Last days of ‘little summer’

A redwing feeds on holly berries.
A redwing feeds on holly berries.

Written by Heather Elvidge

Even during fine spells October won’t let us forget what’s coming. Winter thrushes are arriving from the north. The first snow has fallen on Cairngorm. In the night sky Orion is rising – soon stars will glitter in the cold air that snatches our breath away.

However, it’s not winter yet. Pleasant days aren’t all behind us. There’s usually good weather around October 18, which is St Luke’s Day.

In years when the harvest weeks were cursed with rain, farmers used to count on “St Luke’s little summer” to salvage some of their crops. But this year the weather was kind and the fields that were so busy are ploughed and sown. Some are already greening with the shoots of next year’s crop.

Some winter thrushes have been here for a while, although most will arrive this month when huge flocks cross the North Sea before the Scandinavian winter closes in.

When they arrive the flocks usually land in a ploughed field, but later they head for hawthorn trees to search for ripe berries. They won’t be disappointed – haws are plentiful this year. Fieldfares call with a loud “chack, chack” and are bold enough to visit gardens, if there’s enough food. They are large, handsome birds with a grey head, chestnut back, and an orange-tinted breast spotted with black.

The other incoming thrush is much more shy. The redwing looks more like our song thrush, except it has a creamy stripe above its eyes. The vivid red patch that gives the bird its name lies mostly under the wings, and is revealed as the redwing takes off.

Our hedgehogs are planning for the cold months too, by finding a place to build a winter nest. To survive hibernation they need to pile on weight, which means crunching up lots of lovely beetles and slugs. We can help by putting out food for them so if there’s a hog visiting your garden, leave some meaty pet food in the place where you last saw it.

The hedgehog population is reckoned to be half what it was 25 years ago. Cars, slug pellets, paved-over gardens, and our preference for fences instead of hedges are all contributing factors. At this time of year there’s an additional hazard – the bonfire. To a hedgehog, our heap of scrap wood and garden detritus looks like the perfect place to make a winter nest. To avoid a tragedy, collect the material in one place and move it to the bonfire site on the day you plan to burn it.

Shooting stars

This month there’s an annual meteor shower that comes from debris left by Halley’s comet. The Orionids seem to appear from the direction of Betelgeuse, the bright red star that marks Orion’s shoulder.

This isn’t a spectacular shower - at its peak on the 21st there’ll probably be a meteor every few minutes - but it is spread across several nights from October 17 onwards. So if you’re out at midnight or in the early hours, take some time to gaze at the southeastern sky. And if you should happen to see a falling star, don’t forget to make a wish.