Airborne sign autumn’s here

Whooper swans are arriving from Iceland
Whooper swans are arriving from Iceland

You know that autumn’s here when migrating geese sail overhead, calling loudly to each other. All kinds of birds are on the move in October.

Westerly winds brought goldcrests and redstarts to Britain. Brent geese have arrived early from Greenland, while small parties of whooper swans have touched down on northern lakes.

Around 15.000 whoopers will arrive from Iceland to spend the winter here. They can be distinguished from our mute swans by the black and yellow beak, and straight neck.

Some of our resident birds are finding their voices again, cheering on the dawn with twitters and chirps. The redbreast pauses in his sweet song to listen to a distant robin, before answering with another phrase. A mixed flock of calling great tits, blue tits, and coal tits goes from garden to garden. A flock has many eyes, which is an advantage when it comes to finding food or spotting predators.

Canny rooks know how to maximise their chances. At sunset, flocks of rooks cross the sky after a busy day feeding in the fields. They’re off to gather in some isolated wood.

In autumn these birds desert their summer rookeries for a different life. Thousands of them spend the winter nights deep in a wood, usually perching next to their partner. Come daybreak, the rooks leave the communal roost to fly off in all directions. This will be their routine, until their old rookery calls them back again in spring.

Trees have a feel of autumn, now the traditional finale to the year’s growth has begun.

One of the first to change colour is the Virginia creeper, a North American native that takes no prisoners. It’s a fast grower, covering high walls and scaling trees in no time, and its autumn transformation is similarly speedy. The large, leathery leaves pass from green to brilliant red and purple within a few days, but the dazzling display doesn’t last for very long. Savour the sight while you can.

Our native wild clematis, traveller’s joy, is found scrambling over old hedges and into woodland trees. In autumn its seed heads sport long white fibres, which earned it the apt name of old man’s beard. Its melancholy beauty is captured in these lines from A.E. Houseman: “And traveller’s joy beguiles in autumn/Hearts that have lost their own.”

The sweet, white flowers of traveller’s joy used to be included in bridal bouquets. The stringy stems made ropes, baskets and the bottoms of crab pots, while farmers used them to tie up farm gates.

A few spiky seed cases are lying beneath the yellowing horse chestnut trees. But are they worth taking home?

Ignore the lightweights — only the heaviest cases conceal a fat, round conker. Should you get lucky, check your conkers by dropping them into a bowl of water. The best ones will sink; the others are probably damaged inside and not worth stringing.

Don’t be disappointed if you don’t find any, because this isn’t a vintage year. Contest organisers are reporting a dearth of decent conkers and the World Championships at Ashton, due to take place on Sunday, have been cancelled. Oh well, there’s always next autumn.

Picture caption: Whooper swans are arriving from Iceland