The weather over the last week or so may have made it seem like winter, but I am not ready to concede to “winter” just yet. Autumn is still here - if I say it enough perhaps the weather may come to agree!
I had reason to travel to Aboyne and left home in rain and mist, but by the time I was halfway there, the sun had come out - the lovely glowing early morning sun that autumn sometimes provides. Where the sun caught individual trees decked out in their autumnal coats, the colours were truly eye-catching and huge banks of trees growing up the hillsides and along the river had subtle variations of coppery russets, golds, banana yellow and rich blood orange red running through them like paint splashes thrown among the branches and leaves.
Every year, depending on whether the weather is wet, dry, cold or warm and at what times these occur, and of course many other elements, some of which we know about and others that seem random to us, there are plants and trees that do exceedingly well, and others that seem not to flourish. This year, our large horse chestnut tree has produced very few “conkers” - the schoolchildren will be disappinted! Some years, there are so many that they almost totally cover leaf-littered ground. I seem to remember that the weather was poor when the blossom was on the tree and so the pollinating insects were perhaps not out and about foraging as much. A lot of the blossom was also blown off the tree. I distinctly remember watching the petals blowing down like snowflakes and landing on the grass - a reminder of the winter past.
The rowan is one of my favourite trees - very Scottish, I feel, and it reminds me of my childhood home, where the woods and moorland had lots of them dotted around and both my grandmother and my father used to take me out to gather them for making jelly and wine. I suspect they had a hidden agenda, as I was often given a leg up to climb the tree and reach the higher berries which I dropped down to them - why is it that the best berries are always out of reach? If you want to plant a tree in your garden for wildlife and year round interest, a rowan is a good choice, providing spring blossom, pretty and good for insects, delicate leaves, colourful autumn berries for the birds and rich autumn foliage colour. You can get ones with different coloured berries, from scarlet red through deep orange and pale yellow to a milky almost white. This year, the wild rowans are once again laden with berries and if you can find a group of them, (or indeed a single tree can be enough) they are a great attraction for birds of all kinds, and so a good place to birdwatch. I did exactly that on one of the few dry spells recently. What had drawn my attention to the tree was the shaking of the branches as the birds plucked at the berries.
At first, I thought that there were only a few blackbirds in the little group of five or so rowan trees, pulling the berries of individually and with a very neat action swallowing them whole, but as I stopped and looked more closely, there were quite a few smaller birds among the postbox red berries. There were the usual suspects; finches of various kinds including a pair of goldfinches; tits, mainly coal and blue, performing acrobatics to get at the little insects hidden among the leaves and bunches of fruits. There was also a wren, more timid in character than the other birds and keeping to the smaller saplings and hunting among the coarse grass and brambley tangle around the base of the trees. He too was on the lookout for spiders and small insects, using his needle-like fine beak as a precision tool to pick them off.
Through the binoculars, across the other side of the river I could see redwings in another group of larger rowan trees, but they were too distant to get a good look. I spent some time trying though, peering through the binoculars, frustrated at my bad view. Lowering the binoculars, I glanced back at the small group of trees that I had originally been watching, to see that there were now about ten redwings feeding alongside the blackbirds. I had been so intent on the far away birds, that I hadn’t twigged (if you will pardon the pun!) that some had appeared right under my nose. So, I got my good view after all.
As I watched them, I saw berries were falling all over the place - fieldfares and redwings seem to be very active, messy eaters, wrenching at the clusters of berries and dislodging others in the process. They of course will not go to waste, as smaller birds, and mammals such as wood mice will soon hoover them up. I remember the large flock of fieldfares that descended on my garden a few years ago, to attack the windfall apples, and attack is the correct word - pieces of apple flew in all directions. They were a noisy, bickering bunch and when they left, the garden look like each apple had exploded, leaving bits scattered everywhere.
When I look at rowan berries, I always wonder if it is going to be a waxwing winter. These exotic-looking birds with their colourful wings, bandit masks and jaunty crests are a real delight and can cheer up even the gloomiest of winter days.
The geese are back in numbers and morning and evening, long, waving scarves of them pass over my house, honking all the time. They have favourite feeding areas, from fields on the Deeside road, around Turriff, Oldmeldrum and Inverurie, to further north, heading towards the Moray cost. Among the pinkfeet and greylags, look out for oddities and rarities, such as white fronted geese (similar to the greylag, but with a large patch of white around its beak, as the name suggests, and broad black barring across its belly) or a snow goose - you hardly need to be Sherlock to guess the colour of that one - with a pinkish beak and black wingtips, which are particularly visible when in flight.
Despite the fact that it is the prelude to winter, or in the case of the last weeks, an imitation of it, I do like the autumn.