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Birthdays, migration, meanderings and the building of calendars

May 6, 2013

A newly returned yellow warbler, who is staking out a breeding territory. (Photo by Bruce Fellman)

I turned 63 a couple of days ago—or, at least, I hope I did. As is always the case with writing for publications that don’t come out instantaneously, there’s a lag between the time when you pen an article—OK, keyboard one—and it sees print—assuming, of course, that it ever sees print—and in the case of the Journal, I typically produce the article and the pictures on the Sunday or Monday before the publication date on Thursday or Friday. So, often enough, I’m engaged in the prediction business, and when I write about an event that hasn’t quite happened, I’m taking a risk and hoping I’ll be more or less correct.
I worked on this edition of the Journal on both April 28 and 29. My birthday was May 1. I hope that I was still around to celebrate the event, and, I hope that we are all around to read about it a couple of days later.

Logically, there’s no reason to suppose this will happen. As we witnessed all too tragically in Boston last month, there can be little rhyme or reason to human history, and as we saw over the skies of Chelyabinsk in Western Siberia last February, the same can be said about natural and astronomical history. Life is fine and good one moment and then, well, it isn’t.
That said, dear readers, I need to tell you that my introduction is not an indication that someone needs to up his medication. Nor is it a preface to a confession about my imminent demise. As near as I or my physicians can determine, I don’t need antidepressants, and I’m in pretty decent shape physically. In all actuarial likelihood, I should have at least a few more years on the ridge. And as near as the astronomers and the climate scientists can reckon, we’re not likely to be blown into smithereens by a sneaky asteroid nor terminally parched by runaway global warming any time soon. (To be sure, the yellow warning flags that signify “abnormal dryness” have already been raised by the US Drought Monitor, and if this weird dry-spring pattern of the last few years continues, we’re going to have to change the aphorism about April showers bringing May flowers.)
I probably turned 63 on time, and you probably were able to read about it. And, more to the point, I’ll no doubt make more predictions about human and natural history events, and they’ll probably come more or less true.
This is, I have to admit, one of the tremendous comforts of being a naturalist: you spend your days and nights observing the natural world and keeping records of what happens when. If you do this in the same place for enough time, you have a calendar you can depend on.
So it was that the past pointed me towards the future.
One of the first things that I knew I needed to do was set up a hummingbird feeder. The average calendar date for the arrival of ruby-throats—the males come first—has been May 4, which is about the time that the wild columbines, the ones with the red blossoms that are so attractive to hummers, start to bloom. And if we haven’t gotten the feeder up and the males arrive early, as they did last year, the guys are not shy about reminding us of our responsibilities toward hummingbird-kind. This can take the form of hovering in the vicinity of where the feeder ought to be and squeaking loudly. It can involve dive-bombing the Naturalist or his long-suffering spouse. One year, I swear that a hungry, annoyed ruby throat actually tapped on the window glass to get my attention—and make his point. It worked. He had artificial nectar to recharge his flight-weary batteries in 15 minutes.
This year, the hummers and their favorite flowers were not back on the ridge as of the 29th. But because the Naturalist’s calendar had the 4th circled, I knew that the last weekend of April was high time for getting the feeder cleaned, filled, and rehung in anticipation of their arrival.
I also knew, based on the past—and discarding the experience we had in 2012, when the ridiculously warm March and April pushed all the flowering dates at least two weeks ahead of typical—what I should be out looking for. Last weekend, it was certainly going to be time to check out a patch of trout lilies at the side of a nearby country road. These diminutive yellow-blossomed wildflowers follow, by a week or two, the blooming of the rock-breakers, so if you’re looking in your crystal ball, the appearance of the Saxifrage clan on the rock faces is a great predictor of the trout lily future. And it certainly didn’t let me down, for while this wasn’t a great year for Erythronium flowers, there were enough of them poking above the sweet vernal grass and wood anemones to satisfy anyone’s need for predictions come true—and for a taste of nature’s beauty.
The same could be said of butterflies and birds.
On cue, I spotted, just as the calendar said I would, the first blue butterflies of the year: either a spring azure or an eastern-tailed blue, but it didn’t stick around long enough for a portrait. In the woods, however, a Juvenal’s duskywing, which overwintered in the caterpillar stage and had just metamorphosed into an adult, was staking out a territory and looking for a mate. It was so focused on its task that it didn’t mind me focusing on it.
In the wetlands, my calendar told me to be on the lookout for migrating yellow warblers and Louisiana waterthrushes. Neither let me down, although only the former bird was good about coming within camera range; the Louisiana, as is often the case, stayed out of sight, but not hearing. I knew it was likely to be in the woods at this time, and I had previous experience with its camera-shyness, so I was certain I’d need a different imaging tool. It sang for me, loud and clear. I captured the song in my parabolic recorder. That was good enough for me.
It didn’t end there. At the marsh, on cue, the painted turtles were out sunning themselves, and the red-winged blackbird males were doing their best to impress females. From the blooming of tiny white swamp violets and large jack-in-the-pulpits to the courtship activities of newly arrived blue-gray gnatcatchers and stay-at-home titmice, the natural world was on schedule—and a schedule I’ve come to depend on. It was just as I would have predicted, with, of course, a surprise or two.
In the center of a marshy pond stood a great white, well, something. My first thought was heron, but the white variant on the great blue heron theme has a bicolored bill and is rarely seen north of Florida. My next thought was great egret, but that elegant bird, while common in our area, is supposed to have black legs. In this bird, the bill was right, but the legs were light—heron-colored. Whatever it was, I hadn’t seen it in this marsh before, so all predictions went out the window. The mystery bird went into the journal, and if I’m lucky, I’ll spot it again and get a better look at those legs. I predict I’ll be around to make the attempt. I hope the bird will be good enough to indulge my endless curiosity.


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