At 4:45 Wednesday morning, the cardinals were the only birds singing in our neighborhood. I heard no robins, which are usually the first to rise. As I rode through the park at the intersection of Lee and Grant, a pewee called, just the final descending “peweeer,” a warm-up for a morning full of song. At about 5:00 a.m., a killdeer made an abbreviated call over Finley north of I-88, and as I entered the Arboretum there were common yellowthroats singing in the reeds. I rolled slowly down to Parking Lot 8 by the oak collection, where the field and chipping sparrows and indigo buntings were going strong, and robins were chuckling all over the place. It was 5:15. At 5:30 a towhee called, and just before sunrise at the top of the hill overlooking the westernmost field in the East Woods, the buntings and pewees were singing at full tilt. A few minutes later, a pileated woodpecker called from near the Heritage Trail.
My friend Jay Sturner pointed out on Sunday that the shorebirds are coming through now, but other than this the woods are mostly filled with residents, and I find it comforting to hear our common species each morning. When my wife Rachel and I biked through the upper Midwest in 1998, we would lie in our sleeping bags in the morning and listen to the morning starting up. I wrote down the birds in the order in which I heard them each morning on our route through Wisconsin, the western shore of Michigan to Indiana, Indiana to Ohio. The constancy from site to site surprised me. Aldo Leopold wrote that he would start his mornings outside in the darkness with a pot of coffee and a notebook, writing down the birds in order as they started to sing. Sounds mark the progression through our days: bird songs in the hours before breakfast, the sound of news on the radio as the family wakes up; traffic gearing up as the sun rises; crickets stopping as the sun starts to bear down; cicadas and lawnmowers at midday; the sounds of dinner being made; robins at evening; cicadas giving way abruptly to crickets about 30 or 40 minutes after the sun sets; crickets through the screen as you sit reading by the window. Of all these times, the first hours of morning, before the sun rises, are my favorite. John Cheever felt that hour between five and six was most filled with possibility; once the sun came up, the day grew harder.
In the East Woods, Solomon’s plume (Maianthemum racemosum) berries are hard, beadlike, glossy salmon mottled with darker red. Sweet-cicely (Osmorhiza longistylis) schizocarps have split, the tails arching outwards. Lopseed (Phryma leptostachya) fruits have stiffened in just the last week: they are still rubbery to the touch, but run the stem between your thumb and forefinger and you’ll gather a small bouquet of them. The common woodland ticktrefoil (Hylodesmum glutinosum, which I and perhaps you learned as Desmodium glutinosum) is shedding sticky half-moon shaped fruits. Wild lettuce (Lactuca biennis, I believe) ranges from chest-high to taller than my head and is caught between flower and seed. Bristly fruits have almost all fallen from the broad-leaved bedstraw Galium circaezans, while the smaller G. odoratum is still in flower and fruit. Blackberries (Rubus allegheniensis) are ripe and delicious. Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans) seeds have fallen from the withering calyces, but the foliage is still deep green and reclining, sopping up the light and heat of midsummer. Carex hirtifolia foliage has kept growing since the fruits dropped, and some plants have leaves more than a foot in length. Purple meadow-rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) leaves are dark green and glaucous, though the seeds have all fallen. Hog-peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) is still twining over everything it can get its hands on, sending out new leaves the size of orzo grains.
More plants are yellowing this week than last. On the trail just northwest of Parking Lot 14 stand about a dozen yellowed mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) squeezing the last of their energy into the enormous ripening berries. Seeing these, I wonder whether the mayapples yellow early because their fruits are so demanding. On the north-facing slope overlooking the frog pond just north of Parking Lot 12, the touch-me-not (Impatiens) and swamp buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) look as though they are perhaps three weeks closer to senescing than the rest of the woods. Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), great waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum) and jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana) similarly look peaked. Does fall come earlier on this slope than elsewhere in the woods? Is this slope drier than it appears?
As the sun came over the horizon and hit the tops of the oaks, the chickadees and bluegray gnatcatchers began calling and moving around excitedly. The fog was still hanging low over the east prairie and the service road between Hidden Lake and the Arboretum. I walked into work past ripening elderberries (Sambucus canadensis), flowering white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), emerging amanitas and a Polyporus clinging to the trunk of a planted chalk maple (Acer leucoderme). A spiderweb in the lawn was glazed with dew. The birds had quieted down and people were starting to walk the trails. Early morning had passed.