Autumn Winds (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Wed, 12 Oct 2005

Autumn Winds

The mockingbird is singing. He's been doing that for three weeks now. What's he doing bursting into song all of a sudden in late September and keeping it up for weeks?

All over, animals in the parks are restless. Squirrels are madly digging up nuts from one place, carrying them to another and re-burying them. Chipmunks have appeared, chipping from the bushes as we walk by. I normally don't see chipmunks in the local parks, just ground and tree squirrels. Are they always here, but usually quiet so we don't see them? Or did they migrate in for the season?

An unusual species of large yellow-billed blue bird appeared on the wire above the house. How odd! What's blue, jay sized but has a big bulky yellow bill?

Binoculars provided the answer. A scrub jay with an acorn in its bill! Since then I've seen quite a few yellow-billed Stellar's jays in the local parks as well.

The central area of Alum Rock is filled with a large family of acorn woodpeckers drilling holes in trees, posts, and the walls of the Youth Science Institute building to store their acorns for the winter. The YSI building looks like swiss cheese. A few days after I saw the woodpeckers at work, we went back and the buildings had all sprouted dangling silvery tinsel from all eaves. It seems to be keeping the woodpeckers away. Bad for me (they're cute), good for the YSI.

I saw a couple of nuthatches at Arastradero. A first for me. I don't know if they're migrants, or if they're always there and I've just never noticed before. Arastradero was also thick with white-tailed kites. There are always a few testing the slope currents there, but this time I saw at least four different pairs, maybe more, each with their own territory staked out. Somehow even with that many kites they all managed to stay too far away for me to get a good picture.

The reason for all the time spent at Alum Rock and Arastradero is that we're on the hunt for tarantulas. Every fall, just as the weather starts to get cold, the male tarantulas come out of their burrows and go marching across the trails looking for females. (Maybe the females are marching too. I'm not clear on that.) They're only out for a short time -- maybe a week -- and they're easy to miss. Last year we missed them altogether (but then we lucked out and spotted one later that month while travelling in Arizona).

Anyway, we've had no tarantula luck yet this year. Henry Coe state park had its annual Tarantula Festival already, a week and a half ago. But they always seem to have the festival while the weather's still hot, long before tarantulas show up in any other parks. Maybe Coe tarantulas are a different species which comes out earlier than the others. At any rate, we've seen no sign of them at Alum Rock or Arastradero so far this year.

But back to that singing mockingbird. He doesn't seem to be the same mocker who set up house here this spring and raised three nests of chicks. That one had a very distinctive call note which I haven't heard at all this fall.

But what's he doing singing in autumn? Is he singing as he packs his bags to fly to LA or Mexico? Or confused about the weather? Someone asked that on a local birding list, after noticing thrashers (closely related to mockingbirds) suddenly finding the muse. I reproduce here the edifying and entertaining answer. (Googling, it appears to have been a folk song, though I can't find a home page for the author or anything about the music.)

The Autumnal Recrudescence of the Amatory Urge

When the birds are cacaphonic in the trees and on the verge
Of the fields in mid-October when the cold is like a scourge.
It is not delight in winter that makes feathered voices surge,
But autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.

When the frost is on the punkin and when leaf and branch diverge,
Birds with hormones reawakened sing a paean, not a dirge.
What's the reason for their warbling? Why on earth this late-year splurge?
The autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.
---
Written by Susan Stiles, copyright December 1973

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