October notes

Posted Nov. 06, 2010, at 6:40 p.m.

A few days before Halloween the oaks finally started dropping leaves in droves. They and the beeches always hold out the longest, so the end of October is distinctly gold- and copper-colored here. They are marcescent plants, and some of their leaves hang on well into snow season and even into spring, when the great reawakening unfolds and the old leaves are evidence that everything’s returning, not spontaneously generating.

The red maple beside the driveway burst into flame in mid-October this year, 10 or 12 days later than usual. Every fall it goes up in a great tree conflagration lasting a week or two, then casts off all its foliage at once, usually in leaf-stripping wind and rain like this year. Maple-leaf carpets appeared as always on lawns up and down Route 9. The birches have dropped leaves at the usual steady pace that starts in September and lasts into November. The first to go naked in September are the ash trees. Come to think of it they’re the last to be clothed in May, too, which might imply something about their libido. Probably not, that’s anthropomorphic stuff. They’re just beautiful trees, plain and simple and needing more sleep than the rest. The orb-weaving spider who lived all summer under the deck rail curled up there and hardly moves anymore.

The birds have been unusually ravenous this fall. Sometimes we filled the feeders twice a day during October. Plunked in a clearing in a dip in the woods in Troy, our dooryard doesn’t usually harbor a large avian diversity, mostly chickadees flitting from tree to tree and blue jays bullying them off every perch. From September forward it has been a bird vaudeville. Red-breasted nuthatches have shown up frequently, liking the feeder menu apparently, and a squad of mourning doves has patrolled the firs. More downy woodpeckers than ever. Hummingbirds through mid-September, as always, and different sparrows, tufted titmice, an ovenbird I caught a glimpse of, appearing and disappearing like foreign tourists. Crows overhead, you know what I mean. One chilly morning what looked like a bear cub came barreling out of an oak tree. It turned out to be a turkey.

Flocks of juncos started showing up in late September, hopping around on the ground and in the lower branches like tiny horizontal pogo sticks. Normally they blow through for a week or 10 days going south and then again in late March headed north. But this fall they poked around in the leaves at least a month longer than usual. We speculated that with generally milder autumn nights there has been more food, so they stayed as long as the pickin’s were good. Still, you’d think the ever-slanting sunlight would tell them the tale of imminent cold. When it snowed on Halloween day, they were still bopping around in the leaves.

We do not get rid of our leaves because we need all the dirt-making material we can get. So usually I mow them to create a sort of mulch I hope will decompose under melting spring snow and reinforce our ledgy slopes. By late October chopped-up maple, oak and birch leaves corrugated the grassy parts of the yard. Next year’s firewood was cut, split, stacked and permanently covered beside The Shed. Life goes on, through the aging seasons, and beyond.

naturalist@dwildepress.net

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