Why the fall is a high point

Ah, September! The TV weather forecaster utters the magic words: “Tomorrow is the first day of meteorological autumn”, and I dance a jig.

Well, I would if I could, but I can’t dance a jig or anything else, for that matter, but I am dancing on the inside.

The first day of autumn exhales with a berry-breath and all nature catches the scent. It is always the air that announces the change. It sharpens, cools, and gently startles.

The light yellows, a yellow that deepens as the season settles into its stride. The last day of summer was not like this. It had felt old, done, defeated; it was a frayed-at-the-edges, sleepwalking-towards-the-abyss, hollow-in-the-middle, holed-below-the-waterline summer. Good riddance.

But autumn heralds the first stirrings of rebirth. The forest thickens the land with limitless tons of bits and pieces of trees, the fall. The earth is hungry for these, for they break down into food. All spring, all summer, it has been thrusting life upwards and outwards, and by the last day of summer, it is weary.

Autumn is the earth’s reviver and replenisher; the first day of autumn is the new beginning of everything and the last day of autumn is the beginning of next spring. Autumn is the indispensable fulcrum of nature’s year.

The first day of autumn calls for celebration. I decided to climb my friendly neighbourhood hill by its sunny side, not least because there were few opportunities this summer to climb anything by its sunny side.

Also, the day job lures me to this side of the hill often because the low woods and the high crags have been home to who knows how many generations of sparrowhawk (a tall fir at the foot of the hill), kestrel (a rock ledge atop a small buttress halfway up and overhung by a dense shield of whins), raven (a blatant pile of sticks on a gully ledge), buzzard (a bulky ash just out of sight beyond a curve in the crags), and peregrine (a small rock ledge high on the highest crag, overhung and deeply shadowed).

These are the perfect conditions for the job in hand, which is the prospect of watching the offspring of some of the best fliers in the business honing their craft, and the sun at my back and illuminating the fliers simply makes the watching all the easier, all the more vivid.

The first to show was the hawk but it was the adult female that leaped out from a high perch among the wood’s tallest trees. She crossed the hillside at a fast speed, climbing diagonally until she was leaning out between the top of the screes and the base of the crags, and there she began to circle.

And as she circled, she climbed, each circuit lifting her above the next terrace and the next. Her gait was an easy, loitering one, for she was letting the thermals do the work.

I sometimes think I know this hill well, and I suppose I do by human standards, for I have climbed and loitered here for about 40 years. Yet watching the hawk, it occurred to me that I know nothing at all about the hill’s airspaces, about how winds and warm currents interact with crag and gully and buttress and terrace.

I cannot read the air the way a circling hawk does, or a hovering kestrel, or a buzzard soaring hundreds of feet in no time at all, or a raven clowning upside-down in level flight.

My train of thought was interrupted by a new bird shape just below the skyline where I would normally expect to see peregrine. But this was no falcon.

It was working its way along the crag with its wings held wide and straight and still, and the primary feathers of the wingtips were splayed open, and in my binoculars they were the size of paddles, and in the sunlight it drifted just ahead of and just above its own stupendous shadow, which was thrown on to the crags.

Quite suddenly, it was not alone, rather it trailed a squawking, wailing retinue of lesser fowl, and these included three ravens, a small cloud of house martins, two buzzards and a thrush. A kestrel fell towards its head, and it might as well have been a wren for all the impact it would have made there, but discretion overcame its valour.

I had never seen a white-tailed eagle within miles of this hill before, but they are reaching out into more and more corners of the land with every passing year, and the long-established hierarchy and pecking order of the hillside had just been shaken up beyond anything it could have imagined.

We, the birds of the sunny side of the hill and I, will not soon forget the first day of autumn, 2017.