Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Songless September

Bill Meredith

For it’s a long, long time
From May to December,
And the days grow short
When you reach September...

The name of Zino Davidoff was never a household word to most people, but to cigar smokers he was the ultimate authority. Until his death a few years ago he ruled over what was arguably the world’s premier cigar store, in Zurich, Switzerland. From there he dispensed his products to the famous and the commoner alike, and provided a philosophy to go with them: "A good cigar should be enjoyed only during moments of repose and reflection."

I enjoy remembering Zino. In the evening when supper and the evening news are over, I like to sit down on the porch, light my daily ration, and assume an attitude of repose while I reflect on the state of the world, watch the sunset, and listen to the birds that share my part of the local ecosystem. This is a type of bird watching you can do with your eyes closed; from my porch I can hear over 20 species of birds on a good evening.

Such good evenings are common from early in May through most of summer. But the days grow short when you reach September; and regardless of how this may affect human romance, it completely shuts down the love life of birds. Several weeks before the equinox, the pineal gland detects the shortening day length and alerts the pituitary, which signals for the reproductive system to knock it off with the hormones. Behavioral changes ensue: singing stops, territorial defense is abandoned, summer feathers are molted (resulting in color changes in some species), and birds begin storing fat for winter survival, or for migration if they have a mind to.

As a rule, I hate the slang teenagers use, but there are times when it expresses feelings better than standard English, and this is one of those times: when it comes to bird watching, September is the pits. It is a time of transition: summer residents are leaving, winter residents are arriving, and permanent residents are shuffling about restlessly as if they feel guilty about not migrating. And worst of all, none of them are singing. There are birds around, but you have to work to find them; sitting on the porch and listening won’t get it done.

The swallows have already gone south; they left in the last week of August as they always do. The chipping sparrows slipped away in quiet despair even earlier after the neighbor’s cat destroyed their nest for the second time. The last of our young hummingbirds left around the 15th; its parents probably were already in Costa Rica by then. The robins, catbirds and house wrens are still here, but they’ve left the yard; they’re quietly feeding in the fields, woods and hedgerows. Some normally solitary species like song sparrows are starting to form flocks with sentinels posted for safety, and they sneak quietly away before you can find them.

A dozen or more species of warblers regularly move through the area this month on their way from Canada to Central and South America, but even if you do find them, you can’t tell them apart unless you’re really good at it. They are a great source of frustration to the average birder like me. The females and juveniles have molted into a dull gray-green drab color that blends into the background; they all look alike this time of year. The males of some species retain enough color to permit identification, but you can’t see them against the changing colors of the leaves, and they aren’t singing.

Hawks have started migrating. At the groundbreaking ceremony for Mother Seton School, while everyone else had their attention fixed on the speakers, I watched over 30 broad winged hawks riding a thermal directly overhead. They sailed in from all directions at the bottom of the rising air mass, circled upward until I could no longer see them, and eventually glided off toward Guatemala and points southward--quietly, of course. Hawks don’t know how to sing any time of the year.

Instead of singing, we have to be satisfied with gossip and bickering. I like to hear geese chatting as they fly over, and chickadees have a pleasant lilt to their speech pattern; but Crows and Bluejays will never qualify for the choir. And then there are the blackbirds. There is a river in the sky over my house; it is dry most of the year, but in September it fills up to flood level with black birds every evening. They number in the thousands, and they arrive in a Hitchcockian stream a few hundred feet wide and stretching as far as the eye can see, from the farms where they spent the day foraging to the trees where they will roost for the night, squawking and clacking all the way. Some of them are really blackbirds--grackles whose tail feathers have been lost in the fall molt, redwings that have lost most of the red from their wings, cowbirds, and an occasional rusty blackbird that has wandered off course from the flyways farther west-- all mixed in with the inevitable starlings, which are black but not blackbirds. None of them can carry a tune, even in the spring. This will go on until the weather gets cold and the flocks drift further south.

Eventually September will end--it always does. The last chimney swifts will leave on their non-stop flight to Argentina; and the first juncos and white-throated sparrows will arrive from Canada. Ducks and assorted waterfowl will pause in their southward drift to decorate the local farm ponds until the water freezes. None of them will sing--but I’ll get used to it. Fall won’t be so bad....’til we reach December.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith