From Summer to …Fall?

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Photo Dennis Vanderspek.
Wildlife visitor to the author’s garden.

Ah, fall: crisp days, cool nights, leaves changing colour, birds heading south; taking sweaters out of storage, shaking out warm blankets in preparation for chilly slumbers. Occasional early morning frost on shady rooftops, maybe even a few drifting flakes of snow toward the end of the month.

Wait—what?

If you have been outside lately, you may have noticed that the seasonal pattern seems just a bit off. As I write this, for example, it is a scorching 30 C outside. Environment Canada has issued a heat warning. The average daytime high for September in this area is about 18 C. Last year it was 17.4 C. Daily averages for 2017 aren’t available yet, but the geese on the millpond practically roll their eyes when I ask them. Something is clearly amiss.

Photo Dennis Vanderspek.

When I moved to Millbrook, exactly one year ago, the geese were abundant on the pond. I didn’t know that many would overwinter, hunkering right on the ice instead of heading to Florida — true snowbirds! I didn’t know, either, that many of the geese that formerly flew south now stay because of changing climate and shifts in agriculture that make grain available year-round. The Millbrook geese, those hardy souls, are at the northern limit of the year-long habitation zone for Canada Geese. Now, in September, they arrive at the pond every evening in noisy squadrons from the northeast. At night, their honking blends with croaks of night herons, chirping crickets and tree frogs, and the rare mournful howl of distant coyotes. The effect is beautiful and a little otherworldly.

There are signs, though, that fall is indeed upon us. Pine trees are shedding their older, innermost needles and the tops of other conifers are brown with maturing cones. The cheerful yellow flush of goldenrod has faded out like a setting sun. Joe Pye weed has gone to seed. The brown heads of cattails are fattening and getting ready to blow their seeds into cooler October winds. Yellow goldfinches have become infrequent visitors to my feeders. Honey bees are still bumbling over the purple asters that grow in the gravel next to the dam, but their movements seem almost a little frantic, as though they know the warm weather can’t last.

In my garden, the unseasonal heat blew in a rare late-summer guest, a giant swallowtail, probably attracted to my phlox and cup plant. These butterflies are the largest we see in Canada; they’re so heavy they have to flutter constantly while on a flower to avoid toppling over. The one I saw, a large female, seemed bedraggled from her southward flight. Next year, I will plant a little swamp milkweed and goldenrod for a snack.

There are other signs, too, that fall may after all be progressing as it should. If you go outside on a clear, moonless night and look straight up, you’ll see the broad, pale ribbon of the Milky Way in all its glory. And if you see it, you should thank those same lucky stars you’re living in a place that still has comparatively dark skies. Most Canadians will never know the simple joy of seeing their widest home.

The daytime sky, too, gave us some recent reassurance. On August 21 a solar eclipse covered about 70% of the sun in the Kawarthas, taking a little over two hours from start to finish. It was a good reminder that the celestial clock keeps perfect time even if the weather in our part of the universe occasionally does not. While the eclipse was underway I wandered down to the pond to see if the geese had any reaction. They didn’t. Nor did the huge, ancient snapping turtle I noticed poking up his head just below the dam. “Hey,” I told him, “don’t you know what’s happening? There won’t be another eclipse here until 2024!” But he only put his head down and swam away.

By Dennis Vanderspek

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