Down Time

(This column was first published in the November 16, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    When I drove to a meeting in the Southern Tier last weekend I encountered my first snow of the season. A quarter inch of it was melting rapidly in the woods but a few flakes were still falling. Then yesterday a short walk to the grocery store made me realize how stark and bare are our trees.

    Yellow maple leaves were plastered to the sidewalk by a recent shower, demanding my attention and interrupting my errand. I picked one up to examine it and found a treasure complete in itself. Its outline of soft curves and sharp points and its exquisite tracery of veins produced a beautiful overall symmetry with just enough imbalance to make it unique. This leaf could stand alone in an art gallery, yet here were thousands or even millions of others equally as fine. No wonder artists have turned from realism to abstraction; they simply cannot compete with Mother Nature. Most of the poplar and ash leaves are already gone, vacuumed from huge piles in road gutters by highway crews. Only a few oak and willow leaves still cling to their hosts where some of them will manage to hold on through the winter.

    A visit to Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge today provides more signs of the approaching winter. Vast flocks of starlings and blackbirds stretch across the sky. I stand watching thousands pass overhead and hear not a single sound. In spring a flock like this would be full of conversation, a noisy airborne cocktail party. This congregation is in funeral mode. Further along I watch our winter buteo, a rough-legged hawk, soar in the distance. Later I see another, this one flying low over a brown cattail marsh. Its white rump makes it appear like a big burly harrier.

    A few late pintails dabble among the reeds. These beautiful ducks are a favorite of sportsmen, but they are swift fliers and ever alert. Many will outmaneuver the hunters this fall to winter near the Gulf of Mexico and return early next spring. I wish them well. Along Lakes Ontario and Erie, battalions of other waterfowl -- loons and scaup and scoters -- are moving steadily west and south.

    I find no amphibians. They have dug deep into the mud to spend the months ahead. Snakes have retreated to underground hibernacula where often dozens wind their bodies together in thick masses for warmth. Butterflies and moths no longer grace the meadows. Monarchs are valiantly fluttering their way to Mexico. Adult mourning cloaks rest quietly under rocks. Wood nymph caterpillars feed deep in the grass. Tent caterpillars overwinter in egg masses on trees and buildings. But most, like the whites, pupate through this life stage at least partially protected by their cocoons. A few woodchucks and bears are still seeking dens in which to sleep through the winter's cold.

    Clearly we have come to the end of that wonderful spring, summer and fall -- week after week of clear skies and pleasant temperatures. Farmers and gardeners have legitimate complaints about how dry it was, but most of us basked in those lovely days. Here on the Niagara Frontier we too soon forget seasons like those we have experienced over the past seven months. We may yet have a few weeks of Indian summer and bluebird weather, but we're already into our usual half year of nature's down time. We have responded by getting out winter clothing and putting up storm windows, mulching gardens and marking driveway borders for snow plowing. And some of us are even packing to head south.

    The animals and plants around us have their own ways of coping.