In autumn, don’t go to jewelers to see gold; go to the parks! ~Mehmet Murat ildan
Fall in New England is the time when trees, shrubs and vines provide colorful scenery, fruits are ripe, skies are deeper blues and birds and animals are busy reaping this year’s harvest. For this year, 2015, an extended drought from April- September wasn’t helpful for lawns, but enough rainfall seemed to occur about once a month to keep most other plants in good order. The recent hard frost has caused many leaves to drop since the weekend, but there is still plenty of good color.
This year proved to be a banner year for fruits and nuts in New England. Apples, crabapples, acorns, horse chestnuts, black walnuts, Redbud pods, blueberries, cedar and many other fruits and nuts are abundant in quantity and quality. Many songbirds rely on crabapples during the winter as other food supplies dwindle or become unavailable under snow cover. In my neighborhood, crows are eating the black walnuts that have fallen on roads and have been crushed open by cars. A year like this can make you crazy if oaks on your property are dropping acorns like nuggets in Maine. A good cardio- exercise, though, if you rake them up.
Leaves have been especially colorful this year, and many tree, like ginkos and black gums still have green leaves. But as days get even shorter and temperatures go down, they should begin to lose chlorophyll as photosynthesis is no longer a necessary process. Leaf colors come from three different pigments- chlorophyll (producing green), carotenoids ( creating yellows and orange) and anthocyanins (reds) While the first two are present in leaves during the growing season, the anthocyanins are usually produced only late in the season, and only under certain circumstances. That is why leaf colors in autumn may or not be as colorful as in former years. Droughts can delay leaf color change by a few weeks, while wetter and warmer weather may subdue colors, making for a duller fall display. Severe frosts can kill the leaves and produce an early, rapid leaf drop. An autumn that has had abundant warm days and cool nights, like this one in 2015, can create a vibrant palette.
Yellows and oranges in leaves appear as chlorophyll disappears and carotenoids can now show through the leaves. Trees with abundant carotenoids, such as yellow poplars, sweet birch, some maples, and spicebush always produce yellow leaves. Sumacs turn brilliant red to orange. Sugar maples can have leaves that range from yellow to orange to red, often on the same tree. Swamp maples are usually first to change color and have red leaves. Hickories turn dull yellow to yellow- brown. Trees can often be identified from a distance in the fall by their leaf color and habitat. Water courses and wetlands can be easily delineated in the fall by observing the yellow leaves of spicebush and the red leaves of swamp maples nearby. Other trees, such as black gum, sassafras and sugar maples produce reds, and sometimes brilliant reds. Leaves of birches, ginkos and tulip trees turn bright to golden yellow. Oaks tend to change later, and are red, brown or russet and will often retain their juvenile lower leaves during the winter. Beech trees can retain a large number of their brown leaves throughout the winter, producing a distinctive rustling sound in the woods.
Long- distance migrating birds can lose up to a fourth of their body weight, and they seek seed and fruit sources high in fat content for the energy required for these flights. Insects also are eaten, but may not be as readily available as fruits and seeds. Fruits with high lipid and protein content help birds replenish energy quickly, and these are often eaten first. Viburnums (except the maple-leafed viburnum) have high fat and carbohydrate content, and poison ivy, black gum, cedar, and Virginia creeper fruit often disappear quickly as flocks of migrating birds devour them before moving on. Other fruits from sumac, bittersweet and winterberry are left for birds that overwinter, as these do not provide the fat and energy needed for migration flights.
In October, look for migratory birds such as Yellow- rumped warblers on cedars and other trees with small fruits. They are commonly found feeding on berries of poison ivy, black gum, the seeds of goldenrods, and many other plants. They are often found in flocks, like the waxwings, so if you see one, there are probably several more in the vicinity. Listen for their sharp chek call made while flying or when foraging a key call to learn both to locate birds and identify them. Crabapples are a good food source for the pine grosbeak, often a late migrator coming through in late fall or early winter. Chipping sparrows that bred here this summer have long since departed, but ones from northern are now coming through from the north, and they can be seen where seeds from grasses, goldenrods, wildflowers and other plants are abundant. In the fall, look in disturbed areas and fields or woodland edges for flocks of these small sparrows.
The Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperis virginiana, is a tree can be found in many old cemeteries where it was planted for its ornamental value. But it is also a valuable wildlife plant as well, supplying deer with edible foliage and twigs, and birds with its blue berry-like fruit. These trees produced an incredible amount of fruit this year and many birds can be found eating them at this time. Cedar Waxwings were named for thneir affinity with the red cedar which provides shelter as well as food for these birds. Listen for their high pitched whistle made both when in flight and when perched or feeding. Bluebirds and robins as well as many other birds will also eat the fruits, sometimes later in the winter, though. Last year juncos arrived early and cleaned out a lot of the small bluish cones before other migrating birds arrived or passed through.
White oak acorns are a valuable wildlife food source in fall and winter, as they have less tannins than the red oak group and so are less bitter. Deer, turkeys and bears may restrict their winter territories to oak stands in years where acorns are especially abundant, as acorns tend to be high in carbohydrates for the energy needed to survive the winter. White oak group trees also produce heavy, large acorns every year, while red oak group trees produce smaller acorns in alternate years. White oak acorns also germinate in the fall, but produce no cotyledons until next spring.
Autumn is a good time to identify trees and other plants by their fruits and leaf color. Oaks can be easy to distinguish by family- the white oak family leaves have rounded lobes, and red oak family leaves have pointed lobes, sometimes with veins extending beyond the leaf margins. Acorns can be tricky, but the white oak group usually has larger acorns than the red oak group. Of course acorns will fall directly under the tree that they grew on, so the fruit plus leaves and bark and other identification features will all be there.
Kentucky coffee trees, Catalpa, Mimosa and locusts all have characteristic pods. Jack-in-the-pulpit berry clusters produce a flash of bright red in an otherwise dull monochrome in the forest understory, and some ferns form striking rusty brown stands nearby. Tulip trees are the tallest deciduous trees in North America and their distinctive leaves have a squared-off tip and are golden yellow in the fall. Their fruits are cone-like aggregates of winged carpels that open from November through March and can disperse prolific amounts of seeds.
Getting out to observe the autumn display of color, texture and wildlife can be accomplished from a car, a hiking trail, or maybe even your own backyard. Enjoy it while it lasts, which this year has been a delightfully long time. Even raking leaves may be a little less burdensome if it becomes more of an opportunity to appreciate the leaf colors and shapes than just a monotonous chore. Just sayin….
Pamm Cooper All photos copyright 2015 Pamm Cooper