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6 October 2021

From the NS archive: The end of summer

18 August 1928: Even though the joys of summer are passing, the change to autumn brings new pleasures.

By WM Crook

In this evocative study of the changing seasons, WM Crook stands on the balcony of his home close to the South Downs. From it he hears the song of three birds: the robin, the wren and the yellowhammer. “Other birds still make music of sorts,” he explains, “though one can hardly describe their music as song.” He watches a flight of missel thrushes going northwards, flocking but not yet migrating. They are raiding Crook’s rowan trees, stripping them of their berries. “The birds are very wasteful feeders,” he observes, “scattering far more than they eat, so that the ground be bright with fallen fruit.” These experiences remind him of previous times at which he has watched missel-thrushes in flight – a wet day in Switzerland, a warmer day on Leith Hill, and an autumn evening in the Dolomites. Summer may be on its way out, he observes, but, “To the lover of nature, all seasons have their charms and the greatest charm is change.”

***

When the silence of July is beginning to fade into the coming of autumn, some of the birds, their domestic duties over, resume their song. Three species in our neighbourhood are now singing regularly – the robin, the wren and the yellowhammer. Other birds still make music of sorts, though one can hardly describe their music as song. The screech of the swift is still to be heard, a sound which always recalls hot summer days. The turtle dove still “purrs” in the high pines and the martins are twittering everywhere in the air. But of song, in the proper sense, there is comparatively little.

Yet of bird life there is on all sides abundance. Just outside the tool house we have allowed a tall thistle to grow for the express purpose of attracting goldfinches. Working inside the tool house I hear a sweet note and turning my eyes without moving my body I see within three or four feet of me a cock goldfinch, resplendent with crimson crown and yellow-barred wings, perched among the purple flower heads, picking out such seeds as are already ripe among the bloom on this nearly-six-foot-high thistle.

On the posts of the bull-fence and, indeed, on every projecting point of vantage, including the tombstones in the village churchyard, pairs of spotted flycatchers with their young are skilfully hawking for their living. Surely they are the most silent of all our birds, rarely uttering their tiny note. On the same fence a turtle dove perches after sailing slowly down from its lofty nest in an eighty-foot high larch, its white-edged tail outspread, fanlike, as it alights. Two more of its species are down in the sloping pasture land below the cottage.

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As I stand on the balcony, looking southward over the weald, watching showers and sunshine making rapidly changing effects of light and darkness, now blotting out the South Downs in a curtain of grey mist, now revealing every fold on their northern face in the illumination of the afternoon sun, my attention is attracted to a flight of rather large birds, going northwards. They are missel thrushes, mostly young birds, looking lighter in colour in their greys and browns than do their maturer elders. The young birds of the season are beginning to flock, but I wonder at their northward flight. Presently some of them return – there were about forty of them altogether, and the sudden thought strikes me, they are flocking, but not yet migrating; they are probably raiding our rowan trees, which lie to the north of the cottage. On going round where I could see the rowans, I find the latter conjecture was correct. The trees are full of birds – missel-thrushes, song-thrushes, blackbirds and starlings – all feasting on the luscious tomato-coloured fruit, which the birds dearly love. The rowan-trees are stripped of berries before any others, except perhaps cherry trees. The birds are very wasteful feeders, scattering far more than they eat, so that the ground be bright with fallen fruit.

The second brood of young martins has just left the nest, but soon tiring in the air, the young birds return frequently to their mud cabin to rest. One of them somehow missed its way and flew through the door opening on to the balcony into the hall or landing, and fell on the covering-lid of the coal-box. It twittered plaintively, but when I went to its rescue, it had fluttered on to the floor. However, it was quite uninjured and able to rise from the ground and fly out through the door and was soon disporting itself in the upper air.

Young great tits are again paying occasional visits to their coconuts which they had deserted for some weeks, and the pines are full of the faint music of flocks of blue tits and gold crests, frequently intermingled with willow-warblers. Now and again a young greenfinch perches on the bull-fence or descends thence into the grass searching for the abundant insect food. Sometimes a small flock of linnets flies across the sky and once at least a cock bird, his breast still resplendent with crimson, lighted on the fence and sang through his sweet song.

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The rough places are ablaze with the purple of rosebay willowherb which has come up in enormous quantities this year. The more meadow-like grass is blue with graceful harebells, varied with the dark purple heads of knapweed and the bright yellow of bird’s foot trefoil. Here and there a late spike of foxglove lingers or a stray head of crimson ragged robin. Butterflies seemed rather scarce this year, though a beautiful small copper, spreading its wings in the sun, now and then delights the eye, a gorgeous little thing in perfect plumage.

Even though the joys of summer are passing, the change to autumn brings new pleasures. The flocking of the missel-thrushes recalls from the recesses of the memory a soaking, but delightful day on the Fafner Alp, where, lying on the floor of a dry barn, wrapped in my mackintosh and armed with my glasses, I became suddenly aware of a host of these thrushes filling the pine woods, coming apparently from nowhere; or a similar experience in a dense, warm, English mist on the summit of Leith Hill, or an autumn evening at Tre Croci in the Dolomites. To the lover of nature, all seasons have their charms and the greatest charm is change.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).