yep, fall is here

This time of year, the landscape is changing rapidly. We don’t need a calendar to tell us that fall is here; the change in the seasons is reflected all around us. We see it in the trees, the flowers, the birds, and even the squirrels madly gathering and stashing acorns in preparation for winter.

Most of the summer wildflowers are gone or in decline, bowing to the onset of the golden reign of the goldenrods that are so prominent now.

The asters, also blooming in large numbers, fill the fields and woodland edges with color.

These late-season flowers provide sustenance to bees and other pollinating insects searching for food that is increasingly harder to find.

Like the rest of nature, the grasses are also reacting to the shorter days. Little bluestem, festooned in contrasting shades of green and maroon, stands in beautiful contrast to the yellows of the ironweed and goldenrod.

Butterflies are becoming less numerous as their favorite flowers decline. The monarch butterflies, which began their fall migration through western Virginia five days ago, still can be seen winging their way south. This one is enjoying a brief stopover to visit a butterfly bush before continuing on to its wintering grounds (for more on monarchs, see previous post, “monarchs on the move“).

Just by chance, we were lucky enough to spot this praying mantis watching us from the camouflage of the autumn grass – it’s amazing how the insect’s coloring matches the grass reeds, making him virtually invisible to predators.

As I look out, the fields are awash in hues of yellow, gold, russet, and brown. The trees are in transformation as well; some, like our neighbor’s maple, are showing tinges of yellow and orange. In just a couple of weeks, it will be a blazing reddish-orange.

Soon the Blue Ridge will be blanketed in a glorious quilt of autumn colors, a sight more breathtaking to behold than any postcard or photograph could ever portray.

Each moment of the year has its own beauty.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

monarchs on the move

Monarch butterflies are migrating, leaving their breeding grounds and making their way to their southern wintering grounds, thousands of miles away. Monarchs passed through Virginia this spring on their way north; a few spent the summer here, but most continued further north. Now, with the days growing shorter, I knew it wouldn’t be long before the monarchs came back through on their way south.

I witnessed the phenomenon of the monarch migration from Virginia for the first time last fall. I was putting in some flower bulbs when I noticed a monarch above me. A few minutes later, another passed by, headed in the same direction. To my surprise and delight, over the next few days, I watched dozens of butterflies making their way south, not in their usual meandering fashion, but making a “beeline” south.

Monarchs are the only species of butterfly that migrates both north and south, as the birds do, in a yearly cycle, but no one individual makes the entire round trip. The length of these journeys exceeds the normal lifespan of most monarchs, which is less than two months for butterflies born in early summer. The last monarch generation of the summer enters into a non-reproductive phase known as diapause and may live seven months or more; it is during this phase that the monarch flies to its overwintering site. The generation that overwinters generally does not reproduce until it leaves its wintering grounds sometime in February or March.

These fragile creatures, weighing less than half a gram, fly unbelievable distances to reach their final destination. “Our” monarchs born east of the Rockies leave the fields and forests of North America to migrate as far as 2,500 miles to the Oyamel fir trees in the Sierra Mountains of Mexico; those born west of the Rockies travel to small eucalyptus groves on the Baja California coast.

The monarch population that summers in eastern North America has been dwindling due to deforestation in their Mexican wintering grounds and a loss of milkweed, the host plant of the butterfly’s larvae, in their summer home. Milkweed plants, and many other native plants that benefit wildlife, are often bulldozed to make way for housing developments and shopping centers. Here in rural western Virginia, monarchs and other butterflies feed on goldenrod, milkweed, butterfly weed, asters, thistle, dame’s rocket, and joe-pye weed, among others.

I snapped these pictures of monarchs stopping to feast on the nectar of purple ironweed. These stops for food will help build the body fat that will fuel their long journey south.

I am sad to see the monarchs go. In a way, they are taking summer with them for their departure signals the end of the long, lazy days of summer. Gone soon, too, will be the wildflowers that once so lavishly decorated the fields, woods, and roadsides. But I know these orange and black marvels will be back next spring to start the cycle all over again. As I watch them winging their way south, I wish them well and hope that Mother Nature will be kind to them during the long journey ahead.

the deer are back!

This summer, I posted a picture of a doe visiting the salt block in back of our house. At the time, she was nursing two fawns that we saw with her regularly in the fields or going through the woods. The camera-shy fawns were hidden in the brush when I snapped this picture.

Not long after I took these pictures, a small band of coyotes (probably members of the same family) came through and we feared for the deer trio. Nature gives all creatures skills for survival. The doe’s first defense is her sense of smell; her second defense is speed and agility. Her fawns still had their spots which act as camouflage, and, at this age, they have no scent, helping them to hide and escape detection. The coyotes moved on after local hunters and their dogs pushed them out of the area, but there were no further sightings of the doe and fawns, and we feared the worst.

But yesterday we got a pleasant surprise. At dusk, the doe and her two fawns reappeared. Looking fat and healthy, they grazed the tender grass in our front yard. Amazingly, the whole family had eluded the coyotes.

Even though we have to go to extra lengths to protect our blueberry bushes and vegetable garden from the voracious appetite of the browsing deer, we’re still glad they were spared.

a wet year

Unlike much of the rest of the country, we’ve had a LOT of rain this spring and summer in our corner of the Blue Ridge. So much so that we lost parts of our lane from runoff water. We had to bring in a dozer to re-grade the washed out places and add two truckloads of stone. But as a result of all the rainfall, our fields are as lush as I’ve ever seen them. South Buffalo Creek has been recharged every few days and is running strong.

The high water table means that the wetland in our front field is much wetter than normal for this time of year. In fact, the field is so wet and the ground so soft, we installed a plank footbridge to protect the small stream where we cross on our walks (the stream is obscured by the large tufts of grass).

Bridge engineer Bill trying out the new footbridge

Of course, the dogs had to check it out, too…

Autumn and Callie look like they’re wondering, “How’d this get here?”

Cattails are thriving in the lush environs of the stream

This picture shows the same small stream leaving our property (again, the stream is hidden by the lush vegetation). The purple flowers are ironweed, a wildflower that grows prolifically in moist soil.

The sky is clouding up and it looks like we’re going to get yet another shower. I only wish we could send some of this moisture to the middle of the country where farmers in several states are suffering the worst drought in decades.

summer’s end

Both the calendar and the shortening days tell us that summer is coming to an end. I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at some of my favorite wildflowers that were so beautiful only a few weeks ago, but are now gone until next season. Some of the pictures include one of the flower’s associated pollinators. As always, feel free to correct me if I have made an incorrect identification.

Zebra swallowtail on autumn olive

Even though the autumn olive bush is an introduced species, I included it because of its importance to pollinators such as honey bees and butterflies. In early May, I saw a dozen different pollinators enjoying the nectar.

Bergamot patronized by a hawkmoth

Bergamot is also wildly popular with pollinators including honey bees, bumble bees, and hawkmoths. Most of those pollinators visited other wildflowers, but the hawkmoths remained loyal to the bergamot until it stopped blooming (makes perfect sense to me – I have that kind of loyalty to pasta!).

Monarch butterfly on joe-pye weed

Joe Pye, an Indian healer from New England, used E. purpureum to treat a variety of ailments, which led to the name Joe-Pye weed. I don’t like the suffix “weed” because of its negative connotation and I think it, generally, shows a lack of creativity, but that’s the popular name for this beautiful plant that is an herb, a wildflower, a butterfly magnet, and an ornamental in the garden – not bad for a “weed,” huh?

Bumblebee on a purple coneflower

Common milkweed visited by a spicebush swallowtail

Common milkweed is another wildflower that attracts a host of insects, including bees, wasps, flies, skippers, butterflies, and moths, which drink the nectar. It is also the host plant of the larvae of the monarch butterfly.

Green-headed coneflower

And two of my all-time favorites because they are so closely associated with the ridges and valleys of the Southern Appalachians…

Catawba rhododendron

Catawba rhododendron is native to the eastern United States, growing mainly in the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia south to northern Alabama, splashing its lovely pink blooms up and down the hillsides and along the creek banks every spring.

Mountain laurel

Part of the appreciation of these flowers of wood and field is that we have to wait so long to see them from one season to the next. They emerge, grow, blossom, and decline in just a few short weeks, then disappear for another year. We are fortunate indeed to be able to capture their beauty on camera and enjoy them, if only virtually, when the days get short and all of nature is in slumber.