As the days get shorter and colder, squirrels, chipmunks and bees are laying in stores to feed themselves. Some birds are heading south. Many plants and animals are producing seeds, cocoons, egg packs. They’re all doing what they can to survive the cold season and live to produce a new generation in the spring.
Monarch butterflies still visit my garden on sunny days. These late October visitors are the last of many generations that have come and reproduced in the U.S. this summer. But this generation is not laying eggs: This is the group that will fly south, heading to the monarch winter grounds in Mexico. They ride the thermals (warm air currents), traveling 15 to 25 miles an hour, then drop down each nightfall and roost together.
This year the monarchs began to migrate in early September. Expert watchers say that due to the warm fall weather, groups were still heading south in late October.
They will spend the winter in Mexico and when spring comes, they will fly north to Texas, lay eggs and start a new generation. That generation will fly north 300 miles and reproduce, and new generations will leap-frog north until one reaches here in August. (Click to read more: “The Great Journey of the Monarchs”)
Seeds – Grasses and weeds
This time of year the seed-heads of grasses are everywhere in the fields and yards around Forest Hills. Seeds are the grasses’ strategy to insure a new generation next spring. This photo shows the many different native grasses in the meadow at the stream restoration along Broad Branch and Linnean.
Every grass plant makes hundreds of seeds, as you can see in the photo of inland sea oats, a graceful grass found in Rock Creek Park.
With all those seeds it’s a wonder we aren’t “grassed out.” It’s because only a few of them will survive to sprout next spring. Birds, mice and insects find them an important food source. Weather and rot will destroy others. When you see a plant making lots of seeds (like acorns from the oaks) you know the survival rate is very low.
“Weeds” disperse their seeds in many ways – by wind, by exploding capsules, by burrs (also known as “stick-me-tights”), by putting the seed in an edible casing like wild cherries. Up in Rock Creek’s fields, the milkweeds are releasing their seeds into the air. The wispy parachute structure means they will travel far away from the home plant and spread the species to new places. (Click to read more: See the amazing variety of seeds Marjorie collected one autumn.)
The cold will kill most spiders. But the species must go on. For several months our local spiders have been laying eggs, often hundreds, in little packets or balls. Last year my bushes had a tiny spider who fashioned little balls of spider silk and eggs, each ball the size of a pea. She hung three of them on a strip of silk, fastened it carefully to a bushy twig, then disappeared, presumably to die.
These eggs will hatch next spring into hundreds of tiny spiders, many of which will be eaten by insects and birds. Enough will survive to carry on the species.
October is late for spider activity, but right now, when I walk the streets, I see hedges with small flat spider webs on top, each with a “hole” in the middle. The webs look old and beat up, but watch and you may see a spider come out of the hole. This is a funnel weaver spider, who hides in the hole until she feels something hit the web, then dashes out to eat it. I have not found the egg mass, but I am sure it is there.
Hibernation – How frogs and toads do it
Frogs and toads are cold-blooded animals. They go into hibernation when the temperature drops toward freezing. Their body temperature goes down, their heartbeat and metabolism slow, they burn energy already stored in their body, and they “sleep.”
In our area there are four main species, and they hibernate differently. The wood frogs and toads, which spend a good deal of their lives on land, go dormant and dig into the leaf litter or burrow under a log or stone. The green frogs and bull frogs, which stay in the water all year around, hibernate in the sediment at the bottom of the stream bed or pond.
In March, if it gets warm, the wood frogs and toads may begin to peep and croak, and a new life cycle will begin.
Birds – arrivals and departures
The house wren and the catbird that nested in the yard disappeared in September, off for warmer climes. The ruby-throated hummingbird that had been a faithful visitor all summer stayed until October 4.
This one was busy last month putting on weight for the long flight ahead. It nectared often at the garden flowers and the feeder, building up energy reserves. This bird will fly along the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf states, then make an 600-mile flight non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to reach southern Mexico, its winter home.
Some birds flying south for the winter stop here – and stay. Juncos and white-throated sparrows have just arrived after a summer in Canada. They like to feed on the ground, and we will see them happily eating seeds under our feeders until some time in April.
Our long-term residents are waiting for the feeders as well. Right now blue jays, cardinals, titmice, nuthatches, chickadees, house finches and the
English sparrows are scrounging for garden seeds, dogwood berries, insects and whatever else they can find. Soon the downy woodpecker in my yard will sit in a nearby tree to remind me it is time to get the suet out. (Read more: “Table manners at the bird feeder”)
Robins gather in flocks this time of year. They are enjoying the berries on holly trees and shrubs. Some of these robins will spend the winter several hundred miles south of here; others stay unless the temperature drops into the teens.
In a few weeks, the streets in Forest Hills will be a glory of red and gold as the trees turn color. Here and there a sugar maple has already turned yellow or orange.
On other trees, you can see the green in the leaves fading. Photosynthesis has stopped, and the plant no longer needs the green of chlorophyll. It’s not temperature that has told the plant to do this – it is the length of the day, a reliable signal every year.
Take a walk with your eyes peeled
A walk around the neighborhood or in the park will reward you with the many signs of fall. Look, listen, and enjoy.