This is a season of balance, of harvest, of change. It is a time to celebrate as we stack our pantries and larders with home-grown food and apple pies. Ok, so most of us don't actually put up our own food anymore. And most of us probably don't pay attention to the length of the days until it is dark a whole lot more than it is light. Many things happen during this season we call autumn, or fall. Apples ripen, leaves curl and color, the birds molt their summer feathers, and the goldenrod tints the world yellow. We don sweaters and jeans, pick up rakes and stack firewood. Even in a time of balance, when days and nights are almost equal in length, it is a time of change.
Monarch butterflies no longer flit from flower to flower, pausing a little longer at milkweed. Rather they seem more driven, more purposeful in their flight as these days trigger them to head south, on a journey they know but have never taken. Their orange and black wings match the harvest colors and watching them is almost like watching summer fly away. Bittersweet but beautiful.
Another rite of the upcoming season, I spent a day picking up fallen sticks and branches from my yard, piling them in the fire pit this past weekend. After dark, I went out and lit them, savoring a perfect night under the stars, in good company as the crickets serenaded me and the bats danced in and out of the firelight, gobbling up the last few remaining insects. The bats are bulking up for a long winter ahead, storing fat for their migration or hibernation, depending on their species. Their faint chirps and squeaks made me smile last night, and I imagined that both the bats and I were enjoying one of the last, great summer nights together.
The firewood we stack now will soon be warmth and woodsmoke.
Photos by Jennifer Schlick
Soon the bats will head south to warmer climes or hole up in my attic, and I too, will retire to my wood-heated living room. The snakes and cold-blooded critters are not so fortunate in their winter lodgings, often burrowing into mud or underground burrows. Eastern Garters will be active a little longer, into mid-October, perhaps, searching out the last grasshoppers and worms, before they, too, disappear under earth's blanket for the winter. After the food is gone, Garters, too, will seek shelter below the frost line, biding their time until the ground warms enough to coax them back out into the surface world.
Frogs have a few different strategies. This time of year, the Spring Peepers are experiencing autumnal recrudescence, which basically means that they are confused by the night-day thing and the cooler temperatures and they think its spring, so they sing. It is a joy to hear them in the fall, however odd it may be, though. Other frogs are also singing occasionally, but more and more as the season wanes, they will find places to survive the winter. Some burrow into the mud at the bottom of ponds, like Green Frogs and Bull Frogs. One of the more amazing survival techniques is displayed by the Spring Peepers. They actually burrow into leaf litter and allow themselves to freeze. They have such a high concentration of "sugar" within their cells, that while their bodies may appear frozen, the water in their cells is not and so they survive the winter this way, thawing as soon as the ground does.
Some animals are active all winter long, even though you may not see them. The beaver is one of those animals. It will spend the winter in its lodge, eating food it has stored in the mud at the bottom of the pond. Its thick fur keeps it warm, even during frigid forays into the icy water. Even when the pond it calls home is completely frozen, the beavers are tucked into their lodges, cozy and comfortable.
You can learn even more about these animals at the Audubon if you attend the Enchanted Forest event on Oct. 7 and 8. This is an event that you must pre-register for, and slots fill quickly. Call Audubon at 569-2345 for more information or to sign up. Thanks to our sponsors, Carroll Rod & Gun Club, Kings' Heating, Inc., Huber's Blacktop ,Whittier Farms, Busti Cider Mill, Zahm & Matson Inc., Wanda Lucariello.
Even if the event is full, there is a ton to do and see at Audubon in the fall. The trails are full of migrants and fall activity. The fall flowers and fruits are stunning this year. Come and celebrate this season at Audubon, reap the bounty that the world provides at this time, tangibly and spiritually. Visit our website, www.jamestownaudubon.org for upcoming events or information. Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just east off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon and thinks that isn't anything richer than the world in its autumn wardrobe.
(A portion of this column was originally printed Sept. 27, 2008.)