What is your favorite time of the year? I would have to say Spring with late Summer a close runner-up. In Spring-time the birds are all singing and beginning to breed, the frogs are making a huge racket, and life just seems to be renewing itself and starting all over. Yet in late Summer there is the accumulated vegetative growth with flowers and fruits, huge numbers of insects in the fields, and a feeling that life is doing well. The weather is generally good, and one feels a sense of accomplishment from the labor of Summer and a desire to pause and enjoy Nature. Of course there is a foreboding that frost is coming to call a halt to all this growth and biological exuberance. Yet the fantastic migration of innumerable beings allows us to witness an amazing phenomenon that links N. American birds and insects to the rest of the hemisphere.
As I write this, the beginning of Fall is very close and during my daily ramble in the woods and fields I have enjoyed observing the expression of natural processes at a number of levels. Flowers are still very much evident despite the nearness of their demise under the cloak of Fall’s frosty mantle. Indeed I observed a patch of stiff gentians in a forest opening on a north-facing slope, which are a sure sign of late Summer. Blue curls were still blooming in a dry, nutrient-poor gap; I especially am intrigued by their arching stamens which appear to be designed to attach the pollen sacs to the backs of bees. One of my favorite flowers, the beautiful purple (really pink) Gerardia or Agalinis blooms along our pathways, and is reported to be a partial parasite on the roots of nearby plants. This would make it especially adapted to colonize low nutrient soils, the strategy being – if you do not have enough resources, steal them from your neighbor! Does that in some ways remind you of stories you hear on the evening news?
Fruits of many types are very obvious at this time of year. We are very protective of our shrubs such as spicebush and trees such as cucumber magnolia which produce small red fruits that are avidly eaten by migrant thrushes; of course the turkeys would not pass up the opportunity to eat such fruits when they fall on the ground. Various nuts are everywhere. I picked up three types for you to consider- can you identify them? There are the huge chestnut oak acorn, smaller roundish hazelnuts/filberts, and the oblong and darker nuts of the chinquapin. They are designed to attract rodents that will eat many, but fail to utilize them all; some nuts will eventually germinate and reproduce the species. The success of this strategy is evident by the numerous seedlings that are sprouting up everywhere from such buried nuts.
Although birds are less evident since they are generally not singing, I was pleased to encounter a number of migrating bobolinks that are stopping in our fields that are bursting with seeds and insects. The attached photo shows a non-breeding adult (males and females are indistinguishable at this time) perched on a Maximillian sunflower that was planted in one of our simulated prairie grasslands. Goldfinches, indigo buntings and some sparrows are also common in these fields. A small flock of Canada geese flew overhead in their characteristic V-formation. Despite the fact these are non-migratory geese that are in many ways an ecological nuisance, I do enjoy their calls and always think about the procedure by which they draft on one another and alternate positions to spread the energetic costs of flight.
How can you fail to marvel at the intricate designs of Nature?
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA