Saturday, October 24, 2009

Nature will always surprise you

Even when you are keeping a close eye on nature, it surprises you. All around me trees have been bursting into orange and red flames the past couple of weeks.

But the tree I have been tracking the progress of
every day -- taking its photo, carefully observing for a change in color -- was staying resolutely green.

It sounds ridiculous, but I was almost getting frustrated that it seemed unwilling to surrender to the fall. I was beginning to get less enthusiastic about going out and looking at it. And then yesterday I walked up, and in front of me, seemingly overnight, the tree was light yellow. It didn't happen in patches; it didn't happen gradually. All of a sudden, the whole tree was noticeably changed.

And now look at it today, brightening into buttercup yellow. To someone walking along for the first time, it would be a different tree to the one it was only a few days ago. The changes that transformed this living thing were imperceptible to my eye in their increments, but they were happening nonetheless -- just like they are no doubt happening to you and me, under our own radar, but still day by day turning us into some new version of ourselves.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Autumn's progress

October 7
Wake to drenching rain and leaden sky. I should test to see whether birds are out there. But bed is nice. Rain gives way to diabolical winds in the afternoon (30 mph / 50 kph). Flying branches and deadly high-speed acorns: I stay inside.

October 8
8:15 a.m. Tempest has given way to a glorious clear day. Sparrow Fest '09 continues in the reserve, and there are plentiful white-throated sparrows all frantically feeding amongst the fallen leaves and branches. Watch a male black-throated blue warbler chasing a female from twig to twig to twig. Fall has been given a hurry-up by the winds yesterday: The trees have lost a lot of green foliage; it makes a treacherous blanket on the ground hiding those damned ankle-twisting acorns.

October 9
5:00 p.m. Humid, uncomfortably muggy. What season is this again? Oh, that's right, New England season.
October 10
8:30 a.m. Rainy, still uncomfortably muggy. I did a course on Birding by Ear earlier in the week. This somehow only makes it more frustrating when I hear an impossibly melodic call coming from the reserve as I scoot through it rushing to catch the train for a day in New York. I am convinced I'll be able to commit the song to memory and call my birding expert friend so he can tell me what it is. Within about two minutes the tune has vanished from my mind like a wraith.

Later, when I come back through the park after my day in the city (those MTA announcements to beware of the closing doors, please, are a kind of birdsong to me, too) the weather has turned again. Whipping wind and dry cold air, and ice-crystal clouds high up in the sky. This is the fall weather I love, with its promises of frozen earth and naked twigs.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ninja sparrows

Your passage through the woods is generally attended by sufficient noise to warn birds of your coming long before you see them. They are then suspicious and ill at ease, but secrete yourself near some spot loved by birds, and it may be your privilege to learn the secrets of the forest.
Birds of Eastern North America, Frank M. Chapman, 1922
I was walking through the park yesterday in the dying afternoon light and had a freaky experience. Dark wings and bodies silently lifting off from the ground and flooding through the undergrowth like a vapor. I'd spooked scores of white-throated sparrows feeding in the dead leaves. I'd made them suspicious and ill at ease. I have to admit, they did the same to me. I'd never seen a big flock like this, and I didn't know anything like this happened in the park that I thought I knew so well. And there was something eerie about them; they looked like some kind of CGI effect, all ethereal wings and shadows. I stopped dead and did like the book says: secreted myself. The flock forgot all about me and went back to feeding. With the naked eye, I could barely even make them out. Only with the binoculars could I see that they were everywhere, all around me. The ground was alive. They were moving more stealthily than I realized sparrows ever could. Ninja sparrows, one minute they would be there right in front of me, the next they would just melt into the shrubs. Spooky. They were there again this morning when we went to check out the park. They must have decided to rest up a bit and feast before continuing south. We counted at least 50, but could hear probably 50 more, chirping 360 degrees around us.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The trees are chirping!

October 5
7:45 a.m. Sunny, crisp, wind from the west-north-west. Birds are a reminder of how all creatures on this earth except for humans have no choice but to live according to the weather. The front that brought rain and dull skies passed yesterday, the wind changed direction, and now the migrating birds are on the move again. They flew through the night and then dropped down to feed this morning, surrounding my house so that I woke up to the sound of tzzzz-ing and chipping and chupping. The trees along the outer edge of the park, which get the biggest hit of morning sun, are overflowing with warblers. I have a ridiculous moment of panic when I realize I will never be able to spot and identify them all. There are so many different high-pitched notes coming from the treetops, from all angles, and I know I'm only seeing a fraction of the birds that are up there--twisting my neck and turning my head this way and that, I feel like those hapless fools in the Blair Witch Project staring out blindly into the forest trying to guess what's out there.

For certain, I can say black-throated green warbler, white-breasted nuthatch, downy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, titmice, Eastern phoebe, ruby-crowned kinglet.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


October 4
8:30 a.m. Foggy, humidity 93%, gray skies. I am sleepy. The whole world is sleepy, wrapped in a misty blanket. Nothing stirs. Water drips from every branch and leaf. If there are birds here, they're not making a sound or movement. I walk the trails and absorb the green-ness and the quiet. Just as I am leaving, I round the corner on a trail and startle a flock of at least a dozen mourning doves. Perhaps they thought nothing was stirring in the park, either: They were feeding on the ground oblivious, as though they were the only creatures here. At the sound of my footfalls they all flutter up into the branches and stare down at me, suddenly nervous, alert.

Fall diary

I have a favorite little nature reserve, a strip of old trees hemmed in by harbor and suburban streets. The birds migrating south right now find this improbable pocket of leafiness irresistible, and on a good morning the trees are just alive with tiny flitting missiles. My friend who I walk in there with suggested that we should keep a daily record of the bird life we see. Amazing things happen in the fall, and it's too easy to lose track. So, no more ignoring the alarm clock. This is to be the season of getting up early every morning and observing what happens as the cold closes in . . .

October 1
9:30 a.m. (Okay, so it isn't exactly "early morning," but it is my birthday. My 40th birthday. Have mercy!) Lovely crisp day, sunny, no wind. Never actually make it into the park, though. Become utterly obsessed by a big tree at the edge, which has 5 or 6 warblers flitting in it. I have never seen these birds before, which is always exciting. Gray with yellow sides and yellow tails except for a black band at the end. It's so hard to get a good look; they won't stop moving, like hyperactive children. Can't they tell I am there with my binoculars trying to ID them? (Neighbors by now think I'm mad.) Spend at least 30 minutes back at home poring through the warbler section of my field guide until caving and calling my friend for help. American Redstarts. Young ones, which are not red at all. Yellowstarts, I think I'll call them.

October 2
7:20 a.m. It's like being in heaven. Clear skies and winds from the north-west. Waves of tiny migrating birds surge in to refuel. As the sun comes up and warms the treetops at the edge of the park the birds descend to snack on insects amidst the leaves. People are walking their dogs and taking their kids to school; mystified, they ask what we're looking at. I'm reminded that incredible phenomena are happening all the time, if only we could see. I point upward, and birds are pinging out of the treetops like corn popping, as they zigzag from one insect to the next. In just an hour we see killdeer, cedar waxwings, northern flicker, red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, eastern phoebe, red-eyed vireo, black-and-white warbler, black-throated blue warbler (say that three times fast), black-throated green warbler, northern parula warbler, magnolia warbler, American redstart, ruby-crowned kinglet, golden-crowned kinglet, white-breasted nuthatch, and bluejay.

October 3
12:30 p.m. (All right, it's not even morning. But it's Saturday. And it's been raining all night. Have mercy!) Cloudy; no wind. Very quiet. I hear only a bluejay and have nearly given up on seeing anything interesting, except for a giant fungus.

And then I hear a chipping sound I've never heard before. That-is-a-new-bird neurons light up like a Christmas tree in my brain. The bird is down low in the understory, quite close to the trail, hopping from twig to twig. I try to be systematic in observing its features, but I always find it so hard--part of my brain daydreaming about the bird's indefinable beauty; the other part trying to break it up into its components so I can find it in the field guide. Light olive-brown, black eye and beak, a white eyebrow, a small white spot on the wing. I actually get a little bit closer this time with the field guide before I have to cave and make a phone call, which makes me ludicrously overjoyed. (It is a female black-throated blue warbler. Turns out that only the males get the fancy black throat and blue feathers.)
Tree at the edge of the park I got obsessed with when it was full of American red(yellow)starts. I am going to photograph this tree throughout the autumn to track how the leaves change color and fall.