just wandering on a beautiful fall day

Bill and I try to take the dogs for a walk every day. Yesterday started out cold, but warmed to 55 degrees by 10 o’clock. I particularly relish these mild November days because I know colder days are just around the corner.

With all the wildflowers now gone, the landscape is dominated by late autumn shades of brown and tan. I love the fall and I find these muted earth tones to be beautiful and inspirational. Even as she prepares to sleep, Nature is elegant.

Looking out across the fields, little bluestem, a native warm-season grass, is going to seed. Its abundant seed stems will provide forage for many songbirds throughout the winter. Below, milkweed pods have opened, revealing whimsical, silky tufts of seeds that will ride the wind to recolonize an area away from the mother plant.

With summer and the miraculous season of pollination behind us, the once-yellow, wand-like clusters of goldenrod are now beige tufts, waiting for the wind to help sow their seeds for next year’s crop.

I found a great website that shows the incredible ways that seeds are dispersed by the wind: http://theseedsite.co.uk/sdwind.html The shapes and sizes of seedpods, which are as diverse as the seeds inside them, have to do with how far the seeds are transported.

I’m not sure what flower produces these clumps of rounded seedheads (bergamot?), but they would make a nice addition to a dried flower arrangement! Hmmm, gives me an idea….

Along the way, we spotted a cocoon and this is one of those times I wish I had a biologist along with me to tell me what insect constructed it. I could have opened it to have a look, but something makes me hesitate to tamper with even the simplest and most ubiquitous of nature’s handiwork.

In a perfect ending to a perfect walk (at least from a retriever’s perspective), our yellow lab Autumn decided to go for a swim in our neighbor’s pond. She spotted a decoy floating in the middle of the pond and, true to her breed, couldn’t resist going in to retrieve it.

We took a longer walk than usual, trying to take in every minute of this gorgeous fall day. I know there are those who love winter and can’t get enough of the white stuff, but I’m not one of those people. Truth be known, I wouldn’t mind a whole winter just like today.

winter bird feeding – to feed or not to feed?

It’s always been more or less conventional wisdom that feeding wild birds in winter ups their survival rate because their normal sources of food – seeds and insects – are greatly diminished. But is this wisdom correct? Some challenge this thinking, saying that feeding the birds makes them overly dependent on human handouts and weakens their ability to find food on their own. So what’s a bird-lover to do?

These questions aren’t easily answered, but a three-year study of black-capped chickadees by the University of Wisconsin found that during harsh winters, survival rates were higher when chickadees have both feeder and natural food options; where winters were more moderate, there were no significant differences in survival rates.

Since the late 1800s, many species including tufted titmice, northern cardinals, and white-breasted nuthatches have been expanding their range northward (following the settlers), some making it as far as southern Canada. Evidence bears out that bird feeding played a role in that expansion. Clearly, in these colder climates, supplemental feeding can be important, if not critical, to bird survival.

Nuthatches visit both suet and seed feeders

Tufted titmice are also regular visitors to our feeders

While it would seem “free” food would be irresistible to birds, some of our Virginia resident species, such as mockingbirds and phoebes, tend to shy away from seed feeders, choosing natural food sources instead.

This mockingbird is warning intruders to stay out of his winter food territory. He is protecting several berry bushes nearby.

These species, however, don’t shun feeders altogether. Phoebes have been known to visit mealworm feeders and mockingbirds occasionally come to suet feeders; however, I’ve never had either species come to my feeders. How about you? What atypical visitors have you seen at your feeders?

It’s true that feeders can put birds at risk by increasing their exposure to predators like cats and hawks. But it’s also true that birds that visit feeders eat more in less time than they would in the wild, giving them more time to watch for predators. In addition, birds that frequent feeders where they know cats are nearby keep a watchful eye for the felines and send out the danger signal to other birds when any predator is spotted. You can minimize the risk by keeping cats indoors or placing feeders where they are inaccessible to cats.

Feeders can also cause bird collisions with windows because they lure birds closer to houses and other buildings. One way to minimize collisions is to add tape or decals to your windows so birds won’t fly into them. Distance also plays a role, so place feeders far enough from windows so there is less chance that startled or frightened birds will fly into them.

If you choose to feed the birds this winter, remember that they will be relying on you when the weather turns harsh. The consequences can be disastrous if you suddenly stop, so once you start filling the feeders, continue through until winter’s end. If you are away over the holidays, ask a friend or neighbor to fill your feeders while you’re gone.

What am I going to do? Although I don’t start supplemental feeding until the first snow or hard frost (usually around mid-November), I’m going to feed the birds, as I always do. During periods of heavy snow, ice, or extreme cold, birds have a difficult time finding food and bird feeders can mean the difference between life and death. For me, it’s a no-brainer.

seedheads in the meadow

The brilliant fall foliage for which the Blue Ridge is so well-known has run its course, but Nature, which never has an off season, has not been idle. In accordance with her plan, summer’s fading wildflowers have been transformed into a botanical realm of pods, papery seedcases, cones, and burrs dancing in the wind. The seeds will eventually find their way into the ground where they will germinate at the appropriate time, continuing the circle of life.

The clustered seeds of burdock provide food for many birds, as well as other animals including voles and mice.

These seedheads are fascinating, but I’m not sure of the plant species. Any ideas?

This weed, also unidentified, grew in a pile of topsoil – look out for those spikes!

The silky seed tufts of common milkweed rely on the wind to carry the seeds far from the host plant.

Monarda (the round seed heads), shown here mixed in with little bluestem and other native grasses, is a winter food source for birds and other wild critters.

These species, found in our meadow, represent only a few of the tremendous variety of seed heads that lend color, texture, and design to the fall landscape, while also providing a valuable winter food source for wildlife. Beauty abounds in every season – and I’ll be supplying pictures all along the way!

nature is powerful therapy

Does nature have an effect on people’s health and feeling of well-being? Common sense would seem to say that it does, but there are recent studies that back up that supposition. An article in Scientific American (“Nature that Nurtures,” March 2012) cited studies showing that hospital patients with windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, faster and needed less pain medication than patients whose window looked out on a brick wall. Other studies documented that just three to five minutes spent looking at a view dominated by trees, flowers, or water can begin to reduce anger, anxiety, and pain.

Now I don’t know about you, but I figured this out some time ago! I used to go on long trail rides on my horse whenever I felt the need to unwind. Feeling the movement of the horse and taking in the surroundings was a sure-cure for the blues or mental fatigue. These days, I no longer own a horse, but I get the same therapeutic benefits by going for a walk. Whatever thoughts are swirling around in my brain take a back seat to the power of nature to amaze and fascinate. The photos I chose for this post weren’t taken recently, but I picked them to show tranquil scenery that makes me feel good even when I’m just looking at the pictures!

The road to our farm with the Short Hills in the background

South Buffalo Creek

Some of my best times with nature are those spent alone. With no distractions, I can breathe in the smell of wet leaves and damp earth, feel the soft ground give where the voles have made a labyrinth of tunnels underneath, and hear the faraway cry of the lone raven calling from the mountain top. As I walk, my thoughts and everyday cares drift to the joys and mysteries of nature around me.

No matter what’s going on in my life, getting outside can brighten my mood and give me a new perspective on the world. When was the last time you gave nature a chance to work its magic?

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses
put in order. – John Burroughs