Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Changing of the Guard

White-throated Sparrow detail

When I flew to New Hampshire on September 23, my yard teemed with mid-fall migrants. Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted about in the trees. Robins and a variety of other thrushes filled the fruit trees and shrubs throughout my neighborhood. Blue Jays lined up along every edge of every feeder, the overflow waiting their turns up in the trees. I kept my window feeder filled with both sunflower seeds and peanuts. Most jays look at that as a lucky find, but a couple seemed to figure out that I was the peanut lady and would fly in the moment I appeared. As fun as it is to have jays that recognize and approach me, I’m hoping those are migrants rather than birds that will stick around all winter, because I’m going to be out of town quite a bit and don’t want to disappoint them when I’m not here. Russ is great at keeping the feeders stocked when I’m gone, but he often leaves for work while it’s still dark and doesn’t get back until after dark. I’m pretty even-keeled about squirrels in most of my feeders, but chase them out of my window feeder—something Russ can’t do from work—so I’m leery of asking him to leave peanuts when I’m not there to keep track of who is taking them.

Blue Jays

My yard also had the usual suspects—chickadees, a few Mourning doves and woodpeckers, one or two White-breasted Nuthatches, and a bazillion Red-breasted Nuthatches. But the birds that were stopping passersby because they were so very abundant and active last week were the sparrows. I counted 200 White-throated Sparrows at a time on Saturday the 22nd, along with a few Harris’s and Fox Sparrows and one Lincoln’s. Several White-crowned Sparrows were seen at Hawk Ridge, just above my neighborhood, but I hadn’t found one in my own yard yet. I felt sad taking off at the peak of the mid-season migration, knowing how fleeting it is.

Harris's Sparrow

Sure enough, when I returned on September 30, I still have lots of robins and jays, but only a fraction of the number I had a week earlier and no other thrushes at all. Some Blue Jays and a handful of robins may remain into the winter, but most have moved on. I still have a dozen or so sparrows, most still White-throated Sparrows, but now juncos and an American Tree Sparrow have replaced the Harris’s, Fox, and Lincoln’s Sparrows. Temperatures were balmy and leaf color gorgeous when I returned, but a true changing of the guard took place while I was out of town.

Dark-eyed Junco

Little by little, winter will take over and most of the birds I’m seeing right now will vanish. I’m headed back out of town, to California, tomorrow. I’ll be gone only five days this time, and although the weather is supposed to be more wintry later in the week, I expect some of these late fall birds will still be here when I return. There should be more juncos next week than this, and with luck, a handful will remain for the duration. But I’m not counting on it. Every year’s adjustment to winter is a sorrowful process of relinquishing, one by one, the plants and animals that defined the riches of summer and autumn. Winter will bring its own treasures and pleasures, frozen intensity making up for the tinier species composition. It’s always an adjustment to send species after species south or under cover with so few to take their place, but even this dwindling is strangely comforting. As Rachel Carson noted, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature--the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” And as climate change proceeds apace, I am finding reassurance in every sign of good old-fashioned frozen winter.

Black-capped Chickadee