On the Flyway

We’re lucky enough to live on the Central Flyway, a bird and insect migration route from the northern Great Plains in Canada down to the Gulf and into central Mexico. The continent is home to so many traveling species. In the spring, the flyway brings birds and butterflies north to their breeding grounds; in the fall, it funnels them south for their winter retreat. Life on the move. Life in flocks, following its instincts.

Sometimes, our migrating friends are surprisingly punctual. For instance, northbound hummingbirds arrive at Meadow Knoll around the Ides of March. One year, I hadn’t yet taken down the winter suet feeder that was hanging from the hook that in summer holds a hummingbird feeder. On March 16, I looked out the window to see a ruby-throat impatiently buzzing the log, looking for his hummingbird hooch. But they’re not all punctual. It’s the end of October and late for southbound fliers, but we’re leaving a bottle up. That’s because one year, a cold, wet tail-end Charlie showed up on November 1 and spent several hours refueling for the last leg of his journey.

Sometimes, we have to listen hard to know that they’re there. A couple of days ago, a cold front breezed down from the north. Riding on it, flying high, came the sandhill cranes. We heard them long before we saw them far overhead, streaming south in a long, ragged V. Their high, wild calls fell on us like a blessing. All I could do was stand and listen, awed by their brave journey.

Photo: John Webber, Orlando

Sometimes they surprise us, like the year a flock of a dozen migrating white pelicans landed on our little lake–the only pelicans we’ve seen in the thirty-plus years we’ve lived at Meadow Knoll. And there was the southbound white-fronted goose that either got lost or suffered a wing injury. He dropped down onto the front yard to join our flock of Toulouse geesem stayed for a season, and rejoined his northbound flock in the spring. Another visitor: a banded homing pigeon with irridescent blue feathers who spent 24 hours on our front porch and then flew home–wherever home was. He didn’t say.

Sometimes, though we can’t hear them and don’t see them. We wonder where they have gone. For many years, around the middle of October, Monarch butterflies appeared in large flocks in our woods. We now see one or two, even a flitting few–but we haven’t seen a flock for a dozen years now. Have we just not been walking through the woods when they dropped in for an overnight? Do they prefer a different route, another woods? Are there so few now that they come and go without calling attention to themselves? Or have they disappeared altogether? We wonder. And worry.

This year, lots of things are different. This year, Covid19 has changed the lives of our human species. I am deeply, deeply grateful to the many caring people who go out to work in the world so that I, older and at higher risk, can shelter in place. I’m also very grateful that this place where I shelter allows me to see or hear or be surprised by the many travelers who share a small moment of their journey with me. Thank you.

Reading note: Sometimes I need / only to stand / wherever I am / to be blessed.― Mary Oliver









20 comments on “On the Flyway

  1. A wonderful and inspiring read. But I’m afraid Cathie Haynes is right and you haven’t missed the Monarchs, but the population has very much dwindled. Wer, too, have seen much less butterflies than usual in the past summer (southwestern Germany). Some cabbage butterflies, some little foxes, but nothing what we’re used to see. Thankfully, wild bees, bumblebees and beetles are thriving in our insect-friendly garden. Saw a bee crawling into a rose bloom just today (2nd of November, which is late, late autumn here)!

  2. My daughter and I went for a rare country drive in south-central Wisconsin in mid-October and came upon a cornfield of stubble filled with sandhill cranes—about 60 we figure. I was so shocked I nearly swerved off the road. It was literally breathtaking. Down the road another field of about 20. And later another. I recall the early 80s when it was a big deal to see one or two, so this was just wonderful. Made our day.

  3. Here in Southern Ontario the migration south seems to be stalled. And the birds are using the lake as a staging ground. Right now there are 28 trumpeter swans clustered in front of my house, and at least 50 ducks including buffleheads, mallards and teal. Yesterday there were hundreds of Canada geese, These will probably show up again this afternoon. I wonder if they are all waiting for the US election results.

  4. Susan, you haven’t missed the Monarchs migration thru your area . . . their population has been so very diminished by the massive use of pesticides there are very few left to migrate. So very sad we humans are killing off so many species with our human caused climate catastrophe. Below is a link to a recent post on my blog after the Artic Air front arrive in the middle of Summer here AND when the wildfires began to rage along the Pacific Coast.

    Luckily for all of us your posts are upbeat with absolutely stunning pictures. Gratitude Susan!

  5. Thanks for the info and Iam worried to. We planted milkweed this year ,butterfly bush,butterfly weed, and purple leaf coneflowers. Will put our hummingbird feeders out in March not later next year. Have 5 different bird feeders with bird seed, safflower and niger stocking. Will try next year if feasible to contain eggs on milkweed till they change into butterfly’s. We are in a end unit of townhouses with a little room fir us to accomplish this. Also feed rabbits,squirrels and chipmunks. Yours sounds like a beautiful location to experience all this 🆒 Sis and I are retired and playing it safe like you two. God Bless🙏

  6. Our sanity during the pandemic is a drive around the lake watching for the birds as they move through, taking thousands of pictures, noticing, and feeling blessed.

  7. Saturday I was in southern Vermont and saw a Monarch butterfly. It was the 6th one I saw this year. There are 6 in you picture. Some of us are trying our hardest to make breeding and feeding grounds available to them.

  8. The Monarchs used to gather on my patio on their trip but I have not seen them for the past 2 years. I surely wish they would include Houston on their trips again!

  9. I, too, worry about the Monarchs. I have seen only a handful this fall, but in the spring raised many from collected eggs and released 192 to fly north. I hope they were so far overhead I couldn’t see them, or maybe they flew east of here, or maybe I didn’t watch for them on the right days.

  10. I remember my grandmother always being so pleased when the martins would arrive every year on her birthday, March 3!

  11. We have Anna’s Hummingbirds here year-round and, if we get the promised La Niña this winter, they’ll be needing extra care from us. You are truly blessed (as are we here in the Willamette Valley/Western Oregon!) to live in such a beautiful place populated with such amazing creatures!

  12. Thanks for the lovely essay. Our hummingbird feeders are down already, but last spring we experienced the buzzers looking in the window to hint that it was time to put them up. The sandhill cranes winter here. I enjoy your books and the newsletters. Sheltering in place really makes me appreciate good things to read!

  13. When we happen to be late putting up our hummingbird feeder, our feisty, little Ruby-throated hummers buzz my sliding glass doors. They hover there and glare at us! We hop to it too! Thanks for your posts. They always inspire me.

  14. A member of our extended family here in Tampa, Florida started raising Monarch butterflies in her city yard during the pandemic. She is working from home and spending her spare time raising Monarchs and sharing this magic on Facebook with her friends and family. Watching them from egg through stages where she releases the butterflies into the air has been and continues to be amazing. I have learned to appreciate their beauty in all stages as they grow. I hope you will see them on your property again.

  15. The Mary Oliver quote resonates so deeply with me; sometimes indeed I am sitting, or driving, instead of standing, but the same sense of blessing surrounds me. It’s been an unusually good fall for leaf color, and driving slowly down a small road in Connecticut last week I had the sense of walking down the aisle of a cathedral with glorious stained glass windows.

    • Yes, the Mary Oliver quote rounds the ‘action’ of sheltering in place to the positive concept of being still and present in the moment – hard to do with all the unrest and uncertainty.
      Sheltering in place =
      Noticing in place
      Peaceful in place
      Creating in place

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