Early November has become special to me. It may well be autumn past its birding best, but there are plenty of opportunities to seek and find, plus experiences to be had that mix the ornithological with the spiritual - something that other times of the year just cannot replicate.
Yesterday afternoon found me sitting on the top of a valley at Headley Heath. My views were directly westward, looking straight at the setting sun, a yellow ball ladling out a watery golden light, its weak warmth just winning over the still chillness of a calm day. As I peeled off a couple of layers and luxuriated - even bathed - in this November ‘heat', I couldn’t help but feel very pleased with things. For the next few hours, all things Covid, Brexit and Trump were banished, and my quest to count birds coming into roost was in the ascendency.
My vantage point allowed me to see across two steep-sided valleys, lightly wooded on their sides but clear at both their bases and tops. Anything that flew over, or along, these valleys were observable. I have been coming to this very spot for a number of years now, always ensuring that an early-to-mid November visit, as the daylight fades, is made. For it is here that thrushes and finches come to roost. It is never the same and never, ever, dull. It has become a sanctuary, a place to reflect on things and one where the sheer joy of being outside, surveying a scene of beauty before me, can be celebrated.
This is a bittersweet time of the year. If we are enjoying a benign, sunny day then those of us with the time to ‘stand and stare’ will recognise a feeling of sedation, as if the year is being placed in a comforting state of slumber. November recognises that it is not October, but will not give up to December without a struggle. The leaf colour is still vibrant, the weather can still be clement and this can fool the natural world (that includes us) into believing that winter is still a lifetime away. With this slow descent into a life of dull mornings and dark afternoons comes the gift of reflection, if not full-on nostalgia. Are we starting to mourn the loss of summer? Are we lamenting the arrival of the cold? Does this sapping of vibrancy in all its guises cause us to look at ourselves - yet another year older - and start to come to terms with that fact?
Spring looks forward and, as its polar opposite, autumn looks back. It looks back as one might view a town from a departing railway carriage, or of waving relatives in the rear-view mirror of a car. You hope that you will see them again, that the parting is one that will turn full-circle and become a return visit or greeting. I’m shaken out of my thoughts by voices across the valley, a group of walkers whose every word I can hear although they are hundreds of metres away. The air is still, the pale blue sky brittle and the plaintive calls of birds overhead add to the feeling of a season in its death-throes. Strangely, such feelings are energising, as if in readiness for winter, as that season, too, has its own special powers. On the slope directly opposite me a Silver Birch tree is harnessing the sunlight and radiating it back out in an ethereal glory via the medium of leaf colour. It positively glows and flames, on fire with defiance of the leaf-fall that will soon inevitably occur. It is mesmerising. The haze dissipates the colour, blurs the edges and creates the supernatural. From such sights myths were created.
As I continue to watch the skies the number of small passerines that are travelling across the valleys is considerable. Most are too high for specific identification or for their calls to reach me, but any that venture to a lower altitude appear to be Chaffinch, Linnet, Greenfinch and Goldfinch, with very few Redpoll also involved. One brute of a finch comes into view, and even before it alights onto a treetop I’m celebrating the arrival of a Hawfinch. It stays there, several hundred meters away, for 10-15 minutes before dropping down and out of sight, but is soon replaced by a flock of seven, which land away from my sight-line. These eight become 10 with two birds that put on a show as they circle the valleys before deciding to head off northwards.
A roost of thrushes has formed here over the past few autumns, and, after the end of October and through to November’s end, can number four figures. Redwings start to arrive this afternoon just as the sun dips beneath the far ridge, and ghost in with small flocks over the following hour. As the light bleeds from the day it gets harder to pick them out against the blanket of vegetation, and so I revert to looking above me and into the glorious sky, now having swapped the daytime blue for a confection of apricot, tobacco and gold. When these colours fade to violets and purples I know it is time to leave, as my eyes are hard-pressed to observe any birds in this most evocative of skies.
One last look though across the valley. Now quiet. Darkness has more or less descended. A few calls make their way across to me - a scolding blackbird, a late-to-bed Redwing. And I can still make out the dying embers of that Silver Birch. An analogy, maybe for the dying season. As I leave the heath my thoughts are not so much about the enjoyable birding, but more involved in our deep-seated relationship with the changing season, of leaving behind the fruits of autumn and swapping them for the austerity of winter. Yet there is no foreboding involved, but rather a pleasure in being able to appreciate the turning of time's circle. All has been well for these past few hours.