Summer visitors begin to depart

A fine red grouse, feeding on heather.
A fine red grouse, feeding on heather.

Written by Heather Elvidge

ome of our summer visitors are leaving. Swifts are among the first to go, and some youngsters are so keen they set off for Africa before their parents.

These remarkable birds live most of their life in the air. Swifts eat and sleep on the wing, only landing when they’re ready to breed. For this they choose a high, narrow ledge, where they can swoop in and swoop out.

Because their feet are adapted for clinging, swifts are helpless on the ground. It’s usually a young bird that’s found in this predicament, having drifted down as it left the nest. It can’t take off, so if you come across a swift like this throw it into the air, and it should be able to fly away. Just think; it will not land again until next summer.

Swallows and house martins are not related to swifts, although they feed in a similar manner, taking the tiny insects and spiders that float high up in the air.

When conditions are good, house martins will raise more than one brood. So they are still feeding youngsters, with the help of young birds from their previous brood. The nests under the eaves will be quite crowded come September, when they’ll be thinking of Africa again.

Another bird that’s had a good season is the red grouse. Families have been larger than usual, due to the better summer. Grouse chicks feed on crane flies, also called daddy long-legs, of which there has been no shortage this year.

Adult red grouse only live on moorland where they depend on common heather, known as ling. In spring they eat the shoots, now they’re nibbling the flowers; later they’ll eat the seeds. Landowners manage the moor to suit the grouse, ensuring areas of heather at different stages of growth. Grouse are important because they are a game bird, and from August 12 until December people pay to shoot them. However a well-managed moor also benefits other wildlife including curlew, lapwing, golden plover, and merlin.

Closer to home, you might have glimpsed a sudden movement in the garden. No, it’s not fairies. It’s something more down to earth.

This is the time of year when young frogs and toads leave their ponds. They go to hide among long grass in ditches, fields, and gardens, where they gorge on small slugs and insects until winter sets in. So leave the strimmer in the shed. And please, no slug pellets.

St Bart

August 24 is St Bartholomew’s Day, said to dry up St Swithin’s tears. When the notorious day is dry as it was this year, then this applies: “If Bartlemy’s Day be fine and clear, hope for a prosperous autumn that year.”

Campers note: “St Bartholomew brings the cold dew.” And as the patron of beekeepers, his feast day marks the start of the honey harvest.

An old Bartholomew-linked custom takes place at West Witton, near Leyburn. There, they Burn Owd Bartle, a scary, larger-than-life effigy with flashing eyes. According to legend, Bartle was a sheep thief. But as the local church is dedicated to the saint, there’s probably some connection there. To date, nobody has discovered how this custom began.