A Time of Preparation

by Rex Burress

Even though a heat wave had descended on the first day of fall in the Feather River country, signs of autumn could still be seen in the subtle stirrings along the shore. The Equinox was in the air! Half-light, half-dark days! The animals sense the seasonal change, and a certain restlessness shows, especially in the river swallows as they dash about in anticipation of a journey to far away places with strange flying insects.

I watched the mixed swallow species sailing swiftly over the river one cool morning, and they seemed more concerned with the dropping temperatures than with catching insects. You could hear an excited twiddle of bird talk as they bustled about, probably debating the weather and the time when they should set wing-sail southward. I wondered if the different species separated into different groups or continued on in mixed company. Newspaper reporters haven’t been able to get the facts of a bird's thoughts, yet.

The mind-set of birds is a mysterious realm completely outside our human communication. Who knows exactly when the swallows will come and go, where they will build their nests, and how they decide to fly away? Which bird decides the moment of departure and who leads? Someone must be out there in front, just as the wedged-shaped flights of fowl fill the air with one up front apparently leading the way and deciding when and where to land, although starling masses seem to shift around in flying formation like they were one organism. Some studies suggest that geese take turns being in front in order to conserve energy, but some force makes them make a decision on whether to land or when to take off.

... All day thy wings have fanned,
At that far height, the cold, thin atmosphere,
Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land
Though the dark night is near ...
        --William Cullen Bryant

As the migratory waterfowl prepare to depart from the stormy northland, and after their broods became fully grown and feathered, just as all the adults became covered with new feathers after the summer molt, you wonder if there is a certain sense of excitement for them in taking forth into the skies, or is it merely a physical necessity to put forth the working effort to go and find food and sheltered seas. Perhaps, like the normally migratory Canada Geese that have taken up permanent city residency where life is easier with plenty of food available, they would prefer to just loaf around the marshes and take it easy. But there is no choice when survival is on the line.

I am reminded of the folk tale told in the movie Green Fried Tomatoes about a raft of ducks on a Mid-Western pond that froze solid, and the trapped ducks merely flew and lifted the entire pond, dropping it down in Georgia to make a new lake. Truth is, ducks and geese often remain on freezing ponds up to the last moment, and some have been trapped in the ice. Their legs are incredibly tough and can withstand cold water. When I worked at the Lake Merritt Bird Refuge in Oakland, during one severe winter the freshwater duck pond froze and ducks were sliding all over the ice, maybe even enjoying scooting after milo grain, but there were no frost-bite cases.

Making the migratory journey is less compelling in the springtime marshes of California, but most of the ducks and geese fly away en masse, lured by the remembrance of marshy edibles and swaying reeds of Canadian potholes. They are prepared in their minds to make the voyage.

When I watched the swallows that autumn morning, I felt like summer friends were preparing to go on an exciting adventure to vacation lands and I was being left out. Winter migrants would replace them along the river, and that presence is appreciated, but it always stirs the soul of a bird lover to see the shuffling of species in the ever-interesting sky and feel an isolated loneliness in being stranded on the soil.

I know back in the homeland of Missouri, the blackbirds are bunching up preparing for their exodus. red-wings, Brewer’s, and grackles have that urge to gather together as if they draw strength from each other. It is interesting that Feather River blackbirds -- and crows -- have that habit of uniting in the wintertime even though they hang around local hills.

I note other birds along the river that are groomed for the winter but tend to remain locally. There was a handsome Northern Flicker balanced in the top of a leafless cottonwood branch, a family of Wood Ducks foraging in the dark lagoon, an egret, and a couple juvenile night-herons clumsily probing the edge, a covey of quail that also form a flock in the winter, and those homebodies will be around when the Buffleheads and goldeneyes come drifting out of the northern sky.

There were other signs of nature’s preparation for winter. A tinge of yellow creeps into the cottonwood leaves, and though hanging on as if reluctant to let go, one by one they will flutter to the fluffy leaf carpet on the earth. There was an obscure grape leaf showing bright red, as if, like the first migrant duck arrivals, it was the first to brave the designation of autumn -- a nonconformist leaf -- breaking away from the mass of green to pioneer a movement to other destinations.

"The same leaves over and over again," as Robert Frost said -- the same, yet new, as replacements move in to keep nature progressing forward into the atmosphere of the earth. The deciduous leaves, like the migrating salmon, like the migrating birds, like the introduced eastern oaks that retain their leaf-dropping habits in California, they all participate in that ageless ritual of the seasons over and over again.

The same leaves over and over again,
They fall from giving shade above,
And make one texture of faded brown,
To fit the earth like a leather glove ...
        --Robert Frost

© 2003 Rex Burress
September 24, 2003