One of the traditional sights in the countryside is of a tractor pulling a plough across a field with flocks of gulls following it, dropping down to pick up insects, worms and leatherjackets. In recent years, many other birds have gotten wise to this source of nutrition - every turn of the plough brings new food to the surface. Rooks and crows, smaller birds such as wagtails and even buzzards now appear whenever a field is being turned over.
With the weather at last remaining reasonable for a time and a good, drying wind, the combine harvesters have been out in force. Coming back from Aboyne late one evening a few weeks ago, the darkness was split by the lights of working combines and tractors, taking advantage by working well into, and in some cases right through, the night. Some of our most secretive creatures were out and about and the attraction was the combine. I noticed that every time I passed one that was working, there were lots of pipistrelle bats zipping across the headlights. The activity of the harvesting was stirring up the insects and the bats were right in there to hoover them up. Soon they will be hibernating and this amount of food must have been a bonus to them.
Last week, I was also watching two combines work their way across a large field and the day shift of insect eaters had taken over. It was early evening and after a sunny day, the failing light was warm coloured, so the vehicles were surrounded by clouds of brilliantly golden dust. It really was very beautiful. Diving in and out of the cloud and following a bit behind and above the swathes of cut straw being left were huge flocks of swallows and sand martins. They too had obviously cottoned on to the fact that the combine and the tractors were disturbing the many insects from among the crop and they were taking full advantage. They swooped and zoomed around, turning quickly to snatch the insects, and even above the sound of the working combine, I could hear their high pitched chirruping. Like the bats, this feast will really help fatten them, not for hibernation but for their impending migration back to Africa.
The migrants are starting to gather. On a sloping tiled roof facing the sun, I saw over thirty swallows sitting, soaking up the heat, while more flew around excitedly, landing and taking off, sitting gossiping on the nearby fence wires and telephone lines, as though not knowing what to do with themselves - something was up, but they weren’t quite sure what!
Twice in the last week I have been totally taken aback by the amount of bloom on the heather this year. Driving to Aboyne, just outside Dinnet, the blossom was so thick that there was no green visible, just a sea of the most wonderful lilac pink and magenta purple. It was a still, sunny, early evening and I could not resist stopping to admire it and also to take in the rich, honeyed scent which hung in the air accompanied by the buzzing of bees, busy among the flowers. The white of the birch trunks was so beautiful against this floral backdrop too.
A week later I was driving over Cairn o’ Mount, where whole hillsides were transformed from their summer robes of green and brown to their autumnal clothing of purples and lilac pinks. It is a joyous sight and even the distant hills were a warm haze of rosy purple in the morning sunrise. On a stop, I was pleased to spot the woolly, egg-shaped cocoon of an emperor moth sitting neatly in a fork in a heather stem.
On this particular day too, the sky was simply stupendous. So much so, that I simply could not stop looking at it. Just as well I was not driving! It was a jumble of lots of different types of cloud set against the most brilliant of blue skies. Reverting to my childhood pastime of cloudspotting, I watched polar ice flows drift alongside dusty desert storms and idyllic tropical seas with waves crashing onto bleached shores of palms. Chinese dragons turned into ice cream cones that morphed into the face of Winnie the Pooh. The mackerel sky lived up to its name, looking exactly like the ripples on the side of the fish. I am always amazed how patterns in nature repeat themselves; high cloud formations; the side of a fish pulled from the sea; stripes on a tiger in a forest; ripples in water or on a sandy beach, ridges between the veins on a lime leaf; the patterns the wind makes when blowing over a field of long grass or barley. Time and again, I see shapes and patterns on one thing and it makes me think of something else entirely. Try it - it is quite an interesting exercise and a really good game for children on a long journey.
I have noticed that there are a lot of pied wagtails about. Maybe there are no more than normal and for some reason I am just seeing more of them, but I counted over 22 on small football pitch in a park. Hyper active as ever, tails and heads constantly bobbing, all walking purposefully around, suddenly accelerating into a “roadrunner” type sprint in order to catch a fly rising from the grass, or sometimes launching themselves into the air in a quick flutter of wings to reach one that they had nearly missed,. It made me tired just to watch them. They are delicate, attractive, dapper little birds and I enjoyed watching their activities for some time.
The milder turn also brought out a few more butterflies and last week I was on the west coast for aday or two, walking on the Cowal peninsula, which is a really good place for a coastal ramble around. Walking along the coast, in the rough, boggy areas at the foot of the steep damp coastal woodland, the large patches of yellow, starry-flowered, bog asphodel and lilac scabious were attracting small heaths, large whites and a couple of peacocks. However, the stars of the show were a couple of speckled woods resting in the sunshine on a large vicious-looking patch of brambles. They were mid brown in colour, with a lovely sprinkling of dark and buff markings. I was pleased to see them, as they are not very common in Scotland.
Even before the leaves change and the winter migrants start arriving, there is plenty of glorious colour to be seen and activity to watch in September - don’t you just love that changeover period in the seasons?