Wild Ideas: Woolly weather and early carolers 

Before “Frankenstorm” hit this week, fall was progressing pretty nicely. On a warm, sunny day in the third week of October, I took stock of seasonal changes in the natural world around me. We’d had a couple of frosts and some crisp days, but those were interspersed with warm, mostly sunny days – and one thunderstorm. Along with the generally fine weather, the leaves were close to their fall-color peak. All in all, we were having a splendid fall.

One sure sign of fall was everywhere – banded woolly bear caterpillars on the move, appearing as dark squiggles on roads and in yards. They were looking for overwintering spots inside cavities of logs or rocks or under bark. The larvae of the lovely Isabella tiger moth, the caterpillar’s coloring is more familiar than spectacular, with its bristly black bands of hair fore and aft and reddish-brown band in the middle.

According to folklore, the width of the brown band can foretell the severity of the upcoming winter. It’s more likely that it indicates the severity of the previous winter, say scientists cited on the Old Farmer’s Almanac website. Evidence indicates that the reddish-brown color is a sign of age. The milder a winter is, the earlier the caterpillar gets a start and therefore the longer it lives and the wider its brown band gets. The Isabella tiger moth has a lot of host plants for its larvae, including asters, birches, clover, corn, elms, maples and sunflowers, so it’s plentiful here.

At my house, the hordes of brown marmorated stink bugs (BMSB) had finally dwindled, thankfully. However, as this particular fall day warmed up, I was dismayed to see clouds of Asian multicolored lady beetles drifted in to take the BMSB’s place on my screens. Last year I only saw three of the ladybugs.

A tiny young American house spider that had spun a web on the inside of one of my window screens was launching itself at one of the bugs, which was caught in the web. The bug, at least ten times the spider’s size, would then furiously beat its wings in an effort to escape. I couldn’t tell if the spider was trying to wrap up the bug for later dining or just cut it loose from its web, as spiders will do with unwanted guests. In any case, the ladybug managed to free itself and the spider retreated to the far corner of its web.

A huge northern walking stick had been hunting on one of my window screens a few days before, but it was gone and a much smaller one had shown up on another screen. A twig had landed on the same screen weeks before and was still there, so it took a minute to discern that what appeared to be a smaller twig was actually an insect – a testament to its remarkable camouflage adaptation.

Katydids, winding down their mating season, had also been showing up on my screens occasionally, as one did this day, while fall crickets, their cousins, chorused in the background. Their mating season was obviously still in full swing.

Driving down U.S. 211 earlier that fall afternoon, I’d been startled by a turkey that took off from a field next to the highway, flying low over the hood of my car. I know they’re around all year, but this still seemed to be a harbinger of Thanksgiving, which is now just a few weeks away.

The white-throated sparrow, which comes down from the north this time of year to spend the winter, sometimes varies its short, sweet song. Photo by Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons.
The white-throated sparrow, which comes down from the north this time of year to spend the winter, sometimes varies its short, sweet song. Photo by Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons.

Another bird that was a sign of the season had awakened me with its song that morning. While my memory can retain bird songs, it doesn’t do a great job matching of them to the singer. Some birds make this even trickier by varying their song, especially young birds or birds that are arriving and claiming territory or are warming up for the mating season.

My first thought, because of the sweet, whistle-like tone, was that the singer was a white-throated sparrow, which arrives from the north about this time of year to spend the winter. But the tune didn’t match up to what I remembered about this sparrow’s song, which consisted of four-note phrases going down in pitch. Instead it went up, sounding just like the first two bars of the Christmas carol we Americans know as “O Christmas Tree.” Only the words were missing: “O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree.”

With the singer being a bit too deep into the forest edge for me to see, I instead checked the white-throated sparrow’s song on my “Stokes Guide to Bird Songs” CD. Again, the voice matched up, but not the tune. After checking out the songs of other songbirds, I gave up and emailed a couple of birders I know who are much better at identifying bird sounds than I’ll ever be. At least the tune was easy to describe.

The responses confirmed that the singer was likely the white-throated sparrow, just playing around with the arrangement of its song. I finally found a couple of recordings on the Macaulay library websitemacaulaylibrary.org, which has a huge catalog of bird sounds, that were close to what I had been hearing, although most were of the more familiar tune.

It seemed appropriate that this winter visitor was at least jamming on a Christmas carol. Whatever the tune, I welcome the white-throated sparrow’s sweet vocalizing this time of year, when most of the other Pavarottis of the bird world are long past trying to attract mates and are either heading south for the winter or confining their communications to chatting rather than crooning.

As Frankenstorm moved in, birds seemed to ramp up their foraging efforts. As the wind rose, they disappeared, seeking cover. Just before the rain and wind really hit, a flock of juncos went flying through the woods, the last wildlife I saw until the morning after the storm, when I awoke to my white-throated sparrow, now trying out another tune.

On the morning after the storm, the robins were busily feasting on the worms emerging from the saturated ground. Many nuts and seeds that were high in trees are now on the ground, providing a feast for low-foraging birds and terrestrial critters. For every storm event, nature has winners and losers.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 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.”