Outdoors North: The swift departure of summer approaches

John Pepin

“We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out, because I love you too much baby,” – Mark James

Just a few steps outside the back door, I heard nothing. The silence was disturbing. In the weeks since May, I had become accustomed to hearing the chattering of chimney swifts as they banked in formation, or cut and rolled, in the skies over our neighborhood.

These mysterious birds, that many people mistake for swallows, spend most of their lives winging over cities, towns and countryside, feeding on insects. Related to hummingbirds, chimney swifts nest naturally in hollow tree trunks and caves, or in human-made structures, particularly chimneys.

Their half-bowl-shaped nests, which are made from small sticks attached with saliva to the inside walls of chimneys or trees, are strong enough to weather thunderstorms.

I’d watched the swifts tumble or dive into the neighbor’s chimney and one on our building over the past several weeks. Their cheery calls were a summer constant overhead.

And now, dead silence.

It was in that moment, outside the back door, looking up at the vacant sky, probably with a dumb look on my face, that I had to grapple with the fact that summer was setting.

The swifts had left on their long winter migration to South America.

The realization of summer’s demise, for me, was like falling under a spell, suddenly seeing all kinds of things through the lens of approaching autumn.

A pink blush was on the apples, the ripe summer berries were gone, except for the few still clinging to the brambles, missed by bears, birds or bakers. The calendar showed about five weeks to the peak of fall color — five weeks left to fish for brook trout.

This abrupt awakening was not particularly pleasant.

The death of Jerry Lewis reminded me of his wonderful performance in “The Nutty Professor,” and all those years as a kid I spent watching his telethons to battle muscular dystrophy. I loved the cutaways to the local television station fundraising effort. I can still sense the anticipation I felt just before the tote board was updated.

Deep into the night, after my parents had gone to sleep, I sat with only the television on to “Stay up with Jerry and watch the stars come out.”

An actor friend of mine, who played parts in “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Days of Our Lives,” sent me an email this week, recalling Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin filming a scene from their last movie together, “Hollywood or Bust,” in his uncle’s driveway in California. He was 8.

“I joined with every kid in Thousand Oaks, crowding around Jerry Lewis, eager for his autograph,” he wrote. “I found Dean Martin sitting, crowd-less, chatting with the director behind Uncle Dave’s house. Feeling sorry for the Jerry Lewis accouterment, I got his autograph as well. I later learned he and Lewis were no longer speaking to one another.”

The break-up of Lewis and Martin was a huge story back then.

It’s hard for me to describe how incredibly immense the stardom of some of the singers and actors from those days seemed to be. Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Raquel Welch, John Wayne and the “King of Rock-n-Roll,” Elvis Presley.

On Aug. 16, Elvis devotees around the world recalled the 40th anniversary of his death at 42. Found dead by his girlfriend in his Graceland mansion in Memphis, the singer of “Jailhouse Rock,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and so many others, hobbled and ill, had needed around-the-clock nursing care for the last three years of his life.

Unfortunately, it seems today, too much of what is recalled of Elvis has been reduced largely to a caricature of his excesses in his last few years, including weight gain, or feeble attempts to impersonate him for laughs.

What’s too often missing is the magic of what it was like to hear a new Elvis song for the first time, or to see him perform on television in “Jailhouse Rock,” “King Creole” or his electrifying “1968 Comeback Special.”

There are many younger people today who question what the “big deal” was about Marilyn Monroe, don’t know who James Stewart was or can’t name all four of The Beatles.

All of that seems so strange to me. It’s like being in a time warp, while rolling underwater or something, everything is so blurry and weird. It’s so hard to imagine these things are true.

On Monday night, a few hours after the solar eclipse, I was driving to Marquette from Kingsford. The sky was filled with common nighthawks.

Like the chimney swifts, they dip and dive in the skies in pursuit of insects. They are much larger than swifts and are easily told from similar whip-poor-wills by a white patch near the edge of each wing, on the underside.

For roughly 30 miles, from Kingsford to Silver Lake, hundreds, if not thousands, of nighthawks appeared in the sky, swooping back and forth across M-95.

Out ahead of an approaching thunderstorm, these birds, like the chimney swifts, were heading for South America.

But unlike the jarring, abrupt acknowledgment I had that the swifts were gone, the presence of the nighthawks on this very warm late summer evening instead brought a peace and awe-inspiring moments.

I think in the days between the two events, my internal gears must be grinding, turning me slowly toward fall. At least for today, the clock inside me seems to be in sync with the natural world.

With acceptance and resolution, I look to September, hoping to soon be tasting brook trout and apple pie, still missing the chimney swifts, but anticipating the warm, fiery colors of autumn.

John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.