Our village grows sleepy every fall, with summer folks draining the pipes and heading south. I never cared for that kind of quiet, preferring the sounds of kids playing on the green while lights shone from the kitchens of 200-year-old houses, and smells of dinner wafted out of open windows. Our old villages have become livelier recently. A paradigm shift caused by fear of COVID transmission has brought families from city apartments to safer bubbles where friends and family can safely roam the forests, the general store, and the village greens.
Bird communities change every fall, virus or not. My back-yard population, now influenced by supplemental sunflower seed feedings, has gone from singing, wild foraging, nesting birds to a rowdy flock of woodpeckers, finches, blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees, and titmice competing for a place at the feeder and some seeds to cache away under bark and in old nest boxes.
The dogs and I begin most days with a walk along the upper Ompomponoosuc, accompanied by the chirps of whatever bird species are moving through. Alive with avian activity, the clean fast water and riparian vegetation offer tall trees, low shrubs, fruits, seeds, and nuts for shelter and food. The soundtrack we hear varies through the seasons, with the ubiquitous robin, so common it is hardly noticed, starting things off in February. Song sparrows join in and are soon accompanied by black and yellow flautists, the bobolinks. Soon after, the river becomes a choral competition of warblers, sparrows, vireos, catbirds, orioles, and doves, each one singing individually to attract a female and to define and defend territory. With songs so complex and interesting, it is a wonder we ever got home for breakfast.
Summer winds down and the songs change from sweet melodic to high-frequency rasping, with the cedar waxwings and kingbirds raising their young late in the season to coordinate with the ripening of berries and abundant airborne insects. Their songs resemble scraping metal, but their winged acrobatics from the treetops are entertaining. Goldfinch also breed late in the summer when the thistle blooms. The gregarious little yellow birds are squeakers rather than singers but like all birds who are willing to hang out with people, they are loved. By September, migrating birds begin to come through the valley after a busy summer up north in the boreal forest where many of them nested among the krummholz and fed their young spruce budworms. By fall, song sparrows are singing an abbreviated version of their familiar song along with the female chipping sound. White throated sparrows too, will sing a weak version of, “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody” along with a very buzzy chipping.
Now that woodstoves are lit and house plants are crowded back onto windowsills, the river chorus has changed. Except for a few remaining flocks of yellow rump warblers, the neotropical migrants have gone south. The hayfield and river have become home to large, noisy flocks of robins, blue jays, goldfinches, chickadees, and crows. No more lilting songs from little birds claiming territory and hoping for a mate, fall is a time for the mighty herd, strength in numbers, food cached, and food sources claimed. These guys are tough, and they are here to stay for the winter. I wonder how our families from the south will find it here, if they have calked the cracks, closed the windows tightly, and cut enough firewood. I wonder if they too are here to stay.