Nature Diary

Nature Diary – October

Brother Andy's October nature diary shares sightings of fieldfares, stinkhorns, fallow deer and a biblical thunderstorm.

By Brother Andy

Nature is going into lockdown as winter approaches; most leaves have fallen from the trees. Swallows, cuckoos and warblers (chiffchaffs, blackcaps and willow warblers) have migrated back to Africa. Redwings and Fieldfares (two members of the thrush family) will be flying in from Scandinavia, Finland and Russia to escape the severe winters in these northerly latitudes.

Swami Karunananda was the first to point out an early Starling murmuration in trees above the Birdie field. A murmuration of Starlings is the name given to the flocks of these birds which begin to appear in great numbers in Autumn and winter.

A murmuration or flock of starlings at dusk
A murmuration or flock of starlings at dusk

There may be several reasons for this flocking but protection from predators (e.g. Sparrowhawks) and perhaps the body heat from large numbers of individuals may raise the temperature of the surrounding air by a few degrees, which could increase the chances of survival on very cold winter nights.

More and more birds will flock together as the weeks go on, and the number of starlings in a roost can swell to around 100,000 in some places. As winter progresses, the numbers may be increased by birds migrating in from colder parts of Europe.

Spring’s Dawn Chorus is now a distant memory, and at dawn and dusk is replaced by the less melodic loud belching sounds of the rutting male Fallow deer. The rhododendrons above the Sri Ranganatha Temple are covered in buds and catkins hang from leafless Hazel; both will remain dormant until next Spring.

A stag in oak woodland at Skanda Vale
A stag in oak woodland at Skanda Vale

It has been a particularly good year for butterflies and hopefully, those adults who have gone into hibernation will survive the winter. Many animals, including butterflies, come into houses and other buildings to escape the low winter temperatures.

The Brothers’ shower block in the lower part of the Ashram has the pleasure of sharing the showers with White Legged Snake Millipedes. These are harmless visitors; millipedes are herbivorous whereas their relatives the centipedes are very active carnivores. The other difference between these two groups is that millipedes have two pairs of legs per segment whereas centipedes only one pair.

Fungi have also appeared in abundance this year; a troop of Parasol Mushrooms emerged in the orchard near the Shakti Temple. On the Vishnu field, Yellow Fieldcaps occurred amongst the grass. The appearance of these fungi reminds me of some interesting specimens which were on show, back in August.

On the 9th August, we celebrated the Vel Puja in the Yaga Sala. I helped set up this puja and as I was carrying the ingredients up from the Murugan Temple, past the kitchen, Aquila asked if I could smell gas. I couldn’t and so thought no more about it. A little later I met Sister Ally in exactly the same place and she also said that she could smell gas.

Then the penny dropped. In the bushes on the way up to the Yaga Sala two specimens of a Stinkhorn fungus were growing. This emits an unpleasant smell (hence its name) designed to attract flies which help to disperse its spores. The Latin name of this fungus is descriptive; Phallus impudicus (impudicus means impudent) As you may see from the accompanying photo this is perhaps an appropriate name.

It has been a year of extreme meteorological events with some of the warmest, wettest, driest days on record. Storm Francis, which occurred in late August, brought down an enormous windfall of acorns and hazelnuts. Monks Walk was littered with these the day after the storm.

They gradually disappeared as squirrels, wood pigeons, wood mice, hedgehogs and possibly jays carried them away to be either eaten or stored. Some will be forgotten about and germinate; giving rise to new tree saplings, away from the competing influence of the parent plants.

It has been a bumper year, (a mast year as it is called), for acorns and not all came down in the storm but continued, throughout October, to noisily drop from the trees on to the roof of the chalets in the woods – disturbing the sleep of those who sleep lightly.

Autumn acorns on an oak branch
Autumn acorns on an oak branch

The storm had little effect on the Samaras; they still clung tenaciously to the trees. A Samara is a dry, winged, indehiscent (does not split open) fruit. Typical samaras are the seeds that whirl down like helicopters from Sycamore trees and those of Ash, which hang like bunches of keys from branches. Presumably, a fall in temperature, not just high winds, is needed to cause these fruits to detach themselves from their parent plants.

There were several thunderstorms during the year. Aquila describes one of these storms in the following vivid account.

‘I love storms, there’s an excitement which builds in me that I find difficult to contain. While making my way back to my chalet after a Community meeting I noticed some faint flashes in the sky. So I made my way up to the Shakti Temple to see if I could find out what the flashing lights were.

As I approached the temple a huge bright orange meteorite shot from North to South over the temple, it had a solid golden orange tail that didn’t break apart like they normally do. It was so low I waited to hear the sound of the impact but thankfully it didn’t happen.

I arrived at the Shakti Temple and looked North East but still couldn’t locate the source of the flashing lights. “I need to go higher”, I thought and decided that I would make my way to Craig Fryn.

It was quite late at this point and I was aware that it was to be an early start the next morning to celebrate Krishna Jayanti, but my excitement had truly gotten a hold on me. I looked around and noticed Swami Prema’s bike parked up against a chalet and thought I would cycle up to Craig Fryn. Swami Prema’s a good sort and wouldn’t have minded me stealing his bike at 11 pm.

I cycled along the top track and as I neared the entrance to the coach park I began to make out the source of the flashes. The most epic lightning storm was taken place way over towards the Brecon Beacons. I made my way up to Craig Fryn which gives a panoramic view up into Mid Wales and the Cambrian Mountains; nothing could’ve prepared me for the sight of that storm.

A bolt of lightning against a thundery orange sky
A bolt of lightning against a thundery orange sky

The whole of the North-Eastern sky was alight with bolts of hot orange lightning, streaking up into these huge thunderheads. Sometimes the lightning was so bright it felt like it could have almost burned the image into my eyes. Every second there would be bolts of lightning in a constant dance with the clouds…’

(Coincidentally Aquila is the name of the messenger of Zeus / Jupiter and would carry his lightning bolts!)

The warm, close, weather, typical of thunderstorms, prompted Sister Carol to leave her window open one night. She woke to find a bat in her room. Rumour has it that ever since this time she has refused all meals containing garlic and has not been seen to emerge from her room during daylight hours. Can this really be true?

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