As the earth tilts away from the sun, the ground and ocean waters cool, sending waves of clouds and rain our way. After the first few storms the ground is saturated with water, and the relative humidity reaches the point you can feel the water in the air. Even on days with no rain we often get a thick fog in the valley which sends moist fingers onto covered porches and garages, leaving everything coated with a thin sheen of water.
The night temperature drops below freezing and that ends many of the last of the insects still hanging on. The large spider webs fall into tatters and will soon be gone and forgotten. However, her legacy of eggs is carefully wrapped and tucked under a branch. A bright eyed chickadee pauses, tilts its head, then pounces on the dried remains of the spider’s body, and the spider makes her last contribution to the world. The first killing frost of the year drops like a curtain, closing many acts whose assets are transferred to other players.
In the shortening days, small armies of chickadees, juncos, and kinglets scour each bush and tree for eggs, bodies and tiny creatures. These birds form loose bands which associate with each other, each member finding its own particular place to hunt which does not compete with the others. The kinglets may focus on the shrubs, the chickadees on trees, the creepers on the trunks, the juncos on the ground. A sudden call of danger sends them scattering for cover, and as the hawk soars overhead the huddled birds are reminded of why they joined this group.
The crows gather in the late afternoon into black winding rivers in the sky. During the dark months crows roost together in large, restless flocks. The same roosts are often used year after year, and as the crows arrive the quiet is transformed as hundreds of crows fly in and take their place for the night. As darkness falls the raucous arrival turns into a soft murmur of private conversation. It has been shown that crows can communicate complex ideas to each other, and perhaps these winter roosts are places where younger crows can learn how to eke out a living in the cold months ahead.
The berry bushes have been stripped of their fruit for some time now, except for the white, popcorn-looking clusters of snowberries which stand out at the forest edges. These too will eventually be eaten, once they have been softened up by a couple of freezes. In the Sky Valley many animal pathways lead to abandoned apple trees. Deer, bears, raccoons and birds of all sorts converge on the fallen fruit, and usually by Christmas, this too is gone. These late fall infusions of calories might make the difference in surviving a cold winter and they do not go wasted.
The trumpeter swans and hordes of ducks have arrived and taken up their usual stations in fields and ponds. We are the “south” in their annual migration. Like the migrating salmon, these birds transfer nutrients into waterways, their large numbers actually changing the water chemistry with their poop. The nitrates and phosphates they leave behind will fertilize the pond and feed the early spring algae growth, which in turn feeds aquatic insects, valuable to fish and other pond and lake life.
There is a violent confrontation in the woods as this year’s Douglas squirrel offspring are booted out of their parents’ territory and have to fend for themselves. The adults show no mercy in driving their kids away. It is not a coincidence that the barred owls have moved back into the local woods from higher elevations. These owls are often active and hunting in late afternoon, gliding down on silent wings with razor sharp talons. The young squirrels, already distracted by trying to setup a territory and cache food for winter, may end up as lunch.
The fall is wonderful time to button up and go for a walk in one of our local parks. Let me know what you find there.
Rob Sandelin teaches Natural History at the Environmental Science Center in Monroe.