When it gets blustery along the coast, the sea gulls come inland. I’ve seen flocks of gulls in parking lots as far inland as Richmond ahead of very rough winter storms. It has been windy and cold all day today in Williamsburg. Our high in early afternoon topped out in the 40s, colder when you’re in the wind, but it’s been bright and sunny and beautiful. We knew there would be gulls along the creeks and marshes of the Colonial Parkway.
We went at low tide. It looked as though the gulls were standing on ice, but it’s not that cold yet. They were standing on the mud in a thin sheen of water, where they searched out what shell fish they could find in the muck. With a tightly closed clam clenched in its beak, the gull would take flight and drop it onto the pavement, where it cracked. We drove up to find a huddled group of gulls in the road feasting on their tasty clams. And they weren’t anxious to leave their meal for us to pass.
Suddenly it’s cold, and all the creatures are reverting to winter ways. The eagles along the Parkway have left their nests, young reared and hunting now for themselves.
We saw them only from a distance today, high in the clear blue sky. We recognize them when the light flashes off of the adults’ white heads. Otherwise, they are a tiny silhouette against the sky. The young won’t grow their white feathers for several years yet, but they are learning the skills they’ll need to survive along the river.
The only geese we saw were flying at altitude across the marsh, probably heading south to someplace warmer. The large families who lived along the Parkway all summer have disappeared.
Muskrats have been busy building their winter dens in the marsh. Called, “push ups”, they are formed by pushing up mud and vegetation to form a home about 3′ high. The family of mother, father, and young stay warm inside, and find protection from predators and the weather. These “push up” nests suddenly disappear by early summer, to be rebuilt in autumn. Native Americans at one time used the size and timing of the “push ups” appearance to forecast the coming winter weather.
Deer were out along the Parkway in the midday sun, boldly grazing in the meadows. They are so accustomed to the traffic that they barely lift their heads as we drive past. Sadly, we came home to find two more young ones had squeezed themselves tiny to sneak in through our fences and graze in our garden while we were away. They find it harder and harder to find food as summer vegetation disappears.
Even the bald cypress trees have turned brown, and will soon lose their needles. One of the only deciduous conifers, these beautiful, long lived trees love the wet ground along the banks of our marshes and creeks. In fact, one of the tallest ever recorded bald cypress trees, at over 44m high, grows in our area. The oldest know bald cypress tree is over 1600 years old, so these tough hardy trees merit our notice and respect. They are native to the East Coast of the United States from Delaware south to Florida, and along the Gulf coast west to Texas, and as far north as Kentucky. From Virginia Beach south they’re often covered in Spanish moss. They grow among pines, live oak, and wax myrtle.
As the brightly colored deciduous leaves surrender to November’s winds, and the hardwood trees stand nearly bare; the Hollies, Oaks, Pines, Magnolias, and Wax Myrtle shine. Their glossy green leaves reflect the winter sun and keep the landscape bright and alive.
I can only wonder what the first colonists must have thought watching their first few autumns on Jamestown Island. They had never seen a towering Magnolia, vibrant and green against the autumn sky. They had never before seen crimson Staghorn Sumac, crowned in berries, or the majestic Bald Cypress with their knobby “knees” poking above the high tide. What a different landscape from what they had left behind in Britain.
The small songbirds found shelter out of sight today, probably roosting in the bamboo groves and evergreen shrubs. We never even saw a red flash of cardinal darting along the road. The James river glittered as it does on any summer day in the bright sun. The ferry kept up its trips from Jamestown to Surry, and the tour buses plied the Parkway full of curious visitors.
We humans keep to our relentless routines as the seasons ebb and flow.
But the wild things tell the tale of change and transition, as they always do.
Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013