It’s that time of year again. This September came quickly and burst forth with a 77-degree drop in temperature. On Saturday, it was 106 degrees with the grandkids begging to go down to the river to swim, fish or just lie in the shallows. Tuesday morning it was 29 degrees with a crust of ice on the windshields.
The Black Hills are famous for huge temperature swings. On January 22, 1943, the temperature in the town of Spearfish, on the northern edge of the Black Hills, rose from -4 degrees at 7:32 a.m. to 45 degrees in just two minutes. Our dip into autumn this year was not that extreme, but as it did during those two minutes in 1943, the mercury moved in the right direction for a beleaguered landscape. Beginning in June, we experienced temperatures in excess of 100 degrees regularly. Tuesday’s drop in temperature was accompanied by an inch of rain, which we have not seen since April. Our summer was not as hot and dry as some places on the West Coast, but it was still miserable, and the threat of grassland fires was always on our minds.
As the summer wore on and we heard the news of drought and wildfires, it was difficult not to think of global warming and the dark cloud of climate change looming. Last weekend’s freezing temperatures and splash of rain has pushed most of those dire thoughts out of our heads, at least temporarily. The landscape is still tinder-dry and we will need rain and snow this winter, but for now, things are looking up. Autumn is here and its arrival has been heralded by flocks of birds flitting across our pastures and filling our trees with activity.
A friend is visiting, working remotely at her job normally done in a small city in the hill country of western Massachusetts. Here she sits at her makeshift office near a window that looks out on my front yard. Because she works on Eastern Standard Time, she has the late afternoon to move around the ranch, where she’s seen dozens of bird species new to her. She keeps a bird list and until the arrival of autumn, the list had comprised of two or three dozen species, many of them usual prairie suspects: brown-headed cow bird (more accurately described as buffalo birds), brown thrashers, prairie falcons, robins, red-tailed hawks, blue jays, goldfinches, sharp-tailed grouse, meadowlarks, kingbirds, red-winged blackbirds, golden eagles and burrowing owls.
In the days since our first cold front, the list has exploded to over sixty, including yellow breasted chats, Swainson’s hawks, lark buntings, shrikes, turkey vultures, downy woodpeckers, kestrels, merlins, flickers, ferruginous hawks, mountain bluebirds, upland sandpipers, peregrine falcons, half dozen duck species, and a bald eagle. They are still funneling in from northern climates and higher elevations. They are not singing quite as joyfully as they were when they came through on their spring migration, but they are still raising a racket.
What had been a dry, hot, dusty, isolated summer has become a spectacle of life, clamoring to be heard and promising to continue to pass through our lives. It brings a message of hope to a country and a nation very much in need of exactly that.