Thursday, July 30, 2009

Make the most of opportunities for outdoor activity in August

Make the most of opportunities for outdoor activity in August

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August is here, the beginning of the end of summer. The thought struck me last Sunday when I observed a scattering of cottonwood leaves already on the ground. I was picnicking with family and friends prior to a short float on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River when I noticed them. The grass on which the leaves lay was uncharacteristically green for this time of year, thanks to the abundant rain we’ve enjoyed over the summer. But the cottonwood leaves were the gray-brown color of a paper grocery sack left out in the sun.

Why cottonwood leaves begin to turn brown and drop so early in the year I don’t know. But I take their appearance as a signal that it’s time to make the most of every opportunity for outdoor activity.

What can you do with August?

Some time on a river is always high on my list, since water levels are usually stable at this time of year. For the price of a forgettable hour at the county fair, you can enjoy a leisurely day in a canoe or a kayak or a float tube. If the river is low you may need to portage here and there, but shallow water has its upside, too. It allows inexperienced paddlers to practice maneuvering in a relaxed environment. And it affords access to small treasures of the river that are hidden by higher water, crayfish, mussels, and tadpoles among them.

On a river--and elsewhere--August offers its own opportunities for birding. Shorebirds, including plovers, sandpipers, and the like, can be seen probing for food on gravel bars, or along the edges of just about any body of water. They are on their way from the northern tundra, where they breed, to the Gulf Coast and points south, where they winter. Like cottonwood trees that begin to shed leaves so early, many shorebirds begin fall migration while other birds are still enjoying summer.

If you have been meaning to set up a nectar feeder for hummingbirds but haven’t gotten around to it yet, August is the time. You can enjoy seeing hummingbirds in great numbers between now and the end of September as individuals that breed further north collect here on their way south.

A visit to a prairie remnant or restoration in August offers opportunities to appreciate the plants that put the “tall” in tallgrass prairie. The seed stalks of Indian grass and big bluestem will bolt to their full height this month, until they wave in the breeze above the heads of people who venture out to see them. The tallest flowering plants will be blooming, too. Look for the disc-shaped yellow flower heads of prairie dock and compass plant on nearly leafless stalks that may be eight or ten feet high.

Among the prairie plants August is also a month of great insect activity, a time to appreciate the chorus of grasshoppers, katydids and crickets, whether or not you can identify the individual singers.

If you’re like me, you’ll run out of time in August before you run through the list of things you mean to do, but that’s okay. That’s what warm weekends in September are for.