The Annual Late Summer Migration

August 21, 2010

The Annual Late Summer (Human) Migration

There’s an almost universal rite of late summer expressed in a human tide of migration toward the sea. The morning ebb tide drops from forested foothills, flowing toward the flat eastern horizon where tall cumulous clouds billow like galleon sails.

The traffic tide flows along asphalt rivers – Route 4 from Concord or Route 101 from Manchester. People migrate to coastal beaches in August to congregate at the razor’s edge where land meets sea for a few days or a week. The journey seems almost innate. The migration peaks on weekends when fair weather, high pressure, warm water and hot sand lure inlanders to the coast in the final weeks of what has been an amazing summer of incredible, if not too dry, weather.

When I head Downeast, I remain a curious naturalist seeking patterns which distinguish the coastal communities and forests from those of the uplands in central New Hampshire.

Near-ocean forests are scrubby, tough and short. The mix of tree species favors tenacious red maple, poplar, red oak and white pine. The dry forest floor is awash in poison ivy. The relative frequency of winter gales and autumn hurricanes on a “disturbance return interval” of decades rather than centuries erases tall trees and favors the most tenacious trees able to grow from sand and tolerate salt spray and occasional extreme winds. 

Familiar inland trees: deep-rooted yellow birch, white ash, sugar maple, beech and hemlock are conspicuously absent. Along the famous rockbound coast of Maine, a thin veneer of acidic soil over granite or sharp black basalt sprouts a thread-bare carpet of shallow-rooted and wind-pruned pines, balsams and spruce.

I wake in my tent in the chilly, pre-dawn hours to the sound of a distant fog horn. The summer dawn chorus of bird song has greatly diminished. Birds are done breeding and singing. They’ve quietly molted into drab autumn plumage and are feeding heavily along with new fledglings to fatten for fall migration.

Shorebirds completed communal nesting and rearing chicks in July. By August, shore birds flock along the outer beaches and marshes with plentiful plankton and tiny fish in inter-tidal shallows. Many have already left their pre-migratory staging areas, the earliest sign of approaching autumn. Watching ragged flocks of terns or sandpipers move south in mid-August draws a sigh. The finest days of summer are nearly numbered now.

With Labor Day looming large, who hasn’t felt a quickening pulse of restlessness or the ancient tug of turning tides? Now’s the right time to grab one last perfect beach day before school buses roll and leaves redden.

To catch a completely different side of coastal “wildlife,” I recommend a quick day trip to Hampton Beach - purely for the sociological research, you understand. A vast human rookery populates the warm sands of Hampton Beach offering animal behavior worthy of its own show on The Discovery Channel if not MTV!

On a busy summer day, Hampton beach is a kaleidoscope. Human parallels to seal or shorebird colonies are unavoidable. You will spy dominance postures in muscular males and the eye-catching plumage of multicolored, bikini-clad females. Shrieking children and gulls accompanied by surf and beach radios are singular sounds of summer. I can’t help but smile at the vast human milieu when miles of mammals mingle on the sand.

When I return inland to the dusty, dry interior, I join a rising evening tide following the highways where toll plazas resemble the reversing falls of tidal rivers. We return inland into the setting sun. I arrive back home on my Tree Farm sunburned and salt-encrusted. Tall dark woods are oddly unfamiliar. Far from the sea and tired from the journey, I sleep and dream the tone of a particular red, steel buoy’s bell and that relentless, soft wash of waves against rocks.

All too soon, bright yellow school buses and crimson maple leaves will signal summer’s end. Thousands of little fledglings will depart like small silvery fish into new schools of their own. In weeks, the empty sands will be as deserted as the Sahara.

Naturalist Dave Anderson is Director of Education and Volunteer Services for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears once a month in the New Hampshire Sunday News. E-mail him at or through the Forest Society Web site: