About this time of year, the young loons on the calm morning water of the lake begin to become more apparent. Half feathered and not quite yet the sleek black-and-white of their parents, they flex their independence or congregate in hangouts in front of the dock which rival teenagers getting together on a Friday night. Not long from now, usually before Labor Day, their parents will take off for warmer climates, leaving the last of the youngsters to mature, group up, and follow suit a week or two later in their first migration. How they know the way to where they’re going from lakes country down to waters along the Atlantic Coast or the Gulf of Mexico remains one of nature’s coolest mysteries. But, with the same homing magic of the monarch butterfly and the mallard duck, these birds will follow some sort of ancient, inexplicable directive, and arrive where they’re supposed to be, out of the snow and cold of winter until next spring when reverse cues trigger their return to the north.
With those species and many more, my thoughts begin their autumn migration as well, as the summer calendar makes yet another page turn into the month of August. The dog days are upon us, heralded by Sirius’ reappearance in just a few days along the morning horizon, and despite the heat that often comes in the heart of the stretch, the warmth is often fleeting and fall-like conditions are only a couple weeks behind. With the dog star, comes his faithful human hunting companion, Orion, who with the shortening days and later sunrises begins to faintly appear in the early morning hours. As summer fades to fall, his presence strengthens and the beams of light from his belt and his risen bow guide many fellow hunters to their morning archery stands for a deer hunt or to the slough’s edge for waterfowl.
In order to join him, I know there is much work to be done in this time of preparation for big seasonal shifts. Cameras need to be checked to see what’s moving about along the trails, in the breaks and amidst the agricultural land surrounding a favorite tree stand. Evening drives throughout the countryside to inspect the grasslands and draws of favorite grouse spots are worth today’s price of a gallon of gasoline, if it means I can confirm good cover for the upcoming season or cross off areas that have been hayed. If I’m lucky, I’ll see a bachelor pack of velvet-antlered bucks before they break up and stake out their portions of the territory and perhaps a covey of sharpies, huns or a group of young pheasants picking grit along the roadside on a morning or evening scouting mission.
As always, I feel behind the eight ball for these efforts and others, spurred into action by the August heat in the same way the migrating creatures are jolted to the skies by the initial cold front of fall. There’s the urge to sneak a few arrows into a foam block a couple nights a week and the near-requirement of smashing more clay targets with a field gun in order to truly feel in shape for the uplanding season. And speaking of in shape, after summer’s bounty of barbecues and more than enough relaxation watching bobbers from shore or lazily cruising a walleye breakline in a boat, dropping a few pounds on the morning scale and adding a few thousand steps to a day become top numerical priorities ahead of the activity the fall fields and my hard-charging lab will ask of me in the season to come.
These are midsummer’s signs that there are no seasonal pauses. One day gives way to the next, starting a little later and ending a little earlier, chipping away at the usable time we have left. Minutes fade, daylight hours shorten, and the warmth gives way to cooler days and a different mindset. While there are still many summer opportunities remaining, like the young loons calling out their tremolos of excitement at the journey to come, the shift in the guiding lights above and the signs in the natural world all around us is on. As in years past, these guideposts will likely point the way for all of us to our autumn destinations, wherever they may be … in our outdoors.