Our normally blue sky has looked gray and the sun made red for days by a high layer of smoke from the most extensive wildfires the west has ever recorded. Multiple tropical depressions are stacked across the Atlantic all the way to Africa, and each might become a tropical storm or a hurricane that could reach our shores. I can hear chain saws every day that are still cleaning up from last month’s derecho. A year’s-long drought that has plagued the far west finally reached a finger as far east as Iowa. The wonderful several inches of rain we received earlier in September didn’t bring it to an end. The ground was so thirsty that there was almost no runoff. Area streams remain very low. The pandemic still affects all of us whether we’ve been sickened by it or not. Our lives continue to be tripped up and confused by things that are simply beyond our control, but Old Mother Nature is marching on as if this year were no different than any other.
Trees are beginning to show color, but it’s been said that our lovely fall colors may not last as long as usual due to the drought. If you’re one of those folks like me that need to have your natural clock reset fairly often, catch the color while you can. Area parks and trails await you for a walk or two. Bright late-summer goldenrods are waning, but are being replaced by more subtle blues, purples, and whites of fall asters. Some sunflowers are still bright, but they’re beginning to fade. A visit to a prairie preserve or a better quality planted prairie might reveal some gorgeous blue bottle gentians or white cream gentians.
Local geese have gathered into larger fall feeding flocks. They’ll continue to graze green grass as long as they can find it, but will increasingly be flying out to harvested corn fields to gather waste grain. Ducks have begun to migrate, too. Smaller ones like blue and green-winged teal depend on shallow water with lots of weed seed in it to fuel their fall flight, but many shallow wetlands are dry. The “duck telegraph” will spread the word that our area doesn’t have very favorable conditions, and they may go elsewhere. Waterfowl always like to be near water, but as some of their diets shift to more grain, they must soon return to drink water to prevent crops full of grain from fermenting and making them sick. Larger ducks like mallards will gorge on waste grain with the geese and fly to larger open-water lakes and reservoirs to roost at night.
Be watching your bird feeders because the first of our winter friends are beginning to appear. If you haven’t been feeding this summer, it may be time to put our some black oil-seed sunflower or maybe a handful of small seed like millet for migrating sparrows and soon-to-arrive juncos. A pair of tame little red-breasted nuthatches recently appeared at a friend’s feeder, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a couple of gray and white juncos. Only a few swallows are left, and most of them are tree swallows – the last of the swallows to head south. Loose flocks of blue jays and northern flickers are passing through. The last of the summer’s hummingbirds are still here as I write, but are mostly young-of-the-year and maybe some adult females. Most of the adult males have already left. I’ll keep my hummer feeders cleaned and filled for at least a couple of more weeks, especially if it stays warm. The next outbreak of fall cold will likely drive the rest of our hummers farther south.
Spending outdoor time letting the changing season soak in is like getting a dose of good medicine. Our nerves are on edge, and there’s much we can’t control in our lives right now. We can’t control the seasons either. We can depend on them, though, and focusing on something dependable is reassuring and comforting.