When the Birds Aren’t Biting

It’s late August, and the fall migrants ought to be showing up, the first spattering of raindrops before the deluge. Migrating shorebirds have been moving down the coast for weeks now, but inland I think most of us are still anxiously watching the northern horizon, waiting for the waves of warblers to arrive.

A feeble “cold” front about a week ago knocked a few degrees off our upper-90s norm for a few days. So, hoping some fall migrants might be surfing the crest, I took a morning last weekend to go out to Mason Farm.

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As I approached, a Great Blue Heron was perched regally atop a tall dead tree overlooking the intermittent marsh. It looked majestic up there, like the lord of all it surveyed, and I thought maybe it was a good sign to see such a magnificent bird before I’d even gotten out of my car.

Squadrons of dragonflies parted as I drove into the parking area. On the trail, the air was still and warm, and, even this early in the day, moving from shadow into sunshine felt like opening the oven door.

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As I made my way around the trail, it became apparent that the heron had not been a harbinger of great harvest after all. Little in the way of bird life made itself apparent. I heard a couple of distant Yellow-billed Cuckoos. Two Downy Woodpeckers chased each other through the trees, and a ragged Indigo Bunting watched me from one patch of woods.

One of the fields yielded a Blue Grosbeak and a few whistling Eastern Wood Pewees. I did manage to find two American Redstarts and a pair of Northern Parulas.

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A patchy-looking Blue Grosbeak insists on staying between me and the sun.
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Eastern Wood Pewee.

But that was about it. For a Mason Farm morning, it was a lot quieter than I’d hoped. A bird or two here, then long stretches of nothing.

When that happens, generally I just enjoy the walk. You’re on the trail, breathing the open air, out there in the beauty. What’s not to love? I understand many people even do this without looking for birds at all.

On this particular morning, though, it was impossible not to notice something else going on. Butterflies were everywhere.

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Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (above) and the male, plus a mostly hidden Pearl Crescent.
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Black form Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

Most obvious were Eastern Tiger Swallowtails — big, conspicuous butterflies of yellow and black — wobbling over the trail and the fields in great numbers. The males, and most of the females, wear their tiger stripes over a buttery base coat, but some females come in all black, with lovely iridescent blue highlights.

Hordes of less ostentatious butterflies filled the air. Delicate Cloudless Sulphurs the color of pollen traced quavery courses though shoulder-high grasses. Lower down, crowds patterned in Halloween orange and black — Pearl Crescents, I learned later — jostled for space. A perfect Red-Spotted Purple scorned the flowers for the leaves overhead, and on the last leg of the trail I came upon a Viceroy, a mimic of the more familiar and apparently foul-tasting Monarch. Tiny skippers — I know only the common Silver-spotted Skipper and the bright orange Fiery Skipper by name — drifted through the air everywhere like flecks of ash.

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Red-spotted Purple.
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Pearl Crescent.
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Cloudless Sulphur.
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Viceroy.
Silver-spotted Skipper
Silver-spotted Skipper

As I walked, I found my gaze shifting from the trees earthward to the flowers and brushy shrubs. I only know a handful of butterflies, but by the end of the loop, I was butterflying at least as much as I was birding: watching, identifying the ones I could, taking pictures and resolving to learn the ones I couldn’t.

On the drive out, I was brought up short by one last, spectacular creature working in the flowering brush beside the gravel drive. A Zebra Swallowtail, it had been through some stuff — it had a tear in its left hindwing, and its long spear of a tail on that side was gone — but it was still here, moving from blossom to blossom with a singular focus, doing what butterflies must do.

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Zebra Swallowtail.

You never know when you set out what you’re going to find. The birding this day was a bit of a bust, but the further I went, the more I found the air pulsing with life and color, with what Darwin called “endless forms most beautiful.” How could you feel anything but gratitude to be able to walk through the world for a few hours surrounded by all this?

And sometimes you don’t even have to go looking for it. The next evening, Anne and I were sitting out on the deck talking and having a glass of wine when a tiny winged fleck suddenly appeared, fluttering into the midst of our conversation. Brown and faintly lined, it looked like a nondescript bit of dead leaf — except that, on the outer edge of its hindwing, nature has given it an astonishing little patch of opalescent blue set with what looked like four tiny sapphires.

That striking flourish gives the species its name, as I learned later: Gemmed Satyr. This one kept us company for quite a while. It danced in the air between us, occasionally coming to rest on the table, on my sleeve, on the rim of my wine glass, as we talked and listened to the cicadas and watched the evening fade.

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