In search of fall color

Rappahannock News - - NATURE • COMMENT - PAM OWEN wil­dideas.va@gmail.com

Vir­ginia is fa­mous for its fall color, which in some years can be de­scribed in­tense, vivid, vi­brant or even spec­tac­u­lar. As I wrote in Sept. 15 col­umn, I was con­cerned that too much rain might dampen this year’s show, and in check­ing around the county and nearby, I’ve found the show is a bit more sub­dued this year.

The fac­tors that drive how col­or­ful Vir­ginia’s fall is are ad­e­quate wa­ter dur­ing the grow­ing season, an au­tumn that is dry, cool and sunny, with warm days and cool but frost­less nights. The record-set­ting rains dur­ing the grow­ing season this year sent us way past ad­e­quate to the point of dam­ag­ing or even drown­ing plants.

Oaks, maples, sumacs and dog­woods pro­vide some of the best fall color most years. This year, while the oaks and sumacs seemed to have hung onto their leaves for the most part through the wind and rain this fall, most maples were miss­ing many leaves, es­pe­cially in their crowns, and the leaves that were left on many were a duller color than they can be in fall. Leaves on the dog­woods where I lived turned brown­ish pur­ple, with many drop­ping off early in the fall. Where I live, we also get good color, mostly yel­low and gold, from the many nut trees there, from black wal­nut to var­i­ous hick­ory species, and most of th­ese had lost their leaves by early fall.

Peak fall color was forecast to oc­cur the last week in Oc­to­ber, later than usual. On Oct. 24, see­ing very lit­tle color change where I live (at about 1,000 feet el­e­va­tion), I went with a friend up to the high­est el­e­va­tions on Sky­line Drive — above 3,500 feet, from Sky­land to Big Mead­ows. Some of the for­est up there was al­ready bare, but it has long been stressed by sev­eral fac­tors, from for­est pests and disease to pol­lu­tion, so judg­ing the ef­fect of the record-break­ing pre­cip­i­ta­tion is dif­fi­cult.

Look­ing down from the drive, the for­est looked rusty brown, with only a sprin­kling of the usual vivid gold, red, orange and pur­ple col­ors we see in good years. Some color stood out in low­est el­e­va­tions, which oth­er­wise were still quite green. Al­though color may not be at its best this year, it was still a beau­ti­ful drive, with a few trees, par­tic­u­larly maples, stand­ing out.

The day was mostly sunny and would have been a com­fort­ably cool fall day but for the reg­u­lar wind gusts. Es­chew­ing our usual habit of hav­ing a beer or cof­fee on the ter­race at Sky­land, my friend and I warmed our­selves with espresso drinks inside the Din­ing Hall. On the way back to the car, the blus­tery wind was send­ing leaves fly­ing in all direc­tions. Among them, I caught a flash of bright orange, which clearly stood out. I im­me­di­ately knew this was no leaf but a monarch but­ter­fly, fight­ing against the winds.

The but­ter­fly fi­nally landed on the ground and be­gan to flut­ter its wings rapidly — move­ment not as­so­ci­ated with flight but rather the shiv­er­ing that many an­i­mals use to raise their body tem­per­a­ture. But­ter­flies need an in­ter­nal tem­per­a­ture of at least 80 de­grees to fly and can boost their tem­per­a­ture by 20 de­grees above the am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture by con­vert­ing ra­di­ant en­ergy. That day, the tem­per­a­ture was prob­a­bly close to 50, not fac­tor­ing in wind chill, so I was amazed the but­ter­fly was able to fly at all. I won­dered if it was late in join­ing this species’ famed mi­gra­tion south, which was just wrap­ping up here, or per­haps it was from an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion that was now at the end of its life.

Not sat­is­fied with the photo ops in the park, I tried again a few days later (Oct. 27) at my friend’s prop­erty, along the Rap­pa­han­nock River. It had rained dur­ing the night and into the morn­ing, bring­ing down more leaves. In the drive over, the sun was play­ing hide and seek. I had my dog, Mol­lie, with me to keep me for com­pany on the walk, but the sun had disappeared be­hind banks of clouds by the time we ar­rived at our desti­na­tion.

I wanted to cap­ture this year’s fall color at its best, in full sun­light, to more eas­ily com­pare it with that of other years. But that was not to be on this day. While I was dis­cour­aged about the pho­tog­ra­phy, Mol­lie was quite sat­is­fied. Not hav­ing a strong artis­tic sen­si­bil­ity, she rev­eled in the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore the many scents left on the damp trail by wildlife and get­ting thor­oughly wet and muddy in streams we crossed.

I half-heart­edly took a few shots of trails that would have looked rel­a­tively col­or­ful if the sun were out and headed back to my friend’s house. There I de­rived so­lace from shar­ing a nice trout my land­lord had smoked. My friend and I piled pieces of it atop crack­ers spread with cream cheese, onions and ca­pers, pair­ing it with a sau­vi­gnon blanc. As we ate, we watched through her large west-facing win­dows to see if the sun would fi­nally poke through the clouds and set the moun­tains to the west aglow. Al­though that didn’t hap­pen, Vir­ginia has a spe­cial beauty, no mat­ter the weather, and smoked trout and wine can brighten up any day.

Two days later — an­other blus­tery, cold and cloudy af­ter­noon, I made one more run at get­ting fall fo­liage pho­tos, chas­ing the sun up along the north­ern end of Sky­line Drive, then at Shenan­doah River State Park. I fi­nally found it as it slipped be­low the clouds late in the day, spread­ing its glory across the river, the val­ley and Mas­sanut­ten Mountain be­yond it.

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