September: a month of great change and anticipation
Thursday 6th September 2012
© Kevin O'Hara
Well I am trying desperately not to mention the weather, our national past-time, but as Carole King sang 50 years ago (!) ‘It might as well rain until September’ and boy oh boy, it nearly did.
But I am sure everybody cheered at the many days throughout August where the weather certainly picked up, prompting a few late broods of swallows and such like. The warmer and more humid conditions also brought some respite from the appalling conditions of June and July, allowing birds to feed on the burgeoning insect population.
September is always a month of mellowing, often an Indian summer, and a time of great change, a beautiful time to see the changing colours along the river Wansbeck’s woodlands or in the upland where the last of the heathers turn a rustic red. Summer migrants gather, sometimes in quite large concentrations, for their southward evacuation and, towards the end of the month, the evocative calls from geese come floating in from the high arctic breeding grounds. A few early arrivals at first, but then skeen after skeen can be seen, or more often heard, at night winging their way to the wintering grounds along our coasts and inland marshes.
September always appears a warm month in more ways than one; changes in the amount of daylight signals a change in vegetation with the warming colours of autumn starting to shine through those ‘thin’ late September mornings; robins will constantly ‘tick’ in the undergrowth as they start to claim territories for next year early and there is usually a flux of late season butterflies such as red admirals and peacocks.
Down by the river, other creatures start to make an appearance as the river levels generally increase; migratory species such as salmon, sea trout and eels take advantage of this autumnal turnaround. Full moons, rising water levels and warm damp autumn evenings are the signal eels have been waiting for as they head downstream and out to sea to begin their marathon oceanic journey across the Atlantic to the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean, where they will eventually breed and die - this is a truly astounding example of aquatic survival and endurance that dwarfs the directionally opposite migration route of the salmon and the sea trout.
Salmon bring the longest route to the table as they arrive in greatest numbers to the region’s rivers in the autumn from as far north as Greenland. Sea trout are in some ways more interesting as they hug the coast of their natal rivers (rivers of their birth), feeding on the rich coastal food chain. From here they can decide whether to stay a ‘sea’ trout or become a ‘river’ trout again - it’s all very complicated, but it is known now that sea trout can make several journeys to the river of their birth throughout their lives, whilst at the same time, some may decide, “‘well, the river life is for me”, stay for a couple of years and then think “well actually, I quite liked it at sea” and migrate again. It’s all very complicated but at least there’s no threat of ‘Groundhog Day’. Look out for these leaping wonders on weirs and structures near Hexham and Chollerford on the Tyne, Warkworth and Pauperheugh on the Coquet.
Other things to keep a beady eye out for this autumn are seals, or more specifically, the grey seal; the common or harbour seal is not very common in our waters except near Teesside – there may be a few elsewhere but numbers would be very small.
As I write this at the end of August, seals are gathering for two reasons: firstly the abundance of salmonids that the autumn brings to coastal waters as they gather to run the rivers to spawn, which are an easy feast for them in the shallow coastal waters, but secondly, and more importantly, their breeding season is fast approaching.
Around Britain there is a clockwise cline in timing of pupping: September - October in the South West; October - November on the West Coast and Northern Scotland; and November to December in our area - the East Coast, although they will pup in October at times.
So it’s an impressive time to get out, weather permitting. Try and get to the Farne Islands to see their populations; if you can’t do that, keep an eye in the ports and estuaries of the region where their heads can often be seen poking above the waves - looking for all the world like a dark grey buoy, but then on closer examination, their characteristic ‘Roman’ nose gives them away as they sink beneath the waves.