shadows across the hills.  The sky is filled with an eclectic mixture of brooding, grey clouds adorned with cotton-candy-like puffs of white accentuated with splashes of blue.  Crisp leaves are beginning to carpet the ground and collect in corners of the garden and in all our drains.  An annual autumn project of clearing leaves has now appeared on our to-do list.  The most notable announcement of the season’s change is the formation of the bright flame-red berries dangling from the Rowan trees.

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Where did the summer go?  It seems just yesterday we were filling the long days with visitors and projects.  We were busy tending to the vegetable garden and our on-going repair of stone walls.  Daily we pulled weeds, maintained the garden, and filled potholes.  We spent hours gathering and consuming the abundance of our vegetable beds, building a new fence — which resulted in an unfortunate concussion for Roger — juggling family demands and embracing the arrival of the thoroughly modern Millie!

In the summer months, we carry on with all our activities until our bones and muscles ache, taking breaks to walk Sam and Millie or have a cup of coffee. By the end of the day, covered with dirt, we put away our tools, clean ourselves up, and prepare dinner. Afterwards, we take a glass of wine and make our way back outside to soak in the hot tub.  We make plans for the next day while the night shift of wildlife clocks-in. On a clear night, one by one, the stars appear in the sky and the bats flash past to feeding on new insect life. Foxes and badgers make their plans for the evening’s hunt and forage, and the tawny owl in the stand of pines across the valley sings a musical riff.

Now, as I walk the dogs in the early morning, I feel a chill in the air and can see our breath in the dawn air.   This first walk of the day is one of two stories:  Sam sniffing all the news of the day to come and slowly awaking his achy bones as he lumbers down the track; while Millie darts from one moment to the next, chasing her toy and racing past me and Sam to exercise her job as the Ambassador of Joy!  I certainly have my pre-coffee challenge with the two dogs moving at different speeds and entertaining their different interests, but our pack of three sync up with the pleasure of the crisp morning air.

As we turn the corner on our walk, down in the valley the fog hangs along the river as if a dragon flew past in the night and left a breath trail.  Exposed by the morning dew are the webs of the thousands of spiders who make their homes in the gorse bushes.  With the arrival of cooler temperatures, many of these spiders now seem to be making their homes inside our house and not a day goes by when I don’t discover yet another large arachnid awaiting rescue from the kitchen sink.

It’s not just spiders who have made their way into the house, we’ve had a few bats too.  Recently, I was spending the afternoon stacking our winter wood supply in the barn when I noticed something flapping about in jerky flight.  Too late to be a swallow or a house martin, they’ve left for warmer climates and won’t be back again until the spring.   When I stopped to investigate, I spied a bat hanging upside down in the rafters.  I’ve not seen it there before or since, so I suspect this is simply a temporary rest stop as it was too early to be out and about hunting insects.  Sure enough, later that day Roger and I spent the better part of the evening trying to isolate the Horseshoe bat, which had found its way from the barn into the house.

The greater horseshoe bat is one of the larger British bats with a wingspan of about 35-39 cm, and also one of the rarest.  We are in one of the few areas in the country where these bats are still breeding, so it is a treat to see one.  After Roger photographed and confirmed its identification, we managed to get it into a room where we could close the doors, turn out the lights, and open the windows so it would head out into the night to commence its hunting before returning to its roost in parts unknown to us.

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As the plants die back to conserve their energy for a spring bloom, so too, Roger and I have turned our attentions to readying for winter.  But we aren’t there yet. Soon, we will spend more of our time inside by the fire and less outside. As the nights draw in and our wood burner provides daily comfort, we will turn our attentions to projects inside.  We have a water tank which needs replacing, pipes which need relocating, and we’re making some changes to the hot water system as a result.  Roll on Autumn….

Tempus Fugit And A Lot Of Other Things, Too

The other night, there was a bat in our house.  Not just any bat, but a Greater Horseshoe Bat.   Roger identified it and our friend Richard, who is an ecologist and holds a license to handle bats, confirmed.

Greater Horseshoe Bat

Greater Horseshoe Bat in our Kitchen

There are 17 types of bat recorded in Britain and the Greater Horseshoe Bat is one of the rarest.  In 2001, there were 11 confirmed species of bat living in a variety of habitats within Dartmoor National Park, which is one of the largest breeding roosts in Western Europe for this type of bat.

Bat roosts everywhere are suffering due to human activities such as modern farming methods, conversions of buildings, woodland mismanagement, the sealing of cave and mine entrances and the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides in the countryside.  The mismanagement of hedgerows, or their loss altogether, can affect foraging for bats.  Since 2004, Dartmoor National Park, along with other conservation groups, has worked to survey the bats and educate farmers about how to maintain bat friendly land and animal management.

Bats aren’t the only things that fly about Crockern.  Inside the house, we’ve also had a couple of birds, lots of moths, flies, and more than a few flying Daddy Long Legs.

Outside, we see an assortment of birds.  Roger has dutifully kept a list of those flying about our home:

Blackbird, Blue Tit, Buzzard, Chaffinch, Coal Tit, Cormorant, Crow, Curlew, Dove, Dunnock, Goldfinch, Grasshopper Warbler, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit, Greenfinch, Green Woodpecker, Grey Heron, Grey Wagtail, Hen Harrier, Hobby, House Martins, House Sparrow, Jackdaw, Jay, Kestrel, Magpie, Meadow Pipit, Nuthatch, Pied Flycatcher, Pied Wagtail, Raven, Red Kite, Redstart, Robin, Skylark, Spotted Flycatcher, Starling, Stonechat, Swallows, Treecreeper, Whinchat, Wood Warbler, Wren, Yellowhammer, and, Yellow Wagtail

We’ve also heard, but not seen, a Cuckoo and a Tawny Owl.

Bird watching is a popular activity for many walking up our path.  We’ve met several “twitchers” and “birders”.  There is a distinction.  My friend Carolyn was very clear that twitchers are bird watchers whose goal is to collect sightings of rare birds and will drop what they are doing, drive to some destination to see said bird and add it to their life list.  Birders, on the other hand, are those people who have a general interest and knowledge of birds and wildlife and like to watch birds.

A casual bird watcher, like myself, may easily give myself away by saying something like “Wow, look at that bunch of ravens!”  A twitcher is likely to give him/herself away with a snort and comment, “Don’t you mean that unkindness of ravens?”  As far as I’m concerned, the dead giveaway of twitchers is that they are likely to refer to birds using only their Latin names and will comfortably use archaic linguistic groupings.

One day it was pouring down with rain when I heard a knock at the door.  There stood a man dressed head to toe in waterproof clothing and hanging around his neck were two sets of binoculars.  “Oh, hi.  I was just wondering if you’ve heard a unique sound in the meadow?” he asked.   An odd greeting.  Nonetheless, I knew the sound as Roger had pointed it out to me just a few days before.  Unfortunately, my recall was a bit off and when attempting to sound knowledgeable about the Grasshopper Warbler, I said, “Oh yes, that would be the Cricket Shaker.”  I did not impress this twitcher with my bird watching ways.   He gave me a look that suggested I had just said, “Why look at that flock of crows!”  I accept that I will never become a serious birder, but I am motivated to try and commit more to memory.

And who doesn’t like a list as a way to get started?  Here’s how to sound more in the know when encountering a twitcher when one knocks on your door:

Brood of Hens;

Cast of Falcons;

Charm of Finches;

Descent of Woodpeckers;

Dole of Doves;

Exaltation of Larks;

Flight of Swallows;

Herd of Curlew or Wrens;

Host of Sparrows;

Kettle of Hawks;

Murder of Crows (not Flock of Crows as above);

Murmuration of Starlings;

Party of Jays;

Parliament of Owls or Rooks;

Siege of Herons;

Tidings of Magpies;

And of course, Unkindness of Ravens

I may not go so far as to use all of these in sentences, but if nothing else, I think I can at least manage to use the obsolete “Dissimulation of Birds,” rather than the more easily understood “Flock of Birds” next time I have the opportunity.

It’s true; I have become a bird watcher.  Each morning I will sit looking out the window at the birds at the feeders while I drink my coffee.  I can spend an enormous amount of time thinking my thoughts while watching the arrival and departure patterns at the feeder.  Regularly, there is the little Chaffinch who has a missing leg, and the two Great Spotted Woodpeckers who like to hunt insects in the rotten post at the fence.

Now that summer seems finally to have arrived in the middle of September, the bugs outdoors are in full force.  Midges being among the many. According to the dictionary on my computer, a midge is “a small two-winged fly that is often seen in swarms near water or marshy areas where it breeds.  The families Chrionomidae (the nonbiting midges) and Ceratopogonidae (see biting midge). “    I need look no further than the red marks on my arms, we have the biting midge.  Not as aggressive as the ones found in Scotland, but they are tenacious and determined and, if the air is still, out in full force to feed on us.

Also feeding in full force are the Swallows and House Martins, who dive-bomb about on an insect binge!   As they fill the sky in aerial pursuit of their bug meal, it is not a hard stretch to imagine the skies during the Battle of Britain, with Spitfires and Lancaster Bombers defending the southern coast.  It is no surprise, that they are known as a Flight of Swallows.

Elephant Hawk Moth

Elephant Hawk Moth on our Bright Pink Towel

We also have general houseflies, butterflies (Brimstone, Small and Large Whites, Small Tortoiseshell, and Small Heath), the occasional bee, and one day an Elephant Hawk Moth resting on a towel on the line.  It may have been using the bright pink towel as camouflage.  This is the first time I’ve seen this beautiful moth up close.  I’ve seen the caterpillar stage, and still have a few nightmares about it.  If interested, one can easily find a home video on YouTube and watch how its proboscis nose moves in and out.  Impressive, but honestly, I didn’t have the stomach to try to film when I saw one of these in our garden.  I went inside and left it to its prehistoric moves.

Last week we were putting the finishing touches on our raised vegetable beds, which involved moving a ton of veggie compost from the top of the track down to the beds using a wheelbarrow, buckets and our determination.  We were just finishing when we heard a thunderous roar followed by the visual spectacle of nine Red Arrows flying past in strict formation.  The Red Arrows is the aerobatic team of the Royal Air Force who promote and recruit for the RAF as they do many fly-pasts at major events.  Such events include the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics and the lesser-known completion celebration of our raised vegetable beds.

Red Arrows from the RAF Waddington Airshow (found on internet)

There is an MOD training area just over the hill so we often see military planes.  Occasionally, we will see the Dartmoor Rescue helicopters looking for some lost or injured hiker on the moors.  Since walkers are permitted to wander all over the moors, it is not uncommon for some to get lost, especially if the fog or mist moves in, sometimes making it difficult to orient yourself beyond a mere three feet.

We once spotted paragliders floating above the hill, and almost every day, there are anglers wading in the river using their fly rods to try and catch brown trout.

But, let us return to the twitcher who knocked on our door.  A few weeks later, he came knocking again.  This time, he had a friend with him and the two were hoping to see a Redstart as the one man had never seen one.  While listening to this conversation — I had opted for eaves dropping rather than answering the door — I found myself feeling righteous because the day before I spotted a Redstart sitting on our wall.  Roger identified it for me but all the same, I saw it.  Sometimes it just pays not to make so much effort.

In contemporary use, the Latin term Tempus Fugit means “time flies and we’re letting it pass us by, so let’s get moving and do something important!”  The poet Virgil first used the phrase when he wrote:  Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile temmpus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore.   Or, “But meanwhile it flees; time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail.”

I like this bit by Virgil.  Why do I need to move quickly to accomplish something?  Instead, can’t I just drift off into my thoughts, sometimes without much to show for it, except for the details I maintain?  That delightful moment on a walk, or the beauty of the light changing as the clouds drift past, are the memorable features I retain no matter how much time passes.

Each time I stop to look and listen, I discover something new.  There are of course, the Parliament of Rooks, Murder of Crows, or in our case, the Trio (okay, Brood) of Chickens.  They have names now:  Judy, Mabel and Fey.