Weekly Cape Cod Nature Watch: Late Summer Meanderings

Heading to the beach.
MARY RICHMOND - Heading to the beach.

These days we wake to summer then fall then summer again. The morning light reaches above the horizon later each day and the evening light gives in to the stars earlier and earlier. Late summer flowers fill the fields and dunes with last bursts of color while the poison ivy begins to turn red. There are purple and golden asters, goldenrod and the red rosy hips of the beach roses still. There are tufts of seeds from the thistles and other meadow flowers while in the woodlands the nuts and acorns are beginning to fall to the ground.

The end of summer is always bittersweet but this year the cool nights and cool mornings seem to have begun a bit earlier and the sun seems to have given up her heat sooner than usual. There will still be plenty of warm days but these are the days when we add a sweatshirt to that ever-changing mix of clothes we may need in the back of the car. It isn’t time to bring in the beach chairs quite yet but the beach bags are getting cleaned out while those lost towels from the trunk or back seat are getting washed and hung out to dry. There is sand on the car floor and sand on the seats but I am not ready to vacuum it out quite yet. I love the smell of summer beach in the car and a few shells wedged between seats and an old scruffy feather poking out of a cupholder add their own bit of summer beach, car-style, as well.

Crickets are singing and ants are scurrying. What few butterflies there have been this summer are working the last flowers in the late afternoon sun and the dragonflies are having one last fling over the sunny ponds as the shadows lengthen.

Young frogs are in abundance as are young toads. This seems to have been an especially good year for toads here on the Cape. Even the spadefoot toads have had a good year, if the ones at Sandy Neck are any indication.

This is the time of year to walk along with the scores of shorebirds, figuring out one from another if you can. Some, like the semi-palmated plover and larger black-bellied plover, are easy to distinguish once you know what to look for but telling the difference between short- and long-billed dowitchers may need a more practiced eye. In their usual places whimbrels can still be found and the salt marshes are full of herons and egrets. Listen for the rattling calls of kingfishers and the “gronk” calls of little green herons when at the marsh as well.

A recent meander by the ocean’s edge reminded me of how much of the life that goes on around our fabled peninsula is actually out of sight, out in deep water. As I waited to go out on a friend’s boat I could see small fish jumping only feet away from the dock. They were the small flat fish we call pogies and they were shimmering and shining as they twisted and turned. Larger fish, which I couldn’t identify, were chasing them. Later people told me they were probably schoolies, smaller bass. Whatever they were, they were causing quite a ruckus and the gulls arrived from hither and yon to take their own pickings from the air. Whenever I see scenes like this, where schools of fish are being predated by fish beneath and behind them and birds above them, I am reminded to add “Not a bait fish” to my gratitude list.

As we quietly motored about Pleasant Bay on what was really one of the most perfect days of the season we watched shorebirds feeding along the shore and great blue herons standing like statues as they waited patiently by tidal pools.

We listened to the gulls and ate our lunch while listening to the waves quietly keeping time with the boat. Gone for a moment were the thoughts of work and to-do lists that seem to only get longer each day. For just a few hours we were out and away from it all. No phones, no computers, no agendas…just one of those “be here now” moments we cherish so much when we have them.

As I watch and listen to the chipmunks gathering seeds and nuts and to the late afternoon songs the crickets sing I know that summer is slowly ebbing away. That’s okay, it’s been a great summer and it really is hard to complain too much about fall here on the Cape. That’s a good thing because it is on its way.

Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist, and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at www.capecodartandnature.com.


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