The Sign of Late Summer

This space in time when hints of color, red and yellow, can be seen as patches on distant hills seems to stand still. The anticipation of the wonderful change to autumn comes with a cost. Warm, sunny days, green deciduous leaves that shade our yard, and the birds of summer that provide an all summer symphony will be lost, at least for another year. This short time when song birds start to head south and vegetable gardens burst at the seams with luscious and nutritious bounty is but a mere flash in the larger spectrum of time. But right now, at this moment, I simply wish the season of summer could be held in place for a short time giving me a few more moments to breath it all in.

Anybody who knows me thinks of me as a cold weather guy. And, of course, my appreciation for winter is a well known fact. I’ve already been caught standing over my ice fishing gear thinking of things to come! But right now, at this moment, I must take the time to appreciate what is now.

Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)

Late summer is full of offerings. Ruby-throated hummingbirds dance from one orange jewelweed flower to another. After a few minutes of hovering over dozens of blossoms while gathering nectar they take the time to regain their energy by resting on a nearby branch. In what seems to be the blink of an eye they go back to work. The hummingbirds will need a lot of energy on their long mid fall flight to Central America. No small journey for one of our tiniest birds!

Jewelweed in late summer!

Red Oak Acorn

This year will be a peak crop of red oak acorns in our area; another late summer offering. In this vicinity we typically get a peak crop every 3 years. As part of my curious nature I like to investigate the acorn crop early in the season. Typically I wait for a breezy day and take a hike up the mountain and into a few major red oak stands. I carry a backpack with a couple of thermoses and an extra large cup, about 16 ounces. Both the breeze and the water are critical to my journey. I need the breeze to dislodge ripe acorns. When they fall to the ground I locate about a twenty under an oak grove and put them aside. At this point I take out a thermos and the empty cup. I fill the cup with water about half way and put in about a half a dozen acorns. I’m interested in seeing how many sink. Those that are ripe will not sink and have not been impacted by the acorn weevil. The ones that do sink have been infested by the larvae of the weevil. It is unlikely that most of us will ever encounter the adult weevil because it inhabits the upper branches of a mature red oak tree. The adults drill a hole in the acorn and deposit fertilized eggs. The larvae live off of the oak seed and are protected from the elements by the acorn shell. These larvae ridden acorns have little forage value for mammals and birds. Once I know which oak groves have the most ripe acorns not impacted by the acorn weevil I have a better idea where wildlife will be found as autumn progresses.

Red Oak Acorn Cap

The interesting part about this process is that the test has to be done exactly when the acorns fall from the trees. Waiting even a day or two will not produce accurate results. The reason is that gray squirrels quickly start gathering only the ripe, worm free, acorns. They likely can smell the difference and will carry off as many of the good acorns as they can store. In a peak year there will plenty of not infested, edible acorns for all mammals and birds. Black bears, white tail deer, and turkey are all particularly partial to this fabulous food that is both high in protein and carbohydrates; both essential for good health and winter survival. The bottom line is that if you were to test the acorns a few days after they fell you’d find an inordinate number of acorns with worms. Good for the acorn weevil but not helpful for gauging wildlife use.

Late summer also brings the first buck rubs. Mature bucks remove the velvet on their antlers by tangling their antlers in rough bark on a branch or narrow trunk of a tree or sapling. Removing the velvet on the antlers makes them slippery which is an aid in rutting behavior. When bucks battle for territory rights it is important that they can escape the tangle of antlers quickly. This way they can reposition the antlers in a way that gives them a greater advantage, usually a function of simple leverage, which may help them to win the battle. Successful defense of territory means more love for these amorous males. These aggressive traits of the strongest bucks are passed on to the fawns in the DNA which theoretically may produce a superior offspring (this idea is hotly debated by some).

On our mountainside the bucks seem to prefer moosewood and young hemlocks for use in rubbing the velvet off of their antlers. Bucks frequently will utilize woody vegetation along a trail. Following a rub trail and noting which side of the shrubs and saplings the rubs are made on will serve as an aid in detecting the direction of travel of the buck making the rubs. This can be helpful when setting up trail cams and may result in better photographs, for instance, getting the picture of the front of a deer as it approaches rather than its tail end which is considered by most to be not as good as a photo. Personally, I like a photo of the rear of a deer as well as the front of a deer, but that’s just me.

Wild apple trees, spawned by seeds cast by deer after consumption, hug the edges of open forest where there is ample light. Late summer, especially this year, yields misshapen apples that will be sought after by bears, deer, turkeys, squirrels, fox, and coyotes amongst other wildlife. The competition for these nonnative fruits is fierce; not one will stay on the ground for more than a day. These accidents of nature prove to be an important part wildlife forage schemes. The sugar in the fruit provides necessary calories that will turn into fat. In the wild fattening up in the autumn is a good thing; all of the calories will be utilized during the cold months when food is scarce and the freezing temperatures stress even the hardiest of beasts. Winter is not kind to those who must survive the harsh elements to live another day.

An early morning walk in the deep forest on an early September day reveals a somewhat empty chapel. The glory of the full foliage is still present but many of the songbirds that comprise the choir and populate the choir booth are missing. They have begun their long journeys in search of preferred winter habitat somewhere to the south of their summer home in New England. A fully dressed late summer forest without song is, somehow, disconcerting. Not to worry, in a few short weeks the lost orchestration taken away with migrating songbirds will be replaced with a gallery of art! Brilliant colors will explode as crimson red, bright orange, and brilliant yellows fill the canopy. This fiery canvas will burn out in a few short weeks as the forest is overtaken with foggy early morning autumn days with fallen leaves resting on the earth exposing the raw and naked truth of these northern woods. Stolid tree trunks will hold the earth. Animals, both feathered and furred, large and small will gather the bountiful seeds left behind by mast producing shrubs and trees. The seemingly empty forest will not seem empty at all while this burst of activity that translates to survival fills northern woods.

And I, the observer, will take it all in.

Life is precious.

Woodland Sunflower

Written for in September of 2013.

  • Maripat Robison

    What a beautiful ode to summer’s end. I’ve been missing the birdsong tremendously. Even the red winged blackbirds at the beaver pond would be a welcome hearing. Thanks for teaching me something new.

  • Wild_Bill

    You are most welcome Maripat. Yes, this time of year brings big changes. While we will miss items like the songs of birds we can look forward to brilliant foliage, cool days, and clear distant views. All of nature is wonderful!

  • Montucky

    You have had a good summer there this year, haven’t you! I’m very tired of the hot, dry one we’ve had, but somehow not quite ready to let it go.

    Your description of the acorns was fascinating! I hadn’t thought of that at all, but we don’t have them here. They must be so good for the wildlife.
    Many of our summer birds are now conspicuous by their absence, but there are many of our year-round friends still at our feeder, and the young turkeys have gotten pretty big now too; lots of berries and grasshoppers!

    And, like you, I look forward to the fall colors.

  • Wild_Bill

    And I really look forward to your unbelievable and artful photographs of fall. The final days are both subtle and significant simultaneously. The transition provides clues and evidence of things to come. What could be better?

  • Amber_Galusha

    Lovely post and some nice photos here — that jewelweed is gorgeous! We are having a mast year in California as well. The black oaks are especially prolific. While out for a walk this week, I noticed the leaves on the blue oaks and non-native Chinese pistache are beginning to turn. I just love this time of year.

  • Wild_Bill

    After the heat you have had this year you are probably really looking forward to some cooler weather! We are presently in a very cool and dry spell. The weather people suggest some of will get frost tomorrow night. How quickly things change, eh?

  • naquillity

    your words are so beautifully placed. i feel as though i’ve walked alongside you in these woods. and some beautiful photos too. nature is definitely a grand place to see and hear the different bodies/ voices. have a great day~

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you. Arranging words and choosing the best ones are part of good composition, don’t you think? Plus it’s a lot of fun. The natural world invites us all each and every moment to take a moment and notice. Too bad that so many forget or are not interested. Thanks for stopping by, I hope to see more comments from you. I’ve missed your perspective.

  • Emily Brisse

    I agree with Naquility! This virtual walk was a perfect way to start my morning. Loved the info on acorns and weevils, too… I had no idea. So much to learn from you in every season, Bill!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you! Every season has its wonders. It is just a matter of uncovering a few to keep interest flowing so that we are curious enough to seek another. Exploring all things natural is a worthwhile avocation and pass time.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    Good lord, mister. That is some beautiful writing. And I love learning new things about nature and wildlife. Wow. Gorgeous photos, too.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Teresa. It was fun to write. Just kind of jumped into my head when I was in the woods putting acorns in a jar of water. And the photos were taken for the story the day I finished it.

  • Debra

    Hi Bill, Find an Outlet here. That last paragraph will stay with me. Just beautiful, like walking in a dream. Now that’s my kind of house of worship. And thank you and your readers for causing me to look up ‘mast year.’
    Please help me with a question I’ve thought about forever. I know that all creatures have their purpose, but I often wonder about those who make life harder for other animals. Biting insects, spoilers of food, intestinal parasites, etc. Is this a form of checks and balances, especially with a peak crop? We had a strong monsoon here and the high desert is abundant with plant and animal life, but our precious hardwoods are being stripped of their still-green foliage by what I think are webworm caterpillars. I don’t see anything eating them, but maybe because the trees are mostly in yards. There are varying theories but I respect the opinion of a seasoned naturalist!

  • Wild_Bill

    Its so good to hear from you. Yes, in my mind the natural world is a chapel. A place of worship for those of us who hold reverence for all that is wild. Beyond and within our world there are infinite possibilities. What greater mystery than the universe?

    The creatures of which you speak, those that seem to make life harder for other animals, the answer in my humble opinion is that it is all a matter of perspective. Take for example a mosquito. They use our (and others mammals blood) as part of their reproductive process. Although they don’t require blood to reproduce they use the extra protein to help with the production of extra eggs. Of course more eggs means the chances of survival of the females DNA are greater. Mosquitoes, because they can carry malaria, Tripe E, and West Nile virus are perceived as a major threat by humans. The human hand is a major threat to a mosquito. And, the amount of food that mosquitoes, black flies, and other flying insects provide for the food chain is simply astounding. There is a undulating balance in all of this natural behavior.

    An insect like the acorn weevil uses the carbohydrates and protein found and structure found in acorns as food and shelter for their larvae. The oak produces enough acorns to still reproduce despite the weevil invasion and the great variety of animals that forage on this nutrient rich seed. The adult weevils are good food for many song birds. The same birds that make our chapel full of natural hymns!

  • Annie

    Beautifully written Bill. This is also an acorn year for us with Valley and Interior Live oaks providing their bountiful harvest. I have read volumes on acorn harvest methods of California’s native peoples and don’t remember seeing anything mentioning testing for weevils. I wonder if they affect our acorns? I know the acorns can be infested with worms and that bay laurel and mugwort leaves were used to keep insects at bay during storage. Do you know anything about the acorns out west?

    Isn’t it amazing that even though insects, birds, mammals and man all harvest and eat the acorns there are always enough left to grow new trees. Natures circles of life are wondrous.

    We are lucky here as we still have song birds and waterfowl from the north are starting to arrive. The beginning of another exciting season. I love fall.

    Looking forward, as always, to your next story.

  • Wild_Bill

    I’m no expert on western oaks but I’d be really surprised if you didn’t have a weevil population taking advantage of the oaks. Some of the confusion may be that the weevil larval stage looks like a small worm when it inhabits the acorn. A lot of folks call them worms around these parts.

    You are very lucky to be on a migratory route. Which birds do see passing by from the north?

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    I loved this post, it is certainly the type of rambling, observing, and experimenting I am hoping to do when I can spend more seasons at our cabin.


  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Guy. There are a lot of different adventures out there just waiting to be invented. I’m sure you’ll find many paths to wander and thoughts to process as you use your cabin in the future.

  • Ratty

    Great post. It gave me a little better appreciation of fall. I’ve never really been a huge fan of fall for some reason. I always just miss summer. You’d think I wouldn’t care for winter either for that reason, but I like going out hiking in the snow.

  • Wild_Bill

    I think its important that we find the best in all seasons even though some might not be as comfortable or as inviting based on personal preferences. Certainly in our four season climate each season has a distinct purpose ecologically. Recognizing the exact workings of each season from nature’s perspective gives us a reason to see the beauty of the season.

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