The end of Summer is a bittersweet time for the naturalist. Most animals have stopped breeding, birds are hardly singing, many plants have finished blooming and are setting seeds, leaves are starting to drop, and the natural world is making the transition to Fall. But this is of course not a time to be gloomy since there are many interesting things happening in nature. One of the most exciting is migration of birds starting with nighthawks, chimney swifts, hawks, shorebirds and ducks, and most of the perching birds (warblers, orioles, tanagers, etc.). So here are a few of the wonderful things I have observed in August and early September at our Haw River Preserve,
First here is a different visual perspective of our 48 acres along the Haw River; this is derived from walking most of the perimeter which is bounded on the east by the Haw River, and plotting it on Strava. Within the immediate vicinity of our land it is interesting that there is so much forest. In part this is due to the inability of land owners to build on the river flood plain, but the forests continue well beyond that area. So despite 300 years of intensive development by European settlers a considerable amount of forest still exists, in large part I think because of regrowth of trees on land previously farmed. The ability of the land to recover from many years of poor farming practices is impressive and gives hope for the future forests if the deer herbivory problem can be solved.
The second photo shows a view of our backyard where I cut down three large sugar maples to allow for planting of a butterfly garden. I am far from finished with this area since I want to add tall native herbaceous perennials such a Joe Pye weed, iron weed, cardinal flower, boneset, etc to attract pollinators. The primary sources of attraction for insects and hummingbirds so far have been butterfly bush, Rose of Sharon, lantana, echinacea, coneflowers and coral honeysuckle. We also feed sunflowers to the birds and have a dripping water bath which is a huge source of attraction to birds. We were lucky that a previous owner planted many dogwoods some of which now have copious red fruits. I am watching in great anticipation for migrating northern thrushes (Swainsons, gray cheeked) which will be attracted to these fruits; our local summer tanagers are dining on them already.
As you walk our wooded trails, the unusual green dragon arum is very striking with its bright red fruits. These will most likely be eaten by thrushes- both long distance migrants and hermit thrushes who spend the winter here. Another characteristic plant of the early fall is beech drops, a parasite on beech trees. It is a vascular plant, not a fungus but lacking chlorophyll, and is in the unusual broomrape family ( https://vnps.org/a-parasitic-lifestyle-beechdrops-and-their-relatives/ ).
Butterflies have diminished a great deal recently but there are still some very interesting species in our yard. The large and swift flying cloudless sulphurs (a male in this case) are attracted to the althea flowers. The eastern comma is sometimes seen basking or nectaring on flowers. It and the hackberry emperor are attracted to sweaty objects apparently to obtain sodium which is low in most plants. The tiny eastern tailed blue seen here on a butterfly bush is a beauty in miniature;. The “tails” and colored spots on the hindwings are head mimics which divert the attacks of predators away from the real head and body.
The end of summer is definitely the time of spiders- they have developed mainly from eggs laid the previous fall and have gradually become adults. Webs are everywhere and you must carry a “spider stick” when walking the trails or encounter a face full of spiders at every turn. Two of my favorites are the orb weavers and the wolf spiders. The Arabseque orb weaver shown here spins a massive web to catch insects and we enjoy watching the show at night when our orb weavers are active catching prey. Wolf spiders such as this “rabid wolf” carrying an egg case hunt in the opposite manner by running on the ground and pouncing on prey. It is remarkable how such “primitive” species show maternal care of their babies.
Of course middle and late summer are the time for insects living in the trees to make quite a racket. This katydid is one of many such species which are typically green for camouflage to escape hungry birds. This individual was eating a canna flower.
Reptiles are more obvious in late summer and I was surprised to find this juvenile black racer perched in an azalea bush. It still has the juvenile blotched pattern which must be a valuable camouflage which is changed to an all black coloration within a few years. A wonderful example of camouflage is shown by this keeled green snake which perfectly matches the green foliage. Lizards are active this time of year. This male fence lizard has a bright blue neck and belly which signals his masculinity to females. The use of blue coloration is completely different in this juvenile blue tailed skink (can be several related species) which likely attract predators to attack its tail which is then autotomized and wriggles diverting the predator from killing the animal. These lizards may also be toxic and advertise this fact by the bright color; this use of blue rather than red to advertise toxicity is unusual.
Our drip water bath is a very popular spot for thirsty birds. Here you can see an “odd couple,” a male goldfinch and a female summer tanager sharing the bath. We also had a male and female redstart warbler which came regularly to the bath. It seems to be very important for the bath to make a noise to attract birds. Finally we have had a pair of hummingbirds around all summer and they are still present in early fall. This female is attracted to the nectar rich butterfly bush but will soon be winging her way across the Gulf of Mexico for the winter.
So weep not for the lost biotic pleasures of spring and summer. Fall has its own wonderful sights and sounds. Just go outside and enjoy!