Wild Ideas: As summer winds down, some species crank up

While we tend to think of September as the beginning of fall, the actual autumnal equinox isn’t until Sept. 23, and the humid doldrums of August were dragging on last week. Many animals have finished reproducing for the year and are fattening up to overwinter here or make their way south, and most plants have flowered and are starting to fade, but reproduction continues for some species.

Narrowleaf sunflowers brighten up a rainy September day. Photo by Pam Owen.
Narrowleaf sunflowers brighten up a rainy September day. Photo by Pam Owen.

Out in the fields and around forest edges, several species of sunflower are still in bloom, their golden hues now mingling with those of goldenrod. A small patch of wingstem has added to the late-summer show up here on the mountain. Although this tall, slender, densely growing plant is prolific in the county, this is the first year I’ve seen it up here.

It can easily be identified by its stem, along which run four “wings” of green, leaf-like material. While its flowers, smelling faintly of vanilla, have peaked, the evening primrose — another tall, skinny plant with yellow blooms — has just gotten started up here. Down around the ponds, the orange and yellow masses of spotted jewelweed contrast with the purplish hues of ironweed, asters and joe pye weed.

Moth caterpillars are abundant in the fall in forested areas. This one is a bitternut hickory, a primary host of some spectacular moth species. Photo by Pam Owen.
Moth caterpillars are abundant in the fall in forested areas. This one is a bitternut hickory, a primary host of some spectacular moth species. Photo by Pam Owen.

Many late-fruiting native plants seem more productive this year, from smooth sumac, with its rough-skinned, red fruit; to sassafras, with its smooth purple berries; to fox grape (Vitis vulpina) with its tiny, dark-purple fruits. Pokeberry, which never seems to have a bad year, is quite prolific all around the property.

And, according to anecdotal reports from some people with oaks on their property, acorn production is back up after last year’s almost nonexistent crop. Both of these mast crops are important to wildlife as they head into winter.

Fungi continue to enjoy the damp weather this summer. An oyster mushroom that’s been blooming on and off all summer on a decaying tuliptree stump has been joined by blooms of other mushrooms.

After getting a slow start because of the weather, more butterflies have emerged and are apparently trying to make up for lost time, even on damp days. Search as I may, I’ve had absolutely no luck finding butterfly caterpillars (or “cats” to butterfly aficionados). Although adult spicebush swallowtails are plentiful in my yard, I’ve found no eggs or larvae along a trail near my house that’s lined with spicebush.

A female (left) and male (right) common whitetail dragonfly warm up on a rock. Photo by Pam Owen.
A female (left) and male (right) common whitetail dragonfly warm up on a rock. Photo by Pam Owen.

I can feel nature mocking me. During two failed expeditions to find caterpillars, I turned around from examining leaves only to find tussock-moth cats — looking more like tiny Yorkshire terriers than a caterpillar — staring at me from nearby foliage. One of these colorful caterpillars, which feed on many species of tree, was on a bitternut hickory. This tree also serves as a primary larval host for a variety of more spectacular moths, including the regal and luna (see photos at butterfliesandmoths.org), as well as for two species of hairstreak butterflies, although there are no signs of their caterpillars up here.

I got excited when I found one caterpillar that I couldn’t identify on an American hornbeam leaf, thinking it might be a butterfly larva, only to discover that it is yet another moth, albeit one new to me. Tough to identify, it appears to be either a tufted thyatirid (Pseudothyatira cymatophoroides) or lettered habrosyne (Habrosyne scripta). I’m starting to see other fall moth cats, including webworms, as autumn approaches.

Recent damp weather has brought out blooms of several species of mushroom on this decaying tulip tree stump. Photo by Pam Owen.
Recent damp weather has brought out blooms of several species of mushroom on this decaying tulip tree stump. Photo by Pam Owen.

We’ve had a ton of white-tailed dragonflies up here this year. I’ve seen half a dozen at a time basking on rocks or concrete steps. I’ve also seen them and their cousin, the red-footed cannibalfly, happily mating on plants or on the sides of buildings recently, awkwardly trying to finish their task in midair when disturbed. Bees and wasps are also still plentiful, enjoying the last of the summer blooms.

As usual, I’m seeing more barn spiders, which breed this time of year, weaving their orb-shaped webs, although not as many as in previous years. I spotted one female on my deck chowing down on a brown marmorated stink bug. On my front porch, another much larger barn spider has built her web from my roof eaves to the porch railing, giving me a great view of her construction. Feeling a bit evil, I left the porch light on for a while one night and found several small moths in the web a couple of hours later. This morning, all the moths were gone, so I assume the spider had enjoyed the offering.

While I was cheered to think our spiders are now adding the brown marmorated stink bugs to their menu, I was not so cheered to see the bugs start reappearing on my window screens. Judging by research that’s been done and my experience, these early arrivals portend the arrival of swarms more around the equinox. It seems like only yesterday I was vacuuming the last of them off my ceiling, and now they’ll soon be back.

A variety of katydids and crickets have been in full chorus at night for weeks; the annual cicadas chime in during the day. This should continue as long as the warm weather stays with us. Dreading the time when I’ll have to close my windows to the sounds and smells of nature to keep the house warm, I hope this insect choir can continue singing for a while longer.

© 2014 Pam Owen

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 280 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”