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.

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