Off the Highway: Jarvis Coffin – Summer’s end

  • Jarvis Coffin COURTESY PHOTO

Published: 9/7/2023 9:00:36 AM

I feel sure the hummingbirds were gone by the end of August last summer. But here we are, getting close to the autumnal equinox, Sept. 23, and two of them (the Humphreys we call them, as in Humphrey the hummingbird, since we have names for everything around here), are hurriedly feeding at the annuals we set out for them in May.

If you thought likewise in the spring about purchasing hummingbird-friendly plants, then you are probably sensitive to their need to bulk up body weight by 25 to 40% before the arduous journey back to Central America.

Most days, I am about 200 pounds. Were I required to achieve similar weight gains over the four months of late spring and summer before walking to Mexico for the winter, I would have to tip the scales at between 250 and 280, which would be a chore. I would need to spend all day eating, as the hummingbirds do, who forage between 1,500 stops, I have read. I would require one stop, remaining at home on the couch, with large sandwiches and ice cream.

Anyway, the particular plants over which they hover have trumpet-shaped red flowers, and they are growing thin and tired. They can’t do the job of nourishing the birds much longer, whose little heart rates will rise to over 1,200 beats a minute, and wings will flap 15 to 80 times per second en route south.

I think it must be the rain in July that has pinned them down, not simply the amount of rain but the fact it fell in torrents.

There is also the question of the bats. I watched them against the blue-gray twilight sky while grilling chicken and wondered how they were doing ahead of departure time. They must have been similarly impacted by the wet weather and difficult flying conditions. I was struck by how high up a few of them were flying, at least three or four stories above. They seemed to be working in layers. Someone may know the answer. Do they organize into flight patterns that way?

A few flitted overhead within range of a tennis racket; others circled several yards farther up, while the rest looped in acrobatic fashion near the top of white pines. What was up there? The mosquito action was down low, where I was standing, as near to the grill as possible while trying to discourage the little blood-suckers.

At the end of a summer with a month of record rainfall, the feasting is good for bats. But it is the end of the summer. We have already had cool nights needing extra blankets. It has been warm since, but the clock is ticking. The bats may need more time to bulk up before hibernation.

But in other news of things that must, by necessity, get done in the summer despite the weather, the ConVal High School parking lot project appears to have made it by a whisker. Mountains of sand and asphalt managed to get rolled into a level, hard surface in time for the buses to arrive despite tropical rains. From the outside, it looked like a squeaker. But driving past the lot a couple of weeks ago, suddenly it was full, my cue that the new school year had begun.

Back-to-school always sneaks up on me. I am still not used to the fact it comes before Labor Day, which had for decades signaled the official end of summer. Nor am I happy about it. I recall Labor Day picnics, parades, swim races, farewells to summer romances, new shoes, traffic stretching for miles at New England toll booths, all of it emblematic of migration. A symphony of movement we made with other species. All of us getting organized, ready to travel, changing plumage, closing up camp.

Who reinvented back-to-school for us in New England, taking up the Labor Day finish line by loading in a few days of school in August? The end of summer here – short as it is – deserves a decent pagan festival heralding the harvest and celebrating the work. Nowadays, it coasts to a stop, short of the line, making it barely worth getting off the couch to fetch a sandwich.

Jarvis Coffin and his wife Marcia owned New Hampshire’s oldest inn, The Hancock Inn, during which time he wrote a popular newsletter for the inn’s mailing list. Retired from innkeeping, he now writes full-time, mostly essays on rural life and fiction. You can reach him at, and visit to keep up with his other musings on the Monadnock region.

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