Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, August 29, 2015

In the Mists

Circumstances have changed for me. Once again I must get up in near-darkness, just before dawn, if I want to get out for a walk before work.

I am a creature of habit, and when a habit or routine changes I feel upended until I establish a new routine.

Early rising wouldn't be a problem when the prospect of finding all sorts of northbound migrant birds would've had me up early anyway, walking slowly and listening, peering in the bad light for any movement in trees only just leafing out.

Fog (Margo D. Beller)
But in late summer the days are already getting shorter. The southbound birds are passing through quietly because they have no need to show off for potential mates or claim territory. The sun is low on the horizon and it is wonderfully cool before the three Hs - hazy, hot and humid - make their appearance.

What I have found on these walks have been local breeding birds -- chipping sparrows, cardinals, titmice -- flying around with their young. Or I find goldfinches, who are late breeders because they only eat the weed seeds that appear at this time of year. The bright yellow males perform high loop-de-loops as they impress females and protect territories.

I know that soon I won't even see that because it will still be dark before 7 am, especially when we go back to standard time.

And then, once in a while, Mother Nature throws a curve.

Orb web over plantings. (Margo D. Beller)
This particular morning I am writing about, I rose before the alarm buzzer -- I used to wake with the daylight but at the time I must rise it is still dark -- and was out the door by 6:15 am into a thick, unexpected fog.

Humidity, cooling temperatures overnight, I don't know what caused it but visibility was low and I knew it would be thicker where I was headed, to the fields of the former Greystone Park mental hospital, now the Central Park of Morris County.

It is always cooler in there, even in summer. There are no houses or sidewalks, only tall, shady trees and plants. It is only when my route takes me along town streets lined with houses and filled with anxious commuters zipping by in their cars that things seem to warm up quickly.

With the thick fog, my only concern was whether I'd be seen by one of those early-morning commuters, but at the hour I was walking there were few cars, outnumbered by walkers who were as startled to see me coming out of the fog as I was of them.

Ground web (Margo D. Beller)
The birds were not active, and their contact calls seemed tentative, for want of a better word. The white-breasted nuthatches I heard sounded more aggrieved, their nasal "hank, hank, hank" louder than usual. You can't fly very high or far in thick fog.

So while I wasn't seeing much in the way of birds, I discovered the spiders had been very busy.

On sunny summer days I don't notice webs unless they are spectacularly big or right in front of me. I've probably passed hundreds of webs hung out to catch a meal.

However, on this foggy, damp day, the condensation on the silk highlighted the intricate designs and you couldn't help but notice them.

Some were strung up high between trees. Others were over patches of lawn. I found a few draped over shrubs and other plants. When I see them in my garden they tell me there are a lot of insects hanging around. If I find a web over a particularly enticing flower I know bees will visit, I take down the web. The spider scampers away. The next day I find a new web in a nearby area.

Look carefully for the suspended web. (Margo D. Beller)
Spiders rebuild their webs all the time, so I don't feel particularly cruel about doing this.

Years ago, around this time of year, I was on Monhegan Island in Maine for a short visit. In our travels I rescued several monarch butterflies from spider webs draped over the sweet-scented dune roses. Monarchs have a hard enough time trying to make it south to Mexico for the winter without becoming a spider's supper.

Of course, spiders have to eat, too. They are very good at taking out the silverfish and other annoying house insects and we give the spiders free rein -- if they are small.

The largest spider we ever had in the house was the wolf spider. How it got into the house I don't know but spiders have a way of squeezing themselves through window screens.

My husband, who grew up sleeping in a basement where he'd find spiders, millipedes and centipedes, took the wolf spider and put it in our basement. I haven't seen it since, which is just as well.

We're both happier this way.