Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Welcome signs that winter's on its way

A A A

If we greet the bringers of spring with elation, should we greet the bringers of autumn with gloom? Logically, I suppose we should. But we don't seem to and I wonder why this is. Anyone close to the countryside knows the delight of hearing the first chiffchaff singing in March, having returned from the Mediterranean, and then the first willow warbler a little later; and even more, the pleasure of seeing the first swallow in April, just back from South Africa. The intensity of our welcome of these migrant birds is in large measure a seasonal one: they are signalling the great change in the calendar, the shift from warm to cold, from dark to light, and even more, the move in the natural world from death to rebirth. No wonder the first sound and sight of them make many hearts skip a beat.

Yet there is a reverse migration, the mirror-image of the spring one, which people are much less familiar with, and which is in full swing right now. This is the journey here of birds from northern countries which are colder than ours, birds which find wintry Britain not a bad place to be, all things considered. It is led by two thrushes which breed in Scandinavia, redwings and fieldfares, and as you read this they are pouring into Britain in their thousands, having flown the 500 miles across the North Sea, often in the dark.

You can see it happening, or at least you can see a visualisation of it happening, if you log on to the BirdTrack website of the British Trust for Ornithology, where the observations of a network of several thousand human observers are put online every week and represented on a map of Britain as red dots: you can watch an animated weekly progression of dots covering the country as the migrants flood in. With redwings, for example, there was nothing at all up to the weekend of 11 September, but by the weekend of 18 September there were four dots on the map, one in the Thames Valley, one in north Norfolk and two in the South Pennines – scattered early arrivals. This had moved up to eight dots by the weekend of 25 September, and by last weekend, 2 October, there were more than 75; by this weekend, the figure will have exploded and the redwing map of Britain will look like a case of chickenpox.

To see the birds themselves, charming smaller versions of a song thrush with orange flanks and a yellow eye-stripe, you have to get out into the countryside, as they do come into gardens, but not until they've had all the berries of the hedges and the really icy weather sets in. In towns, experienced birders can hear them as the flocks fly overhead at night, since they utter a characteristic seeip! call: a birding friend of mine told me this week he heard an unmistakeable redwing in the dark overhead between parking his car outside the house and reaching the front door.

But he was pleased. And the point I'm making is, doesn't anyone ever groan? Doesn't anyone ever go: "Oh gawd, there's the first redwing, winter will be here any minute, sodden grey mornings, endless dark evenings, doses of flu, huge electricity bills, old people slipping on the ice and dying of hypothermia?"

They don't seem to. Any more than they do when they see or hear the first fieldfares: grey-headed, slightly larger thrushes which will be here soon, too, or the first wild swans, the whoopers from Iceland and the Bewick's swans from Siberia, or the first skeins of wild geese, the white fronts, the pink feet, the brents and the barnacles from all round the Arctic which are heading here now for their winter break.

Even the birds whose arrival from Scandinavia signals the true cold, like the woodcocks and the great grey shrikes – about 150 of the latter end up with us each year, terrific things, hunting from solitary trees on lowland heaths – seem to generate pleasure in the observer rather than foreboding; though their arrival is the clearest of signs that the year is dying and the cold, wet, dead times are upon us.

Why? Why do we rejoice in the signs of spring and summer, without despairing at the signs of autumn and winter, even taking pleasure in them, as with the autumn foliage?

Maybe it's because the Earth's annual cycle is too embedded in our genes to protest at it deeply, even though we may curse it now on the surface. Doing away with winter is a new idea: central heating is about two human generations old. But having to live with it goes back, what, 20,000 generations? More?

Maybe also there is something in the nature of the natural world with an appeal to us which is not season-dependent. This means that the variation of the seasons carries its own fascination and excitement, even for the ones we celebrate with less ardour than the spring. That certainly works for me: I love the mist and tang of autumn; I look forward to snow. And maybe, ultimately, it tells us something about the essence of the natural world: that all of it is beautiful, not just the bits which happen to suit us best.

Read it in the stars

There are even grander signs of winter coming than the skeins of wild geese. A week ago I woke in the middle of the night and happened to glance out of the landing window: there, half-risen, was Orion, the greatest of all the constellations. Orion disappears (for British observers) in the summer, but now it is returning and it will be above our garden, blazing in the South-east, on freezing January evenings.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015