Summer? What summer? No, that’s not a reflection on the weather, even though it’s blowing a northerly gale as I write this. It’s just that, for a great many creatures, there’s no such thing as ‘summer’ ….the year segues seamlessly from spring to autumn. And yes, I do know that it’s not even the summer solstice yet…but, for some, it’s already autumn.
For those who love the long, warm, daylight hours of summer and are currently cursing at me, let me explain. June is a month where some birds have already passed through the frantic breeding period. Find a mate, lay, incubate, raise young, then fatten up for winter. They will only have one brood of young in that year and that’s it. At this latitude, this tends to encompass most (though there are exceptions) of the bigger birds – seabirds, waterfowl, and all of the larger raptors.
This is typical of larger birds; it takes longer to raise young so they can only manage one brood in a year. But it is true of some smaller birds as well. Blue tits are one example of a small bird that will only have one brood in a year.
While other birds like swallows or house martins can manage 3 broods between spring and autumn, sometimes with the fledged young from the last brood helping their parents raise their younger siblings.
By June, birds like these sandwich terns are already starting to moult into their winter plumage, with their all-black head being replaced by a white forehead over winter. I always think of it as going grey with the stress of raising kids!
And the mallards are moulting into ‘eclipse’ – their dull winter plumage.
For some, autumn comes early because they nest so far north. We saw our first southbound autumn migrants on 4th of June, when a flock of moulting, sorry-looking curlew went over, heading south. It’s likely they were arctic nesters who have failed and just headed south because their breeding attempt for the summer was over. No point hanging around there any more.
Another summer ‘autumn’ sign is the flocks of starlings that are appearing everywhere just now. They are mostly comprised of a few families of starlings, adults and their newly-fledged young, but, come autumn and winter, will form huge flocks. These can be thousands or even hundreds of thousands strong and form impressive ‘murmurations’ as they seem to dance in the sky before going to roost. Also impressive is the sheer weight of birds. Even here, at the end of the road, I’ve counted 1500 starlings between telegraph poles. Now, assuming a starling’s weight is 60-100g, split the difference and call it 80 g per bird, so that’s 80 grammes times 1500, which is 120 kilograms of starling on the wires!
Some trees, too, almost skip summer. They will put on leaves and flower in spring, but, once they’ve set seed, then there’s nothing to do but drink water and photosynthesise furiously until the fruit is ripe and it’s time for the leaves to fall.
Ironically, we often find summer one of the hardest times of year to write this blog! Once the flurry of spring is over, everything keeps its head down – especially young animals that risk getting eaten – and we won’t see them until autumn. This holds true for most mammals and birds and even the adders tend to vanish once they’ve mated. But it’s also true that the long grass and leaves hide everything too, and you don’t see it until things thin out in the autumn!