Less than two weeks ago, I found a good-sized garter snake basking on a low rock wall behind Engineering Hall at the University of Illinois. It was taking advantage of the sun and 71-degree temperature. I didn't know it at the time, but now am reasonably certain it was the last wild snake I'll see in 2013. That's because garter snakes, like most other reptiles and amphibians, deal with the advent of cold weather by getting below the frost line and remaining inactive until spring.
Recent weeks have seen a number of other turning points in the cycle of seasonal animal activity.
Chimney swifts, the small, dark gray "flying cigars" that enliven our skies for six months out of the year, are gone, with the last local sighting confirmed on the Birdnotes listserv on Oct. 13. Chimney swifts winter in South America and return north right around our deadline for filing income taxes in mid-April. (Do you think people in Columbia or Peru consider chimney swifts "their" birds and say, "They summer in North America"?)
Of course, in the world of birds and birders, fall is not just a time of departures but one of arrivals as well. Yellow-rumped warblers, which summer in Canada and northern tier states, have descended on East Central Illinois in force. A person who is attuned to their characteristic "chip" can hear it throughout the day all over town. A couple of weeks ago, more than a hundred yellow-rumped warblers spent the afternoon feasting on the minute pirate bugs that swarmed around the hackberry trees in my backyard. Some swooped out from branches to catch the pirate bugs in the air (a feeding behavior known as "hawking"), while others picked them from the tree bark (known as "gleaning").
Many different types of sparrows have also moved down from the north for the winter. Dark-eyed juncos, sporty gray sparrows with a distinctive white bill, have arrived, so keep an eye out for them at feeders. So have white-throated sparrows, which you may hear singing now and again even in the fall, although they typically do only a half-hearted, shortened rendition of their spring song. (In spring it sounds to birders like, "Old Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody." Now, it's more like "Old Sam Pea . . ." then quiet.)
For much of my life, these transitional weeks represented an end of consistent outdoor activity until the return of warmer weather, but that has changed with my adoption of new outdoor pursuits.
A few years back, I bought myself a digital SLR and telephoto zoom lens that allow me to practice bird photography, which I find much more engaging than birding that begins and ends with identifying the things I see. It's extremely gratifying to return from outings with photos and be able to share them with other people via social media. And because birds are active throughout the year, there's really no off-season for bird photography.
Along similar lines — at least from my perspective — I've also begun hunting, mostly for deer. Because of that, I now anticipate fall and winter just as eagerly as I do spring and summer, maybe more. As I write, I realize many people may not think of hunting as a pursuit compatible with environmentalism. That's certainly a topic for a future column.
Public invited to watch film
At 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Lincoln Hall Theater, check out a free screening of the film "Chasing Ice," billed as the story of one man's mission to change the tide of history by gathering undeniable evidence of climate change.
A panel discussion with UI climate experts will follow.
The screening is sponsored by the School of Earth, Society and Environment in cooperation with Students for Environmental Concerns.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.