Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Happy Solstice

Today marks the first day of summer according to the astronomical calendar. Appropriately enough, we are experiencing temperatures a good deal higher today than during the past few days. (Once we hit June, I am thankful for any cool spells we get in D.C.) If you like evening walks, today is the day to go for one, because darkness will fall later today than on any day until this time next year.

Many experience the start of summer on a different date than the one marked on our calendars. For those of us involved in academics, summer really begins on the day the school year or semester ends - mid-May for colleges and universities, and mid-June for elementary and high schools. Memorial Day is frequently referenced as the unofficial start of summer, especially for beachgoers.

From a birding perspective, summer begins when spring migration stops, and ends when fall migration begins. Of course this varies greatly according bird families and individual species. Some species of shorebird that breed near the Arctic Circle are already preparing for their return flight to South America, even as other birds are still breeding. But broadly speaking, major migratory movement ends in late May, and will pick up again in mid-August. Between those dates is summer for birders.

I find summer a difficult season for birding. On the one hand, there are a lot more birds around during the summer than during the winter, and those that are here are in their colorful breeding plumage. But the season presents obstacles despite the increased leisure time. For one thing, it is hot, and here in Washington we have a heavy dose of humidity added to make a sticky mix without much relief. As much as I love birds, the thought of tramping around in hot weather is not appealing to me; I much prefer fall and winter weather. Leaves make it much harder to see the birds, and as the summer wears on they gradually stop singing. I can still come back from a summer walk with a decent species list, but each one will be hard-fought and there will be long stretches with no evidence of birds at all. So I approach this season with a degree of ambivalence. Still, a bad day birding beats a good day working.