The End of Summer

The fury of the rut has passed
The fury of the rut has passed

A particular highlight of my birthday weekend was in finding what seemed to be two ring ousels on the hill while stalking at first light yesterday morning.

It seemed odd to find blackbirds so high up on the granite scree banks, and there really could be no other explanation for their presence as the sun burst over the Solway. There was an adult bird with a rather dowdy youngster in tow, and they flicked away through the flies as I lumbered over the crackling heather stick and spied through binoculars after them. They have not bred here, but given that the rocks are full of wheatears in autumn plumage, it feels like the migrants are already starting to pack their things and head home. I know that ousels like to stay for the berries, but the whole western side of Britain will provide them with rowans in the next six weeks, so why not take the scenic route Southwards after a cold, grim summer.

Swallows in twos and threes skimmed through the midges, but the grass has grown frowsy and autumnal. Droning bees work through the reeking heather flower and cowberries shine like tiny tomatoes on the vine, but the grass is reddening and the clouds hang longer on the high ground than they did.

The roe rut is subsiding, and while several bucks still avidly held their territories against the foolish transgressions of their inferiors, the does have dispersed and the atmosphere of terse, hormonal excitement has been blown into the ether. There are some reasonable coveys of grouse here and there, but many chicks are still small as they wade through masses of cotton down as if it were the aftermath of some apocalyptic pillow fight. They have not fared so poorly as it seemed, and there was enough to be seen over the course of two consecutive days on the hill for their status to be downgraded from “disastrous” to merely “disappointing”. By night we went lamping on the low ground through the silage fields and the churning swarms of flies and moths. Fox cubs ambled fearlessly between the cowpats, and hares turned their ears in confusion as the torchlight made them glow.

This is the gap between high summer and the sudden descent into autumn – the final breathless wheeze of life before the rush of decline. The haws are in the greenroom and the rowans are rouging.


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