Signs that fall is here

Maryland Independent - - Sports - Jamie Drake

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.

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