October 1, 2008

Thrilling Spectacle of Autumn’s Many Happenings

Autumn means many things, including the salmon spawning run up rivers like the Exe to their breeding beds. It's one of the most thrilling spectacles nature can offer in the UK.

The big males have hooked lower jaws and are known as 'reds'. Many die after the mating. The much darker females negotiate the torrents above places like Factory Bridge on the Teign at Chagford, under the collective title of 'black fish'.

Similar scenes will be happening from the Tamar to the Exe. And when the salmon are on the move so am I - trying to spot them. Associated with rivers Salmo Salar spends most of its life at sea, and heads for the coast to come up an estuary and breed in fresh water.

But how do salmon locate the river of their birth after swimming thousands of miles across the Atlantic? Some scientists argue that each fish has within its body a 'sun compass', giving it an awareness of time. Others believe they rely on 'chemical memory', 'to sniff out' the ancestral head waters of the special river.

The last week or so of November sees the beginning of the breeding, and the females continue to lay eggs to the end of January.

So, look out for the leaping salmon at a weir near you, and marvel at the skill and determination of the fish.

For me nature has healing qualities that take me out of myself. And in the local countryside the living world can come up with pleasant surprises.

In the dewy grass near a brook just before dawn, not so long ago, I looked down and saw a large 'snake' at my feet. A closer examination by torchlight revealed it was an eel on the first stage of its Homeric marine migration to the Sargasso.

Eels on that journey will travel overland where necessary in the early stages in their desire to get to the spawning grounds in the famous corner of the Western Atlantic. The migration can take six months, with eels travelling up to 4,000 miles across the ocean. Then, after the mating, they die. But autumn isn't all about endings.

Starling juveniles are well on the way to their adult plumage. Big flocks of adolescents descend on the blackberry bushes and gobble up the ripe fruit in the company of greenfinches and various winged insects.

Yet it's the shortage of flies and wasps that had the swallows and house martins gathering on rooftops and telephone wires in preparation for their migration that happened a couple of weeks ago or will happen in early October. It's the species' instinct memory of distant winters of starvation that triggers off the migration urge.

On the local scene, though, it was good to see a nuthatch land on the trunk of a tree to wedge a hazelnut in a crevice in the bark. Then it hammered home the nut with its beak until the shell cracked open and the bird could get at the kernel.

After the snack the little bird celebrated with a cheerful, tinkling burst of song, that summed up the birth of the new season.

Well, science, like everything else, has grown out of nature and taken us way beyond the suffocating confines of medieval superstition. Science, which fights the reality of disease and explores the nature of the living world, needs no justification.

Over the years, while I've acquainted myself with the life sciences, looked at the nature of loving organisms, studied plant and animal differences and the complex pattern of food chains composing the Web of Life, my wonder has increased.

The miraculous has become more apparent, and the 'Gospel of Evolution' has opened many windows on creation.

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