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Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Valley Teetering…

Summer breathes its last...

On the brink of Fall. You wake up one morning in mid August and summer is gone. Just that fast. During the night it fled the Valley under cover of darkness. This morning the Valley, as if in lament, sighs mist and fog. Summer is dead and you smell it in the air—the stench of fall, the reek of all those unfinished projects, chores, and intentions left unfulfilled. This summer, what there was of it, is spent. You’ve heard of summer vacation? Well, this year it took one.

The Valley birds sense it, too. Just yesterday a flock of Canadian geese clamored over, drifting lazily southward. Their cries were tentative, tinged with uncertainty: something urged them into flight. Today the flight is aimless, but they are restless waterfowl. I believe these small flocks are locals and don’t migrate, don’t seek the upper atmosphere jet streams that allow them to “draft” south, seeking those warmer climes. These are not the skeins of geese of my childhood, large bands of fifty or more whose migratory “V’s” were nearly invisible against the gray autumn clouds, their presence sometimes detected only by a faint clamor of purpose. I call these local bands commuter geese. They fly from cornfield to cornfield, from one lakeside park to the next; ample forage for a “staycation”here; no need to head down south for greener pastures .

The jays are jabbering, too, those cocky corvids. Their jawboning is another sign summer is out of season. I’m not totally conversant in Jayspeak, but I know what’s  going on in their clever little birdbrains. The topic of the day: hazelnuts, this year’s crop, which is ripe for harvest.hazelnuts for the pickin' Theirs is a stealthy thievery: they stalk their prey as if it were about to flee at any moment. Flitting silently from tree to tree, branch to branch, they skulk around like burglars until they spy an unsuspecting nut. And then it’s attack with a vengeance. Snatch it from the stem and dart off to some large branch against which they whack open the shell and devour the meat.

nut picker

Our steel-blue critters are Stellar’s jays, not the American Blue Jay which resides east of the Rockies. But a jay is a jay, its persona defined by its jaunty topnotch in much the same way as cartoon character Woody Woodpecker’s flaming red tuft of feathers crowns a devil-may-care sauciness. A jay is a curious bird. And I’m a curious bird, too. Answer me this, you birders out there: “How is it a jay knows a nut contains no meat?” Walk about under any hazelnut tree after the jays have had their way with it. You will find several whole nuts lying about and wonder “How did those rascals overlook these?” But pick up any one of those leftovers, crack it open, and you’ll find nothing but air. “How do it know?” I wonder. There are those who think animals live just in the moment, for the moment. I don’t believe this at all about jays. They plan for the future. They must. How else to account for all the hazelnut saplings that sprout up in cultivated hedges. The same goes for the walnut trees that suddenly appear on the edge of things. Once I found a walnut in the fresh dirt of a mole mound. Surely you don’t think a mole planted it there! (Squirrels are more short-sighted; they bury nuts for later use, although I’m sure they don’t retrieve all they bury.) Seems like every spring I have to make the rounds of the property, pull up and destroy the random orchards and future harvests that no longer will be around to fill the craw of some forward thinking jay. And if jays do plan ahead, they need to heed this warning: better lay by all the hazelnuts you can, you pesky squawkers; this year you’ll be lucky to find a half dozen walnuts on the big walnut tree out back.

The swallows are making the most of these shorter days, too, feasting heartily on the Valley insects. (I’ve heard a single swallow consumes upwards of two hundred bugs a day.) They know they need to “bulk up” for their long flight south. This year’s fledglings, sensing their parents’ urgency,  join them in the hunt. Soon they’ll congregate on the power lines, adults and young alike, gathering forces for their departure; one day, like summer, they’ll be gone.

My bees, whose short lives are governed by the god Helios, the sun of summer and the long hours of sunlight, in a subtle way announce a change of season, as well. The fruit has set on the blackberries, leaving the bees to forage at random: on garden flowers, field dandelions and flowering weeds, broccoli florets—desperate for anything in bloom from which to glean a drop of nectar, a grain of pollen. I look at their hives and know what’s going on within. What with the shorter hours of daylight,  brood production has slacked, the colony’s trimming their population to winter’s leanness, a balance between numbers and stores. And those freeloaders, the drones, don’t know it but their days are few and numbered. But this dearth of nectar is a boon for the garden and the winter’s pantry. There’s scarcely a cucumber, squash, or pumpkin blossom that isn’t being, hasn’t been, visited by a bee, a sure guarantee for winter pickles, squash soup, golden pumpkin pie.

Day laborer

A final sign of summer’s departure is the appearance on the place of the Woodland Skipper butterfly (Ochlodes sylvanoides). These fiery little dervishes whirligig  everywhere, nectaring among the zinnias, sampling the lobelia, sunning themselves wherever, flitting at will fearlessly about. A reaffirmation second only to the “Back to School” sales was this sprightly little butterfly’s  “in your face” flaunting that you’d soon be marching back to the classroom to battle with yet another year’s crop of sophomores: that you’d have to head for the closet, snag an idled tie, and practice how to retie it. I’m a great fancier of butterflies, have a growing collection of Washington State’s finest, but the sight of that little orange vagabond always filled me with dread. Now that those days are behind me, all I have to fear from these busy little insects is the winter that’s just around the corner.

 Skippers of Fall

 Bee skipper

Just a brief return to the subject of jays before I sign off. If you want to learn more about avian audacity, a jay’s facility for language, its penchant for gossip—and love of nuts--I suggest you read Mark Twain’s delightful short story “What Stumped the Bluejays.” I’ve included the link for you if you want to take the time. If not, I’ll leave you with a quote from the story, an observation of Twain’s that in my opinion is of universal and timeless import: “A jay hasn’t any more principle than a Congressman.” Makes me wonder just what sort of outrage a jay once perpetrated against the irascible Mr. Twain. Might have been nothing more than yammering about fall.

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