Speaking of Nature: Looking north
This is always a difficult time of year to write about. The majority of the birds are gone for the summer and the few birds that take their place have been scrutinized closely since they are the only new game in town. There are no flowers in bloom, there are no grand changes that are unfolding. In fact, there just isn’t that much to talk about. I’ve been staring out my window looking down into the meadow and trying to come up with something without much luck.
And then it hit me. Why not go down into the meadow and stare back at the house for a while? Perhaps a new perspective on things would make for a pleasant hour or two and who knows, perhaps it might even bear fruit. So, I grabbed my notebook, my camera and an Adirondack chair and headed down the trail. In no time at all, I was sitting comfortably at the intersection of one of my trails and gazing back up the hill. This was going to work out quite nicely.
The first thing to catch my attention was a rather large dragonfly that was skimming over the tops of the dry grasses. There was enough of a breeze to get the grasses rustling and rattling quite nicely and I could easily imagine the same sounds coming from the dry wings of the insect itself. I have no idea where this particular individual managed to find refuge from the cold temperatures we have had of late, but it was a welcome visitor indeed; one last reminder of the verdant glory of the meadow from just a few weeks ago.
There were other treats for the eyes hidden at the edges of the grass. The scarlet stems of a red-osier dogwood stood out quite prominently against the light tan of the dead grass. Nearby, a silky dogwood managed to do a much better job of blending in. Its wine-red stems offered much less color contrast, but the effect was just as elegant; subtle variations in the limited palate of November.
I maintain my trails through the field with my mower and, as a result, I have a bright green path of soft grasses to walk on. In the summer, I often go barefoot, but on this day, I was wearing shoes. The “grass” is actually a mixture of a wide variety of small plants that don’t mind being cut short from time to time. There are occasionally small flowers that manage to linger through the cooler months and it must have been one of these that a honeybee came looking for.
She was quite a surprise to me and I imagine I must have been just as much a surprise to her. She took a tremendous interest in every square inch of me and though I brushed her away from my head and face, I was content to watch what she would do. The shiny metal bits of my camera proved to be especially interesting to her and when she landed and started exploring, I could have sworn her activity doubled. I imagine the salt from my hands may have been a treat.
I had set up my chair so that it was at the edge of the mowed trail and behind me was the beginning of the forest that stretches for several miles to the south. The only breaks in the trees come from a single small river (about the size of the North River in Colrain), a road and a single set of railroad tracks. Small birds were all around me, but the most concentrated activity was directly behind me in those thickets and woods.
Juncos, titmice, nuthatches and even a downy woodpecker were examining every nook and cranny for hibernating spiders and insects. And among them I heard an excitingly different voice. This one was very high-pitched and quiet. My attention was completely trained on the edges of the trail that headed into the trees and that is when I finally saw what I was looking for.
Quietly moving from one small branch to another was one of the smallest birds that we have in New England. The problem is that it was clearly one of the smallest, but I still had to figure out which one. It was at that moment that I cursed myself for bringing everything with me but my binoculars. The lens on my camera was sufficient for the landscape photos that I had planned on taking, but it wasn’t going to be able to reach out and pull a sharp image of this tiny denizen of the forest. I was going to have to get lucky.
And, in a way, I was. The bird was never what you could describe as close. We photographers think of close as something within 20 feet, or so, but the bird did get close enough. When I zoomed in on the bird with my digital camera display, I was able to see more than enough detail to identify it as a golden-crowned kinglet.
This is the first time in four years that I’ve managed to spot a golden-crowned kinglet in my yard. These birds prefer coniferous trees, but they also seem to prefer the interior of the forest. I have a stand of young white pines that are all about 25- to 30-feet tall that runs along the western edge of my property, but I think it is the much larger stand of mature hemlocks farther into the woods to the south that attracts a lot more of the kinglets’ attention. I won’t talk much more about kinglets now in the hopes that I will soon be able to write an entire column on them.
As I sat there and patted myself on the back for trying something new and different, I saw a rather sad sight. A huge great blue heron flew across the meadow from my right (east) to my left (west). This bird was clearly heading for the pond in my neighbor’s field, but I had a fairly good idea that it wasn’t going to find what it was looking for.
At this time of year, we start to notice those young herons that didn’t quite get the message that it was time to leave. The temperatures are still warm enough to keep ponds and streams free of ice, but the activity in those streams (and especially the ponds) drops of dangerously. As the light fades and the plants die off, so do the insects that feed on the plants. With nothing to eat, the frogs will call it quits for the year and bury themselves in the mud, which leaves very little for the herons.
I have noticed this particular bird quite a bit in the past week and I feel like its wandering from pond to pond is increasing in frequency in a frantic attempt to find something to eat. The bird may manage to last through the winter if the water remains open, but I would rather see this youngster follow the rivers south to Long Island Sound. The ocean is full of food and herons can always find something to eat there.
During the hour and a half that I maintained my vigil, I watched as the blue sky became mottled with clouds and then completely dominated by them. The weather was clearly changing before my eyes as a front moved in from the west and I felt like I was watching the seasons change at an accelerated pace. The sun disappeared, the temperature began to fall and the wind began to pick up. The dragonfly was nowhere to be seen, nor was the honeybee. The birds were retreating into the forest and I could no longer hear the same activity from the chickadees. I suddenly became aware that my short-sleeved shirt was no longer quite adequate for the conditions, so I reluctantly packed up my camera and journal and made good my retreat to the house.
With hunting season just around the corner, we will all be deprived of the forest for a while. If you have a spare moment this weekend, and if the weather cooperates, I would definitely suggest taking some time to sit out and enjoy the quiet beauty of this time of year. Just find yourself a bench or a tree, get yourself comfortable and look north. You never know what you might see until you try.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit