by Heather Elvidge
Lately our garden birds have been growing very quiet. They’re elusive, too, allowing us barely a glimpse before they slip away among the leaves.
The silence is most noticeable in woodland where the cooing of wood pigeons is often the only sound.
This change in behaviour is not due to the heat, although most birds do keep to the shade in the hottest part of the day. A clue comes floating down from a tree – a single, lost feather.
While they’re moulting feathers and growing new ones, birds try to become totally invisible. Perhaps they feel out of sorts, or more vulnerable.
Young sparrows are not conforming to this rule of silence, and nor are the swallows. On warm mornings swallows sit on the telephone wires, twittering and preening their feathers. This year’s youngsters are easy to pick out.
They have yet to grow long streamers like their parents, so their tails are much shorter.
On these warm, light evenings it’s pleasant to linger outside in the twilight.
The air is fresher and there’s a chance of seeing a hedgehog rummaging about, or bats flitting here and there in pursuit of midges.
Bats sometimes swoop past at head height, but there’s no chance of them getting tangled in our hair. They’re picking up echoes from their high-frequency chatter, as it bounces off objects in their path.
Britain’s commonest bat is the pipistrelle, a tiny thing that weighs less than a 2p coin. But “common” is a relative term, and there seem to be far fewer bats about this summer.
The first stars to appear in the darkening sky are the three that form the “summer triangle.” High in the south is brilliant Vega in the constellation of Lyra, the harp. To its left is Deneb, chief star of Cygnus the swan, which is also called the Northern Cross. Below them both is Altair in Aquila, the eagle.
When it’s darker still you’ll see the Milky Way. This glorious sweep of dust and stars stretches from southwest to northeast, through Aquila and Cygnus to Cassiopea and Perseus.
Look towards Perseus this weekend, and you may catch some shooting stars. But to see the best of the Perseids you’ll need to be out between midnight and dawn.
The shower’s peak is expected on the nights of Sunday and Monday (August 11 and 12). However, it’ll be possible to see the odd shooting star at any time during this week and next.
Seekers of these meteors, also known as St Lawrence’s Tears, will be following an age-old tradition. People have been watching them for at least 2,000 years.
Of the planets, none is well placed for naked eye observation.
Venus, for instance, is lost in the sunset. There’s a doomy old saying from East Anglia, that when the Evening Star rides low in summer, it’s a bad omen for the harvest.
Let’s hope that’s not true, because farmers are preparing for the harvest right now; some have already begun.