John Garbutt, Class of 2019
When is it safe to dream of autumn’s cooler days and colors? Is it perhaps today (early August), a day when Texans rejoiced, for the consecutive streak of twenty-one days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit was broken with an official high temperature of 99 degrees? Or was yesterday the day, when two southbound migrants, a Yellow Warbler and an Empidonax flycatcher, flittered about the foliage running along the creek as I sat and rested after a morning run? Knowing a Sam Adams Octoberfest awaited in the fridge for later in the day, it briefly felt like autumn was on the horizon. Though it was still only mid-August, the dreams would have to await.
For some, they begin to dream of fall on September 1st, meteorological fall, or perhaps it is later in the month on the autumnal equinox. Or some, like myself, hold dear a safety threshold based on cumulative southward bound avian schedules that say autumn is okay to dream about. Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac referred to the Upland Sandpiper’s “whistled reminder of impending fall” on August nights. For me, hearing them in August is another sign of the impending shift to autumn as “shorebirds” are the vanguard of the autumn shift. Though August is just two weeks old; other early southward migrants: Yellow Warblers, Orchard Orioles, and Lark Sparrows are teasers of what dreams may come.
A calling juvenile Mississippi Kite at Frisco Commons lets me know that autumn is on the way. By early September, the park can become a temporary home for southward bound Kites as they gather in groups in an attempt to perpetually remain in a spring and summer state. Dreaming of a season advancing southward behind these kites is now more of a possibility.
Here, is where this article was left, two weeks into August, as if the seasonal gods scoffed at my audacity to dream of things autumnal and forced me to delay this writing until the first week of November, and later January. Ironically, that next August day produced a slight wind from the north and the day began in the mid-70s instead of the mid-80s. In my daily notes in which I later hoped to piece this together from, I noted the Barn Swallows still swarmed and called overhead, and summer still firmly controlled my dreams.
While working on habitat restoration for the chapter, flowers of late summer including Leavenworth Eryngo and Snow on the Prairie teased a changed on the horizon. A few mornings later as I walked to my car, I noticed an absence of something which had been there for over five months, no Barn Swallows were calling overhead, the sky now deprived of their acrobatics.
As August wound down, records fell at DFW with highs of 110. Despite this heat, the Olive-sided Flycatcher at Frisco Commons instinctively knew autumn was on its way as it paused here on its southward flight. The Scissor-tailed Flycatchers had I had seen daily had departed. Though a common site through September, the ones familiar to me had moved on, their parental duties complete. The species will continue another year. The Common Nighthawks had also departed; they’d completed their part in summer’s evening symphony. Chimney Swifts still called overhead, one of the few remnant sounds of summer, reminding me that I could not yet dream of fall.
As the month entered the final week, a north wind returned. Is it true that the Cottonwood sounds different when the northern wind blows through its leaves? To me, on this morning, it did. The wind produced a kettle of kites and the first of the Clay-colored Sparrows heading south. The sound of the morning birding hour was now full of the sound of marching band practice. These signs on the precipice of meteorological fall tempted me to dream of fall but summer’s influence still held.
On September 8th at 6am, I spotted a Common Nighthawk. It had been nearly a month since I last saw one. I paused to take in the nighthawk’s silent flight as it darted through the parking lot’s lights. One is usually attuned to their presence through their constant calling. Now it was silent with no territory to hold, no mate or offspring to locate. It had one mission, to head south. I knew this would be the last time to see one this year. Something in the finite nature of that realization was saddening, yet comforting that the cycle keeps perpetuating.
Now mid-September, something about this weekend, I could feel it as I got to the Commons with morning temperature in the 60s. I spotted my first southbound Nashville Warbler, for me, a key species that fall migration is peaking. Wilson’s Warblers! One I missed in the spring. A flock of White-faced Ibis flew overhead. Blue-headed Vireos, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Least Flycatchers, Yellow Warbler, an Orange-crowned Warbler, and then a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, the first arrival bird. The crossover of birds, those with continuing southward flights and a fall arrival, had me the most excited I had been since spring migration. Returning the following day and for the first time since March, I did not see a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. I then knew it was safe to dream about fall.