Consider this fair warning: if the theme song from that classic surfing movie, The Endless Summer, is forever in your heart and head, you might not want to read the rest of this entry of the Journal. In fact, you’d probably be better off, given your desire that summer remains eternal, to avoid looking at the natural world at all. Keep your eyes on the waves and the warm beach sand. Heck, close your eyes and dream of the waves and the warm beach sand.
Do not, under any circumstances, watch birds, plants, bugs, and anything else that might convey a message you probably would rather not hear. And above all else, avoid, at all costs, watching the night time sky. Don’t say I didn’t tell you, Endless Summer wishers.
Watching the natural world, in the days following the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, will only convey one thing—one, if you have this mindset, depressing thing—summer is not, in fact, endless. And while we still have about a month to go before the formal changing of the seasons—no doubt, there’ll be plenty of warm weather from now through the early days and nights of autumn—there’s undeniable change in the air. The heat and humidity may persist, but if you look beyond it, and under it, the evidence is plain.
The arrival of the Perseid shower, just by itself, is a “pay attention” marker of the progression made by nature’s calendar. For when you’re out there looking for shooting stars in the hours past midnight, you can’t help but be aware of the turning of the year. If you made it all the way to the hours just before sunrise, you’ll watch the summer constellations set and the autumn stars, such as those in Taurus and Gemini, begin to make their presence known. Accompanying this silent movement is another indication of change: the cricket and katydid chorus, and the mournful hooting of barred owls. You might, if your ears are good and you’re enjoying the blessings of a countryside unblemished by human noise, even hear the chirps and flight calls of the vanguard of migrating birds, the warblers and shorebirds in particular.
You’ll certainly start seeing a collection of avian newcomers, both youngsters and old veterans alike, in the coming days, and the fact that they’ll be hard to identify, since they’ll be wearing their nondescript juvenile and traveling clothes, will tell you what you might not want to know about the passage of time. It will also tell you that you have to start pulling out the field guides and studying up on “confusing fall warblers” and other vexing bird species.
The influx of migrants is only one of the messages the natural world is conveying. I spotted another note about change over the last weekend. I was looking for bush katydids and snowy tree crickets, both members of the nighttime orthopteran chorus busy singing about summer’s passage, when I heard a rustle of wings by the porch light. The flier was a big dragonfly, and, by the arrangement of its big eyes, the two of which were barely touching, I could tell that it was a member of the Darner, or, more scientifically, Aeshnid, group of odonates. I’d been wondering when, or if, the Fawn Darner (Boyeria vinosa) would start visiting us. It’s a fascinating insect, with decidedly undragonfly-like behavior. For starters, the Fawn Darner is a late arrival at the odonate party and starts to make its presence known only in August as many of its fellow dragons are ending their flight seasons. The other odd thing about this critter is that it’s most active in the crepuscular hours and even shows up well after dark. The majority of dragonflies spend their nights in hiding, no doubt to avoid being snatched up by bats, but the B. vinosa only comes alive when the bats begin hunting, so maybe it’s just that good a flier to avoid becoming dinner.
I watched this sign-of-the-changing-of-the-seasons and photographed it from all possible angles; it was certainly a handsome insect. And when I left on my morning walk the following day, it was still in place, reminding me to look for other signs. In addition to birds and insects, the plant world was definitely sending me a series of messages.
On the edge of the meadow next door, I noticed, amidst a group of leaves that looked suspiciously yellow—this may have been a response to drought rather than to declines in the number of hours of daylight—a vine bearing lots of flower buds. Somehow, since it wasn’t there last year, we had become a host for Sweet Autumn Clematis, that pretty bearer of foams of small, white flowers that adorn many of our rock walls as August gives way to September.
In addition to a vine named for autumn, there were other flowers that definitely don’t augur summer. The wetter parts of fields are now awash in swashes of Joe Pye Weed and the occasional exclamation point made by Ironweed, that large native aster with deep blue flowers. The flat-topped goldenrods, which are the second wave of bloomers, are beginning to show themselves, and their white-flowered cousins, known as silverrods, which don’t resemble goldenrods at all, are coming into their own along the sides of country roads.
If you needed any other reminders, there’s even a native orchid—I’m pretty sure this one is known as Grass-leaved Ladies’ Tresses—showing its intricate flowers in the dry area of a nearby meadow. This plant, rather inappropriately called Spiranthes vernalis—the species name means “spring,” as in vernal pools—blooms in the springtime only in the South. Here, it delights the eye in August and beyond: a sign of, well, you know.
Even so, rest assured that there’s plenty of summer still to come. But the presence of all these signs is a sign in itself that you shouldn’t take summer for granted. It’s only endless if you have the wherewithal to join the impending migration—or if you have