The Yard Watch
Twenty years ago, I began observing the seasonal changes that take place in the area where I live to create the entries for Outdoor Almanac, which appears on the back cover of Sanctuary.
After a few years of watching the course of the seasons, I began to notice that the bird arrivals, blossoming times, and insect hatchings were occurring on more or less the same dates each year. As early as February 28, for example, the red-winged blackbirds would return to the marshes along the stream below my house. Mourning cloak butterflies would appear in the nearby woods on the first warm days in early March. Wood frogs would begin quacking from the little vernal pools in the woods to the west around March 5, spring peepers would begin to call two weeks later, and the phoebe that used to nest in a shed behind the house would show up, without fail, on March 27. I could almost tell the days of the month by the clockwork of these small generally unnoticed events.
In spite of this seeming regularity, after ten years or so I began to notice a few subtle changes in these dates. Ironically, the changes tended to occur more in autumn than in the spring. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, for example, the first light frosts would occur on September 18 and then by Columbus Day in the second week of October, there would be a hard frost that would take out the garden completely, leaving a sad browned-out landscape. Light snows would arrive in periodic waves shortly thereafter, and by early December they would begin to accumulate in shaded corners.
Now, in the twenty-first century, September 18 is often a pleasant day, with dragonflies still darting over the green and flowering gardens and the summer squashes, tomatoes, and annual flowers still producing. Around Columbus Day, there would be a change, the juncos would show up, and there might be a light frost—but not always. One year in the late ’90s, there was no frost until December. Other years there would be a hard frost sometime in late October and then a general warming trend through December. The normal New England early winter would not come until January, and I remember one year when the rue and the rosemary were still green in the garden as late as January 10.
These changes occurred through the year. The traditional January thaw, which used to arrive around the third week of the month, sometimes never actually materialized; and, if it did, it would only last a day. Winters seemed to get harder (although not necessarily colder) as the season progressed, with heavy snows later and later in the season. One year, snow was still knee deep in the garden on April 10, the day the tree swallows would traditionally show up in the fields below the house. Planting season, which used to begin in late March, was out of the question until mid-April, and even then was difficult since the ground was still saturated.
Summers seemed cooler, and my formerly reliable calendar of insects began to falter. The migratory passage of monarchs on October 5 seemed unchanged. But the field crickets, whose chirping I would sometimes hear even in mid-March, have not been starting up until May in recent years. In the 1980s, I used to hear the first snowy tree crickets and ground crickets on July 17. Now I don’t hear them until mid-August, and last summer, 2004, I didn’t hear them until late August. Katydids don’t live around the ridge where my house is located, but I hear them in oak trees just to the west, and they too have been starting later and later.
And so it goes the year-round. And so it has been going ever since the world began. But never so fast, never in the space of twenty years.