Autumn Departures

At this time of year you stop and notice things. The first color on the leaves of the maples growing in the low ground. A faint white crown on the tops of the higher mountains. The call of geese heading south and flying so high their formations appear as thin black lines against the sky.

This last seems especially poignant and mysterious to me. There is something so purposeful about their flying, always in formation, behind a leader. And the sound of their calling is as soulful and melancholy as anything in nature. The geese have a long flight ahead of them so maybe they are calling to reassure each other and keep their spirits up. “Just another thousand miles, bro. We’ll make it. Piece of cake. Then it will be all clear ground with no snow and corn lying around everywhere.”
But those geese are built for it, you think. They are big strong birds, able to endure the long and arduous flight. But what about some of the other migrating creatures? Those decorative and insubstantial monarch butterflies you see dancing over milkweed plants will also migrate. All the way to Mexico. It is a miracle that they can find their way, but they do—to a small mountain region where a particular tree grows and sustains them until they turn around and begin the long flight back north, breeding and hatching along the way. The trip ends in the early fall and, then, they migrate back to Mexico, finding their infallible way.
This year, I have been thinking especially about the hummingbirds that I watched all summer at my feeder. They are tiny, no bigger than some of the fat, late-season grasshoppers we see in the meadow. One flew into our bedroom once and we managed to catch it and hold it, very gently. When we released it, those little wings pumped the way they do, so fast that they become a blur, and the little creature was gone.

It seemed so small and insubstantial that it is hard to imagine the bird migrating anywhere. But in a few weeks, that little hummingbird would abandon our yard and feeder and take off for Panama or some other Central American destination. And here is, perhaps, the most remarkable part: when it returned in a few months, it would be back to our feeder. And on the same day that it had returned the year before.

I wouldn’t have believed that before I read about it, in the published results of some banding studies. (And, by the way, how do they manage to band and track hummingbirds?)

The science that has been accomplished tells us some remarkable things. For instance, the little birds bulk up before migrating. They are, in fact, insect eaters who go for the sugar in our feeder for quick energy. The bugs are for protein. They might get themselves up to 6 grams before they take off to cross the Gulf of Mexico, a 500 mile flight, which they usually do non-stop, though occasionally one will stop off at an oil rig or fishing boat for a rest. At the end of the crossing, they will weigh 2.5 grams.

But those are the weights and measures and do not convey the miracle of the thing. The mystery that you seem to feel so acutely at this time of year in this place, when so many creatures are leaving.

There are, of course, many other wonderful elements to fall in Vermont and we have done our best to put together a sampling in this issue. There is a lovely story by Luke Stafford about walking some of the ancient roads the state has begun to quantify. We also take you for a ride up the Skyline Drive to the top of the world—well, our world—and we’ll introduce you to some real Vermont characters, one who makes science fun and funny for kids and another who makes artful shoes by hand. And there’s lots more to read and enjoy.

Norman sig