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Naturally Speaking: Listen for the changing season

Fall doesn’t arrive for more than a month according to the calendar, but if you stop to listen it’s clear that the season is changing. In some ways it’s not what you hear that’s changing; it’s what you don’t hear. I like to go out on our deck about sunrise with a cup of coffee and maybe something to read. The noise of nearby Highway 30 is always there at our Nevada home, but between the roar of passing trucks and howling tires, I can inventory bird songs. They have almost ceased as the spring and early summer pressure to defend nesting territories has been replaced with the final chores of feeding fledglings until they are ready to live their lives independently. Cardinals and robins still sing a little, but the exuberance and length of their earlier performances is gone. The two male cardinals that visit my feeder still don’t get along well enough to share the feeder at the same time, but they no longer chase each other all over the neighborhood.

The cardinal kids are coming with their parents now. Their nests apparently escaped detection by local cowbirds. A single parasitic cowbird egg in almost any bird nest means that the host parents are not likely to raise any of their own young from that nest. Even the little chipping sparrows managed to raise a baby or two of their own, a most unusual feat given the number of cowbirds I was seeing earlier in the year.

I miss the cheerful chatter of the barn swallows that nest above our front door. They were so beautiful and tame as they perched only a few feet above my head when I went about the daily chore of watering flowers. Their four babies left more than two weeks ago. I again got to watch first flights for a couple of them and marveled at how quickly they mastered their flight skills. The bluebird pair successfully fledged their four young ones nearly a month ago. I saw the male for a few days after that, but they’re gone now, too. The wrens raised several broods of young around the yard and are still around, but they, too, appear to be done nesting.

Insect sounds have begun to replace bird songs as we enter that time known as the “dog days of summer” (named after Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the sky that shines prominently at this time of year). Katydids and cicadas hum away the warm afternoons and evenings. Crickets will soon join them. Dry conditions for the past month and more have pretty much eliminated one of the insect sounds that people don’t enjoy much, the whining of mosquitoes, at least here in town. My guess is that they still await an evening walker in the deeper woods along our rivers and streams.

Fall migration has already begun for some species. Shore birds that nest in far northern Canada have already raised their young and are retracing their long migrations to more southern areas, as far away as South America. Hummingbirds are fueling up for their trip to Central American at feeders and flower beds. Now would be a good time to put out a hummer feeder if you’ve never tried that. Showy adult males will be the first to leave our area but are still here. The females and young of the year will hang around even into early October some years if it doesn’t get too cold. The young are particularly tame and will sometimes feed right in front of your face. I well remember the delight my daughter had as she attempted to rehang a freshly filled feeder. The little hummers were swarming around her and feeding from it before it left her hand.

Schools will be in session in a couple of weeks. Try to get the kids outdoors for some special memories at least a few more times before they have to “return to work.”

(Steve Lekwa is a retired director of Story County Conservation.)

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