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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Halcyon days…

Posted on October 20 2008 at 2:15:22 0 comments

November frost

Mary Green hopes for a kingfisher sighting amid November’s frost and fog.

We did at last have some sunny days at the end of September, a good “Indian summer” at the start of October, and a very late harvest of both corn and grass, carried out night and day with the help of headlights.

The late cutting of grass may not be ideal for farmers, but it’s a better time for wildlife than the early summer cut. The mild weather has meant that the leaves haven’t turned colour very early, and quite well into October most of the trees were still green.

As often happens in years with cool wet summers, there have been autumn flowerings of things that should really flower on spring. This is more so of garden flowers, but I have also seen violets and cowslips in flower in the wild, as well as a lot of naturalised rhododendron.

November is never sure whether it is the end of autumn or the beginning of winter. There is usually a mixture of mild weather, fog, frost, sun and rain. Two out of the last three years we have also had snow in November, and often there has been severe frost with ice on the canal.

At the beginning of the month, the trees are generally still in beautiful leaf, especially the red-brown beeches, yellow hornbeams and birches, and the golden-brown oaks.

By the end of the month, the trees will probably be bare, though leaves may persist into December in mild years. But next year’s growth is there: catkins on the alder and hazel, sticky buds coming on the horse chestnut.

At some point in the month there will probably be a spell of quiet settled weather, sometimes with fog in the mornings. This is traditionally a good time to see the kingfisher, and I have often caught sight of it at this time of year.

That familiar electric blue flash followed by orange and, if you’re really lucky, a brief perch on a branch, always seems like a special present.

This type of calm weather also happens a bit later in the year, around the winter solstice, and is called the “halcyon days”. Halcyon days are defined as a time of peace and happiness, so many people associate them with something more like spring weather, but actually it comes from the old name for the kingfisher.

Legend had it that the halcyon, or kingfisher, made a nest and hatched her eggs on the water at this time of year, so the weather stayed clear and gentle for her. In reality, kingfishers nest by burrowing into the bank of a river, canal or other water. They live on fish which they are very efficient at catching.

There seems to be at least one pair nesting along the canal in our area, though of course on the non-towpath side. People have told me of seeing them along the Arrow, though I haven’t done so myself. It’s good, though, to think of halcyon days at the time of year when winter is coming on.

During mild days in November, there often seems to be an outbreak of birdsong during the daytime. Thrushes especially seem to like to sit on a tree and pour out their song, and you can hear blackbirds, pigeons, jays and rooks around.

Two relatives of the thrush may make their appearance during November if the weather is cold. They are fieldfares and redwings, winter visitors to these parts.

Both appear in flocks, unlike the more solitary thrushes, and settle where berries are plentiful. Redwings have a red flash on the flank and wing, while fieldfares are greyish above.

The other harbinger of winter which may appear at this time is flocks of lapwings on arable fields. Also called peewits because of their characteristic call, they flap and whirl in a very irregular way so you can recognise them by their flight too. 

Now that most of the flowers have gone, their seedheads remain and are often very attractive. Hogweed and water dropwort have beautifully sculptured flower heads, especially when decked with dew or frost and spiders’ webs.

Teasels are common round here and remain handsome throughout the winter. Perhaps the best is honesty, originally a garden plant but one well-naturalised round here. It has beautiful translucent silver round pods, the clarity of which probably explains its name.

While blackberries and elderberries have gone, hawthorn berries will still be beautifully red, until the fieldfares and redwings get them! Some wild flowers continue even in November; white dead nettle, groundsel, water forget-me-not, brilliant blue alkanet and dandelions among them.

Early in the month the fire festivals of late October are continued on Guy Fawkes’ Night with its bonfires, fireworks and often a previous night of “misrule” or “mischief” when children are allowed to be naughty.

Burning up hedge cuttings and cleared vegetation is a natural thing to do at this time of year, but this festival has remained surprisingly strong when the original “gunpowder plot” would otherwise have been forgotten.

In some parts of England there are huge celebrations with burning tar barrels and street processions. Effigies were burnt before the days of Guy Fawkes, so it seems likely that November the fifth has borrowed from other celebrations from more ancient times.

Later in the month is the American festival of Thanksgiving, a reminder of the plentiful harvest of vegetables and fruit and the traditional killing of poultry and meat before the winter sets in.

In England, St Martin’s Day or Martinmas (November 11) was the traditional day for killing cattle and sheep and salting down the meat for winter. It was therefore your last chance to eat fresh meat, especially offal and blood, so it was a great time for black puddings!

At the end of the month there is a lovely custom on the Sunday before Advent, when the church service includes a prayer starting with “Stir up we beseech thee O Lord…” This came to be the traditional day for starting to make Christmas puddings – “stir up Sunday”! By this time, preserved fruits have replaced fresh ones.

Next month, I will look at the ways the natural world is reflected in Christmas traditions.

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago, and have continued to be lucky with my sightings of the kingfisher . . .


There’s a name for this time
I’ve only just found it –
Sixty years of halcyon days
Without a name to them

Two weeks straddling the solstice
The belief was the kingfisher laid
And brooded her eggs on the water
In these times, and so
The weather was quiet for her
(Funny, never thought of her
He was always the cock, the king
Flashing past me, posing)

Last year I saw the kingfisher during these days
Didn’t know it was his time
Or mine

This year that weather has come again, quiet
No sun nor rain nor wind nor frost
(Though fog stopped the planes
Emptying the air for her)
It lasted just the allotted time then the storms came
New year fireworks

On the second day of the year
I walk the towpath with the kingfisher in my head
And he comes, unbelievable, lucky
Flashing along with me
My resolution
Halcyon, halcyon

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