When does autumn actually begin?

A green sandpiper photographed by Rupert Evershed.

A green sandpiper photographed by Rupert Evershed. - Credit: Archant

When does autumn begin?

I know I am not alone in wondering exactly when autumn begins. Many times on social media this summer I have come across people asking the very same question. I can imagine it has followed on from a moment of resigned dismay – perhaps synonymous with living in Britain - at wind, rain and chill when it was meant to be summer!

Of course, the answer to the question is no great mystery albeit taking the form of two options: a meteorological one or an astronomical one. Generally it is the astronomical date that is taken as the start of autumn, a date around 22nd September when day and night are roughly equal: the autumn equinox.

For practical reasons, the 1st September is sometimes taken as the start of autumn – for instance by meteorologists – so that the seasons fit neatly into three month periods.

But this is not what is really at the heart of the question at hand. Instead it is a far more subjective matter about when autumn starts for you. The answer you give will be far more to do with your own feelings and observations, even memories and traditions, than the science of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

Maybe your autumn doesn’t start until late in October when leaves pile up and the air turns chill. For you the autumn is ‘the Fall’ with all its colours and glowing glory of fading foliage. Or maybe, it is the first damp day when moisture lingers beyond dawn and the sun seems to struggle to dry everything out - even though it’s August.

Was it maybe when the swifts left? I remember the day back in late July when suddenly the skies over my garden cleared of swifts. Their constant screaming acrobatics had gone and instead a few days later I espied a flock of several hundred moving as one, high across the skies. A new purpose had possessed them and like little iron filings they had aligned with some unseen magnetic field.

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There is a twinge of sadness in these moments, a sense of loss and that is maybe part of what autumn means to us. By the end of the first two weeks of July the songbirds have virtually fallen silent, the blackbirds’ soft meditations subsumed in the heat of summer and not to be heard again till next spring.

Conkers appear and toadstools push up in damp corners, the natural scene begins to shift once more.

The more time you spend out in nature the more evident the shifting seasons will be and perhaps that is why I have heard this question of autumn’s entrance being asked more this year than ever before. The truth about autumn is one that we’d perhaps prefer not to hear for, in the natural world, autumn follows spring not summer!

Summer is our own construct – our hoped-for season of holiday rest, of lazy days and carefree moments.

But in the natural world autumn has begun and perhaps we sense it instinctively too on those occasions when we wonder, “Has autumn arrived today?” Though this may come with a sense of sadness as we feel our summer slipping away there is no such melancholy in nature. Instead, change is apace, bringing new variety and interest if you know where to look!

I asked myself the same question recently and I know the answer: for me autumn began this year on 12th June (yes that early!), with the arrival of two small birds at the local gravel pits. Feeding quietly at the back of a shallow lagoon, two green sandpipers heralded the start of the great move south for winter involving millions of birds across Britain, Europe and beyond.

These little waders most likely bred in Finland and Russia and their arrival alerted me to the changing season, sharpening my senses to the likelihood of further new arrivals and drawing my attention to the myriad of subtle shifts. These little signs are there to be discovered and, come September, are declared, in aggregate and officially, to constitute a new season: autumn.