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Mist and Mystic

I like autumn! For me it is the season I look forward to each year with undisguised anticipation. It is a time of reflection, most of our summer migrants have departed and we eagerly await the winter visitor’s arrival. I will not deny that there is a special charm about the green innocence of spring, the first hum of insect wings and the fervent call of the birds. But autumn with its bronze and golden canopies, dewy mists hanging over lochs and late butterflies drinking the last of the season’s nectar, and the evening hooting of an owl under a ‘poacher’s moon’ are irresistible. Perhaps as I grow older I begin to see in earth’s slow decline echoes of myself.

It is in the woodlands that the dying year shows itself most clearly, the appearance of delicate chanterelle mushrooms, the unmistakeable reek of the stink-horn and the detectable smell of damp and decay. I often walk the dog through the Highland forests, in empty silence. On another day, in these dense canopies of tall pines, I suddenly encounter a nomadic party of tits, tree-creepers and goldcrests as they drift through the forest foraging food. Soft wheezy contact calls and harsher scolding notes once revealed their presence, sadly today they are barely audible to an ageing ear!

Autumn is the season of fruitful abundance and its common behaviour for some wildlife to create reserves of food, this behaviour is known as ‘caching’. Coal tits prefer to cache food in particularly small, well-hidden places to reduce the likelihood of great tits stealing their reserves. Nuthatches will maintain their territories during winter in order to defend their caches, and the clamour of jays resonate through deciduous woods has they collect thousands of acorns. By the time that temperatures fall and the days shorten, many of the wood’s insects will have completed their life cycles and are preparing to survive winter, some as hibernating adults, others in the form of eggs or pupae. As insects become harder to find most insect-eating birds will have migrated to warmer climates although some, the robin and dunnock for example remain, benefiting from reduced competition for the limited food available.

I live among the Cairngorm Mountains where in autumn the golden birch trees and bottle-green pines stand and reflect a graceful presence in the still black waters of the lochs. Red deer stags roar their hoarse challenges from the high glens and deep in the pine forests, carpeted in lush stands of bilberry, capercaillies go about their secretive habits. The cadences sound of willow warbler and the ecstasies of pipits and buntings now silent. Flights of grey geese begin to fill the mountain air with deep resonant music – the supremely wild voices of this land of mountain, loch and sky. Each year, the wild geese come back to Britain and each year my heart is stirred and my spirits uplifted by their arrival. For over 50 years I have watched the skeins of geese coming from the north to feed on the stubbles and root fields of our arable lands. I rejoice at seeing the snow-white whooper swans arriving from Iceland to winter on our local loch, and their trumpet voluntaries bring a new dimension to the countryside. Who could resist the magic and music of the wildfowl autumn?

This image of an idyllic autumn can often end abruptly by early frosts and strong winds, the woods become stark and the sound of rustling leaves beneath your feet drown the thin winter song of a robin. Leaves of deciduous trees fall like confetti and begin to decay, they are returned to the soil by worms and other invertebrates, fungi and bacteria. Many fungi produce their fruiting bodies in autumn, which appear as puff balls, toadstools and mushrooms, each capable of releasing millions of tiny spores from which new fungi may grow.

Frosty mornings, long walks, a welcoming log fire burning in an open hearth and the inviting aroma of hot chocolate on returning home. With such prospects to delight and enthral, why should I regret the coming of autumn?

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