Wild Ideas: In search of fall color  

Virginia is famous for its fall color, which in some years can be described intense, vivid, vibrant or even spectacular. As I wrote in Sept. 15 column, I was concerned that too much rain might dampen this year’s show, and in checking around the county and nearby, I’ve found the show is a bit more subdued this year.

The factors that drive how colorful Virginia’s fall is are adequate water during the growing season, an autumn that is dry, cool and sunny, with warm days and cool but frostless nights. The record-setting rains during the growing season this year sent us way past adequate to the point of damaging or even drowning plants.

Oaks, maples, sumacs and dogwoods provide some of the best fall color most years. This year, while the oaks and sumacs seemed to have hung onto their leaves for the most part through the wind and rain this fall, most maples were missing many leaves, especially in their crowns, and the leaves that were left on many were a duller color than they can be in fall. Leaves on the dogwoods where I lived turned brownish purple, with many dropping off early in the fall. Where I live, we also get good color, mostly yellow and gold, from the many nut trees there, from black walnut to various hickory species, and most of these had lost their leaves by early fall.

Peak fall color was forecast to occur the last week in October, later than usual. On Oct. 24, seeing very little color change where I live (at about 1,000 feet elevation), I went with a friend up to the highest elevations on Skyline Drive — above 3,500 feet, from Skyland to Big Meadows. Some of the forest up there was already bare, but it has long been stressed by several factors, from forest pests and disease to pollution, so judging the effect of the record-breaking precipitation is difficult.

Looking down from the drive, the forest looked rusty brown, with only a sprinkling of the usual vivid gold, red, orange and purple colors we see in good years. Some color stood out in lowest elevations, which otherwise were still quite green. Although color may not be at its best this year, it was still a beautiful drive, with a few trees, particularly maples, standing out.

The sun breaks through the clouds in late afternoon to reveal fall leaf color along the Shenandoah River northwest of Shenandoah River State Park By Pam Owen

The day was mostly sunny and would have been a comfortably cool fall day but for the regular wind gusts. Eschewing our usual habit of having a beer or coffee on the terrace at Skyland, my friend and I warmed ourselves with espresso drinks inside the Dining Hall. On the way back to the car, the blustery wind was sending leaves flying in all directions. Among them, I caught a flash of bright orange, which clearly stood out. I immediately knew this was no leaf but a monarch butterfly, fighting against the winds.

A monarch butterfly takes a break from fighting the chilly winds at Skyland to warm up By Pam Owen

The butterfly finally landed on the ground and began to flutter its wings rapidly — movement not associated with flight but rather the shivering that many animals use to raise their body temperature. Butterflies need an internal temperature of at least 80 degrees to fly and can boost their temperature by 20 degrees above the ambient temperature by converting radiant energy. That day, the temperature was probably close to 50, not factoring in wind chill, so I was amazed the butterfly was able to fly at all. I wondered if it was late in joining this species’ famed migration south, which was just wrapping up here, or perhaps it was from an earlier generation that was now at the end of its life.

Not satisfied with the photo ops in the park, I tried again a few days later (Oct. 27) at my friend’s property, along the Rappahannock River. It had rained during the night and into the morning, bringing down more leaves. In the drive over, the sun was playing hide and seek. I had my dog, Mollie, with me to keep me for company on the walk, but the sun had disappeared behind banks of clouds by the time we arrived at our destination.

I wanted to capture this year’s fall color at its best, in full sunlight, to more easily compare it with that of other years. But that was not to be on this day. While I was discouraged about the photography, Mollie was quite satisfied. Not having a strong artistic sensibility, she reveled in the opportunity to explore the many scents left on the damp trail by wildlife and getting thoroughly wet and muddy in streams we crossed.

I half-heartedly took a few shots of trails that would have looked relatively colorful if the sun were out and headed back to my friend’s house. There I derived solace from sharing a nice trout my landlord had smoked. My friend and I piled pieces of it atop crackers spread with cream cheese, onions and capers, pairing it with a sauvignon blanc. As we ate, we watched through her large west-facing windows to see if the sun would finally poke through the clouds and set the mountains to the west aglow. Although that didn’t happen, Virginia has a special beauty, no matter the weather, and smoked trout and wine can brighten up any day.

Two days later — another blustery, cold and cloudy afternoon, I made one more run at getting fall foliage photos, chasing the sun up along the northern end of Skyline Drive, then at Shenandoah River State Park. I finally found it as it slipped below the clouds late in the day, spreading its glory across the river, the valley and Massanutten Mountain beyond it.

The view southwest to the Shenandoah River from Shenandoah River State Park By Pam Owen

© 2018 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 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.”