Though we might prefer to spend more autumn hours in a fishing boat, on a deer stand or tramping through a shower of yellow leaves in an aspen grove in search of ruffed grouse, there are duties that clamor for our attention, too. Sometimes these duties win out over our preferences.
Fortunately, some of them are outdoors, where we can better appreciate the transitions that make Minnesota in the fall such a splendid place to be. Whether duty means raking leaves, putting a garden to bed, washing windows or similar “musts,” at least such tasks happen where we may need a sweatshirt to ward off the morning chill, or might see ground fog begin to form as the late afternoon air cools below the temperature of the earth; in other words, outdoors.
In a state with weather as changeable as Minnesota’s, we’re accustomed to keeping an eye on the sky. We’re wary of brooding clouds that threaten plans for time spent outdoors. We also appreciate clouds for their own sake, especially when they’re suffused with subtle or dramatic colors at sunrise or sunset. The 19th-century poet, essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson described the sky as “the daily bread of the eyes,” Nature’s beauty, accessible to all, and sustaining our spirits—or so he believed—as food sustains our bodies.
I’m tuned in to the sky for other reasons, especially at this time of year. Now is the time of flights southward for migratory birds, from tiny, darting, ruby throated hummingbirds, to lumbering, bomber-size trumpeter and tundra swans, plus geese, ducks and dozens upon dozens of songbirds.
During the calendar page-flipping week when September bowed out, and October took the stage, I had plenty of time under open skies, playing catch-up on a backlog of overdue chores. One was hauling boulders to reinforce a cabin shoreline, which the expansion of lake ice has had a habit of pushing into a lumpy berm during recent winters. Rock rip-rap is neither natural, nor does it contribute to a healthy lake, but—between high water in some years, and the “wake boat effect” on shorelines—it became unavoidable. Another chore—so far, with no end in sight—has been gathering up the blizzard of maple and birch leaves and conifer needles that have been dropping from the maples, ash and white pines.
When you’ve spent many hours in a duck blind, with senses on high alert much of the time, you acquire the habit of picking up faint, distant sounds, and almost imperceptible movement. Sounds like the high-itched gabble of Canada geese, often heard before being seen when they’re flying at several thousand feet. This is migratory flight, not low-level commuting between feeding and resting areas. When you hear this, you lower the handles of that wheelbarrow full of rip-rap stones, or rest your chin on your rake, and scan the skies for their fluid, wavering lines, with each individual appearing insect-like at this ultimate height.
Not all migratory birds on the move can be heard. While ducks are conversant on the water, and can be vocal in flight—sometimes when alarmed—I can’t say I’ve heard any of the many species of ducks conversing at great height like geese do. Whether this is because they’re mostly silent in migration, or because they lack the big voice of Canada geese, I can’t say with certainty.
Another migrant whose vocals will draw your eyes to the skies is the sandhill crane. The crane looks a lot like a land-based version of the great blue heron, but they’re not even of the same family—let alone the same genus—despite sharing some feeding habits, and general appearance. Sandhill cranes have become more numerous over a broad area of Minnesota. They stand as much as four or five feet tall, with a wingspread of up to seven feet.
Their looks seem to me prehistoric, and their vocalizing is even more so. Anyone with Internet access can google “sound of sandhill cranes in flight,” and you’ll hear what I mean! They also migrate at high altitude, and it takes not just good directional sense in hearing, but sharp eyes to pick them out when they’re little more than specks high overhead.
In contrast to the large, loquacious and conspicuous geese and sandhill cranes, some migrants are noticed little, if at all. One of these is the quail-size American woodcock, a game bird that is typically found in habitat just on the wetter side of what is ideal for ruffed grouse, and is often harvested as a bird of opportunity by grouse hunters.
Most of us see woodcock as singles, when one is crossing or flighting along a rural road in forested country, usually at dawn or at dusk. Because woodcock migrate at night, and are not vocal in the manner of geese or cranes, migratory observations have been more limited. Flocks numbering in the dozens have been commonly reported; in the hundreds less so. At least one—said to be by a former game warden—reported “a flock numbering thousands,” but that seems the exception that proves the rule. Needless to say, I saw no large flights of woodcock in that time of catching up on overdue chores!
One of the migration behaviors that has amazed me is that of red-winged blackbirds. I’ve seen them in flocks numbering in the hundreds, moving as a perfectly synchronized mass, in twisting, swarming maneuvers, with directional changes that would make the Navy’s Blue Angels precision flying team envious. This is actually a pre-migration staging behavior, rather than destination-bound, pell-mell migratory flight. How they manage to coordinate their movements so precisely is beyond my understanding, but it’s a sight amazing to behold.
One more among the mysteries of migration.