Enjoying the fine days before the frost

IT’S a beautiful day.

The sun is shining and there are just a few streaks of white cloud high in the sky. I really want to get this article finished so I can get outside and enjoy it.

There is a new urgency about enjoying a fine day because there are many countryside hints that the summer is over and autumn has sneaked up on us once again. The days are warm but there is a sharp cold at night. It hasn’t happened yet, but I know that some morning soon I’m going to find the leaves on the courgette plants in the vegetable garden blackened by a night frost.

And now, once August is over, it seems much more obvious that the nights are getting longer. I’m not sure there’s any astronomical reason for this. My memory is that the whole thing is rather complicated – in the autumn the nights don’t lengthen and the daylight hours reduce at a steady rate. But is there an acceleration of the process in September or is it just a subjective feeling that the year is hurrying towards an end?

There are other signs. Yesterday I was driving along a road lined with beech trees and I spotted a hint of yellow in the uppermost leaves. I brought my boat back from the Shannon into the Grand Canal and noticed the reed beds were also beginning to turn golden brown.

There were still swallows hawking over the canal and delicately picking floating insects off the surface of the water with their lower beaks. But they were also congregating on telephone wires and even on the rails of moored boats, chattering rapidly to each other. This is a sure sign that they’re preparing to migrate.

It has been a good summer for butterflies and they’re still about in large numbers, sipping nectar from autumn-flowering plants and basking in the sunshine. But I notice a change in their behaviour too. Increasingly the females are abandoning the nectar plants and hovering excitedly over different plants – the ones on which they’ll lay the eggs which will feed their last brood of caterpillars this season.

There were clouds of small whites over the cabbage patch in front of the village post office and lots of small tortoiseshells in a clump of nettles in my field.

I had a pint on the smoking terrace outside a pub and the wasps were a torment. The publican half-filled a glass with a sweet, sticky orange drink and put it at the far end of the terrace to lure them away. Half a dozen of them drowned in the glass in the space of an hour. As the year winds down wasps become obsessed by the need to consume sugars – fructose from windfall fruit, sucrose from fizzy drinks or even the sweet gum exuding from a damaged cherry tree in my orchard. You can’t blame them. The winter survival of their colony is dependent on high-energy foods.

The autumn sun is ripening a good crop of blackberries in the hedgerows and this is going to be an excellent year for sloes. I’ll start collecting blackberries in the next few days because I have a passion for blackberry and apple pie. But the sloes to make sloe gin for Christmas will be left until a couple of good hard frosts have sweetened them up.

I’ve had no wild mushrooms this year because I’ve been too busy, or too lazy, to go searching for them. Now I think it might be too late. The night temperatures are a bit low for a good flush of field mushrooms and there hasn’t really been enough rain.

* dick.warner@examiner.ie


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