Mysteries of Migration

It was during one of those late summer, early autumn tea breaks on the deck when I noticed the swallows. How can you not notice swallows with their jet-like, acrobatic flying? Oh, what joy it might be to spend even just a few minutes of your life with such a freedom of flight! To think that the youngsters were emerging just weeks ago from the hollowed mud nests their parents like to mold to side of the house and wood shop, to now seeing them flying about like their parents. Actually it’s hard to tell them apart as the lessons and endurance of flight seems so important now.

Their flight from the studio elm into the adjacent prairie and back was the tipoff, for they would swoop off and make a loop or two around the studio, and maybe a short jaunt over the big bluestem, before heading back to perch and rest in the treetop. Not being privy into “swallow talk” they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. 

My deck almost seems like the center line of the flyway highway, and my old friend was here for a visit and had joined me for a glass of wine as we watched distant murmurations skitter across the prairie sky, then later as hundreds of distant birds careened across the farm fields with little hesitation and much determination. 

Swallows swooping over the canopy of the old elm mere moments before they suddenly disappeared on their autumn migration.

It is that time of year, and you can see it along the wetlands as well as the pools at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge with geese, ducks and even the wading birds. Especially with the geese, for they’re now making flights across the prairie as family units. Up at the North Ottowa Impoundment geese families are spread along the banks, one family platoon after another, all along the water. They’re now all equal in size, yet the parent geese have their necks stretched a bit higher supposedly in the watch for danger. They’re likely here for awhile yet.

So the fall migration is upon us, and began with the redwing blackbirds back in early August. It seems bird species are here one moment, gone the next. Mysteriously disappearing. Sadly so. Poof! Gone! I find it the opposite of springtime when each new arrival is a reason for joy. Up go the grape jelly feeders for the oriels. Then it’s to Google to recall the mix for the hummingbirds. My sunflower feeders are up all year making the nuthatches, sparrows and finches happy, and the new arrivals make it seem a reunion.

This once again was a colorful summer here at Listening Stones Farm. Goldfinches and oriels were joined by shy brown thrashers, wood ducks in the grove, a couple of yellow warblers and rose breasted grossbeaks all around. The swallows were here, too, although their flight is more remarkable than their addition of colorful feathery. 

Great egrets are gathering on the edges of wetlands in small groups. Is this a clue to a near migration?

Now autumn beckons and whether we’re here on the deck overlooking the prairie skies or, as we did on a recent afternoon at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge where we sat as seeming hundreds of Franklin Gulls swept overhead in a steady stream of migration. We were seated on a comfortable, shaded bench next to a beautifully carved natural wetland surrounded by outcrops as the gulls navigated the flyway highway. Looking toward the north we could not see the birds, but as they came over us suddenly they became visible. And they kept coming and coming.

Driving around you’ll see the gatherings of great egrets on the edges of wetlands. Not just the singular bird wading in the mucky edges, but three or four. Perhaps they’re the quickly matured of the summer’s hatch. Who can tell? Soon they and the smaller shorebirds will all have headed south, and along with the ducks and geese, and the wetlands will be barren of bird life as we await winter.

Hopefully I’ll have one more trip this fall, on the first week of November, when sandhill crane enthusiasts gather near Baraboo, WI, for the fall gatherings of the beautiful birds. This will be along the Wisconsin River near Aldo Leopold’s sand farm that became a shrine with the publication of his book of essays, The Sand County Almanac. Last year when visiting his old farm on the bend of the Wisconsin and near the International Crane Foundation, we learned about the annual fall migration of humans to witness the concluding gathering of the sandhills. After a few visits of their annual spring migration in central Nebraska, this seems like a pilgrimage I’d love to join.

A small sampling of franklin gulls flying over the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge this past weekend, a steady stream that seemed to last forever.

Now, though, back home on the farm, murmurations sometimes land here in the grove as birds fly en masse from one set of treetops to another, back and forth, until suddenly they’re gone. Poof. Ah, yes! The mystery. 

It’s said all birds migrate. Some like the thumb-sized hummingbirds travel from these parts to southern South America. Others, like juncos and perhaps the snowy owls, from a colder region to one less chilly. There seems to be no concrete knowledge of why or when, and food supplies, moon phases, available light and any number of other human-based theories exist and are utterly unproven. 

For a few weeks now we’ve witnessed hundreds of swallows on the gravel roads, neatly rising when a car or pickup approaches, all safely gliding off in different directions. And here we were sitting on the deck watching as swallows glided around the old elm and the studio, coming and going, landing and swooping off again and again. I told my friend about such a moment years ago when another friend and I had been watching such a scene with the swallows, although those seemed more prone to land on the eaves of the wood shop and studio, on the clothesline or on the gutters above us on the lips of the roof rather then in the old elm.

Geese families are gathering in places like the North Ottawa Impoundment, feeding and practicing their flying before their huge fall migration.

“We had gone inside for a sandwich at noon,” I said, “then came back out here after eating. The swallows were still swooping and making their crazy racket when we sat back down to watch. We were still sitting there when my friend suddenly asked, ‘Hey, where did the swallows go?’” 

Our piece of the prairie was suddenly deafly quiet, and there wasn’t a swallow in sight. Not on the gutters nor on the eaves of our outbuildings. They had suddenly and simply disappeared, and that was that.

So here we were, the two of us with our respective glasses of wine, when my friend looked over at me and asked, “Like now?”

Looking around I suddenly realized that the mysteries of migration were still alive and well, and all that cheepy chatter was perhaps just “swallow talk” … that chatter of excitement we all seem to have before we embark on a huge journey. “Yes,” I said. “Like now.” 

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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