Notes from a walk I took when I was still young, vital, and healthy---a week ago today.
Bird count: Blue Jays 25; Woodpeckers 1; all other species 0.
That was just between the house and the opening of the bike trail. The woodpecker wasn't one of the usual suspects. Flickers, downies, and hairy woodpeckers don't have that much blushing red on the backs of their heads. They wear their blazes like kerchiefs not hoods. Probably a red-bellied woodpecker. Couldn't get a look. It was very high up in this tree and kept itself in silhouette as I angled around trying for a better view.
No mistaking the blue jays though. None of them cared whether or not I was watching them. In fact, many of them seemed determined that I get a good look and they took up perches at close range. Low branches, fence posts, leaf litter not more than a half dozen yards ahead of me, I swear some would have landed on my shoulder if they happened to get tired while I was in convenient roosting reach. According to the guide books, this is their social time of year. Family groups mix with family groups to form loosely-knit but gregarious flocks sharing territories and food supplies. Many of the jays carried acorns in their beaks, which is also in line with the guide books.
I reported back in June that the town had cleared the section of the bike trail running south from here. That part of the trail has since been paved. A section running north has been cleared as well. I went north today.
I hear there's snow in parts of Ohio and Michigan and things are hellacious in Los Angeles, but when I started out on my walk the weather here was awfully pleasant for mid-November in Upstate New York. This part of the trail is still unpaved and it hadn't dried out from the rain over the weekend. But it wasn't wet. Freezing temperatures overnight took care of that. The gravel crunched underfoot with the pleasant sound of breaking ice, the puddles in the ruts in the trail had rough skins of brown ice over them.
A week ago, Jennifer, alerted by her painter's eye, noted the sudden switch in nature's moods that marks the change from October to November out in her part of Illinois. October, in spirit and in light and color, hung around past its stated end on the calendar and then, in the blink of an eye...
The majority of our trees stayed green forever this fall. There were a few that changed on scheduled, but so many were full and green and showed no signs of giving up the ghost. Same for the flowers and the warmth. Yes, the days were noticeably shorter and the angle of the sun was drastically different, but somehow it seemed like October would go on forever even as we flipped the calendar over to November.
And then it happened. The rest of the leaves all got on board, the flowers yielded to the frost and November grabbed hold of the earth and my soul. I looked out the other day and the sky was an unmistakable periwinkle that only November can bring. I looked at it and thought, it's just a blustery, moody sky. What is it that makes it look so purple in November?? Ah yes, it's the contrast to all of the blazing gold leaves that haven't fallen yet. The loud leaves are amping up the purple that might otherwise be mistaken for gray. It's pretty in its own somber way and while it's nice to look at, something about it reminds me it's time to turn back in... time to gather up my attention to a life that will be lived mostly inside for the next number of months. Even though we are moving into one of the more social seasons, this time of year also seems like the most introverted. Nature is pulling back in and so do I. The action will go on behind the scenes and we'll be showered with artificial light as opposed to the bright light of day.
Sky here isn't periwinkle, but then there's very little gold left in the trees to make the contrast and amp up the purple. Below the blue sky the landscape I walked through was all gray and black and brown and tan and faded blond, except for the bright red of the berries remaining on the sumacs...
...and the sapphire blue blacks and clean cotton sheet white bellies of the jays.
Plenty of them in here too, verifying the guide books, doing their social and gregarious thing, visiting relatives, making plans for Thanksgiving, catching up. Saw one of them do something I don't remember ever observing any other bird, except a hawk, do on the wing before, consciously make decisions about which way he wanted to fly. He was loafing his way towards me, doing the aerial equivalent of a leisurely stroll, flapping his wings lazily and only as often as he needed in order to keep himself aloft and moving forward, and he turned his head this way and that as he flew, making slight alterations in his course quite clearly based on something he'd spotted up ahead, as if on the lookout for familiar landmarks to navigate by, as if thinking, "What did Aunt Martha say again? Bear left at the third stump past the chokecherry, bank right again fifteen degrees when the pond shaped like an acorn comes into view..."
Probably all birds do this, but they're flying too high and too fast for me to see it for what it is. Hawks, being large, dramatic, bold, and not at all shy about what they're up to, are obvious about it. And you know exactly what they're thinking.
Speaking of hawks, although the blue jays outnumbered other species along the trail by about 5 to 1, those other species included more of variety than was represented by the lone redbellied woodpecker back in town. The path is edged in on both sides by trees and shrubs, thickly enough that at some points it feels as though you're walking through dense woods. But what's really on either side of you are acres of abandoned farm land that has not been reclaimed by trees yet. It's all wide-open meadows and fields, ideal hunting ground for hawks, and towards the end of the this part of the trail I came to a stretch bare of cover on one side and on that one side were several acres of tall, dry, blond grass over which five red-tailed hawks looped and sailed, screaming out loudly to one another.
Stirred up a prayer meeting of mourning doves meditating in the leaf litter, had to stop to let a gang of red-breasted nuthatches cross the path at nose level---they landed on the bare branches of a small hawthorn and eyed me truculently. their rust-colored, not actually red, chests puffed out, pointing their long, hard-looking black beaks at me, as if to let me know that small and pretty were not synonyms for meek and harmless---and startled a little flock of juncos into acting out the part of the junco in Robert Frost's poem The Woodpile:
A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather--
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.
If it was a group audition, they would all be perfectly cast in the part.
Last month I wrote about how the sight of juncos---snowbirds---on my front lawn in the middle of October when not only wasn't there any snow but there were still green leaves on the trees unnerved me. Coming upon a flock of them in the woods in November, though, isn't nearly as disturbing. Winter is in the air and in the light, even if the temperature is still pleasantly in the autumnal range, and that snow in the midwest isn't going to stay put. The juncos reminded me of a comment on that post I meant to highlight at the time. Comment came from strudel guy of Strudel and Shotguns:
The dark-eyed juncos are my friends. We've already had numerous hard freezes here in the Piedmont of Virginia and they have favorably sharpened my memory of my native upstate New York at this time of year. I first met the dark-eyed juncos in the spring of 2005 while carrying a pack along the spine of the Blue Ridge on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Their gentle chirps and white-blazed tail feathers became familiar and welcome companions, especially on days when I was very nearly a beaten man. It was when I was the most hurting and drained, weakened and dimmed, that my spirit was at its lowest ebb, that I was open enough and my mind quiet enough to appreciate those birds. In turn, at times like those, the birds seemed to sense my beat down condition and were less likely to skitter away at my approach, but instead would hop along the trail just feet ahead of me. Over time, as I learned to walk in the woods, I also learned to see more than just the juncos, which was exactly why I had come to the woods in the first place. In the winter, at least down here, the dark-eyed juncos come down from the high country some miles to the west and mob the thistle seed in the feeders. I'm glad to see them, these friends of mine. In summer we feed hummingbirds; in the winter, it's the dark eyed juncos, down from the mountains for a snack.
For a while I was followed by a pair of downy woodpeckers, a male and a female. The male was less stand-offish than the female and a bit of a show-off. His best trick was to go after a bug on the end of a thin woody vine dangling from a locust tree. He lit on the tip of the vine and hung there, the vine swinging under his weight and the force of his pecking, like a kid playing Tarzan.
Mammals were represented along the trail by only two of their classification, me and a squirrel.
This stretch of the trail runs about two miles along what was once the bed of a railroad to New York City. Came across only this sign that trains ever passed this way. Looks like a gravestone, doesn't it? Tomb of the unknown signalman.
It's made of wood with rusty iron truss work behind to hold it up. Don't know what the 25 means. It looks as if it was added long-after the marker itself went into the ground. Trains stopped running in the late 1940s.
It's an illusion allowed by distance and accidents of development and neglect that I could make this walk imagining that I was looking at a landscape not all that different from one John Burroughs might have seen a hundred years ago had he wandered this way, and he might have, for all I know, he lived not too far from here and liked to wander. But the trail dumped me out smack dab in the 21st Century, on a road at the edge of the grounds of a state prison where I got beeped at by a passing SUV whose driver I presumed recognized me, the beep being a quick friendly beep and not a get out to the road, you moron honk.
The sky had clouded up since I'd started out and a strong, decidely Novemberish wind had begun to blow. The wind bit right through me as soon as I was out of the shelter of the trees along the path. I'd set out in the fall and walked through the season into the onset of winter. Long way to walk in one morning.
Thought about turning around and heading back along the way I'd just come, but I was suddenly feeling lonely. The wind was blowing from the west, but I turned into it and followed the road a quarter of mile or so until it forked. There I turned sharply to the south and followed the river back into town, sheltered again from the wind by trees and comforted by the smell of woodsmoke from the chimneys of the houses along the way.