One of the things I missed most when I was living on the northern plains of Montana and Wyoming were those wonderful warm spells that often surprise us here in Virginia from fall through spring.
In Wyoming and Montana, the first snowfall usually comes in September and by November you’re already sick of snow and temperatures that continue to dive below freezing. The rest of the winter, except for the warm Chinook winds that typically come down along the Rockies in January, you can look forward to freezing days with colder shocks of well below zero. All but the hardiest bird and mammal species take shelter until spring.
In Virginia, on the other hand, we usually get little reminders of summer from fall through spring. In November, those spells are typical enough to have a name – Indian summer.
We’re not the only ones who enjoy these reminders of the warmer months. Animals that seemed to have gone into hibernation suddenly pop up everywhere, taking advantage of another chance to put on fat before winter really sets in.
After getting our first snowfall in late October here this year, it seemed like we were settling into fall early. We still had a warmish day or two between cold snaps here in the hollow, but mostly we were seeing frosty dawns with temperatures in the twenties.
The Saturday before Thanksgiving I dug a turtleneck and two other layers of warm clothing out of my closet in anticipation of spending a chilly morning on a geology field trip in the upper reaches of Shenandoah National Park. I was glad to have every layer. The trail was icy in a couple of places, spectacular displays of icicles hung from the cliffs where springs erupted, and ice crystals were growing up from the ground, indicating springs underneath there as well.
The next day temps shot back up into the 60s. Indian summer had arrived.
My pair of eastern phoebes, which I thought had already started the fall migration south, suddenly reappeared near the house. While in the warmer part of the year they spend most of their time dive-bombing insects on the lawn, now they were working the other side of my living-room windows for insects that were taking shelter there.
Wanting to take advantage of the warm spell, I took my dog, Mai Coh, down to the ponds at the bottom of the hill for her favorite activity—soaking in the cool (now cold) water. With fall well underway, I hadn’t expected to see so many animals that normally hibernated or migrated this time of year out and about.
Walking near the shallow tank that feeds into the upper pond, we surprised a small frog that jumped into the water before I could identify the species. Red-spotted newts were everywhere in the same tank, and a little brown dragonfly keep zipping past us. Mai Coh was thrilled to get some relief from her arthritis in the pond and, after emerging, rapidly ran in figure eights that belied her advanced age.
Down at the lower pond we found a painted turtle basking on a log. During the summer, we’d see three or four on the same log, but I hadn’t seen any in weeks.
Back at the house, I took some vegetable scraps out to the compost pile and found it swarming with invertebrates, including several species of flies, winged and wingless ants and crickets. A red-backed salamander, which preys on small insects, was taking advantage of this unexpected bounty. This species is the most common amphibian throughout most of its range, which extends from Canada west to Minnesota and south to North Carolina, but I had never seen one in the compost pile before.
Typical of a lot of salamander species, the red-backed spends most of its time under forest debris. In dry weather, it goes underground, resurfacing only after rainstorms. The unseasonal warm weather and banquet of invertebrates had obviously drawn this one to the surface.
Earthworms were working just under the surface of the compost pile, recycling the vegetable and fruit remains, and I noticed the cottontail that lived on the property scrambling around in the brier patch nearby. I wasn’t sure what food she was finding over there. Maybe she was just seeking new shelter for the oncoming winter.
Coming back into the house, I found a northern walking stick on the screen door, patiently waiting for smaller insects to blunder by. Its twig-like appearance camouflages it well in the forests where it normally hunts, but made it stand out like a sore thumb on the screen. These odd-looking creatures often show up in and around houses in the fall, hunting the insects that are drawn to shelter and warmth there.
This sudden reappearance of so many critters any time we get an unseasonable warm spell is definitely a perk of living in the Blue Ridge Mountains.