The trail is still verdant green. 

September is when the reverse migrating birds begin arriving in earnest, and already the trees across the alley are filling with black birds. 

But during a recent return trip to the wild edges of Miller Meadow, back before temperatures broke toward fall, the birds were not yet massing on leafed limbs. Instead, summer was slowed and ebbing in a kind of broiling languor. 

The sun threatened blurry heat as it crested the meadow’s eastern tree line, a reminder to keep it moving as we stepped off for a little early-season birding. A group of hardcores from Triton College’s springtime bird watching class had assembled to see what was new in the neighborhood and to again explore the surprising solitudes of Miller Meadow. 

Like the day, it was a little slow. 

Bird highlights included a jittery Canada warbler, a warbling vireo and an extended family of eastern bluebirds whom we found right off the access road to the meadow, in the middle of picnic territory. Mom, dad, and a half-dozen kids, mottled juvenile birds foraging and returning to roost. 

Across the meadow, just west of the model airplane field, we watched a too-large red-tailed hawk hunt from a bending branch in a swaying tree — the hawk riding the tree like a lake wave as it moved with the bird and the wind. He caught nothing while we watched but put on an excellent show of bird balance, bird patience and bird dexterity.

It’s been a good year for goldfinches and this trip was more of the same, except the male birds had begun to shed their high-voltage plumage of peak summer for something duller and earthier, a shade of autumnal rust that we’ll soon be raking into the street. 

We tallied a decent list of usual suspects, including a ruby-throated hummingbird and some large and noisy blue jays, but the walk turned to the meadow’s subtler offerings. 

To monarch butterflies and a riot of dragonflies that worked the tops of phragmites and meadow grasses like attack helicopters. To cornflowers and their blue blossoms, and to pineapple thistles in cotton-white. To three or four species of thistle I cannot name but that mark the meadow with their spiked crowns, inviting a look but not a touch. 

We photographed a spider in its web, noted white butterflies on the wing, white boneset on the stalk. Stems of vetch were still purple and still drawing bees. 

Soon enough, those flowers will drop and so will the tree leaves and the migrating birds will come and go — a fall of visitation and departure, of fading light and longer shadows.  

But for a hot Sunday morning at the start of September, summer and its residents still hung in the humid air.

Trail Conditions explores the woods, waters and trails out our back doors. Brett McNeil lives in North Riverside. Write to him at

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