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SCOTT SHALAWAY Keeping sane in an insane world



Published: Sun, September 16, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



When terror, hate, and murder intrude on the daily lives of all Americans, it's tempting to respond in kind. Certainly we can all help by donating blood, money, or time, but retribution is best left to professionals. The rest of us need to focus on our families, friends, and the business of everyday life.

When I find myself struggling for sanity in an insane world, I turn to the outdoors. A crisp clear September day is often the ideal prescription for a world gone mad. September brings welcome changes to the natural world. Cooler temperatures and shorter days trigger predictable transitions from summer to autumn.

Overhead, flocks of geese honk loudly as they wing their way south. They are joined by other waterfowl, raptors, song birds, and hummingbirds. But don't believe those tales of hummers hitching rides on the backs of geese. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, which weigh barely more than a tenth of an ounce on a good day, fly on their own to south Florida and island-hop their way to Mexico. Some wander westward to the Texas coast, where they may make the 500-mile, 24-hour, nonstop flight across the Gulf to central Mexico. Though this seems an incredible feat, physiologists assure us ruby-throats are quite capable of such a flight.

The usual sounds, sights: At night, temperatures dip so that mornings are at first chilly and then frosty by month's end. Does and fawns regroup and visit backyards in search of uneaten bird food and tasty shrubs. Families of flying squirrels compete with deer for leftover sunflower seeds. The familiar chorus of katydids and tree crickets fades, while pairs of hooting great horned owls reestablish their pair bonds.

By day, monarch butterflies flutter southward on a journey that will take them high into the mountains of central Mexico. How they find their way remains a tantalizing mystery. Frogs, toads, turtles, and snakes slow down, become less active and eventually seek underground shelter for the winter.

In the woods, fall webworms encase the outer branches of cherry and walnut trees in unsightly silky tents. The chemical pigments that make leaves green begin to fade and other pigments -- shades of gold, crimson, and chestnut -- reveal themselves. Deep inside hollow trees, late summer broods of all four species of tree squirrels mature. If the weather cooperates, they will emerge in time to fatten up for the winter. If winter strikes early, most will die young. .

On the forest edge, migrating song birds forage feverishly for food to fuel their southbound migration. Though some such as towhees and flickers may travel only a few hundred miles, others such as red-eyed vireos and Canada warblers go all the way to South America. If you see one of these neotropical migrants this month, take a moment to marvel at how creatures weighing barely one-third of an ounce can make three or four such round trips in a lifetime.

Caterpillars gorge: In abandoned fields, amid an almost unbroken sea of goldenrod, summer's final brood of monarch caterpillars gorges on milkweed leaves. The race is on to form chrysalises and transform into adult butterflies in time to get to Mexico before the weather turns cold.

On the same milkweed plants, thousands of immature orange and black milkweed bugs emerge from the maturing pods. Unlike butterflies, which undergo a complete metamorphosis, adult-like larva hatch from the eggs of true bugs. After a series of simple molts, adult bugs emerge. Sometimes, unnerving numbers of milkweed bugs gather on the walls of houses and garages in the fall.

Old feeder friends: In the backyard, territorial behavior subsides and flocks of old friends return to the feeders. Family groups of chickadees and titmice join handfuls of increasingly social cardinals, goldfinches, and blue jays at backyard feeding stations. In September downy and red-bellied woodpeckers also return to feeders stocked feeders with sunflower seeds and peanuts.

Indoors, we also respond to the changes that September brings. Some raise the thermostat. Others just close the windows. Here on the ridge, we keep the windows open break out the winter bedding. And this September we pray for a saner and more peaceful world.

sshalaway@aol.com




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