It is early autumn now, and I love this time of the year. The weather is cooler, mornings are brisk, trees and bushes are starting to slowly change colors, and there is a quiet energy that gives a little bounce to one's step. It is also the time of the fall hawk and songbird migration, and that always energizes and excites me. This year I am not teaching, so I now have the opportunity to check a bit of the migration during the week. This year I am on an autumn camping trip for the first time in decades, and I am able to visit wildlife refuges along the Atlantic Flyway and track the hawk migration. What a gift!
When my wife and I camp we love setting up in state parks. They are well maintained, situated in wonderful locations, have good facilities, and are near towns with interesting places to go and things to do in the event of rain. We picked one place in both MD and VA that were near a couple of National Wildlife Refuges with which we were not really familiar; we were looking forward to tracking the migration in new places. We would be in a number of marshy areas, which is heaven for us. We love marshes; marshes contain a vast array of plant communities that in turn support a wide variety of wildlife. As a result, marshes can support an amazing diversity of life that is way out of proportion to their size. Where there are diverse plants there are diverse insects, fish and small mammals. And where there is a diversity of insects, fish and small mammals, there is a great diversity of birds. And sure enough, we saw plenty of birds and insects. Turkey vultures were all over the place, soaring with the winds, and there were plenty of full grown and immature eagles taking to the skies as well. Merlin, Coopers, broad winged, sharp-shinned, and marsh hawks were all soaring high and circling in the skies as they hunted. We caught a peregrine falcon posing in a dead tree across a pond from us. Even though the weather did not allow for the regular rush of hawks normally seen at this time, there was plenty to see. But it was not just hawks and birds of prey. In the marshes we saw great white and snowy egrets, great blue herons, dozens of swans, green-winged teals, black ducks, and more. Walking the trails we came across some confusing fall warblers we could not hope to identify and woodpeckers we could. We also encountered breathtakingly beautiful butterflies and colorful dragonflies that had us shaking our heads in wonder. It was an embarrassment of species riches that lifted our spirits and took us to that special place of quiet wonder and awe that only being outside and directly connected with the natural world can bring. It was a gift to have the time to both explore new places and to see the cycle of nature and time at work at a leisurely pace.
One other thing that amazed us on the trip was the number of National Wildlife Refuges that are in MD and VA. We had been to Blackwater Refuge outside of Cambridge, MD before, but we visited a total of four refuges in eastern part of the two states, and had our trip not been cut short by rain, we could have visited at least four more. The four we visited-Eastern Neck in VA and Pawtuxent, Eastern Shore and Blackwater in MD-each had slightly different layouts and environments, and that made me quite aware of the hands of humans in managing nature at refuges. Normally when I think of humans “managing nature” I think of negative things, such as the destruction of wetlands and poorly planned levee systems that led to the floods in New Orleans during Katrina, and the over-development of natural habitat that has helped lead to climate change and the near extinction of so many species. But the human management in the Wildlife Refuges seems to work extremely well. Their human made impoundments, carefully laid out hiking, biking and auto trails, and their controlled burns all serve to keep an abundant number of species surviving midst the dual threats of climate change and development. In addition, their educational and outreach programs seem to be connect with people of all ages and types. I have always been a big supporter of National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges, but seeing so many in such a short period of time made me even more aware of the wonderful work they do. Without them this city born West Philadelphia kid might never have become a birder or explored much beyond my front door. And for that, I am grateful.
We will be back to those refuges-there are winter walking tours at a couple and festivals at others. That is one of the wonderful things about being alive; there are so many places to visit, so many things to explore and so many things to discover. I know I will never get to see all the places and sites that would blow my mind and please my soul. But what that means is that this is constant and ongoing-I will never run out. There will always be more to see, to do, to learn, and to experience. And that is a very good thing, indeed. Happy Autumn to you all.