Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Shades of Winter

I saw my first redwings of the winter yesterday, feasting on scarlet berries in a huge dark yew tree. A flurry of movement caught my eye and through my binoculars I could make out the distinctive eye-stripe and russet patches under their wings as they flapped and tugged at the bright berries, clinging to dark fronded branches that drooped from the weight of recent rain.  
I was pleased to see them, to welcome them to their wintering grounds and feel the excitement of a first sighting, and yet it was a sighting tinged with a certain amount of sadness. 
It was a sign that the cold dark winter was approaching quickly and autumn’s glory was starting to fade. 

The weather has been damp, full of clinging mist that leaves all with a wet sheen, muting the colours of the autumn trees and stubble fields, and stringing cobwebs with glinting droplets that tumble and fall when touched by the wind or knocked by passing boot. 

And yet, if you look hard enough, even on the dreariest, dampest winter’s day, there is colour and life to be found. The red-breasted robin that sings so sweetly from the scarcely clad hedgerow, the scarlet berries of the holly, and the canary-flash of the goldfinches’ wings as they flit from garden feeder or silver thistle heads.
In the evenings there’s pink streaks or orange splashes across the sky, like the coloured washes from an artist’s brush, from where the red ball of the sun slowly sinks behind the hills. 

The weather forecasters are predictioning a fall in temperatures at the end of the week, accompanied by strong north-north east winds from the Arctic. These air movements should be good news for birdwatchers. The last few stragglers of summer migrants with quickly head south across the channel, but they will be replaced by other birds such as thrushes and geese, from the Arctic circle, Scandinavia and Northern Europe.  I will be watching for fieldfares to join the redwings, and listening out for reports of migratory geese and swans, and influxes of birds arriving on the north-east coast. 
...I wonder if it will be a Waxwing Year?


Monday, 15 October 2012

Autumn Countryside Show - the Heavy Horses

Some more photos from this weekend's Autumn Countryside Show at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum (see previous blog post). This time, my camera lens is pointed towards the stars of our agricultural history, the Heavy Horses. 


Autumn Countryside Show - Weald and Downland Open Air Museum

Saturday 13th October

Apples and cider, besom brooms and wood turning, heavy horses and vintage tractors, horticultural and craft displays, gun dogs and falconry, second hand books and country clothing, local food and drink, a huge threshing machine and traditional farming techniques, all under glorious October sunshine surrounded by autumn tinted trees, harvested fields and rolling hills, where else could I be except at a country show celebrating all things traditional, rural and autumnal? In this case it was the annual Autumn Countryside Show at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Singleton, West Sussex. Located in a beautiful setting, adjacent to the West Dean Estate and the pretty villages of Singleton and West Dean, surrounded by rolling downland and wooded slopes, the museum is home to a vast collection of preserved buildings, rescued from various sites across the south of England, re-built piece by piece to their former glory, side-by-side with wood yard and horse yard, rare-breed pigs in the woodland, South Down sheep in the pasture and traditional crops in the fields. Chickens scratch around the dung heap and a sleepy cat  lies stretched out in the sun that streams over the wooden stable door. In the old houses, hearths gently smoulder and scented herbs hang in lead-light windows, whilst the barns are stacked towards the beams with ripe grain and thatching straw. Pheasants run like clockwork toys across corn stubble and buzzards soar on thermals overhead. In the gardens, veg patches overflow with bounty, where leeks and onions vie with ruby chard, pumpkins and nasturtiums, runner beans compete with sunflowers and artichokes, and rose-hips ramble through hedgerow and across flint faced walls above borage and hyssop, angelica and comfrey. The interiors of workshop and school house, stable, blacksmiths and farm-workers cottage have been lovingly reconstructed, near a working watermill still grinding corn and a tin church tucked beneath the trees. 


Frosts, Acorns and Springer Spaniels

The last ten days have been filled with seasonal joys. From dramatic skies and weather changes, to fungi forays and country shows. There has been a noticeable drop in temperatures, particularly overnight with clear skies resulting in the first frosts, steamed up cars, and thick river-valley fogs.  Hopefully the sudden frosts will trigger a greater turning of the leaves, many trees are still a dusty green; the oak beyond my window is tinted with golden shades by the colour of its acorns rather than the leaves themselves. This tree is always full of life; in its crown the starlings sit and sing with their strange rattles and whistles, parties of tits and finches wheel overhead, twisting and scattering this way and that. Between the lower branches, plump wood pigeon coo and court, tail fanning and head bowing, happy to breed at any time of year if food is plentiful. Throughout the year the great spotted woodpecker can often be heard, and sometimes spied, propped stiff-tailed against a branch, sharp beak reverberating off the wood. And now, in autumn it is the jays who are the star of the show. Pink-breasted and nutcracker-beaked they climb and flap on the ends of twigs, azure wing patches flashing in the the low sun, as they fill their bulging crops with acorns. Those fruit that they do not plunder to feed themselves, they carry away and bury in soft turf, unwittingly planting the oaks of the future. Few saplings will grow without being nibbled by deer and rabbit, but those which do may provide an autumnal feast of acorns for jays in future centuries.

The oak may be slowly turning, but elsewhere the maple and sycamore trees are awash with glorious colour. Across the grass at their roots a carpet of fallen leaves is forming; a tapestry of reds, yellows, golds and oranges, some with spots of green or brown, long stems and raggedy edges, some flat like stars, others curled and crumpled. Out in the woods and heaths, between the bracken and the birch, beneath the oak and on rotting pine the fungi have taken centre stage for their brief extravaganza. From fairy-tale castles to foul smelling slime their variety is extensive!

I went for a walk in the woods with my Aunt and Uncle and their two Springer Spaniels last weekend. The rustling carpet of autumn leaves, rain damp earth, maze of bushes and bracken and horizontal trees were irresistible and a source of great excitement for the dogs. As is usual with spaniels, their excitement was translated as frenzied speed, so slowing them down enough to pose for a few photos was hard work! With the low sun slanting in golden rays through the ancient trees, a few words of persuasion and perhaps a dog-biscuit treat or two, however, some rather nice shots were achieved. Here are a couple of my favourites.

Friday, 5 October 2012

October 4th

Yesterday was bright and sunny, far too nice to stay indoors, and my camera trigger finger was twitching...
So I hopped in my little car and drove through the sunny West Sussex countryside to the village of Fittleworth. Just outside the village is Hesworth Common, an area of wooded heath, with a mixture of Scots Pine, Birch and Oak, and open patches where heather remains in the hill tops, above valley bottom bogs in which rare plants such as sundew and bog asphodel cling to existence between the grasses. 
When I arrived, the small muddy car park was almost full, but soon the morning dog-walkers began to leave and the place emptied out. The rain-damp woodland floor was a thick carpet of leaves and mulch, fallen spiky cases spilling sweet chestnuts onto mats of pine-needles, emerald mosses and grey-green lichen coated each stump and windfall log, whilst here and there strange earth-ball or puff-ball fungi protruded from the ground.
Bracken was turning glorious autumn shades and the sun sent long shadows, the shade contrasting with the golden light, each making the other seem stronger, just as the reds and browns of the dying leaves and the dark browns and greys of the tree trunks and earth, seemed to make those leaves and mosses still green gleam brighter still, in turn creating the perfect backdrop for the sunlit hues of golds and orange to glow as if from some internal light. Squirrels scattered across the leaf strewn ground, pink breasted jays squawked in the tree tops,  and large mixed flocks of tits and 'crests squeaked and flitted between the branches. Huge ancient oaks, gnarled and twisted, sprawled between clumps of birch and pine, reminding me, as they appeared to gaze out across wooded hill and fertile valley, towards the rolling heights of the South Downs, of a line in the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling; "Sussex" which coincidentally I had been reading only that morning; "Huge oaks and old, the which we hold No more than Sussex weed"
Quite appropriate as it was National Poetry Day!