I just heard a wild goose call -- a long, lonesome echo up the empty, early valley. The air swirling around my toes from the open kitchen door is cool and silky and dark with promise. Days are shortening like a snapped rubber band, and just about as painfully.
Seems as if one week we come in from the barn with the sun still above the edge of the cow barn and the next we are hunting for flashlight batteries. One week the barnyard rings to the chittering of barn swallows, which finally colonized the heifer barn after five decades of absence, and the next they're gone. I love their silken-winged way of slicing through the air in shining circles, and I love the way they devour insects all day long. Besides chickadees, they seem to be my favorite birds. I miss them already.
They line up in rows on the power lines, hundreds at a time, and then, poof, off to the far, far south. By October they will be in South America, growing new feathers to replace the ones worn out migrating. The first returning breeders won't hit warm places like California until February at least, and New York won't see them for much longer than that, probably around May.
I keep giving up on the hummingbirds, although the feeder is full. Usually they do a few flights around the house before they leave, peering in the windows. However, this year the male, who slept all summer on a string on the sitting porch, just wasn't there one morning. I haven't seen him since. He too must be on his way to warmer climes.
It never fails to boggle my mind to think that these tiny, thumb-sized birds cross the Gulf of Mexico in one fell swoop. Even in the face of oncoming storms, they batter their way north to us, spring after spring. I start filling my feeders in April, although our birds here at the farm tend to be later arrivals. Certainly by May they will be back among us, fighting over the feeder and fussing through the flowers like gleaming gems of stoplight red and green. They don't call them ruby-throated for nothing.
I was rewarded one day this week, by the sight of just one little female, or juvenile male, guzzling sugar syrup like a desert traveler. Since "ours" haven't been around for a while, this was probably a passing migrant from somewhere farther north, just stopping in to refuel before its big air voyage. (Fultonville may have the truck stops, but the farm has the bird stops.)
According to Hummingbird.net, the little fellows are triggered to think about heading south by the shortening days, but it is how fat they are that determines when they leave. "For a hummer that just hatched, there's no memory of past migrations, only an urge to put on a lot of weight and fly in a particular direction for a certain amount of time, then look for a good place to spend the winter. Once it learns such a route, a bird may retrace it every year as long as it lives." Since the young are smaller, they hang around longer to eat.
They nearly double their weight each year and spend winters where it's warm and summers where it's beautiful. Maybe they know something we don't.
For the rest of the birds, silence is the rule. They are still out there, but they are done nesting and done singing as well. The never-ending song of the indigo bunting has been replaced by the shrieking of blue jays. Now and then the Carolina wren will natter about tea kettles for a few bars, but even those noisy little fellows have gone quiet.
The return of the absent jays is a mixed blessing. Gil, the English Shepherd hates them. Yes, the fool dog goes nuts every time he hears a blue jay call, barking and growling and snarling at the air. It makes it hard to do bird call quizzes that include jays. And it makes it miserable to work in the kitchen when the jays cruise by looking for trouble.
Only a robin or two remains to brighten the yard and I have a feeling that these, too, are fleeting migrants.
And then there was that sudden stranger flying over the house at rooftop level one day this week. I thought it was a turkey vulture. There have been a lot of them passing over very low lately, including a number of juvies, which can be distinguished by their black, rather than red, heads.
Suddenly, though, I realized that I was looking at a viciously curved mostly yellow beak, and white feathers interspersed with black. It was a young bald eagle, probably a 3-year-old. The amount of white and beak color indicated that it would soon reach adulthood. I have never seen one so close. I could even see it turn its golden eye to look down at me as I up looked at it.
Cows have lost their summer glow, especially the colored ones. The sun has faded carrot reds, and golden browns and cinnamons to brass, dull bronze, already shaggy almost-blacks. Colorful Asaki has turned sort of yellow, where earlier this year she was a red-and-white Holstein who lived up to her name. The black-and-white Holsteins are not as faded, nor are they as shaggy, but no doubt they soon will be changing coats for winter. Soon the two ponies will go from summer slick to winter Teddy bear, too, and become as round as apples.
Speaking of apples, I still marvel every day at the number that are coming along. If all goes well there will be applesauce and jelly aplenty.
At least this month, so far anyhow, is behaving itself. All year the calendar has been playing Scrabble with the weather. May usurped April. July was August and August June. At least September is acting like September and with any luck it will continue the trend.
Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS
is a regular columnist. She blogs