It has come to pass in recent years that the autumn equinox and winter solstice each mark a holiday for me. In 2019 the equinox occurred as I was about to set off with my Passepartout on a Bothday journey to the north of Scotland. The winter solstice came by as the Yule festivities began. Between those two events, the world’s tilt pushes the Northern Hemisphere into ever longer nights and shorter days and nature adjusts. In this respect, nature includes me – I’ve never thought of me being anything but a mammal, so the effects of the seasons should, and do effect me personally.
Our northern journey gave me a clear view of the autumn passage. In spring, migratory birds move north to breed, but by August, our summer residents start to drift south in every increasing numbers. Swallows were very noticeable, even as far as John o’Groats, as they flew down from their most northerly breeding grounds. That they were joined over the Pentland Firth by red admiral butterflies was quite an eye opener. Yet, what the layman may not consider is the continuity of migration. Even further north, high in the tundra and coasts of Greenland, Iceland, Arctic islands and Siberia, other migrants moves south to Britain, where the weather is balmy, for them. Indeed, the Vikings settled our northern isles, then declared the Land to the South as rich and worth taking, hence Ben Hope (Beinn Hòb in Gaelic) – the “mountain of the bay”, become their navigation marker for Suðrland, our Sutherland – literally, “southern land”.
As we settled into our hut at Culkein Bay, we watched summer migrants moving south, including a late wheatear, whilst winter wanderers came through – bar-tailed godwits, knots, dunlin and a handful of redwings. Many of these were still wearing the vestiges of their breeding plumage, but once on the wintering grounds full winter raiment would be donned. Many geese, waders and passerines would stop near my home in West Sussex, but more would remain in Scotland and others continue south. Arctic terns fly to the Southern Hemisphere and have even been recorded in Australia!
Once home the winter creeps up. My commute goes from twilight to dark, the autumn passage grinds to a halt and the wintering dark-bellied brent geese settle into Chichester Harbour whilst their breeding grounds are covered in snow and cloaked in permanent darkness. A few hardy summer visitors have always clung on in the south of England where, if they survive, they have a head start on territorial migratory rivals. This winter I had a blackcap and chiffchaff in my garden – global warming will increase these numbers, no doubt.
My own journey to the solstice continued on foot. A late start to the year through illness meant my initial target of 1200 miles was improbable. Even though I managed a marathon in April, any aspirations to compete in the Race to the King 53 miler in June disappeared with further tendon injuries… So I was on catch up, revised my target to 1000 and ground out the miles. On December 7th I happily ran a 12 miler leaving me 81 miles to go. I was right on target. The following day my chest was sore and once more I was brought low. A debilitating virus knocked me off my feet, followed, just as Yule gave me time to run the remaining miles, by my first ever bout of shingles.
Denial gave way to acceptance, then to worry as I felt dreadful. So I ended the year on 919 miles with an ongoing life total of 37,737. As I left the solstice behind and 2020 started, I had recovered enough to jog 4 miles. This year I’m aiming for 1100 miles and I’m ahead of 2019 already. On 22nd January a minor virus tries to bring me down, but I think this is winter’s last hurrah. Imbolc beckons and the migration north will gently start. I will soon hear spring’s visitors in the hedgerows as I trot past and will watch the brents murmuring in their ever decreasing groups as they make final plans to fly back to the ice-free tundra.
My final nod to the retreating equinox was to remove all my nest boxes for a clean and paint, ably helped by my Passepartout. As we worked The Chaps, my delightful clan of marauding long-tailed tits, drifted through to grab a swift meal from my hanging fat log. They call “shri-shri-shri” to each other, a little cry of reassurance – “I’m here – I’m here – So am I!” is a rough translation.
Notwithstanding The Chaps, cleaning continued, with old horsehair-and-grass woven nests and slumbering parasites removed to give the birds a clean start. Refining and rearranging came next and, with a final flourish of a hammer, everything was done. However, one never-used box had been moved from a soon-to-be-replaced fence post. Every evening since a little blue tit has arrived at twilight, circling the place where his roosting box once was. That it is now on a nearby tree has not registered, but there are plenty of other places, so I admire its persistence, if not it’s bird-brain, and, feeling a little guilty, watch each eve as, after a few minutes the little waif finds lodgings elsewhere.