Wild Ideas: Fall colors arrive while hummers head south

With my brother now back in rainy Juneau, Alaska, I’ve been taking a look around to see how fall is progressing here.

Plants are drawing down their resources in preparation for winter. This drawdown means plants are pulling fewer resources from the ground, including water, so the water table rises. As leaves start to die on woody plants, some, such as those of Virginia creeper and some species of sumac and maple, have already turned bright red or gold.

This otherwise normal-looking tobacco hornworm, the caterpillar of the Carolina sphinx moth, is infested with the parasitic braconid wasp. What look like grains of rice attached to the caterpillar are larvae that were feeding inside the caterpillar and have now pupated. Photo by Pam Owen.
This otherwise normal-looking tobacco hornworm, the caterpillar of the Carolina sphinx moth, is infested with the parasitic braconid wasp. What look like grains of rice attached to the caterpillar are larvae that were feeding inside the caterpillar and have now pupated. Photo by Pam Owen.

It looks we’re on track to having good fall color this year, with leaf turning likely peaking in the next week. Typically leaf turning draws the peak number of visitors to Shenandoah National Park for the year, so the current shutdown is even more of an economic hardship for the park and surrounding communities, including Rappahannock.

The day my brother returned to the torrential rains that are common in southeastern Alaska this time of year, our unseasonably hot, dry stretch broke and we got our own week-long deluge. Usually the big fall rains here come from hurricanes working their way up from the south, but the active hurricane season that was predicted this year has been a bust. Not that I’m complaining, since we got lots of rain without the destructive winds.

Blooms on most flowering plants have faded, with only those of a few goldenrod, sunflower, aster and other late-blooming plants still lingering. The rain beat down much of the pokeweed and other plants in the former garden in my yard, and several species of little brown or grey birds have been braving the rain to find berries, seeds and bugs that were knocked to the ground.

I had hoped the ruby-throated hummingbirds would stick around so my brother could see them while he was here. Rufous hummers, which he feeds at home, leave southeast Alaska for their summer wintering ranges by mid-July but, while our resident ruby-throated males also leave about that time, the females remain through much of September. Unfortunately, the week Dana was here only one female showed up briefly and only a couple of friends we had over for dinner saw it.

On Oct. 7, when my brother got on the plane amid the start of the rains last week, a rather bedraggled female came to the feeder, finding shelter on one of the two perches under the roof eaves. She was a bit shy, flying off when she saw me. Since this behavior didn’t match up with that of my resident hummers, which will hover within a foot of my face when the feeder needs a refill, she’s likely a migration straggler from the north. Three days later, she had moved on and no more hummers have shown up. 

While the rufous hummingbird has expanded its winter range to the east coast thanks to people leaving feeders out, they are still scarce here, and usually show up by August. None have appeared at my feeder, so I plan to take it down this week.

A Carolina wren and a phoebe showed up in the last week. The phoebe didn’t seem to be one of the pair that nested here, judging by subtle differences in its behavior, so it, too, is likely migrating through.

I’m still hearing crickets on warm nights, although the katydids have gone silent. In the forest behind my house, the night calls of a screech owl that I’ve been enjoying all summer have been joined by those of a barred owl. Recently, a gray catbird has been intermittently waking me up at dawn with its catlike mew. Catbirds nest in our area in the summer but this time of year head for the shore or inland further south for the winter. Unlike the hummers, some migrating through here stick around until late fall.

A small murder of crows loudly chatting at dawn has also been serving as my alarm clock recently. Through my bedroom window, I’ve seen the corvids pulling what appear to be larvae out of the ground and from under clumps of mown grass. They’re probably enjoying the same green June bug grubs my copperhead-killing skunk has been digging up out there for the past few weeks (see my Sept. 19 column). Freshly clawed holes in the yard, bigger than a crow would make, indicate the skunk is still around.

My ghoulish wish to see braconid wasps parasitize the tobacco hornworms on one of my volunteer tomato plants came true a couple of weeks ago. I found two infested with the wasp larvae, which had pupated. One caterpillar wasn’t moving but otherwise looked healthy, belying the fact that it was probably already dead. When I checked on it today, it was a black, shriveled hull. While it was fascinating to see this parasitical relationship, I hope some hornworms have survived, since they morph into a Carolina sphinx moth that is the length of the caterpillar (around four inches).

I’ve been searching for caterpillar pupae to bring in for the winter so I can see them hatch into a moth in the spring. Finding them can be tricky, since they tend to look like part of the plant they are attached to. While unsuccessfully looking for pupae, I saw spiders and harvestmen, praying mantises and walking sticks, leafhoppers, tussock caterpillars, a mourning cloak butterfly and a host of other insects on my still-blooming nasturtiums and sunflowers, and nearby native plants. I keep adding photos of them to my slideshow at NighthawkCommunications.net.

On the mammal front, my landlords found a few tulip tree saplings down at one of the ponds that had been gnawed down by a beaver, which then apparently moved on. According to my landlords, beavers had taken up residence there before, occasionally blocking the outtake pipe. Fortunately my landlords like beavers and are willing to work to keep the pipe clear in return for seeing North America’s largest rodent up close.

What’s surprised me the most this fall, after the rainy summer and recent deluge, is the lack of mushrooms. Only a few species have bloomed around the ponds so far — nothing like the huge mushroom bloom of 2011, which resulted from damp conditions in late summer and early fall. Fall has a long way to go though, so I’ll keep looking.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 301 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.”