Autumn in the New Forest—Red colour in mammals—November mildness—A house by the Boldre—An ideal spot for small birds—Abundance of nests—Small mammals and the weasel’s part—Voles and mice—Hornet and bank-vole—Young shrews—A squirrel’s visit—Green woodpecker’s drumming-tree—Drumming of other species—Beauty of great spotted woodpecker—The cuckoo controversy—A cuckoo in a robin’s nest—Behaviour of the cuckoo—Extreme irritability—Manner of ejecting eggs and birds from the nest—Loss of irritability—Insensibility of the parent robins—Discourse on mistaken kindness, pain and death in nature, the annual destruction of bird life, and the young cuckoo’s instinct.
HERE, by chance, in the early days of December 1902, at the very spot where my book begins, I am about to bring it to an end.
A few days ago, coming hither from the higher country at Silchester, where the trees were already nearly bare, I was surprised to find the oak woods of this lower southern part of the New Forest still in their full autumnal foliage. Even now, so late in the year, after many successive days and nights of rain and wind, they are in leaf still: everywhere the woods are yellow, here where the oak predominates; the stronger golden red and russet tints of the beech are vanished. We have rain and wind on most days, or rather mist and rain by day and wind with storms of rain by night; days, too, or parts of days, when it is very dark and still, and when there is a universal greyness in earth and sky. At such times, seen against the distant slaty darkness or in the blue-grey misty atmosphere, the yellow woods look almost more beautiful than in fine weather.
The wet woodland roads and paths are everywhere strewn, and in places buried deep in fallen leaves—yellow, red, and russet; and this colour is continued under the trees all through the woods, where the dead bracken has now taken that deep tint which it will keep so long as there is rain or mist to wet it for the next four or five months. Dead bracken with dead leaves on a reddish soil; and where the woods are fir, the ground is carpeted with lately-fallen needles of a chestnut red, which brightens almost to orange in the rain. Now, at this season, in this universal redness of the earth where trees and bracken grow, we see that Nature is justified in having given that colour—red and reddish-yellow—to all or to most of her woodland mammals. Fox and foumart and weasel and stoat; the hare too; the bright squirrel; the dormouse and harvest-mouse; the bank-vole and the wood-mouse. Even the common shrew and lesser shrew, though they rarely come out by day, have a reddish tinge on their fur. Water-shrew and water-vole inhabit the banks of streams, and are safer without such a colour; the dark grey badger is strictly a night rover.
Sometimes about noon the clouds grow thin in that part of the sky, low down, where the sun is, and a pale gleam of sunlight filters through; even a patch of lucid blue sky sometimes becomes visible for a while: but the light soon fades; after mid-day the dimness increases, and before long one begins to think that evening has come. Withal it is singularly mild. One could almost imagine in this season of mist and wet and soft airs in late November that this is a land where days grew short and dark indeed, but where winter comes not, and the sensation of cold is unknown. It is pleasant to be out of doors in such weather, to stand in the coloured woods listening to that autumn sound of tits and other little birds wandering through the high trees in straggling parties, talking and calling to one another in their small sharp voices. Or to walk by the Boldre, or, as some call it, the Lymington, a slow, tame stream in summer, invisible till you are close to it; but now, in flood, the trees that grow on its banks and hid it in summer are seen standing deep in a broad, rushing, noisy river.