Last Days of Summer

In these last days of summer, one of my favorite places has been the weed-choked old field that stretches along one side of a dead-end road just outside our neighborhood, blocking the view (though not the sounds) of Highway 441 beyond it. For the past two or three weeks the field and roadside have been glorious with furry foxtails, tall red-top grasses gone to seed, pokeweed, yellow bitterweed and camphor weed, lush yellow-green ragweed, and – best of all – a profusion of white, purple and pink morning glories and tiny tubular red morning glories blooming on vines that tumbled over the ditches and climbed up the stalks of rough weeds.

I know many of these are invasive species, “aliens,” weeds, not generally considered desirable plants. But they’re also part of a community that has colonized an abused and abandoned field of poor red soil and helped to bring it back to life over the past two decades or more.

Persimmon trees, chinaberries, and other trees and shrubs hang full of fruit and berries. Pines, sweet gums and water oaks have grown tall and formed a small, dense woodland at one end of the field. Kudzu vines spread all over, but have not completely covered more than a small tree here and there, and now they’ve begun to wither from the summer’s heat, though still in bloom with shabby purple, grape-scented flowers. Blackberry, wild grape and honeysuckle vines crowd the privet and other shrubs.

Grasshoppers sing and snap and fly, and butterflies animate the browning, thorny, tangled mess with flutters of yellow and orange – Cloudless Sulphur, Sleepy Orange, Gulf Fritillary – with its bright orange wings and silver-white shimmer of spots underneath, Buckeye, Tiger Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple – and these are only the ones that I know, the most common and familiar and fairly large ones, not counting all the skippers and tiny little hairstreaks and blues.

A White-eyed Vireo continues to sing in the field. A Gray Catbird mews. Brown Thrashers lurk in the thickets. Mockingbirds chase each other and flash their white wing-patches. Mourning Doves, House Finches and Eastern Bluebirds perch on the wires. Eastern Towhees sing. Eastern Phoebes hunt among the bushes. Now and then a Ruby-throated Hummingbird zips by. One early morning recently, three white-spotted fawns fed together along the edge of the field in the damp, cool air, and two Black Vultures crowded on the top of one pole, while a third perched on another.

The young Red-tailed Hawk that sat on a utility pole somewhere over the field every morning since mid summer hasn’t been around the past few mornings. I still see and hear a Red-tailed Hawk or two in the neighborhood or soaring most days – but the young one’s habit of hanging out here daily seems to have changed.

Among my favorite memories of the field this summer are the two female Orchard Orioles that I watched many days, feeding among the weeds and thickets, their round, olive heads bobbing up on long necks like otters in a river, bright yellow throats and breasts glowing, and always so animated and fun to watch. I haven’t seen them since late August. The Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings have been gone for even longer, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find some migrants passing through.

This morning I walked out of the entrance to our subdivision and found that the roadside along the field was mowed yesterday in a big wide swathe – it was bound to happen soon, I know. But all the foxtails now are gone, and the big tall red-top grasses, and – oh, the morning glories! Gone. Or almost. Only a couple of wilted purple blooms lay flat in the ditch.

I can’t help wishing the mowing could have been put off until a little later in the season, but nothing lasts forever, and for a while the roadside was beautiful in a rough, wild, messy way – the kind of beauty you probably have to be walking to appreciate. From a passing car – as most people see it – I guess it just looked neglected and not neat.

On the bright side, the field itself remains happily neglected, untamed and thick with the most disreputable and rampant weeds, and fall is just beginning. There still are many butterflies – just further away from the edge – though right now, there are fewer flowers in sight, especially the tiny roadside white and yellow and pink ones, and I especially miss the morning glories. But I don’t think many of the birds were inconvenienced by the mowing, and it won’t be long before White-throated Sparrows arrive for the winter, and Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Cedar Waxwings – and you never know what else might show up here.

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