Le­gends of the fall

For ev­ery­thing, there is a rea­son

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - THE GREEN PAGE - By Alexan­dra Paul

WINNIPEG’S Portage and Main is fa­mously known as one of the cold­est cor­ners on Earth when win­ter rolls around. But fall holds a spe­cial charm on the prairies no mat­ter who shiv­ers at that cold in­ter­sec­tion a month or two from now. Here are a few of the things that mark the sea­son in the nat­u­ral world in Manitoba. Au­tumn in Churchill is pretty mag­i­cal, said Dou­glas Clark, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan School of En­vi­ron­ment and Sus­tain­abil­ity and for­mer chief war­den of Wa­pusk Na­tional Park near Churchill. “It hap­pens early. The bugs die, the tun­dra plants turn the most amaz­ing colours — red, gold, orange. Geese flock up and head south. Cari­bou have bright white ruffs of fur around their necks and the bulls gather their harems. Po­lar bears look un­usu­ally vivid against that coloured back­drop, and the light is so clear that when the sun is be­hind them their fur looks like a golden halo around their en­tire body,” the po­lar bear ex­pert said. “Once the ponds freeze up, which will prob­a­bly hap­pen in a few weeks, the bears start to move around more, and that’s when ‘bear sea­son’ re­ally gets ac­tive up there. That’s in terms of both peo­ple and bears. The weather is up and down, but get­ting steadily worse, the bears are all over, and then one day — you never re­ally know in ad­vance when — there’s ice on the bay and the bears are gone. It hap­pens amaz­ingly fast. Within a week, Churchill goes from jam packed to empty and ev­ery­one left set­tles into win­ter.” While south­ern Manitoba can’t ri­val east­ern Canada and the Mar­itimes with their milder fall weather and sheer va­ri­ety of colour in chang­ing leaves — the pal­ette here is rich in orange, gold and yel­low — there’s no ques­tion the leaves are the big­gest show around from The Pas to Stein­bach. “That’s the big thing, chang­ing colours,” said Bruce Ford, bi­o­log­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor and cu­ra­tor of the Univer­sity of Manitoba’s Her­bar­ium. Ba­si­cally, leaves change colour be­cause of changes in their pig­ment in re­sponse to cool­ing tem­per­a­tures. “Leaves on trees con­tain three main pig­ments, carotenoids, an­tho­cyanins and chloro­phyll. When it gets cold, nu­tri­ents cause the chloro­phyll to dis­in­te­grate and that al­lows the other pig­ments to shine through. They’re al­ways there but you just don’t see them,” Ford said.

The orange and the yel­low are carotenoids, the same stuff that makes car­rots orange. Red is from an­tho­cyanins, a chem­i­cal that stores su­gar in plants, he said. Ford be­lieves leaves in colder cli­mates like ours prob­a­bly show more orange and yel­low be­cause their leaves con­tain a higher con­cen­tra­tion of carotenoids com­pared to the red su­gar stuff. Most birds head south in the fall. Owls, don’t, but they have a pe­cu­liar link with the sea­son through cen­turies of su­per­sti­tions about Hal­loween. Be­cause they’re noc­tur­nal, owls were tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ci­ated with witches and magic. Hal­loween is rooted in the pa­gan fes­ti­val Samhain and those ties still bind cen­turies on into the Chris­tian era. Ni­cole Koper, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Manitoba’s Nat­u­ral Re­sources In­sti­tute, said the main thing birds do in the fall is fly thou­sands of kilo­me­tres to warmer cli­mates but it’s not all they do. “Ob­vi­ously the mi­gra­tion is the main one. Song­birds will lose up to half their body weight so you can imag­ine how much they have to eat, they have to stuff them­selves to make the jour­ney south,” Koper said. One of the other things some song­birds do in au­tumn is check out nest­ing grounds for next year. To do that, they’ll lis­ten for other bird songs. For some birds, if they sing in the fall, it means they were suc­cess­ful that sum­mer. So where they are, that’s a good patch to rear young. Lis­ten­ers and singers both re­mem­ber that patch for next year. “That’s par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant for hatch­lings from this year be­cause they have no ex­pe­ri­ence nest­ing,” Koper said. So if you hear birds singing a lot, they’re brag­ging about the hatch­lings they raised and the other birds that hear them are lin­ing up the same patch of ground, bush or tree to nab it next year for them­selves. Smaller birds are more sen­si­tive to cold but the larger rap­tors, such as bald ea­gles, will stay around longer. “You’ll see a lot of bald ea­gles now, head­ing out in groups,” said Koper. She re­ported two ju­ve­niles fly­ing with two ma­ture bald ea­gles a few days ago and fig­ured it was a fam­ily head­ing south. Not all birds fly south. Chick­adees will stay all win­ter as will house spar­rows and white-breasted nuthatches. “Every­body else has left so they spread out and eat what­ever.... That’s a risk, to stay here, but they fluff up their feath­ers and cross their fin­gers!” Moose, elk and deer are caught up in mat­ing rit­u­als for the an­nual rut and bears take a berth for win­ter, head­ing to their dens to sleep out the cold.


Au­tumn fo­liage frames a horse munch­ing grass in a field east of Libau. Back­ground, Au­tumn leaves are re­flected in a creek near Vir­den.

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