“There ain’t no place
Anything like this place
Anywhere near this place
So this must be the place.”
-Old sign at Soldier Meadows Ranch, now gone
Yesterday the sun crossed the celestial equator, a biannual feat whose undertaking requires equal parts night and day when viewed from our twirling, tilted planet. The autumnal equinox has arrived, and with it, fall—at least to the top half of the globe. From my upper-earthly vantage the sun appears to move south in the sky, rising later and setting sooner, passing as it does from the Northern Hemisphere into the Southern. For the next three months the days shorten by degrees, the sunlight attenuating as the nights grow commensurately colder. It is a time marked by dramatic scenery shift in other, greener parts of the north. But here, in the Black Rock Desert, no such overt cues are offered. The equinox passes and the landscape blinks, oblivious.
But that’s not entirely true. Other parts of the area—higher, wetter parts—are host to deciduous trees such as aspens and cottonwoods, and their leaves will gild and fall as surely as the precocious sunset. It’s just that in Gerlach, perched at the edge of a 4,000-foot high basin choked with sagebrush and greasewood and prickly-stemmed shadscale, there isn’t much in the way of seasonal vegetative change. Those shrubs look about the same as they did last week, last month, a year ago hence. They’re no help to my climatic orientation. Instead, I turn to the birds.
Though the desert sun has continued to shine almost unfailingly through September, its strength is much diminished—the mercury no longer climbs into the eighties or nineties; the nights and mornings are almost shockingly cold. It’s this obvious drop in temperature, along with the shortened photoperiod (length of day), that clues organisms in to winter’s coming. It’s time to migrate, hibernate, drop excess foliage, or otherwise hunker down to endure the chill. Day-flying birds, so conspicuous—especially in the Black Rock, where animals are few, fleet, and often nocturnal—are ideal bellwethers to this shift. Notice the absence of soaring turkey vultures, once so commonplace high above the basin floors: they’ve flown south for the season. Ditto the swallows, the nighthawks, the pelicans and the rails. Any day now, the Say’s phoebes living at the station will depart for warmer climes, leaving their slipshod nests—stashed under our awnings, peeking out from beneath the solar panels—to dilapidate under the impending wind, snow and ice.
All is not a loss, though. Many species, such as rock wrens, horned larks, Western meadowlarks and American kestrels, overwinter in the desert, gamely weathering the elements and finding food where few can. And of course there are visitors: thousands of winged emigrants, hailing from the north. Already the European starlings are here—hooray, trash birds!—having seemingly declared Black Rock Station their southern base of operations, twittering and warbling from the telephone poles. Forthcoming are the northern shrikes, the rough-legged and ferruginous hawks, the Lapland larkspurs, all manner of waterfowl—the avian accompaniment to Black Rock winter. At a time of year when things go from bleak to bleaker, in a place of almost perennial desolation, the wintering birds will be a godsend. I can’t wait.