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And sweet it is by lonely meres
September is a much-abused month. Many people assert that it is the most unpleasant and unhealthy season of the year.
Malarial and muggy though it is, September scarcely merits all the evil epithets that are applied to it. The truth is that, after the torrid days of the hot weather and the humid heat of the rainy season, the European is thoroughly weary of his tropical surroundings, his vitality is at a low ebb, he is languid and irritable, thus he complains bitterly of the climate of September, notwithstanding the fact that it is a distinct improvement on that of the two preceding months.
In the early part of the month the weather differs little from that of July and August. The days are somewhat shorter and the sun's rays somewhat less powerful, in consequence the average temperature is slightly lower. Normally the rains cease in the second half of the month. Then the sky resumes the fleckless blueness which characterises it during the greater part of the year. The blue of the sky is more pure and more intense in September than at other times, except during breaks in the monsoon, because the rain has washed from the atmosphere the myriads of specks of dust that are usually suspended in it.
The cessation of the rains is followed by a period of steamy heat. As the moisture of the air gradually diminishes the temperature rises. But each September day is shorter than the one before it, and, hour by hour, the rays of the sun part with some of their power. Towards the end of the month the nights are cooler than they have been for some time. At sunset the village smoke begins to hang low in a diaphanous cloud—a sure sign of the approaching cold weather. The night dews are heavy. In the morning the blades of grass and the webs of the spiders are bespangled with pearly dewdrops. Cool zephyrs greet the rising sun. At dawn there is, in the last days of the month, a touch of cold in the air.
The Indian countryside displays a greenness which is almost spring-like; not quite spring-like, because the fierce greens induced by the monsoon rains are not of the same hues as those of the young leaves of spring. The foliage is almost entirely free from dust. This fact adds to the vernal appearance of the landscape. The jhils and tanks are filled with water, and, being overgrown with luxuriant vegetation, enhance the beauty of the scene. But, almost immediately after the cessation of the rains, the country begins to assume its usual look. Day by day the grass loses a little of its greenness. The earth dries up gradually, and its surface once more becomes dusty. The dust is carried to the foliage, on which it settles, subduing the natural greenery of the leaves. No sooner do the rains cease than the rivers begin to fall. By November most of them will be sandy wastes in which the insignificant stream is almost lost to view.
The mimosas flower in September. Their yellow spherical blossoms are rendered pale by contrast with the deep gold hue of the blooms of the san (hemp) which now form a conspicuous feature of the landscape in many districts. The cork trees (Millingtonia hortensis) become bespangled with hanging clusters of white, long-tubed, star-like flowers that give out fragrant perfume at night.
The first-fruits of the autumn harvest are being gathered in. Acre upon acre of the early-sown rice falls before the sickle. The threshing-floors once again become the scene of animation. The fallow fields are being prepared for the spring crops and the sowing of the grain is beginning.
Throughout the month insect life is as rich and varied as it was in July and August.
The brain-fever bird and the koel call so seldom in September that their cries, when heard, cause surprise. The voice of the pied crested-cuckoo no longer falls upon the ear, nor does the song of the magpie-robin. The green barbets lift up their voices fairly frequently, but it is only on rare occasions that their cousins—the coppersmiths—hammer on their anvils. The pied mynas are far less vociferous than they were in July and August.
By the end of September the bird chorus has assumed its winter form, except that the grey-headed flycatchers have not joined it in numbers.
Apart from the sharp notes of the warblers, the cooing of the doves, the hooting of the crow-pheasants, the wailing of the kites, the cawing of the crows, the screaming of the green parrots, the chattering of the mynas and the seven sisters, the trumpeting of the sarus cranes and the clamouring of the lapwings, almost the only bird voices commonly heard are those of the fantail flycatcher, the amadavat, the wagtail, the oriole, the roller and the sunbird.
The cock sunbirds are singing brilliantly although they are still wearing their workaday garments, which are quaker brown save for one purple streak along the median line of the breast and abdomen.
Many birds are beginning to moult. They are casting off worn feathers and assuming the new ones that will keep them warm during the cool winter months. With most birds the new feathers grow as fast as the old ones fall out. In a few, however, the process of renewal does not keep pace with that of shedding; the result is that the moulting bird presents a mangy appearance. The mynas afford conspicuous examples of this; when moulting their necks often become almost nude, so that the birds bear some resemblance to miniature vultures.
Great changes in the avifauna take place in September.
The yellow-throated sparrows, the koels, the sunbirds, the bee-eaters, the red turtle-doves and the majority of the king-crows leave the Punjab. From the United Provinces there is a large exodus of brain-fever birds, koels, pied crested-cuckoos, paradise flycatchers and Indian orioles. These last are replaced by black-headed orioles in the United Provinces, but not in the Punjab.
On the other hand, the great autumnal immigration takes place throughout the month. Before September is half over the migratory wagtails begin to appear. Like most birds they travel by night when migrating. They arrive in silence, but on the morning of their coming the observer cannot fail to notice their cheerful little notes, which, like the hanging of the village smoke, are to be numbered among the signs of the approach of winter. The three species that visit India in the largest numbers are the white (Motacilla alba), the masked (M. personata) and the grey wagtail (M. melanope). In Bengal the first two are largely replaced by the white-faced wagtail (M. leucopsis). The names "white" and "grey" are not very happy ones. The white species is a grey bird with a white face and some black on the head and breast; the masked wagtail is very difficult to distinguish from the white species, differing in having less white and more black on the head and face, the white constituting the "mask"; the grey wagtail has the upper plumage greenish-grey and the lower parts sulphur-yellow. The three species arrive almost simultaneously, but the experience of the writer is that the grey bird usually comes a day or two before his cousins.
On one of the last ten days of September the first batch of Indian redstarts (Ruticilla frontalis) reaches India. Within twenty days of the coming of these welcome little birds it is possible to dispense with punkas.
Like the redstarts the rose-finches and minivets begin to pour into India towards the end of September. The snipe arrive daily throughout the month.
With the first full moon of September come the grey quail (Coturnix communis). These, like the rain-quail, afford good sport with the gun if attracted by call birds set down overnight. When the stream of immigrating quail has ceased to flow, these birds spread themselves over the well-cropped country. It then becomes difficult to obtain a good bag of quail until the time of the spring harvest, when they collect in the crops that are still standing.
Thousands of blue-winged teal invade India in September, but most of the other species of non-resident duck do not arrive until October or even November.
Not the least important of the September arrivals are the migratory birds of prey. None of the owls seem to migrate. Nor do the vultures, but a large proportion of the diurnal raptores leaves the plains of India in the spring.
To every migratory species of raptorial bird, that captures living quarry, there is a non-migratory counterpart or near relative. It would almost seem as if each species were broken up into two clans—a migratory and a stationary one. Thus, of each of the following pairs of birds the first-named is migratory and the other non-migratory: the steppe-eagle and the tawny eagle, the large Indian and the common kite, the long-legged and the white-eyed buzzard, the sparrow-hawk and the shikra, the peregrine and the lugger falcon, the common and the red-headed merlin, the kestrel and the black-winged kite.
It is tempting to formulate the theory that the raptores are migratory or the reverse according or not as they prey on birds of passage, and that the former migrate merely in order to follow their quarry. Certain facts seem to bear out this theory. The peregrine falcon, which feeds largely on ducks, is migratory, while the lugger falcon—a bird not particularly addicted to waterfowl—remains in India throughout the year.
The necessity of following their favourite quarry may account for the migratory habits of some birds of prey, but it does not apply to all. Thus, the osprey, which feeds almost exclusively on fish, is merely a winter visitor to India. Again, there is the kestrel. This preys on non-migratory rats and mice, nevertheless it leaves the plains in the hot weather and goes to the Himalayas to breed. All the species of birds of prey cited above as migratory begin to arrive in the plains of India in September. The merlins come only into the Punjab, but most of the other raptores spread over the whole of India.
The various species of harrier make their appearance in September. These are birds that cannot fail to attract attention. They usually fly slowly a few feet above the surface of the earth so that they can drop suddenly on their quarry. They squat on the ground when resting, but their wings are long and their bodies light, so that they do not need much rest. Those who shoot duck have occasion often to say hard things of the marsh-harrier and the peregrine falcon, because these birds are apt to come as unbidden guests to the shoot and carry off wounded duck and teal before the shikari has time to retrieve them.
Of the migratory birds of prey the kestrel is perhaps the first to arrive; the osprey and the peregrine falcon are among the last.
Very few observations of the comings and the goings of the various raptorial birds have been recorded; in the present state of our knowledge it is not possible to compile an accurate table showing the usual order in which the various species appear. This is a subject to which those persons who dwell permanently in one place might with advantage direct their attention.
As regards nesting operations September is not a month of activity.
On the 15th the close season for game birds ends in the Government forests; and by that date the great majority of them have reared up their broods. Grey partridge's eggs, it is true, have been taken in September; but as we have seen, grey partridges, like doves and kites, can scarcely be said to have a breeding season; they lay eggs whenever it seemeth good to them.
A few belated peafowl may still be found with eggs, but these are exceptions. Most of the hens are strutting about proudly, accompanied by their chicks, while the cocks are shedding their trains. Other species of which the eggs may be found in the present month are the white-throated munia, the common and the large grey babblers, and, of course, the various species of dove.
Before the last day of August all the young mynas have emerged from the egg, and throughout the first half of September numbers of them are to be seen following their parents and clamouring for food. Most of the koels have departed, but some individuals belonging to the rising generation remind us that they are still with us by emitting sounds which are very fair imitations of the "sqwaking" of young crows.
Baby koels are as importunate as professional beggars and solicit food of every crow that passes by, to the great disgust of all but their foster-parents.
The majority of the seven sisters have done with nursery duties for a season. Some flocks, however, are still accompanied by impedimenta in the shape of young babblers or pied crested-cuckoos. The impedimenta make far more noise than the adult birds. They are always hungry, or at any rate always demanding food in squeaky tones. With each squeak the wings are flapped violently, as if to emphasise the demand. Every member of a flock appears to help to feed the young birds irrespective of whose nests these have been reared in.
Throughout September bayas are to be seen at their nests, but, before the month draws to its close, nearly all the broods have come out into the great world. The nests will remain until next monsoon, or even longer, as monuments of sound workmanship.
In September numbers of curious brown birds, heavily barred with black, make their appearance. These are crow-pheasants that have emerged from nests hidden away in dense thickets. In a few weeks these birds will lose their barred feathers and assume the black plumage and red wings of the adult. By the end of August most of the night-herons and those of the various species of egrets that have not been killed by the plume-hunters are able to congratulate themselves on having successfully reared up their broods. In September they lose their nuptial plumes.