NEWS

Ron MacAdow: Take advantage of autumn opportunities

Ron MacAdow

At this time of autumn, leaves tumble through sunshine like feathers, flashing brilliant stained glass colors.

Do you use one of those computer applications that transforms digital pictures? Some programs have a "desaturate" command. When applied to a photograph, it changes every hue to shades of gray. That's what happens to many areas between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. As daylight becomes scarce and the wind more chilling, the landscape's richest, most varied palette dulls. Under leaden skies, the effect can be dispiriting.

But fall creates fresh opportunities. Stripped of deciduous clothing, the transparent bodies of trees and shrubs reveal the forest's skeleton. Nests of birds, previously hidden by foliage, come into view. Sometimes we find that bird families grew up unexpectedly near our walks and driveways.

Are bird nests not a source of wonder? Birds don't learn to build them; how-to instructions are hard-wired into their genes. The species of the builder can often be inferred from an abandoned nest's design.

American goldfinches, for example, typically begin with a foundation of spider silk lashed to four upright twigs. Working from the inside, the female shapes a cup of rootlets and other strong plant fibers, so tightly woven that it will hold water. To complete her life's great work, she adds a soft lining of thistle down, or similarly fine threads. Because goldfinches wait until July to nest, and build well, their nests remain in good condition after their leafy protection falls away. Usually located at or near eye level, a goldfinch nest might bring itself to your attention.

If you discover the nest of another backyard bird, the Northern cardinal, look for four distinct layers. The inner, grassy cradle is within a woven cup of grapevine bark, itself contained and insulated by a mat of leaves, which is supported by a rough platform of twigs, bark and vines, plus maybe some plastic or string. Gray catbird nests are similar.

Our noisy new resident, the Carolina wren, makes a home scaled to the size of its voice rather than proportional to its little body. Its rather bulky nest often has a dome, and is of a loose, haphazard construction that mixes vegetable and manufactured materials with animal detritus such as hair, feathers and snake skin.

Probably our most familiar avian neighbors are American robins. The lady robin builds an outer wall with a selection of this and that: dead grass, twigs, moss and paper. Then she adds a stucco middle layer with mud from worm castings - a surprising facet of the robin-worm relationship - which she kneads and shapes by rotating her body. Her precious eggs will rest upon a blanket of dead grass.

These nests of spring and summer, so suddenly exposed in fall, arrest our eyes at a thoughtful, retrospective time of year, as families digest their feelings about the human fledging process. The dispersal of offspring to posts of young adulthood relieves grownups of (some) care and makes this a mixed-up, transitory time, in which we look back and forward.

Empty nests are evidence that cliches grow from comparisons too apt to deny. The vacant cups represent descending quietness, welcome and unwelcome, the progressive turning of life's wheel that grays our hair and, if we don't look out, our lives as well.

MetroWest Daily News contributor Ron McAdow is executive director of Massachusetts' Sudbury Valley Trustees and author of guidebooks to the Charles, Concord, Sudbury and Assabet rivers. Find out more atsvtweb.org.