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The southbound sigh of Norfolk wildlife

PUBLISHED: 12:00 15 August 2016 | UPDATED: 09:06 16 August 2016

House martins. Picture: Elizabeth Dack

House martins. Picture: Elizabeth Dack

Elizabth Dack

August sits heavy across the county for Nick Acheson from Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Knot Calidris canutus arriving at high tide roost on pits at Snettisham RSPB Reserve on The Wash. Picture: David TiplingKnot Calidris canutus arriving at high tide roost on pits at Snettisham RSPB Reserve on The Wash. Picture: David Tipling

There is a heaviness today; the southbound sigh of August. May and June were bustle and breeding, flower and fledging. July was bright and hot and, in the wheat’s gold and the sea lavender’s faded haze, full still with life and hope. August is different. August is of loafing and fattening, dull heat broken by the lightning’s anger and the fat drops of autumn’s promised rain. Today I feel the fat, wet, southbound sigh of August.

Southbound are the green sandpipers, fat with the taiga’s midges, which already crowd the marsh, bursting from its muddy edge like steroidal, noisy house martins at my approach. Like the martins, gathering already over reed and water in southward swarms, they’re bound for Africa, for the fat backs of hippos in hotter mud, and the dwindling haunches of mud-crusted rhinos.

Common darter dragonfly on blackberries. Picture: Elizabeth DackCommon darter dragonfly on blackberries. Picture: Elizabeth Dack

South with the sandpipers come knot, not, like them, strewn across the county now, haunting every farm pond and damp hollow, but massing in banking swarms, now silver, now copper, now split by the peregrine’s dive, over the fat, productive mud of the Wash. Tellins and razor clams, cockles and lugworms, fattened on summer’s east coast silt, bound south as proteins in the falcon-harried wings of wading birds.

Some stay as the year fattens and grows old. For bumblebees the humming humid heat of later summer means but one thing: death. All but the queens must die as the nights grow and the days go and August sighs. Only queens survive and they – frantic as knot in the peregrine’s path – must feed, fatten, fuel against the coming winter and four cruel months of hibernation. For soon the fat drops of August’s rain become the fickle flashes of September, the bold tree-stripping blast of October.

Long-tailed tit. Picture: Elizabeth DackLong-tailed tit. Picture: Elizabeth Dack

But no blast yet. August today sits calm and heavy on the land, fat with southbound birds and burrow-bound bees and swelling fruits. Blackberries ripen and rowans turn in the swollen heat, and fat drops of rain stir September’s coming fungi in the mould beneath my summer-brown feet. Above, the trees are fat too, with looping strings of blue-green-black-yellow bird bunting, hung through the aphid-heavy twigs and branches in celebration of another breeding season done. Here are fat blue tit chicks, cheeks still sulphured with the plumage of their youth. Here a grey shy marsh tit, keeping from a great tit’s yellow bold way. Here the chisel-bill nuthatch, crampon-footing down a trunk, a twirling tribe of long-tailed tits, puffy and pink against darkening hardening liver-spotted leaves in the heavy damp air of August.

These birds have bred, or been bred, in our gardens and woods this summer. Now, like the mud-trot knot, they flock for safety. Yes, the slow fat air of August woods is pierced by a deadly double flap, tits’ terrorised trilling, the strike of a wax yellow foot and an innocent puff of pink or sulphur. A sparrowhawk has his meal. The rain now is feathers, spring’s hope, summer’s warmth, the woods’ fat, passed to the August maturity of the hawk.

Ladybird on a blackberry. Picture: David CookeLadybird on a blackberry. Picture: David Cooke

This is the joy of August, this fat preparatory month of journeys started, breeding ended, fat and food passed from sun to leaf to bird to mud to Africa. In the heavy air and leathery leaf of August, in the sandpiper’s quickstep at a Norfolk mudpool’s side, in the peregrine’s stoop at Greenland’s sugar-golden knot, I feel the warm, close maturity of August and am glad.

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