MOST of us recognise the arrival of the autumn season by the ripening of crops, the changing colours of leaves on trees and hedges, and a slightly cooler atmosphere, usually with a touch of frost.
Often there will be dew on spiders’ webs in the hedgerows and many of our summer bird visitors will have returned to warmer climates. And some trees may be starting to shed their leaves.
We regard autumn as a three-month season that takes us gently into winter with Christmas on the horizon along with much cooler weather accompanied by trees without leaves, crops and fruit safely gathered in and problems with ice and snow, perhaps with strong winds. The term bleak mid-winter can sometimes produce an image of drifting snow, ice on ponds and paths, damaging gales along with floods and a lot of darkness.
However, there is one question that produces a range of answers or opinions – it is “When does autumn really start and when does it finish?” Not long ago, our calendars said that autumn began on September 21 whilst the Meteorological Office now works on the assumption that autumn is a three month season that begins on September 1.
The Meteorological autumn therefore begins on September 1 and the Met Office winter will therefore start on December 1. Country folk might argue otherwise. I am sure there have been instances when the weather and changes in our trees and plants continued into December.
However, the traditional date for the start of autumn, September 21 or 22, coincides with the autumnal equinox when days and nights are of equal length. Similarly, the spring equinox begins or on near March 20 or 21 which has long been the traditional beginning of spring, when the days and nights are also of equal length.
As we struggle to determine when autumn and the other seasons of winter, spring and summer really begin, we can learn from nature itself. Autumn lets us know when it has arrived, and the date might differ slightly from year to year. This system indicates when the seasons are actually changing from one to another, albeit not on fixed dates each year. In other words, our seasons are somewhat pliable in their timing and duration.
Think of ripening fruit and harvests, wild animals preparing for winter by building up their stocks of food and ensuring their shelter is adequate along with some birds migrating to warmer places for the winter. As they do so, others will arrive in this country from the Arctic regions – redwings and fieldfares are among the most easily recognised as they are so similar to our native thrushes.
Redwings may arrive in September whilst fieldfares might be a month later although either species may spend the entire year in our islands, albeit much further north than Yorkshire or Durham. Late autumn and winter is the most likely time to see them in this region.
Food for thought
IN times past, it was customary to celebrate a range of events with a feast of some kind and September is no exception. In examining the celebrations, it is surprising how many of them involve food of some kind, the parties often being highlighted with a bonfire and a few glasses of something special.
In fact, in former times, September was known as Gerstmonath but the Anglo-Saxons changed the name to Haefestmonath, the harvest month. As its modern name indicates, September used to be the seventh month of the year but changes in the calendar, with the addition of January and February meant it became the ninth month. The names of October, November and December also indicate their former place in the calendar, their names respectively suggesting eight, nine and ten.
Some examples of celebrations involving food in September include Denby Dale Pie Day on 3rd, Nutting Day on 14th, First Fruits Day on 19th, Stamford Bridge Pie Day on 25th, Nut Crack Eve on 28th, The Eve of Michaelmas with Michaelmas Day itself (29th) also being Hipping Day, Nut Crack Night and Goose Day.
DURING a morning walk I noticed a small creature in the middle of the road on a very busy hill. There was no traffic at that moment, this being unusual because that route is always busy during the school run and the rush to work.
Hoping no traffic would arrive I hurried to effect a rescue and discovered it was a young tawny owl. As I stooped to pick it up, I could see one of its parents moving in the trees and wondered if she would attack me. Clearly, the infant was under the care of a concerned parent.
The chick made no attempt to prevent me scooping it from the road but as I did so, the parent began to circle above in eerie silence as I carried my trophy to the protection of a hawthorn hedge. I was surprised it made no attempt to escape from my cupped hands but what amazed me was its lack of weight despite being the size of a small football.
It was like carrying a fistful of feathers. I wondered if the chick was injured but found no signs of damage to its head, wings, body or legs. Quite simply, it seemed content to sit in my hands.
With mum (or it might have been dad) circling above, I placed the waif in the hedge as the parent came swooping down to check and reassure her offspring. I retreated quickly as traffic resumed, leaving mother owl with the responsibility of educating her offspring not to linger in the middle of the road.
The night-time call that most of us know as To-whit To-whoo is in fact the sound of two tawny owls, male and female. They call to one another to produce the effect of a single bird with the male producing the hoo-hoo-hooooo sounds, and the female responding with her sharp too-whit call. Most of the time that is all we hear from them because during the day their stillness and colouring make them invisible as they rest in quiet woods.
Some people call them brown owls, others wood owls but we know them tawny owls. They are easily distinguished from the white and light tan colours of the ghostly barn owl (otherwise the screech owl), this now regarded as one of our rarer species.
If their hoots are anything to go by, tawny owls seem to be plentiful but they can produce up to seven chicks that hatch with a gap of about a week between each. With seven chicks, it means they are of different sizes with varying stages of development but they are able to fly after five weeks.
I am not sure whether my baby owl could fly. Certainly he made no attempt and I could only think he had been shoved out of the nest by his bullying big brothers, or else he had fallen from high above. I never located his nest and did not see him again but suspect he will soon be hooting from trees behind our house.