Early in morning at Chesney Prairie Natural Area ashy sunflowers all turn about as east as flowers can turn, facing brilliant yellow early morning sun. I feel summer tapering off despite the predicted 106 degrees in Fayetteville. Fall is quietly easing in.
For one thing, male Dickcissels have stopped singing. A female is perched atop a gaily-colored poke bush – green leaves, red stems, berries fresh green, others ripe black. She’s keeping a sharp eye on fledglings hidden below. She calls low, buzzy BEEZIT BEEZIP with a few CHIPs and WHITs thrown in. Poke berries are popular; as kids we smeared them on our faces as Indian war paint. Many juicy black fruits have been removed. Under the burning regime called August, a heavy pokeberry crop is welcome, but it’s going fast.
Chesney is blessed with many goldenrod species. These mark the fall and lo, one is blooming, competing with ashy sunflowers for the coveted Most Yellow award. I don’t think anything can dethrone ashy sunflowers, but goldenrods raise the stakes by hosting a sublimely green katydid perched atop goldenrod buds. And not just any old katydid. Eyes, lower legs, and antennae are reddish with dashing chevrons on the upper legs. The long antennae are as impressive as some on police cars.
Like goldenrods, asters say fall. I’ve spotted my first southern prairie asters sort of hidden in the cool shelter of a thriving patch of big bluestem grass. I say sort of hidden because I’m not sure how well you can hide an elegant flower with a brilliant green roseate of pineapple-like bracts, and atop that numerous blue petals surrounding a yellow disk. There’s no mistaking fall, even at 106.
While seeking more asters I nearly walk into the web of an Argiope spider with a significant yellow abdomen. Its orb web with obvious white zigzag pattern hangs between tall sunflower stalks. As I stand there a variegated fritillary, eye-pleasing orange, black, and yellow, dodges the web, as does a hummingbird. But it is the American Goldfinches that steal the show.
Fancy goldfinch males look elegant in their gold, black, and white. There are fewer females; I assume they are tending nests. Of course, nesting finches and blooming flowers say summer, but there are now many ripe seed heads. Goldfinches at the sunflower harvest says fall in the Ozarks: fields of seeds, goldfinches pouring in from all directions. I want to watch so I attempt my just-another-fence-post-in- the-field routine.
Ashy sunflowers have multiple flowers on a stout stalk. The birds defy gravity by perching sideways on fuzzy stalks, contort up, down, around, or stretch their bodies to reach another ripe batch of seed. It’s like a bunch of yoga poses. They perch on one flower head while reaching above with their bill, seeming to stand on tiptoes, to the next seed head. They bend way, way down to remove seeds from below, twist sideways around the stalk to the next seeds. With one foot they grasp a big bluestem grass stalk and with the other a sunflower head.
A fine male perches on a sunflower with a great view of Chesney’s expanse. He sings CHET CHET CHET DE DE DE followed by WIT WIT. After a brief silence I hear another with what sounds like a question, PEE UR? Of course they sing in summer, in the nesting season, but might it also be something about thanks for a bountiful earth, for open space, for sun-loving flowers that produce seeds, for this day in the sun, even at 106? Then they’re off and overhead with CHIPITY-CHIPs.