Fall and the approaching winter have finally gotten my attention with a low temperature of 38 F on our back deck the second week of October. The leaves have hardly changed due to an extended period of cloudy/rainy and warm days. A storm front Oct. 10-11 dumped 9 inches of rain, causing impressive flash floods on local streams. The S Fork of the New River flows close by but several hundred feet lower, so we are not personally threatened by such storms. But the river did flood briefly and impressively on Oct. 11 and spread out into its historic flood plain at nearby Brookshire Park. It is interesting to see these floods and contemplate how animals and plants in the riparian zone cope with them.
Lichens benefit from the hydration provided by heavy rains. Note how bright green this lungwort has become due to the symbiotic algae and cyanobacteria in its fungal tissues. Such a three kingdom amalgam of organisms is an ancient partnership which thrives best in mature forests with little air pollution. I was thrilled to find abundant growths of this beautiful lichen along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Trout Lake.
Very few native flowers are in bloom by early October so we have planted a variety of non-invasive exotics in our yard to extend the nectar season for butterflies. This cone flower is actually an Echinacea hybrid and is thus little removed from a native purple cone flower. It illustrates the genius of design of the composites which pack large numbers of fertile disc flowers in the center, with each showy petal also being an individual flower, although not always fertile.
In contrast at Valle Crucis recreational park I encountered a striking orange comma butterfly on a garbage can. The coloration of the outside of the wings when the butterfly is resting is quite camouflaged; note the silvery “comma” mark. Yet the inside of the wings are brightly colored, more so in this fall form than in the darker summer form. It does not generally feed on nectar but on tree sap, rotting fruit and dung fluids that contain salts and amino acids. I have noticed that it is strongly attracted to human sweat, where it is likely obtaining sodium salts lacking in its plant based foods.
The southern Appalachians are a global center of biodiversity for salamanders which are more abundant in cool wet surroundings. I found this northern gray cheeked salamander in my yard at 3400 feet elevation after heavy rains. This plethodontid lacks lungs and can only respire through its skin. Unlike many amphibians it lays terrestrial eggs that hatch directly into tiny replicas of the adults.
This is a time of extensive migration of birds to warmer climates for the winter. In early October we have enjoyed seeing large numbers of rose-breasted grosbeaks that are migrating to the tropics. Two winter males (red breasts) and three brownish females/juvenile males are shown here avidly eating sunflower seeds at our feeder. The huge bills are well adapted for seed crushing. The differences in sexual coloration are classic- gaudy males for sexual attraction and bland females for camouflage on the nest.
It is less well appreciated that birds such as blue jays also migrate. Indeed a careful observer will note that large numbers of blue jays are streaming to the south at the same time that neotropical migrants and hawks are doing so. Yet there will be blue jays present in winter; these are most likely northern birds that have moved to the south for the winter, while our summer residents have also shifted to the south. Male and female blue jays are identical in coloration (they have a structurally generated blue color due to diffraction of light)- why is that so different from the grosbeaks? Clearly their system of mate choice is quite distinct and based on behavior, not coloration.
As is the case for many birds, we also are “snowbirds” now heading to Florida for the winter. We will be able to enjoy seeing butterflies and flowers all winter and engage in wildlife gardening all year.