The silent work of summer

A jay

A jay - Credit: Archant

Moving from July to August, it is always with a slight tinge of sadness that I note the almost abrupt end of spring’s vibrancy and the silencing of birdsong. It’s as if the birds have vanished or hidden.

A squirrel's hazelnut feast

A squirrel's hazelnut feast - Credit: Archant

Gone is the strident song of the song thrush and the rich warbling of the blackcaps and in its place a silence, ruffled only by a gentle breeze that cools the heat haze or threatens storms ahead.  Just occasionally you may hear a woodpigeon purring in lazy contentment now its squabs have flown or newly fledged birds squeaking from the undergrowth, still holding out for parent-found food.  But by and large, a quietness has descended on the land as if nature has spent herself, and you can find no quieter place than in the woods.

Recently, I have been walking our dog through Bricket Wood Common and the surrounding countryside. Today, I pause to listen, and in the stillness of that ancient woodland you can almost hear a pin drop! It’s as if the trees are holding their breath: the hush is deafening and in the dark shade nothing stirs. Then, the sudden squawk of a young jay makes me start and reassures me that life is still out there, but just going about its business on tip-toe, under a thick blanket of silence. Hanging in the still air, the over-powering stench of fox helps explain the jay’s concern. Known as the ‘watchdog of the forest’ jays are a very good indicator of a fox’s presence with their incessant and coarse, rasping cries whenever danger threatens.

In the shady silence under ripening acorns, the young jays are preparing to go about their work of centuries, planting thousands of acorns in autumn, in squirrel-like fashion, and making a mental note of their whereabouts. Of course, thankfully, some of these mental notes get misplaced and the very existence and continued growth of Bricket Wood’s woodland may well be due largely to the diligent planting work of the jays. Studies have shown that a single jay can bury as many as 5,000 acorns in one season!

It is not just the jays that are hard at work, searching for food, maybe even stored from the previous winter, but most creatures at this time of year, put their heads down and concentrate on the search for food and this may help explain the relative silence. The need to breed has been replaced with the need to feed. Growing flocks of swifts, swallows and house martins swarm to harvest the aerial plankton before journeying south while migrant chiffchaffs and willow warblers pick their way quietly through the scrub, only occasionally giving themselves away with a subdued warble or ‘chiff-chaffed’ note.

This natural urgency passes most of us by for we have extricated ourselves, in the main, from the land and its seasonal constraints. While all of nature scurries about to collect the ripening harvest we, save perhaps the farmers, head off to sun ourselves and relax, free from the consciousness of an impending winter. Maybe, however, as we sit in traffic jams in France on the “Black Saturdays” of les jours de grand departs – the annual exodus of French and English people to holiday destinations – we feel a little bit of that original urgency to make the most of the summer before its all over!

We’re not alone in our sun-seeking urges. The shaded darkness of the path through Bricket Wood is broken suddenly by a sun-drenched glade and dancing over the greenery are nature’s greatest sun-worshippers: butterflies! Dancing in silent loops and constant fluttering, these tiny ephemeral beings somehow keep the vibrancy of spring in mind. They themselves, enjoying a kind of post-pupal after-life, offer a delicate and beautiful promise of another spring to come and hope beyond the dark days of winter. Their graceful presence makes the silence of the woods less foreboding and instead reminds me of the purposeful and progressive march of the seasons, each with its own definition and reward.

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For now, the woodland may have fallen silent but don’t be deceived into mistaking this for the quietness of inactivity! Beneath the shroud of quietude work goes on apace to gather and to store. ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ is the order of the day for all nature’s citizens so don’t be surprised if they don’t waste their breath and energy on shouting about it!

For more information on Bricket Wood Common click here.