Woolly weather and early car­ol­ers

Rappahannock News - - NATURE - Pam Owen [email protected]

Be­fore “Franken­storm” hit this week, fall was pro­gress­ing pretty nicely. On a warm, sunny day in the third week of Oc­to­ber, I took stock of sea­sonal changes in the nat­u­ral world around me. We’d had a cou­ple of frosts and some crisp days, but those were in­ter­spersed with warm, mostly sunny days – and one thun­der­storm. Along with the gen­er­ally fine weather, the leaves were close to their fall-color peak. All in all, we were hav­ing a splen­did fall.

One sure sign of fall was ev­ery­where – banded woolly bear cater­pil­lars on the move, ap­pear­ing as dark squig­gles on roads and in yards. They were look­ing for over­win­ter­ing spots inside cav­i­ties of logs or rocks or un­der bark. The lar­vae of the lovely Is­abella tiger moth, the cater­pil­lar’s col­or­ing is more fa­mil­iar than spec­tac­u­lar, with its bristly black bands of hair fore and aft and red­dish-brown band in the mid­dle.

Ac­cord­ing to folk­lore, the width of the brown band can foretell the sever­ity of the up­com­ing win­ter. It’s more likely that it in­di­cates the sever­ity of the pre­vi­ous win­ter, say sci­en­tists cited on the Old Farmer’s Almanac web­site. Ev­i­dence in­di­cates that the red­dish-brown color is a sign of age. The milder a win­ter is, the ear­lier the cater­pil­lar gets a start and there­fore the longer it lives and the wider its brown band gets. The Is­abella tiger moth has a lot of host plants for its lar­vae, in­clud­ing asters, birches, clover, corn, elms, maples and sun­flow­ers, so it’s plen­ti­ful here.

At my house, the hordes of brown mar­morated stink bugs (BMSB) had fi­nally dwin­dled, thank­fully. How­ever, as this par­tic­u­lar fall day warmed up, I was dis­mayed to see clouds of Asian mul­ti­col­ored lady bee­tles drifted in to take the BMSB’s place on my screens. Last year I only saw three of the la­dy­bugs.

A tiny young Amer­i­can house spi­der that had spun a web on the inside of one of my win­dow screens was launch­ing it­self at one of the bugs, which was caught in the web. The bug, at least ten times the spi­der’s size, would then fu­ri­ously beat its wings in an ef­fort to es­cape. I couldn’t tell if the spi­der was try­ing to wrap up the bug for later din­ing or just cut it loose from its web, as spi­ders will do with un­wanted guests. In any case, the ladybug man­aged to free it­self and the spi­der re­treated to the far cor­ner of its web.

A huge north­ern walk­ing stick had been hunt­ing on one of my win­dow screens a few days be­fore, but it was gone and a much smaller one had shown up on an­other screen. A twig had landed on the same screen weeks be­fore and was still there, so it took a minute to dis­cern that what ap­peared to be a smaller twig was ac­tu­ally an in­sect – a tes­ta­ment to its re­mark­able cam­ou­flage adaptation.

Katy­dids, wind­ing down their mat­ing sea­son, had also been show­ing up on my screens oc­ca­sion­ally, as one did this day, while fall crick­ets, their cousins, cho­rused in the back­ground. Their mat­ing sea­son was ob­vi­ously still in full swing.

Driv­ing down U.S. 211 ear­lier that fall af­ter­noon, I’d been star­tled by a tur­key that took off from a field next to the high­way, fly­ing low over the hood of my car. I know they’re around all year, but this still seemed to be a har­bin­ger of Thanks­giv­ing, which is now just a few weeks away.

An­other bird that was a sign of the sea­son had awak­ened me with its song that morn­ing. While my mem­ory can re­tain bird songs, it doesn’t do a great job match­ing of them to the singer. Some birds make this even trick­ier by vary­ing their song, es­pe­cially young birds or birds that are ar­riv­ing and claim­ing ter­ri­tory or are warm­ing up for the mat­ing sea­son.

My first thought, be­cause of the sweet, whis­tle-like tone, was that the singer was a whitethroa­ted sparrow, which ar­rives from the north about this time of year to spend the win­ter. But the tune didn’t match up to what I re­mem­bered about this sparrow’s song, which con­sisted of four-note phrases go­ing down in pitch. In­stead it went up, sound­ing just like the first two bars of the Christ­mas carol we Amer­i­cans know as “O Christ­mas Tree.” Only the words were miss­ing: “O Christ­mas tree, o Christ­mas tree.”

With the singer be­ing a bit too deep into the for­est edge for me to see, I in­stead checked the white-throated sparrow’s song on my “Stokes Guide to Bird Songs” CD. Again, the voice matched up, but not the tune. Af­ter check­ing out the songs of other song­birds, I gave up and emailed a cou­ple of bird­ers I know who are much bet­ter at iden­ti­fy­ing bird sounds than I’ll ever be. At least the tune was easy to de­scribe.

The re­sponses con­firmed that the singer was likely the whitethroa­ted sparrow, just play­ing around with the ar­range­ment of its song. I fi­nally found a cou­ple of record­ings on the Ma­caulay li­brary web­site, macaulayli­brary.org, which has a huge cat­a­log of bird sounds, that were close to what I had been hear­ing, al­though most were of the more fa­mil­iar tune.

It seemed ap­pro­pri­ate that this win­ter visi­tor was at least jam­ming on a Christ­mas carol. What­ever the tune, I wel­come the white-throated sparrow’s sweet vo­cal­iz­ing this time of year, when most of the other Pavarot­tis of the bird world are long past try­ing to at­tract mates and are ei­ther head­ing south for the win­ter or con­fin­ing their com­mu­ni­ca­tions to chat­ting rather than croon­ing.

As Franken­storm moved in, birds seemed to ramp up their for­ag­ing ef­forts. As the wind rose, they dis­ap­peared, seek­ing cover. Just be­fore the rain and wind re­ally hit, a flock of jun­cos went fly­ing through the woods, the last wildlife I saw un­til the morn­ing af­ter the storm, when I awoke to my white-throated sparrow, now try­ing out an­other tune.

On the morn­ing af­ter the storm, the robins were busily feast­ing on the worms emerg­ing from the sat­u­rated ground. Many nuts and seeds that were high in trees are now on the ground, pro­vid­ing a feast for low-for­ag­ing birds and ter­res­trial crit­ters. For ev­ery storm event, na­ture has win­ners and losers.

Photo by Mag­nus Manske via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

The white-throated sparrow, which comes down from the north this time of year to spend the win­ter, some­times varies its short, sweet song.

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