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.
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!
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.
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.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in September of 2013.