Signs that fall is here
The fall equinox was last week. Twice a year, for one day in March and one day in September, day and night are roughly equal.
In fact, the word equinox, from Latin, means equal night. We call these days the spring (or vernal) and fall (or autumnal) equinoxes. Now the sun is shining more on the southern half of our planet. For our friends living in Australia, winter has become spring. And for Americans, summer has officially become fall.
It sure does feel like fall has finally found Southern Maryland. Now the sun is rising later in the morning and setting earlier each night. There is a crispness to the air that wasn’t there just a week ago. And when the sun goes down, a jacket is a necessity. The air conditioner can finally get a well-deserved vacation, and if the house gets a little warm, just crack open the windows a bit and use good old-fashioned nature for climate control. I don’t feel this way very often, but I won’t even mind opening the next electric bill. It might actually be a pleasure to see how much our bill has gone down now that we aren’t running the air conditioner 24-7 for months on end.
Besides the cooler weather, there are all kinds of other signs in nature that fall is here. Jack Frost hasn’t been to my house yet, but he’s already been to my sister’s place in Maine, painting all the leaves on the trees and putting his cold signature on the plants in her garden. Soon the leaves on the trees in Southern Maryland will be turning vibrant hues of red, orange, and yellow. Already, when the wind blows, a few hasty leaves are jumping ship, twirling down to the ground to be raked into great big piles in just a few short weeks.
You may notice that not only do your feet make crunching sounds stepping on the dry leaves, but you better be wearing shoes because acorns are dropping now, too. They top the food list for many birds in Southern Maryland, including wild turkeys, quail, blue jays, and crows. And acorns are also an important food source for a myriad of other animals, from squirrels to black bears, raccoons to white-tailed deer. Even foxes have been known to make an occasional meal out of acorns.
Animals are changing now that it’s fall, too. The deer in our region undergo a color change from brown in the summer to a more faded shade in the winter. In the summer, their coats are thin, but they are growing their two-layer winter coats right now. The inner layer is soft and dense and provides extra insulation against the upcoming colder months. And just in case you are wondering, the Farmer’s Almanac does predict a very snowy and cold winter.
Birds are similarly changing, getting their feathers ready for the austere winter months. A drab new coat will help them blend into their surroundings
better now that they don’t need bright plumage to attract a mate.
You may think that all the male goldfinches have flown south for the winter, but they are hiding in plain sight, camouflaged as small brown birds among the rest of the small brown birds in your backyard. In September, the male American goldfinch trades his signature golden feathers for dull gray replacements. Male goldfinches look quite unkempt during molting, but once complete, their sleek new feathers are olive-gray, making them barely recognizable as the same golden bird from the summer. Look closely, though, and you can still see hints of yellow on their wingbars.
Many birds start their migration south now. The hummingbirds that were visitors in your yard this summer may have already moved on, but don’t take down your feeders just yet. Leaving them up won’t entice any hummingbirds to stay longer than they should. The shortening of the days, not a shortage of food, will trigger their instinct to migrate south.
There may be a few stragglers who are still beefing up for their big trek south, building up their reserves to provide the energy they need for this merciless journey that can take them across the Gulf of Mexico. And some of those diminutive fliers who spend the summer in more northern locales such as the northeastern United States or Canada may find your feeder a welcome sight as they are making their way south over the next few weeks.
My general rule of thumb is to leave feeders up one week after seeing the last hummingbird. In the past, I’ve taken my feeders down around Oct. 15, but last year I saw a hummingbird late in October, so I left them up until Nov. 1. I’m going to be watching extra carefully this year.
Now is the perfect time of year to head out into nature and notice all the signs that the season is changing. It’s our last chance to marvel at the intricate webs spun by orb-weaving spiders and see those gangly harvestmen scurry across our paths. The last of the wildflowers are blooming and squirrels are stashing acorns in their favorite hiding places. Take a fall walk and enjoy all the sights and sounds of this glorious season because before we know it, winter will be on our doorsteps.