White-throated sparrows, puffballs, first frost

From Saturday morning through Sunday morning, we had nearly 30 hours of continuous rain, seven inches in all. My first chance to go out and look at the neighborhood was Sunday afternoon, which was still cloudy and gray. A small branchlet with perfect leaves had blown about 30 feet from the pin oak on the corner into the flowerpot beside our side door. Our cosmos had been mostly beaten down by the rain, but two were still blooming. An obedient plant bloom was holding on, along with the mums, the marigolds, the daisies, and the brown infructescences of Carex lupulina. The burning bush was only a third red, and just the lower leaves of the swamp white oak down the road were yellow, etched with little watersheds of green veins.

I followed our street to the east, where it crosses Fairview Avenue. The rainwater had crested over the lip of a former driveway that’s been rehabilitated by one of our neighbors, dragging soil off of the planted apron onto the sidewalk before tumbling down into the storm sewer. I followed the road further east toward the marsh nestled in the neighborhood just north of the elementary school, only to realize that the water pops back out of the storm sewer here and was flowing quietly into the marsh. I had never thought much about where the water comes from. Under an American elm, a mulberry and a stand of buckthorn, the water flowed through a bed of fowl manna grass and Iris and smartweed into a lovely stand of river bulrush (Bolboschoenus fluviatilis), with a willow and silver maple. The water was high, up into the neighbor’s yard. At the south edge a tossed-out potted begonia was still in flower. The water flowed through a bed of dark green lake sedge (Carex lacustris) to a ring of tan reed canary grass, out to the lawn and a thicket of buckthorn before it disappeared into another storm sewer and was gone. A massive storm absorbed by the sewers, just like that.

This morning was clear and lovely, a few clouds at first, Orion bright overhead, the moon just a fist’s height above the horizon in its last quarter. I reached the Arboretum about 5:30, just as my bike light died. I walked the road west to Parking Lot 10 and picked up the trail downhill, over the bridge where I expected to hear the water moving quickly, but it was perfectly quiet. Aside from the crickets, the first sound I heard was a chorus frog in the ravine that runs east from Big Rock Visitor Station, where it opens to the ephemeral pond just south of the woodland trail. I heard a chorus frog last week as well at the edge of Crowley Marsh. I hadn’t realized there were hangers on like this.

It was still dark when I reached Big Rock Visitor Station, and the clouds had cleared out. I followed the Woodland Trail around to Big Rock, poking along under the red oaks. Water had pooled around the Big Rock and was bubbling in more noisily than usual from the field to the west. As I walked into the field, it was perhaps 6:15, and the sky had lightened up a bit. A killdeer was calling, and the high tension lines running along the margin of the Arboretum disappeared into a fog that had enveloped Hidden Lake Forest Preserve to the north. The field was waking up: here and there were tsts of sparrows moving around a bit, elbowing each other as they moved around in the grass. A barred owl flew low overhead, tacking back and forth more than I expect of an owl, but quiet and rounded, not apparently a hawk. The killdeer kept up, and I walked around the trail to the road leading south.

The road leads to the edge of a field nestled into the East Woods just west of Big Rock Visitor Station, flanked on the northeast by a pond filled with bladderwort and on the southwest by a pond filled with standing dead trees. Wood ducks seem to like them both, and this morning three wood ducks flew over the trees into the pond to the north east. The sparrow lisps had become busier, then suddenly there was the call of a white-throated sparrow on migration. The field, I realized, was just filled with white throated sparrows, who suddenly seemed to explode into sound. The sky was light enough now to really see by. A song sparrow sang from the north side of the field, and a towhee called from the west. A few swamp sparrows started calling from the pond behind me. Two wood ducks flew out, then a flock of 10 more flew over the pond and off into the woods.

I headed south toward the beech and maple collections. Orion had faded, Sirius was still just visible, and Venus was about as bright as the brightest line on the horizon. The heavy rains had carved a river in the wood chips down the trail for perhaps 40 feet. Near the top of the waterpath, a line of seven clean, new puffballs extended westward into the woods toward a pocket of fog pierced by a standing dead tree. White-breasted nuthatches and red-bellied woodpeckers called. I turned the corner toward Bur Reed Marsh and passed a stand of calico aster in fruit and a bed of yellowing moonseed twining around whatever it could find on the forest floor. In the marsh, a sneezeweed was still in bloom, but no obedient plant, of which I saw one blooming in the marsh a week ago. A dandelion was in seed. Chickadees were singing, a bluejay called, a bluebird warbled from the field to the southeast. As I left the marsh, a dustcloud of perhaps 15 or 20 white throated sparrows flitted into the bushes alongside the trail, darting around too fast to follow. I got a good look at one of them. I had forgotten, listening this morning, how lovely they are in profile, yellow above the eyes with the clean white above the eyes and on the throat.

I walked through the magnolia collection toward work. A shellbark hickory was in brilliant color, and a plane overhead was fully illuminated by the sun. I could hear geese to the south. There was frost on the grass, and guttation had dotted the broken petioles of a mulberry with water. A few minutes later, the sun rose, illuminating the tops of the trees to the west.

The moment when the light of dawn and the moon balance each other

Going out onto the dark lawn he smelled chrysanthemums or marigolds—some stubborn autumnal fragrance—on the night air, strong as gas. Looking overhead he saw that the stars had come out, but why should he seem to see Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia? What had become of the constellations of midsummer?
— from “The Swimmer” by John Cheever

I left the house this morning about 5:30. The moon was brilliant off of Orion’s left shoulder 1. Venus had just risen in the east, but the glow on the horizon was only the light from the city. There were field crickets calling, no other insects or birds calling. We had a good solid afternoon of rain on Saturday, but little precipitation in the weeks before that, and our neighborhood has mostly browned in the past week. There was a scattering of leaves on the asphalt, a little slipping and rustling under the tires as I biked.

Inside the Arboretum gates, the tree crickets kick in. It’s about 5:45 when I tie up my bike at Parking Lot 8. The moon is bright enough to cast shadows, bright enough to botanize by in some places. I take the trail east, counterclockwise around the edge of the East Woods. This stand of sunflowers has bothered not just me but Janice Sommers and Rich Scott… I’ve written about it twice previously, and in the moonlight and by feel, I still come to the conclusion that this colony could be Helianthus decapetalus or H. strumosus, or a mix of the two. This part of the woods is exceptionally nice and open, grassy and rich with late summer wildflowers. The white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) has all gone to seed. The trail is lined with spent and brittle stems of lettuce (Lactuca) species, what I have assumed was L. serriola but am now not sure… I’ll have to look more closely on the walk back to my bike this afternoon. Joe-pye weed has largely gone to pieces. There are yellowed stems here and there of Elymus virginicus and Hystrix patula (or Elymus hystrix if you prefer… this is a messy genus), and green tufts of Pensylvania sedge still obvious.

The forest floor is mottled with moonlight and shadows. At the top of the hill, the trail runs along the south edge of a big open field. I notice for the first time how wide the trail is that leads out into it, I believe just for the field crew… it’s as wide as a dirt road. The opening in the woods frames a small Hill’s oak tree, Chicago’s oak oak. I walk out through the field. There are a few small Hill’s oaks and a few white oaks out here, and lots of short stems of flowering Queen Anne’s lace. Were the oaks planted? They’re small, and one of the Hill’s oaks has buds a bit longer and more angular than I think of as typical for the species, at least in our woods. The undersides of the leaves on this individual are also a bit on the hairy side. Any chance this is mixed up with black oak (Quercus velutina)? I’ll have to ask Kurt about this. Walking downhill to the road, feet getting dewy, I start to see the first light of day in the east.

I intersect the road near Parking Lot 8 and pick up the trail going north. A couple of minutes down the trail I notice a great white oak leaning southward on the west side of the trail. The tree is pitched at perhaps 60 degrees, and it’s massive, long and perhaps a meter in diameter, maybe a bit less. In any case, it’s remarkable it doesn’t tear right out of the ground. I walk around it and look to see if it is perhaps propped up against another tree. As far as I can tell it is not. How far do the roots go to hold a tree like this up? Eventually it will fall down, but it may well outlast a lot of other trees in this section of the woods. Back on the trail, I find that the walk pitches downhill much more than I have noticed before. The trees are almost all standing upright, in spite of the slope.

I pass the road again at Parking Lot 11 and get to the section of trail overlooking the ravine that runs east from Big Rock Visitor Station. A squirrel is making a ferocious racket down where the chorus frogs start singing every year. I stand there listening to him for about 10 minutes, and in this time the morning swells up with sunlight. The moon is still casting cool light down from the southwest while the sun is coming in from the east, yellower. As I am standing there, the two come into approximate balance, the amount of light just about the same from both of them, but differing in quality, the moonlight whiter, the sunlight yellower. If I were telling this to someone who had never seen moonlight, I would liken it to the effect you get when you’ve replaced one lightbulb in the room with a cold, unpleasant white fluorescent bulb while the other lamp has a nice warm incandescent bulb in it… but this would not do the moonlight justice. At this moment, as the squirrel is careering around the treetops breaking up the oaks and dropping acorns and branches, I am sorry to see the crisp edges of the shadows from the moonlight begining to give way to the sunlight. Turning, I find the leaves of a Solomon’s plume (Maianthemum racemosum) have become variegated in some places along the trail, yellow and green.

In the woods just east of the Visitor Station, I get my last good view of Sirius through the trees. A thin mist hovers over the prairie to the west as I pass through. Birds start calling somewhere between the frog pond and here: goldfinches, towhees, even, to my surprise, a song sparrow. Haven’t they left by now? The walnuts have lost almost all of their leaves. Milkweed and dogbane leaves are mostly yellow, and many have fallen off. The sugar maples are in some places brilliant yellow, in other places half browned. The indian grass is tall and orangy-yellow. The prairie is as done for the year as the woods. We’ll start this morning collecting biomass from our prairie experiment, as many of the species have moved everything back underground.

This weekend I had a long, good bike ride with my elder son, David, and the view from the top of Frost Hill impressed us both. I head in that direction. I walk up through the Illinois collection past white oaks senescing. By the time I reach the bench at the top of the hill, the sun is cresting. I sit and eat an orange, watch the mist burn off of Meadow Lake. It’s time to plant our garlic. Today I have to turn the corner on a book chapter I’ve been writing about the prairie, what’s happened to the plants in the past year. It hasn’t turned out quite like we thought it would, and I’m curious to see what things will look like a year from now.


1 By Orion’s left shoulder I mean the lower, dimmer one, Bellatrix (whose name I always forget), which assume is his left shoulder. Why left? Because I always imagine Orion facing us, though he can of course face whichever direction he likes.

Grackles and a palm warbler

Early morning two weeks ago I was writing in the kitchen. It was three days before the equinox, still dark out. The windows were open. At around 4:15 I realized I was hearing the lisps of songbirds flying overhead, so I stepped outside. The previous night I had had an email from my friend Jay Sturner, who told me he’d heard about 200 thrushes in just over an hour the week before, flying over the house. I’d forgotten about fall migration. The sky was hazy and moonless. Orion was clear in the southeast over our garage, but many of the stars were obscured. The sky above our backyard was filled with bird calls, little songbirds on the move.

This morning outside the research and administration building, the grackles are flocking up. Cedar waxwings are whistling to each other. The honeybees in the Cildren’s Garden are still patrolling for pollen. At the west edge of the Children’s Garden, honeybees foraged in the witchhazel flowers while a drab, fall-colored palm warbler casually took out a moth. The warbler seemed utterly unconcerned about me, looking around in the witchhazel branches for more to eat.

Wednesday night last week I drove west on Butterfield to my elder son’s track meet, going 10 miles an hour in the traffic. Alongside Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, over the sound of traffic and the news, the tree crickets were singing at full volume. They never seem to sing their hearts out, but they never stop. By contrast, I don’t believe I’ve heard a cicada in the neighborhood all week. The last one we saw is sitting on our piano.

Our prairie experiment is riddled with unplanted frost aster, every third plot with one or two gangly, long-limbed plants that we pull out as we walk by. The prairie and our garden at home have turned the corner: the height of blooming is several weeks past, but many species are still flowering. Everything is coloring or browning up. It’s still a month or more before they give up the ghost, but with the temperatures down at night and the garden looking like this, I feel it’s finally fall.