Calendars are funny things. They can tell you precisely the timing of the moon’s phases, the dates on which holidays both familiar and obscure fall (I now know when Boxing Day is, though I’m still not sure what it commemorates), and when we change from one season to the next. But for all a calendar’s precision, it can’t tell you what the crossover between seasons feels like. Case in point: apparently, fall hit about three weeks ago. I, however, missed it, not noting much of a difference between September 21 and the autumnal equinox a day later. Step outside these days, though, and the difference is readily apparent. The air has taken on the cool crispness particular to a New England October; trees are switching from summer’s wardrobe of rich green to the fiery hues of autumn, which they’ll wear for a too-brief span before walking naked into November’s chill; and in the yard, Chipping Sparrows and late season warblers are giving way to White-throated Sparrows and juncos—as clear an indication as any of fall’s ascendance.
For me—and for most, if not all, birders—the progress of the seasons is determined not by the measured procession of calendar days but by the arrivals and departures of birds. Here in western Massachusetts, winter is attended by Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, and, if we’re lucky, redpolls and crossbills. Spring is heralded by the opening chorus of Red-winged Blackbirds and carried on the backs of Turkey Vultures, whose upswept wings effortlessly catch the vernal zephyrs beneath them, primaries splayed like a concert pianist’s fingers. The songbirds that follow mark the height of the season with a chromatic rush; the departure of the far northern breeders and the concomitant arrival on new-minted wings of the year’s first young presage the sweltering days of summer. And I know fall by the upward circumnavigation of raptors sailing southward on rising columns of heated air, and the fleeting return visit of migrants bound for more favorable climes, taking their repast with us before continuing their migratory travels.
Migration. In the abstract, it’s an intellectual wonder, a story of epic proportions. But seeing it unfold is something else entirely: You feel it. Standing beneath a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks as they soar up a thermal and stream out above you in a line several hundred birds strong is utterly captivating, and you can’t help but get drawn along with them. Watching a flock of 10,000 Tree Swallows stretch to cover the horizon and then approach and surround you overwhelms the rational mind, stripping it of all ability to process the event and leaving room only for awe and emotion. And seeing a normally secretive warbler drop to the ground in front of you in pursuit of one more insect to help fuel its 3,000-mile journey opens a window on the bird’s life, and invites you to become a part of its quest to survive.
If you open yourself to them, if you begin to understand what you’re seeing, such experiences are transformative. A Magnolia Warbler who flits out in front of you to pluck a moth out of the air isn’t simply eating, it’s preparing for a journey that will push it to the limit of its endurance. Weighing less than two quarters, this little bird travels unaided some 3,000 miles to winter in Central America; that moth it nabbed just might mean the difference between life and death, transformed into vital energy to drive the bird the final distance. Appreciate that, and you will be changed. You can’t help it—you’re connected now to lives beyond your own, beyond those of friends and family, beyond human bounds, caught in the grand mystery whose common expression is the fire of life within us all. No longer simply an observer of the migratory spectacle, you’ve become part of an immense journey guided by invisible threads older than humanity itself and dictated by the most ancient impulse of all: the desire to survive.