Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On Conkers, Kingfishers and Noticing Things (plus a few chips)

I went for a walk yesterday to the post office. Well, I went out with the intention of going to the post office, but it took me rather longer to get there that one would expect, and by the time I was turning for home, a visit to the chip shop was required for a paper-wrapped parcel of fuel to propel me up the hill! 

This week a high pressure system has settled over the UK, bringing a period of fine, bright and dry weather. Clear skies overnight mean temperatures drop, but once the morning mist rises and dew burns off, the uninterrupted sun sheds layers of jumpers and coats buy early-afternoon. We are now past the autumn equinox however, and the days are shortening, so the echo of summer doesn't last long, rapidly chilling as the sun sinks towards the western horizon.

This weather pattern, and the decrease in daylight hours, has triggered the first hints of copper and gold in the trees as they prepare to shed their leaves for winter. We will have to wait for the frosts before the full autumn colour change happens. It is not only the leaves which are responding. Amongst the branches of the horse chestnut, the tough spiky cases that protect the conkers are beginning to split open, spilling their polished treasures into the damp grass below. Do children still collect conkers these days; competing for the largest ones or the shiniest ones, and going home with school-trouser-pockets bulging? 

The horse chestnuts here have been hit hard this year by a leaf-mining moth, and already look as brown and shrivelled as though we were nearing the end of autumn not the beginning. 

My walk took me along the river path, and gazing down to the fast flowing waters I could easily dream of views of otter playing and fishing on the sandy banks, green weeded rivulets and singing tumbles and eddies. In the end it was a kingfisher that brought a moment of magic to the scene, bolting downstream in characteristic angular flight. A few seconds earlier and it would have found itself flying down the middle of my camera viewfinder, alas, that shot was not to be this day. 

I ate my paper-parcel dinner on a bench beside South Pond, watching a number of mallard ducks on the water. The males outnumbered the females substantially, as tends to be the way on this particular pond, possibly as a result of over feeding (unfortunately mostly with bread which is actually bad for the ducks' health) causing over population in past years. There was a mixture of activity; some were feeding 'bottoms up', others were preening and bathing, and some, predictably, were keeping a sharp eye on me incase I might be the sort to throw them a few chips. 
It had been a while since I had had chance to simply sit and watch their antics. I was puzzled by a strange whistle call, which seemed to be coming from the mallards. It was very different from the usual 'quacking' calls I am familiar with. I eventually tracked it down to one or two drakes (male mallards) and found that it appeared to be accompanied by an odd head bobbing movement. This call and 'display' reminded me distinctly of the behaviours of wigeon, a duck species that often crowds onto the wetlands in this area (RSPB Pulborough Brooks is a good example) over the winter, having migrated from lands to the north. This is the first time I have noticed it in mallards, I wonder if it is recognised behaviour for this species? 

Chips demolished, I left the ducks to their whistling and turned for home. Low sunlight streamed through the trees along Jubilee Path, highlighting spider's webs and their occupants with shimmers of gold. I noted that the yew tree was now bearing bright red berries between the forest-green needles, and reminded myself to keep an eye open for thrushes here, when the cold weather sets in.  

A multitude of squeaking calls in the bushes marked the progress and activity of a flock of tits. The sight of a blue tit making its way off through the twigs, holding in its beak a sprig of two elderberries (from a clump of berries on which it had been feeding), each bigger then its own eye, was certainly another sight I had never seen before. 

It is amazing what you notice, when you take the time to pause and watch those little everyday things that perhaps we all normally take for granted. 

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Hello! Thank you for viewing my blogs and profile. I am passionate about the countryside and british wildlife and I hope that this comes through in my blog. I am a nature writer and have been pursuing photography since early teenage years, whilst building a career in conservation. Helping people to reconnect with the natural world is very important to me, whether through direct hands on interaction, education or literature. Please also visit my website www.sophieco.co.uk, for more information, my current CV, and further examples of writing and photography. You can contact me or keep up to date with new blog posts via Twitter @SophiEcoWild and/or Facebook.com/SophiEcoWild Feedback, comments and audience participation are always welcome! Sophie May Lewis