Volume XI, Issue 42 ~ October 16-22, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

2003’s Triple Whammy

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
— Robert Frost: “October”

This year, things are different up here on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County. For the most part, the leaves have not ripened to the fall. Many have already — not fallen: They were swept away by Tropical Storm Isabel.

Pretty much barren are most of these trees of the colorful leaves of fall. The mighty black walnut in the northeast back yard, as well as its smaller progeny in the southwest corner of the front yard, has few leaves and fewer nuts left. The smaller tree crashed to earth, blown down with the noisy ferocity associated with golf-ball sized hail by Isabel’s fierce winds.

Curiously, there have been few squirrels gathering nuts on the ground this October. For the most part since the storm, wildlife — including songbirds — have been scarce in the yard. For a week following Isabel, other than a few mourning doves, the lawn was vacant.

Some finches have since returned, and a few squirrels — though not many compared with the six or more that could be seen at any time prior to Isabel. Nary a cardinal has been spotted, the catbirds have vamoosed, and where are the robins?

On the vivid green grass of the lawn — a much more lush green than last October — lie hundreds of black walnuts now that there are few bushytails to harvest them. I only wish it were practical to set forth with bushel baskets and cart them to Western Maryland to lay out a spread for their counterparts thereabouts.

2003, a most unusual year — following 2002, which was also unusual — has not been kind to Maryland’s wildlife. There was the big blizzard, followed by a chilly and wet spring. The previous year brought drought. Trees were stressed, the mast crop impacted. And farther west it got worse.

Stressed trees turn out fewer nuts, though hereabouts the nut crop was above average, a curiosity of nature. But the woes do not stop with mast. The deep snow and cold certainly was not positive for much wildlife. Then followed the second of the double whammy: a cold wet spring.

Where Are They Now?
Such conditions are precarious for wild turkeys, so vulnerable to damp and chill; nor do quail and rabbits fare well under such conditions. I’ve had concerns about bunnies of the lawn since spring. I have seen few, only one small one. None since Isabel, though I’m sure that like squirrels and songbirds they hunkered down to ride out the storm.

At the height of the winds and fine rain it swept with it on that memorable Thursday night, trees swayed wildly, carrying sheets of leaves. As I stood on the porch taking it all in while praying that the vulnerable tall trees on the cliff wouldn’t crash on the house, I spied two windswept finches trying to gain access to the large sunflower seed feeder on the catalpa tree.

The bluejays have not returned, and I’d buy World Series tickets for anyone who would bring cardinals back to the lawn. The dearth of songbirds is puzzling indeed. Bird feeders normally replenished every two days out of necessity have been refilled only once since Isabel; at present they still don’t need my attention.

They called for refilling the day after Isabel. The fine rain had been swept inside the feeders, causing thick clumps that required removal and rinsing to clear the containers. For days, the washed-out remnants remained on the grass. No visitors, not even mallards from the creek, to feast on the discards. Normally, they’d be gone in a day or two.

Here it is mid-October, and I’m preparing to head to my home state of Vermont to take in the fall foliage while visiting Aunt MiMi, who reports the leaf situation is normal. Vermont got no more than heavy rain and winds not too strong. What’s left of the leaves of my maples at present give no indication of any colors forthcoming hereabouts.

Missing Favorites
There have been other minuses here in this curious year. For the first time in ages, on our table there have been no tomatoes or green peppers from the big pots in the backyard. Born on a farm and raised with an inherent “feel” for weather, I knew by early spring this was not a year for backyard agronomy.

It was too chilly, too wet, something certainly not in the good interest of tomatoes of any variety I know of. Reluctantly, I bought not a single tomato plant. I kept waiting until the sun warmed the earth, which of course it didn’t. Before I knew it, it was too late.

The fresh tomatoes were sorely missed, and for more than their unique flavor. Tomatoes this year, even at the season’s height, were selling at 95 cents a pound, the highest I can recall in summer, in local markets. It was no better with peppers.

Basically, it was the same for much other local produce. The same waters from the skies that replenished our reservoirs and our streams turned agricultural fields into virtual swamps. Tractors couldn’t work at crucial times. Lands that were parched in ’02 had too much of the wet stuff this year. Many seeds rotted, and there was no sun to warm the earth.

It will be interesting to note the repercussions over winter; what this means to waterfowl of Delmarva, the birds from the north, especially Canada geese drawn here by the abundance of corn and soybean scatterings. Visiting fowl must also feed well over the winter for the long flight north to arrive healthy to turn out hatches.

The deer in Western Maryland could well have to travel more to scavenge acorns and other mast, which should be a boon to hunters on the whitetail trail; the same for those who relish squirrel stew. But many pot pies will be without the succulent cottontail or quail to flavor the crust and veggies.

The rabbits and squirrels of my yard will have handouts and need not fear the guns of hunters, which is well for squirrels because there are few leaves on nut trees to conceal them as they romp about on high.

I think of this as I recall a large damaged black walnut in the neighborhood following Isabel. The owner with chain saw decided it best to down it. With many of its leaves stripped, it fell with more of a crunch than the usual swish that resounds when a tree falls in full foliage.

In turn, this makes poignant the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote in
Ode to the West Wind”:

wild West Wind, thou breath of
Autumn’s being.
Thou from whose unseen presence the
leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.

Isabel’s winds came fresh from the east, not the west, and now there are not so many painted, dead leaves to fall.

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Last updated October 16, 2003 @ 12:38am