Cover image: Yorkshire’s craggy uplands are briefly softened by the glow of a summer sunset. © Eric Mak
In the valley bottoms, cows and sheep graze in lush pastures. Streams ripple their way over jagged sandstone boulders through ancient woodlands. Uphill, heather unfolds the first of its pale purple blooms, bedecked with bees. Spring rolls into summer, and on my patch, life picks up the pace.
June brings with it the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and the first real summer heat. The flowers in the fields reach the crescendo of their visual performance, and on calm hot days, the pollen haze is thick enough to hide distant hills. Across the landscape, there are hungry mouths to feed. Jackdaws accompany their offspring as they venture forth from tree-hole nests for the first time, while blue tits and blackbirds are busy raising a second or even third brood of young. Fortunately, at the height of summer, food is bountiful. Millions of caterpillars munch tracks across leaves; mosquitoes burst out from shallow ponds; sugar rains down from sycamore trees as aphids suck the sap out of hand-shaped leaves. These insects support young animals of all kinds, not just birds. Throughout June, the nights are short and the sun never sinks far below the horizon, appearing as a faint glow behind the northern hills. The year’s first bats are born in this perpetual dusk, and their mothers can be seen frantically scooping up mouthfuls of moths and flies to feed their growing pups. Pipistrelle bats are common and tiny, small enough to fit in a matchbox, darting over gardens and circling streetlights. Daubenton’s bats swoop low over ponds to pick up flies laying eggs in the water. Noctules, starling-sized and huge by bat standards, fly in direct purposeful lines between stands of trees, occasionally dipping out to chase a tasty morsel.
June transitions seamlessly into July, and the weather is at its most extreme. Heatwaves bake the ground dry, splitting mud into plates and turning the grass brown and prickly. Only days later, the sun’s hard work is undone as a series of storms sweeps across the landscape, loosing a deluge onto the parched land. The moors, once layered with deep bogs that stayed wet year-round, have been drained to make way for grouse shooting. The uplands become a tinderbox, ready to go up in flames with a single spark. Life in the countryside is at its most frenetic, as fledgling birds find their wings, young bats take to the skies, and farmers busy themselves making hay while the sun shines. But now, in small ways, it becomes clear that something has changed. Every night is a little longer than the last, and nature is starting to notice. The shaky whistling calls of curlews, our largest wading birds, fall silent as they depart, making their way down from their breeding grounds in the uplands to the coasts, where they spend the winter probing fertile mudflats in search of prey. For those who will stay here once winter falls, preparations for the hard times must begin in earnest; for those who will depart to warmer climes, it’s a race against the clock.
August brings with it a sense of melancholy. The heat eases off a little, the rain becomes less torrential, some life seeps back into the razed and brittle grass. The woods fall silent: whether they were successful this year or not, songbirds have reached the end of their breeding season, and no longer need to sing to impress females or defend territories. At this time of year, most adult birds take the opportunity to shed their feathers, tattered and worn by a season of parenthood, and grow new ones. Some birds, like tits and thrushes, shed feathers one by one. But ducks are different, losing all their flight feathers at once, leaving them flightless for weeks until the new feathers grow out. Males moult into an ‘eclipse plumage’, similar in appearance to the much drabber females, characterised by shades of brown and grey. Quiet, they hide in reeds and marshes until they can take to the air again. Electric-blue damselflies dance over the surface of lakes and slow-running streams, seeking partners they may never find. Rich in protein, damselflies and other water-loving insects are a key food resource for swifts, dark brown boomerang-shaped birds that have spent the summer zooming overhead. Swifts are some of our last summer migrants to arrive, having appeared only at the end of May. Through June and July they have raised their offspring, and now they are ready to depart. Insects collected here will fuel them through their southward migration, crossing the breadth of Europe, over the Mediterranean Sea, across the Sahara Desert, and into the grasslands of the Sahel. The absence of their devilish screaming calls marks the beginning of autumn.