Wonders of Nature in Fall Along the Blue Ridge

October 10, 2017

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson


Although now in early October we are still awaiting full fall color in the forest leaves, there are many other interesting natural phenomenon to be observed. For example fruit ripening is well underway and there are many variations in shape and color of both fruit and ancillary structures. For example the native but invasive poke weeds have a dark fruit but the stems are bright red, presumably to attract the attention of birds to this bounty. The native Virginia creeper also has a dark fruit and its bright red foliage is believed to be a a “fruit flagging” mechanism that brings the attention of birds. The exotic Kousa dogwoods are covered with large red fruit which have here attracted a viceroy butterfly which may be drinking fluids from the ripe fruit

Some flowers are still blooming and continue to attract butterflies. This painted lady butterfly is drinking nectar from a Queen Anne’s Lace, or wild carrot, a widely distributed exotic from Europe found in fields. A sachem skipper butterfly is shown on a native ironweed, one of my favorites, which just has a few flowers left.

I have noticed many caterpillars walking around, likely looking for a place to hibernate. This pipevine caterpillar was one of the most unusual. It feeds on poisonous pipevines which protect it and the butterfly to come from predators. Its unusual coloration may warn of this toxicity and may reflect the tropical origin of this group where there is a toxic model, the velvet worm which it resembles.

One of the stranger sights of fall is the presence of groups of wooly aphids on plants such as alders. They have a most unusual life cycle involving both maples and alders and reproduce in part by parthenogeneis or virgin birth: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persicaria_perfoliata The peculiar whitish waxy material appears to limit predation and reduce water loss.

A most unwelcome insect of fall is the brown stinkbug which may invade houses and cause a big nuisance. I noticed one ally in our war on stinkbugs- this orb weaver spider has captured and will eat at least one of hated stinkbugs. Of course some might consider the spider less desirable than the bug!

So enjoy the onset of fall with its cooler weather and beautiful leaves and watch for the huge changes in animal behavior that will be occurring.

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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