Late September Nature in the Blue Ridge

October 1, 2018

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

Although temperatures are still relatively mild in late September in the mountains of NC, there are many changes that indicate that Fall is well underway and that winter is coming. The cool mornings often cause formation of fog in the valleys. This photo from Grandview Overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway illustrates this well. But the warm sun will soon burn off the fog.

Many plants have set their fruit and those that are designed to attract birds are usually bright red or if dark as in Virginia creeper have adjacent red leaves (fruit flagging). One of the most common large shrubs at higher elevations is the mountain winterberry/holly shown here. It appears to be resistant to deer herbivory since it and spicebush are conspicuous in the forest under story where very few shrubs and saplings can survive the abnormally inflated densities of deer.

On sunny days butterflies can still be common wherever there are flowers. In our yard the nectar of butterfly bush and zinnias attract “leps” such as this sachem skipper, a pearl crescent, and a migrating monarch. Since the jewel weeds and other native flowers are mostly gone, these exotic yard plantings can be a life-saving buffet for butterflies this time of year.

Some other insects are especially active at this time. The brown stink bugs are a huge pest but they have a larger relative that is not so obnoxious, since it does not try to spend the winter inside houses. This leaf footed bug is a hemipteran with sucking mouth parts that feeds on plants. The precise purpose of the strangely flattened legs is not known but they may be used in reproductive displays. These stink or squash bugs are all protected by an unpleasant odor when disturbed, so you can carefully pick them up but do not squeeze them!

Many spiders have matured over the summer and the large adult orb weaver females are quite impressive in their geometric webs. One species, the foliate orb weaver, spins a three foot wide web outside our windows and catches insects that are attracted to our lights. It seems that we are inside an aquarium watching the antics of predator and prey outside!

Birds are migrating south and provide a great deal of excitement to avid watchers. This morning from our front porch we watched rose breasted grosbeaks and Swainson’s thrushes eating bright red dogwood fruits. Thus the beauty of white dogwood flowers in the spring is followed by a bounty for birds in the fall. On our usual walk around Price Lake along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Blowing Rock, NC, we unexpectedly found a migrating marsh wren. In their dense wetland breeding habitat they rarely allow you to get so close.

This is a time of rapid seasonal change in climate and we humans can enjoy the natural signs that accompany the migration of some species and preparation others make for hunkering down for the winter.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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