It’s cool the first morning of fall; 11 C, and cloudy. Yesterday at this time the temperature was rising into the 20s, and my shirt was sticking to me, the humidity was so high. But autumn blew in last night, right on schedule, and today is completely different.
On the banks of one of the ponds, where yesterday frogs made regular plops in the water as I walked, nothing moves. Too cold for frog activity; soon they’ll be burrowing into the mud on the pond’s bottom to hibernate. The woods are strangely silent, except for the calls of chickadees foraging overhead, whereas yesterday the screech of blue jays was about all I could hear.
It wasn’t just me scaring frogs yesterday. A lone jay was feeding on the far bank of the pond, gleaning insects from fallen branches and the webs of caterpillars, sometimes dropping into the scatter of leaves to push them aside for whatever lived underneath them. When it got close to the water, a frog leapt, kaleidoscoping the reflection of sky and leaves for a minute before the ripples settled and the mirror returned.
The jay called, constantly. I wondered what it was saying: food here? Or, where is everyone? It’s rare for me to see a lone jay at this time of year; usually they’re in family groups, or even larger flocks, flying along fencerows from woodlot to woodlot, zig-zagging across a landscape, staying close to shelter. And not quietly. The jay’s harsh call is a backdrop to most fall walks.
The foraging lone jay finished feeding and flew, its feathers refracting the sunshine as a brilliant blue. I watched its reflection in the dark water of the pond, then followed the real bird to where it landed: a maple branch overhanging the bank. It stopped calling then. I moved on.
Years ago, I was at Point Pelee about this time of year, or perhaps a little earlier. The point is a sandspit jutting out into Lake Erie; it, and the presence of islands about halfway between Ontario and Ohio, make it a migration route for birds and butterflies. It must have been a weekday, because the park was nearly deserted. Along the beaches on either side of the point, the sand was littered with the wings of monarchs, torn off by jays as they fed. Among those red-gold wings were dozens of pairs of jay wings, torn off by Cooper’s hawks as they fed on the migrating jays.
“Cruelty is a mystery…” Annie Dillard wrote; then: “But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: …beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous…”
Jays as blue as the sky; dying leaves vividly reflected on still water. A red-tailed hawk gyring in the sky, its tail the exact rufous of the autumn oak below it. Scruffy juvenile cedar waxwings, swooping and calling like a gang of adolescent skateboarders as I walk along a gravel path. Grace, wholly gratuitous.
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