The dog days of summer.

Little grebe, Minsmere
Little grebe, Minsmere


The phrase “dog days of summer” has come to mind recently. It refers to a period during mid-summer, roughly from July 3rd until August 11th, when the northern hemisphere tends to experience sultry and muggy weather. The phrase dates from ancient times when it was noticed that Sirius, the Dog Star, rises and sets in conjunction with the sun between these dates. Although we now know this cannot possibly be true, it was believed that the heat emitted by Sirius added to that from the sun to raise temperatures in our latitudes. Interestingly the phrase has also come to mean the period of stagnation or indolence which may also occur during mid-summer. That kind of rang a bell with me.

There will be other ways in which the dog days of summer can trouble the nature photographer. Green is the predominant colour in the landscape which tends…….well… be a bit monotonous. So a July day with a cloudless blue sky can be one of the most challenging of the year. It may look and feel lovely but the results will usually be flat and uninspiring. That wonderful burst of energy and activity which characterises wildlife in spring and early summer is over. Most bird species will have finished rearing their young and will be lurking in the undergrowth, moulting their feathers and growing new ones.

Personally I need to visit all my postcard stockists during late July and early August. My priorities tend to be focussed on dealing with customers and making sales. I find it less and less easy to change my mindset from doing that to doing anything creative. Nevertheless on my recent Pembrokeshire circuit I planned to overnight close to the Elegug Stacks near Pembroke so that I could photograph the nesting seabirds. I should have known better but with the exception of a handful of kittiwakes the season was over and the birds had already left. The night I spent on a hilltop in north Wales, close to what I thought might be a chough roost in old quarry buildings, was fruitless. I knew it was a long shot but I had found them roosting there in the past. And so it went.

The lack of inspiration I tend to experience during midsummer is partly due to external factors such as those mentioned above, I feel sure.  But I was so fascinated to discover that the dog days of summer can be experienced internally too. The feeling of stagnation might not be so intense or long-lasting as that commonly felt and widely recognised  as occurring in mid-winter, but it does exist. It’s not just me! This year I hadn’t taken a decent photograph for six weeks and it was beginning to feel a little bit more than temporary.

Through many years of observing and photographing the seasons I have felt that there is a turning point in the year around the middle of August.  The change seems to happen quite suddenly. In an average year here in Wales the vegetation starts to die back and autumn colours start to appear. The nights are that much longer and there is more time for fog to form overnight. And there is a chance to get a decent nights sleep between sunrise and sunset!. It is also worth noting that the ancient Taoist philosophers identified a fifth season: “late summer”, lying between true summer and autumn . It is strongly associated with harvest and the bountiful produce that nature bestows upon us. Blackberry jam anyone?

It is also worth noting that at this time of year sunset is two minutes earlier each day than the previous one with a corresponding change at sunrise. The day is almost half-an-hour shorter altogether than it was one week earlier. I find this an astonishing fact, and of course the change would be even greater the closer to the poles one is situated.

Well, last week I headed over to Suffolk to do some bird photography. I had a nagging feeling that it might not be a profitable time of year, but off I went anyway. My day at Minsmere was a disappointment. Birds were largely noticeable by their absence. Bearing in mind that twelve “pairs” of bitterns had reared young there this year, and that there might have been something in the region of 40 or 50 individuals present, I saw just one. There was hardly a whisper of birdsong in the air. There were a few migrant waders to be seen but nothing like the numbers or variety that would be present later in the year. The reedbed – the whole place really –  had a tiredness about it that was hard to put into words. Late summer? Perhaps. But  it is no surprise that the BBC broadcasts “Springwatch” from there and not “Augustwatch”!


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