fall: on the bay

In the woods, fall seems to settle subtly. All seems warm and homey, between the comforting colors, and the unhurried scurrying and storing of the blue jays and chipmunks and squirrels. Meanwhile, the bay and beach show fall’s harsher face. There’s more anxious motion, all the shorebirds frantically chasing the waves up and down the beach for tidbits of food, or huddling with half-lidded eyes against the unrelenting breeze.

These piping plovers were so determined to conserve their hard-won energy, and so well camouflaged in their tiny bird wallows, I didn’t notice them until they skittered away, practically underfoot. If I’d seen them sooner I’d have walked well outside their comfort zone!

The dunes are painted ocher and mustard and tan, burned out from the summer sun. Red is represented only by luscious rosehips and the crimson poison ivy leaves twined warningly around all the dune grass.

There’s still a feast to be gathered among the dunes, though. Bayberries and roots and insects, northerly fish swimming in to enjoy the cooler water, and a slow moving river of other migrant birds trickling through on their way to their winter grounds. Feast for all of these, and a visual feast for me. Mmmm.

travel bug

Almost all Monarch butterflies in North America spend the winter hibernating in pine forests on a mountain range in Mexico, except for a small contingent that steals away to winter in southern California. In the spring, they flutter down the mountain, and head north into the southern U.S. They lay their eggs after a few weeks, and then they die. The butterflies that hatch from that first generation will never, ever, ever see the mountain forests their parents sojourned in. Neither will their children.

Once, biologists believed that Monarchs completed the annual cycle in two generations: parents overwintered, migrated north, reproduced, died; that summer’s young ate, grew, pupated, metamorphosed, migrated south, hibernated, and started the cycle again. Then, someone asked the (possibly stupid) question: Are we sure about that? And they realized they weren’t sure. So someone gave someone else money to glue teeny tiny tracking devices to unreliable butterflies for possibly no very good reason at all, except to satisfy a silly sort of wager. Science is awesome. It revealed a miracle.

Each year, Monarch butterflies push north in three waves, each generation migrating, reproducing, and dying, until their decendants are spread throughout North America. Then, starting in late August, the great grandbabies of the overwintered butterflies turn around, and begin relentlessly pressing south, aiming for mountains they’ve never seen. Their great grandparents are long gone. No one tells them where to go, or shows them how to get there. Some mysterious, miraculous biological switch flips only in that fourth generation, and millions of butterflies from the four corners of the continent navigate past cities, mountains, and enormous lakes they can’t possibly use as landmarks to end up in the same sheltered area in the Mexican mountains to sleep for a few months.

Genetic GPS. It’s the next big thing. And a big, old thing.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen more Monarch butterflies than I could have counted all summer. They flutter singly across parking lots. They doggedly beat their way west down the highway, slipstreaming over my hood and up my windshield (fortunately evading the grill of my car). And they blow onto the beach from open water in long skeins, presumably after realizing there’s no land south of Long island until Antarctica. So many butterflies, I’d almost stopped noticing them.

The other evening, I drove down to the bayside marsh to feel the sunset on my eyelids. Butterflies bobbed overhead, dozens at a time, all headed west. As the sun sank lower, they started lighting on trees and shrubs, letting me sneak closer peeks. They’d startle and re-settle, a handful here and there.

The sun dipped lower, and I headed back to my car. As I buckled my seat belt, a woman drove up next to me, rolling down her window. “I saw you were taking pictures. I thought you’d like to know, there’s something amazing happening in a tree up the road.”

Note to self: people tell you about wonderful things when you carry a camera. Self, carry a camera all the time.

The light was fading behind me as I pulled off onto the gravel in front of a now-quiet nightclub. “So Long, Summer 2012!” the sign read. Suckers, I thought. They don’t know what they’re missing. I crossed the empty road to a stubby line of pine trees, and shoved through the branches into a small clearing. As soon as I stepped out, the trees erupted into orange wings. Butterflies by the thousands tiled the branches of the pines, hanging like umber flags among the pinecones and needles. So many, their wing beats drummed the air like a muffled bass, while the dusty, singed scent of their accumulated furry bodies tingled in my nose.

I really can’t disguise how awesome I thought this was, this phenomenon in my backyard, this (random? annual?) event that connects my place with another, entirely different place. Just as they would thousands of miles and several weeks from now, they had gathered by the horde, perched safely out of reach of cherry-picking predators, to be warmed overnight by the concentration of their collective metabolism. They’d been funneled here by a coincidence of geology and polar magnetism, the stretched arm of Long Island reaching northeast out into the Atlantic to catch them before the open ocean, to safely guide them westward to the mainland, and on southward to Mexico.

Next September, I’ll head down to the bay with some year-old questions of my own to answer. When I go back, will their great-grandbutterflies be there too, in the same trees, in the same numbers? Or will I eventually seek them out in their mountain refuge, with the scent-memory of their accumulation tugging me south at last?

owl be seeing you (part 2)

I woke up early on a cold Sunday morning. After quietly closing the bedroom door, I slipped into the long underwear and fleece I’d set out on the couch before I went to sleep. Joe, the guide who led the prior night’s screech owl hike, had told me about a snowy owl spotted nearby, and I meant to find it. But I didn’t intend to freeze my tail off doing it.

At a convenient intersection of desire and opportunity, the year I decided to find a snowy owl they’re so common they’ve garnered news coverage all over the country. (“No snow tonight, or for the next month, but a sight chance of snowy owl might be in the forecast. Stay tuned for details after the break.”) Snowy owl populations boom and bust in cycles closely tied to the annual reproductive success of little rodents called lemmings (known, perhaps falsely, for mindless plunges into the freezing ocean). Most winters in this area feature enthusiastic reports from birdwatchers lucky enough to spot a rare straggler. This is a boom year thanks to an abundance of tasty lemming snacks to feed baby owls. More owlets lived through the northern summer, and now all those teenaged owls have to roam far and wide south of the Arctic Circle to find food to survive their first winter.

The 7 a.m. sun beamed into my car as I sped across the bay bridge. That’s one of my favorite moments from these early mornings – the silence of the car, the warm, gold light of the rising sun, the tires humming over the arc of the bridge, and the blue, crisp water below, sweetened with anticipation for a brisk morning ramble.

And baby, was it cold. Cold enough for the sand to freeze my cheeks through all my snug layers as I sat on the beach to stabilize my lenses. Between the waves on the bay and the wind rattling my grip, the view through my binoculars wasn’t winning any motion picture awards. I barely caught the flash of white wings, and I fixed the lenses on a vague white blur settling onto a small island barely in range. It could have been my owl target, hunkering down to snooze after the night’s hunt. It could have been a big gull, perching on the sandbar to warm up its toes. I had little confidence in my ability to identify the fuzzy blob correctly. My epic wild animal encounter was dwindling to a riddle. I wanted better optics. I needed MORE POWER.

This is the view through my binoculars. The camera is zoomed in all the way, and the bird is just pixels:

I resorted to observation: way less exciting than National Geographic-style close-ups, but possibly worth more nature points. The blob lingered longer than a gull would, as birds in the winter need to eat as much they can while they’re awake. Its overall orientation appeared upright, compared to a gull’s horizontal posture. It didn’t move after it settled, suggesting that it had gone to sleep and wasn’t worried about predators.

The bird wouldn’t move, and my view wouldn’t improve. I concluded I’d probably seen a snowy owl, and ran home to warm up my tush. I was a little conflicted. The owls are almost commonplace this winter, dampening the excitement of the search with their availability. And then, had I really seen it? This was no event to write home about. My mom will read about it for the first time in this post. Deducing the bird’s identity from afar, instead of locking eyes with it for long, burning moments just didn’t have the power I’d imagined for this first sighting. I was inclined to say this didn’t count, to wait for a better story.

But then again, I saw a real snowy owl. Really.