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Just two weeks ago, I found a good-sized garter snake basking on a low rock wall behind Engineering Hall on the University of Illinois campus. It was taking advantage of the sun and seventy-one degree air temperature. I didn’t know it at the time, but now am reasonably certain it was the last wild snake I’ll see in 2013. That’s because garter snakes, like most other reptiles and amphibians, deal with the advent of cold weather by getting below the frost line and remaining inactive until spring.
Recent weeks have seen a number of other turning points in the cycle of seasonal animal activity.
Chimney swifts, the small, dark gray “flying cigars” that enliven our skies for six months out of the year are gone, with the last local sighting confirmed on the Birdnotes listserv on October 13. Chimney swifts winter in South America and return north in mid April, just as we’re filing income tax returns. (Do you think people in Columbia or Peru consider chimney swifts “their” birds and say, “They summer in North America”?)
[Photos by author: garter snake basking on rock wall on October 14; yellow-rumped warbler gleaning minute pirate bugs from a hackberry tree in my yard.]
Of course in the world of birds and birders fall is not just a time of departures but one of arrivals as well. Yellow-rumped warblers, which summer in Canada and northern tier states, have descended on east central Illinois in force. A person who is attuned to it their characteristic “chip” can hear it throughout the day all over town. A couple of weeks ago more than a hundred yellow-rumped warblers spent the afternoon feasting on the minute pirate bugs that swarmed around the hackberry trees in my back yard. Some swooped out from branches to catch the pirate bugs in the air (a feeding behavior known as “hawking”), while others picked them from the tree bark (known as “gleaning”).
Many different types of sparrows have also moved down from the north for the winter. Dark-eyed juncos, sporty gray birds with a distinctive white bill have arrived, so keep an eye out for them at feeders. So have white-throated sparrows, which you may hear singing now and again even in the fall, although they typically do only a half-hearted, shortened rendition of their Spring song.
For much of my life, these transitional weeks represented an end of consistent outdoor activity until the return of warmer weather, but that has changed with my adoption of new outdoor pursuits.
A few years back I bought myself a good digital camera and telephoto zoom lens, which enable me to do bird photography. I find photographing birds much more engaging than simply finding and identifying them. It’s extremely gratifying to return from outings with photos and be able to share them with other people via social media. And because birds are active throughout the year there’s really no off-season for bird photography.
Along similar lines—at least from my perspective—I’ve also begun hunting, mostly for deer. Because of that, I now anticipate fall and winter just as eagerly as I do spring and summer, maybe more. I realize some people don’t think of hunting as a pursuit that’s compatible with concern for the environment, but I do. I’ll come back to the topic in a future commentary to explain why.