Credit: Elsa Lichman

We are experiencing changeable and unseasonable weather this fall, from rather frigid nights to some balmy days in the 80’s, where folks quite naturally return to shorts and T-shirts to meander, walk dogs, or run. Colors are starting to change yet warmth still embraces us. Then the torrential rains, a remnant of far-off hurricanes. Extreme weather conditions worldwide are harbingers of more global warming events, even as some of us race to find measures to remediate it. 

One dawn, my city views are bathed in a wash of fog, streetlamps and headlights creating eerie cones of light in the darkness.

At the public dock in Waltham, crystalline reflections on the water sparkle like gems. In a shady corner, an assortment of waterfowl pose companionably next to the road. An American black duck peacefully saunters, showing off the fancy dark streak on its head.  Mallards swim and then bathe in the shallows. We hear loud sounds of wings flapping, beating the water, as if these birds are enjoying a hot spa afternoon. A Canada goose preens, a telltale fluffy white underfeather clinging to its beak, in this tranquil scene. Then, amazingly, a swan hidden by foliage opens glorious large wings to shake them. Backlit by the strong sun, a white aura surrounds them, angelic, otherworldly. 

At the Mount Auburn cemetery, we encounter the intriguing small tree known for its “double blooming,” with its white summer floral clusters replaced by pink sepals, creating the illusion of another flowering. It is called Seven Sons, as each cluster has seven small flowers. We are fortunate to see the last of the white blooms among the sepals, which have previously enclosed all the blossoms. This shrub-like tree originates in the mountains of central China. Timing is everything! It reminds me of a visit to an island off the Georgia coast, with its fields of tall pink grasses waving in the wind. My only week there was the time of year this occurs.  

The day is warm and cool, as spots of red, orange, and yellow mix in with the mostly green foliage, a hint of the array of colors to come in the next few weeks. At Willow Pond, native plantings attract local birds, bees, and butterflies. A look-alike monarch flits from bloom to bloom and then to the seed pods of a milkweed plant, where monarchs lay their eggs. The seeds are attached to white fluff carried on breezes, slowly floating before coming to rest. Turtles line up on a log to catch the summer-like sun, not unlike humans holding on to that season. The willows shed their leaves very late, and new growth appears early in spring, their denuded season short. 

As I look skyward, I see a large hawk soar on hot air streams, at one point seeming to hover, resting for a brief interlude on those thermals. This way, they can save energy, as they carry out their enviable glides.

Wild turkeys stroll in and around antique gravestones, their shiny grays and muted dark feathers blending in to the color scheme in the changing light. 

For a change of pace, we head over to the Mt. Feake cemetery, and on entering, discover a large black bird at the very top of a scrawny spruce overlooking the river. Its blunt tail and overpowering beak give it away. It is a raven, a bird I have never seen here before, during all my birdwatching! I have seen a brood high on a tower at Prospect Hill Park in Waltham, ungainly chicks readying for their fledge from the nest. Once, at Mt. Feake years ago, someone placed a raven sculpture on each of the field stone pillars at the entrance. I imagined a candlelit reading of Poe’s famous poem, with the oft-repeated refrain, “Quoth the raven, nevermore.”  But the statues were removed, probably by cemetery staff, or perhaps only on loan from the mystery person who left them. 

At Walden Pond, after only a few days have passed, fall is finally in the air. Colors are muted and subdued, but yellows prevail; the countryside has changed, as greens are giving way to fall colors. 

Scents of hot mulled cider, bright orange pumpkins, and hot purple chrysanthemums fill the senses at farms and farm stands. My own golden delicious apple tree has its seasonal followers, as this year’s crop is huge. Neighbors and their friends and kids come with ladders, buckets, and bags, to collect from this bounty. This year is the best yet, the branches pulled down, laden with fruit. 

Many of our local raptors and small birds have joined the great seasonal migration. Hawks form funnel-like “kettles” in great numbers, sweeping up and up on thermals created over mountainous areas. There is a hawk watch station at Mt. Wachusett, with a tower manned by volunteers who come daily to create a count of the different species. I visited once, and found a typical birding community, folks sharing an interesting spot to observe, becoming friends and colleagues. One woman even brought her usual freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and offered then to all!

But some raptors stay behind. Bald eagles have found territories near us, which they check on during non breeding seasons. They have been seen at Walden Pond, the Lincoln-Concord area, and Arlington, and overwinter to begin an early breeding season in February. 

We see a red-tailed hawk at the tip of a dead branch, high up, surveying the vista, majestic, when two mockingbirds appear on neighboring branches. Soon they begin their harassment tactics, chasing after that hawk, as it flies from tree to tree to tree, to finally evade them in some bushy leaves. The smaller birds are fearless, as they have exquisite aerial maneuvers which protect them from attack. When this redtail hawk first takes off, wings spread wide, every inch of it is shining in the sun, aglow with a reddish hue. 

Colorado State University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology currently put out BirdCast, providing live and local migration alerts throughout the continental US. This is real time tracking by radar, available to all, showing low, medium, or high density of migration in a specific area. It is useful for utilizing protective tools such as turning off lights in cities during high migration nights, to avoid luring avians to them, which results in fatalities. This project is supported by a variety of agencies and benefactors. Visit BirdCast and choose local bird migration alerts, enter your city, and find a nightly current report, including maps of neon colors indicating intensity. 

Bats and insects are also seen and could be confusing, but bats have very specific timetables, and insects tend to travel with the wind, distinguishing both from bird patterns.

Birds use celestial cues to navigate at night, not unlike sailors of yore, but they also utilize the magnetic field, generated by our earth’s molten core, to determine their position and direction.

These abilities are unexpected, as we watch a group of starlings or other “ordinary” birds forage in our yards. Who would anticipate their almost uncanny intelligence? The more one delves into the complexities of our natural world, the more we appreciate it, and hopefully strive to protect all life on our planet. 

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  1. Exquisitely composed with no stone unturned, so to speak, I have never been into birdwatching except in my own back yard and are fascinated by their beauty and song! Elsa has a unique way of expressing her sightings and bringing you in to the point of visual stimulation and expertise, I always learn from her writings, love this! Thank you…..

  2. Beautiful column! Thank you for taking us on this journey. You noticed and so eloquently describe things that I’m unlikely to observe on my own, though now having read many of your columns I find that I’m more ibservant. Thank you for that too!

  3. In every column from Elsa we learn something new like the Bird Cast. Thanks Elsa for educating us on the complexities of nature and its myriad cast of characters!

  4. I feel so blessed to feel as if I have walked beside you. It’s as if I catch glimpses of these treasured moments you point out. Your eyes are so sharp, so observant. And your manner is that of a master teacher. Thank you for taking me along! I wish we lived closer to make this a heart to heart reality…to keep opening my eyes.

  5. Thank you Elsa. Once again, I get to see things through your eyes. It is always a pleasure. Here in Maine, on the 27th of October, one of our neighbors had a white lilac tree in bloom!

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