The hills of the Kickapoo Valley cradle delicate colors in September

The hills of the Kickapoo Valley cradle delicate colors on September mornings

The signs of autumn are more and more apparent with each passing day. Some of those changes seem to be coming a little early this year. Most of the summer songbirds have already left the area. There are still some goldfinches gathering in flocks and taking advantage of the many sunflowers that are going to seed. I still see a few grosbeak and a towhee or two, a single catbird and a few bluebirds. Gone are the swifts and swallows, red-winged blackbirds and grackles, robins, wrens, orioles, thrushes and so on. Nearly all the summer birds that spent the summer in this valley left by the first week of September. The birds who live here year ‘round like the chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, cardinals , doves and woodpeckers, are still around but far below normal numbers for this time of the year.

The old thermometer has been getting a workout as the temperatures rise and fall. It may be near eighty degrees during the day, then it drops down into the high forties at night (that is valley temps, of course). The cool nighttime usually means that there will be fog in the river bottoms by morning, which makes for a beautiful sunrise.

It's a funny naming game, but a black gray squirrel visited this week

It’s a funny naming game, but a black gray squirrel visited this week

There are a lot of flashy colors that catch my eye in the yard but what really gets my attention is something that moves that is black or white, these are the colors that really draw my gaze in that direction. The squirrel that crossed the driveway was a black gray squirrel, being a gray squirrel that has a jet-black coat. A black gray squirrel is a common sight in the area, but he is the only the second I’ve seen in this valley in 15 years. Hope he sticks around.

I took a walk up through the prairie meadow this morning, curious to see if the blue flowers of the stiff gentians were out yet. They are late bloomers so I wasn’t too surprised to see that the tiny flowers were just budding. They bloom only in this spot in the meadow but I’ve been spreading their seeds in some other places. To my left, and only eighteen inches tall, are the bright yellow-flowered faces of some sneezeweed. Next to them stood a five-foot-tall stiff goldenrod with a golden yellow-flowered top that looked like golden sand.

My old friend the woodchuck made a belated appearance this week

My old friend the woodchuck made a belated appearance this week

I hadn’t seen that old woodchuck around for a couple of weeks, and then there he was, rambling along through the yard toward the shed. He may or may not be the same woodchuck (groundhog), but he seems to know his way around. He’s not the first of his kind to use that burrow under the board pile in the old shed. He’s welcome to stay as long as he doesn’t get too industrious.

A friend told me that he saw a good-sized migration of night hawks a couple of days ago. I didn’t notice any nighthawks passing through that day but the next day I found a single nighthawk dead along the edge of the road. Very sad, but it gives us a chance to see one of these large swallow-like birds close up. The white wing bores are a good identifying mark, and his dark gray plumage is that of a male, the females are brownish. Nighthawks have large black eyes and a small beak yet a very large mouth when it opens to catch a flying insect. There should be more of them passing through the area in the next few days so I’d better keep my eyes peeled.

Bee balm is the hummingbird's favorite flower, I'm sure

Bee balm is the hummingbird’s favorite flower, I’m sure

The red bee balm I planted last spring grew quickly and had beautiful bright red flowers in mid-July. It’s a little odd that it’s still in bloom when it should have finished a month ago. I’ve never seen red-bee balm blooming in September and the lucky hummingbird probably hasn’t either.

A ten-inch garter snake slithered through the grass at my feet; he’s one of several garter snakes I’ve seen in the past few days. I was hoping that last winter’s prolonged cold hadn’t hurt the snake populations, and I’ve been seeing quite a few of them this summer, so they must have made it through the deep freeze.

Each evening I take a slow walk around the beds of lavender phlox, watching for hummingbird moths. I’ve seen only a few of them so far and only a couple of their larger cousins, the white-lined sphinx moth. These moths are members of a family of moths known as hawk moths who feed on the nectar of flowers, especially phlox.

Starlings are truly bird of a feather, especially when they come together in great, gyrating flocks

Starlings are truly bird of a feather, especially when they come together in great, gyrating flocks

Friday afternoon a large flock of black birds flew to the sky as I passed by in the car. Looking closer I could see that they were all starlings—maybe three hundred or more. I’ve always enjoyed watching the way starlings stay so close together in a large flock. They are very communal and are always looking out for each other.

This is an especially good time of the year to look up into the sky every once in a while to see what may be flying over. It’s migration time and for the next month or so the birds of prey that spent their summer further north are now migrating south through the area. It’s a good time to see hawks and eagles, often together in groups called kettles, as they soar on the same favorable air currents carrying them south.

Friday through Saturday I was lucky to see four different ospreys as they followed the Kickapoo River to the south. Their journey will take them to the gulf coast and down into Mexico where they’ll spend the winter.

I bent down to get a closer look at a wasp that was hovering near a small hole in the ground, careful not to get too close. I realized that there were several of them coming and going from the two inch hole in the ground. These ground-nesting wasps have a paper nest built under ground and definitely do not want to be disturbed, so I left them alone.

This green heron kindly sat for a portrait this week

This green heron kindly sat for a portrait this week

It’s always hard to get a picture of a green heron; they always see me and fly away before I can get the camera up. This morning, one of these crow-sized herons flew up from the meadow stream and landed in the dead branches of a pine tree, giving me a rare photo op before he flew off and out of sight.

This short-tailed shrew made the mistake of finding his way into the house last night. He is a carnivore who hunts and eats mice and insects but he became the prey when my housecat discovered him. The shrew was laid neatly near the door for me to find, I guess.

Naturally yours,

Dan