It starts slowly at first, a ping here, a pop there. If I didn't know any better, I'd think someone was out there at 5 a.m. target practicing with a BB gun, or popping corn. But those particular events aren't usually accompanied by the frantic rustling of leaves or by loud and aggressive chatter.
It's the annual acorn drop, one of the few times during the year when squirrels and other small critters that cherish these tidbits steer clear of the bird seed in favor of larger more succulent bounty. Their days are spent high in the treetops, chattering away at each other and at anyone or anything that deigns to interfere with the process. They leap from branch to branch like circus acrobats, shaking the acorns off, then rushing back down tree trunks and burying their bounty or storing it away in tree hollows for a time when food will not be as plentiful.
Eastern gray squirrels build two types of dwellings-summer nests made of twigs and leaves and winter dens in the cavities of hardwood trees or in the eaves or attics of houses and other buildings. They mate twice a year, first in the early spring and then again in mid-summer. Once the second litter is born around August or September, the young from the first litter have left the nest and are fending for themselves. Two of these chubby little rascals have lately become regular visitors to my bird feeders, stopping at nothing, not even my presence at the door, to clean out the bowl or the decimate the suet cake. Cheekier than even most adult squirrels, they even go so far as to run up onto the railing when I'm sitting there with my book. They sniff at the air, decide they don't like me, and leave, but never position themselves so far away that they won't see me come inside, giving them another window of opportunity to sneak in for a few more bites of food.
As for the oaks whose bounty temporarily distracts my furry gray friends, the very large ones have been known to produce as many as 10,000 acorns in a single year. Oak trees rarely drop the same number of acorns every year, and this is actually one of their survival techniques. In years that see bumper crops of the capped nuts, called mast years, animals like the gray squirrel and others, such as turkeys, chipmunks, blue jays, deer and bears can't consume them all, and many are left to grow into new trees. Other years, leaner crops attract fewer predators, ultimately leaving enough acorns to take root and sprout. While the reason there are more acorns some years than others remains unclear, but the fact remains that it all balances out in the end, for no matter the number of acorns, there will always be some that will grow into new trees.
What this means in terms of chronology and the seasons is that we are once more well past the half-year mark and on our way toward autumn. Just this morning, I passed a small stand of maple saplings that are already sporting red leaves. Now this could mean some sort of disease or insect infestation, or perhaps the small trees have been deprived of light or are exposed to an overabundance of standing water. In any case, their color startles, for it's too soon to be seeing this now in early August, the last and most benign of the full summer months, the month of crickets and cooler nights, of a changing slant of the light and the scent of fullness in the woods and out-of-the-way places.
There's a new crackling sound in the leaves as the wind moves between them, a new crispness that wasn't there a month ago, their rustle louder as they begin the slow process of releasing their moisture toward their inevitable fall. But summer will persist until the autumnal equinox in September, the month of indecision, of the push/pull between two seasons, when the world as we know it here in the north clings to one yet is inexorably drawn to the other.