Monthly Archives: July 2011

I Fought the Law & the Law Won

Adult Least Sandpiper on Main Pond, fall migration

A jogger friend of mine ran into me the other day on the Loop Trail. Well, not literally. She stopped to shoot the breeze. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” she commented. “I think summer is finally here.”

“Every day is beautiful at the Fill,” I replied. “But summer is over. Fall migration is in full swing, you know.”

My friend was taken aback. “Why do you say that?” she demanded. “I haven’t even broken out my bathing suit yet.”

I explained that shorebirds were coming back from the Far North, heading toward their winter homes in Central and South America. Since early July, we’ve seen numerous Least Sandpipers, a few Western Sandpipers, and good numbers of Long-billed Dowitchers. All over North America, a vast river of fall migrants is flowing through the sky every night.

“It’s only the adults so far,” I said, explaining that shorebird babies are precocial. That means they are born almost instantly ready to take care of themselves. The parents don’t have to feed them or even guard them. So a few days after the eggs hatch, the parents migrate south, leaving the babies behind to grow up on their own. When the babies are strong enough to fly, they start their own migration, usually in late August and September.

I stopped talking because my friend looked like she was sucking on a pickle. I realized she was not ready to say goodbye to summer. “Birds all follow their own schedules,” I hastened to add. “For a lot of birds, it’s still summer. Gadwall babies just hatched on Main Pond.” Frowny face.

“I saw two Tree Swallow parents feeding their young in the tree snag on Southwest Pond,” I offered. No dice.

“The temperature is supposed to hit 80 today,” I said feebly. She harrumphed and left me.

As far as we humans are concerned, summer began on June 21 this year and will end on September 23. That is what our calendar dictates. But every now and then, nature reminds us that we don’t make the rules. Nature does.

The Meek Shall Inherit

Teddy Roosevelt would not have approved of Virginia Rails. For one thing, they speak loudly  — so loudly, in fact, that if you’re sitting on your camp stool within a meter or two of a Virginia Rail when it lets loose a cry, it will blow your hair back.

A second reason our bully president would have disliked Virginia Rails is that they fail to carry big sticks. In fact, rails are without defensive weaponry of any kind. To avoid predators, they must skulk and hide in the reeds and cattails of their marshy homes.

But yesterday I met a rail whom even Teddy could love. I was sitting on my camp stool at the edge of Main Pond, watching the clouds and the ducks drift by, absorbing the peace that the Fill grants so profligately. Suddenly, a Virginia Rail a few feet away gave a tremendous screech, causing me to set a world’s record in the sitting broad jump.

When I had come back down to roost, I saw a tiny, reddish-brown body poised at the edge of a bush. The rail was glaring at me. Or at least, it seemed to. With rails it’s hard to tell. They have a white eyebrow immediately above their eye, and black feathers below, giving them a dyspeptic look, like an old curmudgeon about to raise his fist and yell, “You kids get off my lawn!”

In this case, the rail clearly did want me to get off its lawn. It was carrying a worm that it meant to give to its baby, who must have been waiting in the bushes on the other side of the clearing. I was right in the middle of the path, blocking the way.

As I wondered how it would get around this boulder in its life, it came running out a few steps, changed its mind, and dashed back into cover. Then it tried sneaking out slowly, but when it saw I was watching, back it went into the bush. Next, it gave another ear-piercing screech. When that failed to remove this obstacle that was me, it screwed up all its courage and marched across the clearing, holding tightly onto its worm. Before it disappeared into cover again, it gave me one last look. I got the message and got off its lawn. Courage and curmudgeonliness  like that deserve our respect.