North With the Swans, West to the Heights

April 30, 2019

It was The Winter That Refused To Leave, February’s rough cold mood continuing into March, March’s taunting bluster continuing into April. But all around now, the bright pale leaves of spring are in full eruption. Dandelions proliferate, May apple blankets the forest floor, and gaudy redbuds are rioting along the woodlands’ edge. Bugs zip past while you bask, finally, in spring temperatures and warming rays. And as you look back at those endless-seeming bleak gray weeks now at last in the rear view, you recall that every little harbinger of spring, every first this and first that along the way, had been a lifeline of welcome promise to you of balmier days to come.

That first green greeting of skunk cabbage from its brown dormant surroundings along Blockston Branch. That Wednesday you saw your first robin. The day the grackles descended en masse. “Hey, why are those dark-eyed juncos still here? They’re hanging around longer this year.”

Noticing such firsts, and such differences from before, and keeping track of them from year to year, is constantly interesting because change is constantly happening. From such recorded observation springs a perpetually growing database of year-to-year patterns. You could call it a root empirical source of natural science, or you could just call it by its name, phenology: the study of, in Mr. Webster’s words, “periodic biological phenomena.”

I was psyched when this topic came up during one of our Maryland Master Naturalist training sessions at Adkins.And when Dr. Sylvan Kaufman, as an illustration of the idea of phenology, read us a passage from Edwin Way Teale’s 1951 classic North With the Spring, my interest went into overdrive.

I love that book—correction: I love Teale’s entire four-part American Seasons series. I had stumbled onto Journey Into Summer first, accidentally (but perfectly) at the beginning of one summer, and had plowed through all four volumes in order—Autumn Across America, Wandering Through Winter, and, wrapping up with the one Teale wrote first, North With the Spring. I read each one in the successive season it chronicled, and I was sorry when I was done. Edwin and Nellie Teale’s epic cross-country phenology journeys led me toward other follow-the-changing-seasons-type books: Teale’s own Circle of the Seasons and A Walk Through the Year, thenWilliam Beebe’s The Log of the Sun, and now, Bryan MacKay’s A Year Across Maryland.

I started this latest one last January, reading each week’s entry at the outset of that week, then reading the next entry the following week, and so on until now. MacKay’s book has been dead-on more than once: From the redwings’ reappearance to the pairing-off of rookery-returning herons to the mating of wood frogs, his weekly entries have timed it right and scored phenology bull’s-eyes, at least in my neck of the woods.

So one day in early March, my wife, Harriet, and I were driving over to take a hike at Tuckahoe State Park, and what we saw on the way wowed us so much that we slowed to a halt. We were on a long straight stretch of empty farm road, and the bare fields surrounding us had become a seething sea of white—tundra swans by the hundreds, their collective noise filling the air as we rolled down the window. More kept swooping in, others swooped off in undulating waves, a mass exodus under way. And the white sea was still washing over those fields when we drove home from the hiking trail.

Tundra swans pass through the Mid-Shore on their northward trek. Photo by Harriet Mills

They were trending northerly, along with the geese we’d been spying on the wing in those late-winter days. But the tundra swan, Cygnus columbianus, would be traveling to the end of the line, all the way to the treeless wildlands of northernmost Canada. It would be mid-May by the time they finally arrived at their distant arctic breeding grounds. As they filled the sky around us, we wished them safe travels and told them, see you next year.

But shortly thereafter I was flipping to the next entry in A Year Across Maryland—and “see you next year” turned into “see you next weekend.” Yes, we knew the swans’ ultimate destination, but thanks to Bryan MacKay, we now also knew their next destination (most likely, anyway): Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It was a major staging area for the northbound flocks, 6,254 acres of abundant water and food, and the fowl hordes stop in droves there to fatten up for the long flights ahead. Every year at just this time, our tundras converged there by the thousands. But the main attraction is the snow goose, Chen caerulescens, which can descend on Middle Creek in numbers as high as 100,000 or more. “Without experiencing this phenomenon,” writes Bryan MacKay, “it’s difficult to appreciate how stunning the white blizzard of birds is when they take to wing.”

I’d been reading aloud from the book while sitting in front of the fireplace. Harriet and I looked across at each other at that last part, both of us thinking the same thing: Road trip! But there was a catch: The epic-scale mass conglomeration of swans, geese, and ducks at Middle Creek WMA only takes place for about three weeks. They’re there, then they’re gone, like Brigadoon. It was a finite phenological window, and this weekend would be our only shot at witnessing the once-a-year spectacle; by the weekend after, the bird counts would be dwindling and we had obligations, so now was our only chance. And so that Saturday morning, we headed off north. North with the swans.

Upon arrival at Middle Creek, we immediately observed that another species also had flocked there in great numbers: Homo sapiens. We were everywhere, packing the visitors’ center parking lot, our cars cluttering the shoulder of the road that routed along the edge of the reservoir. Harriet and I wangled ourselves a tight spot between the heavily trafficked road and a ditch, climbed the hill crusted with thick March snow, wedged a place for ourselves among the assembled throng, and witnessed the sudden and raucous takeoff of a whole field’s worth of snow geese; it was like the snow on the ground had exploded into white flying fragments. The Tuesday (March 12th) following our visit there, the Middle Creek 2019 snow goose count topped out at 150,000. A banner year.

The snow geese of Middle Creek—a yearly spectacle. Photo by Harriet Mills

But what about our main reasons for coming? The travelers we had followed here from the Eastern Shore? We caught up with the tundra swans the following morning, as we moseyed down the crowded Willow Creek Trail, coming up on a watery surface carpeted with tundras. At seemingly random moments they would take off caterwauling, all flying and banking and turning in unison like they had a collective brain. Were our farm-field sojourners from down on the Shore among their numbers? We’d like to think so. If they were, they got to hear us say to them a second time, see you next year. And thanks for leading us here. Like you, we’ll be back.

Then, just as March had pulled us north to marvel at “periodic biological phenomena,” April called us west for another phenology trek: one that would take us back in time. Our daughter Kerri gave us a shout from Frederick and invited us to come out and hike up Maryland Heights in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. You ascend the mountain to an overlook that displays the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers below—a famously great trail, and another opportunity to experiment with the seasonal cusp.

Again, it was Teale who tipped us off. Yes, he and Nellie followed the season north: “Spring advances up the United States at the average rate of fifteen miles a day . . . .” But when they got to the Great Smokies, Teale took a detour into the past, back to the winter of a few weeks earlier—by scaling a mountain. As he noted, to ascend a mountain “in the spring is equivalent to moving backward . . . in time . . . .” Climbing the mountain, “each hundred feet represented a full day’s delay in the advance of spring.”

With Maryland Heights, here was the potential for some phenology in reverse, and we took up Kerri on her invite. It was a steep climb, the scenery more majestic and sweeping the higher we rose. And along the way, to illustrate Teale’s point, was that brightly hued spring harbinger, the Virginia bluebell, Mertensia virginica. We spotted the first splashy batch of it just up from the trailhead, near the lowest end of the ascent. Much farther up, legs burning, approaching the overlook, we spotted more of it—and at this level, the Virginia bluebells clearly weren’t as fully blossoming as the ones below. They looked to be a good week or so behind. In terms of springtime’s inexorable advance, we had marched ourselves upward and backward toward late winter. After the attenuated chilly season we’d just come through, that felt like the wrong direction. So we savored the panoramic view of the rivers below, then we gladly headed down, forward again into the spring that was here at last.

Virginia bluebells in blossom at the base of Maryland Heights.
Photo by Kerri Mills

Higher up the mountain, the bluebells lag behind, still back in time.
Photo by Kerri Mills

By Eric Mills
Maryland Master Naturalist Trainee

One thought on “North With the Swans, West to the Heights

  1. I’ve just caught up with your article, weeks after you wrote it. What a wonderful blog. I am going to find the books you mentioned and I am sure I will enjoy and learn from them.

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