Nature Connection: Slipping Away

By: Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond illustration

It happens quietly while most of us are doing other things. In the spring we eagerly await the arrival of the first migrant birds, the first hesitant blooms of wildflowers. In the fall we are so giddy about the cooler air and the smaller crowds that we don’t notice the once heralded birds slipping away. Flowers fade but we have moved on to other things, like the changing of the leaves.

One day the yard is full of catbirds and orioles and on the next it is quiet. We may not realize right away that the flowerpots no longer attract hummingbirds or that the catbirds are no longer feeding on the pokeberries. We are busy with fall mums and pumpkins and maybe baking breads and apple pies. We don’t think about what we’re not seeing, not hearing, until the silence is louder than the summer noises we became accustomed to.

The snake that visited my gardens by the back door all summer seems to have moved on. I suspect these few garter snakes I see in my yard winter over under the shed or deep in the wood pile behind the shed. With nights getting colder it may be spending more time in that area. I would imagine it’s a good place to look for mice and other yummy tidbits as well.

The turtles and frogs we’ve gotten used to seeing may still hang out on warm sunny days but one day, they, too, will disappear from our sight without much fanfare. Insects that were so abundant are less so now. Most will lay eggs that will winter over underground, behind bark or shingles and other safe places. Some will pupate over the winter and some will migrate. The last of the monarch butterflies can still be seen but they will soon be moving on, quietly and elegantly flying over fields and dunes.

Blackbirds flock at this time of year and it is hard to miss them. Hundreds forage alongside our streets and in our yards. Mostly these flocks are mixed, full of grackles, starlings, cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds. If one stops to study these groups you’ll see many young birds that are not in full adult plumage yet. They may even seem as if they are half and half, which is quite fitting for adolescence if we stop to think about it. Human teens vacillate between being childish and surprisingly mature within minutes some days. Why not grackles and other blackbirds?

This fall I feel like I’m seeing many more cowbirds than usual. The other day I saw a flock of several hundred cowbirds, which felt surprising. Often I see a few dozen mixed in with other blackbirds, but this flock seemed to be primarily cowbirds, and it was expansive. There were many more in another flock down the road. Must have been a banner season for them, which is somewhat alarming. I don’t know what normal numbers are for this species but the more of them there are, the larger the impact on native songbirds. Cowbirds, as many of you know, lay eggs in the nests of other birds. These large aggressive babies often out compete and crowd the rightful nestlings out of the nest, which means the parent birds raise young, but not their own. You can see how this affects nesting success in the long run if there are more and more cowbirds.

Beware falling nuts and acorns on woodsy walks, and over the next few months be aware of hunting seasons and rules in your area. Many conservation areas allow hunting so be smart when you’re out and about. Most towns post their hunting information on their websites, but any time in October through February it’s a good idea to think about safety for you and any dogs that may go walking with you.