By Ranger Steve Mueller
Flames are in the tree tops and red reflections are on the clouds. It is fall with color beginning to abound. Red maples are among the first to redden. Tree top leaves are exposed to greater temperature extremes and are among the first to show color. Red maples in swamps begin color change in August. Life there is more difficult but the red maples seem to survive. Those experience a shorter growing season than those in upland but manage to live.
In the upland forest surrounded by many other trees, temperature is more stable in the lower canopy. A multitude of insects find refuge in the more protected thicket of leaves and branches as they continue their work late into fall. Trees are busy moving sugar and nutrients from leaves to roots for winter storage. Birds and predatory insects glean insects as the last days of the season approach.
All species are in preparation for a long winter’s hiatus. Some insects will overwinter as hibernating adults, pupae, larvae, or eggs. Each species has its own unique nature niche adaptations to survive the cold season. Many birds will migrate south or in the case of many waterfowl they will migrate east to the Atlantic Coast. Others will stay for the winter. Birds like Black-capped Chickadees that were here all summer might shift southward and be replaced by some from northern Michigan to spend the next many months in our yards.
Mammals will vary in how they respond to shortening days, longer nights, and colder weather. The woodchucks will hibernate, chipmunks will spend long periods in their burrows with a large food cache and only make an occasional appearance above ground during warm spells. Squirrels will stay active smelling locations where they stashed morsels of food for harsh season recovery.
Plants unable to move have their own methods to help them survive to spring. Some will overwinter as seeds and the rest of the plant will die. Some die back to the ground and will sprout new growth from underground when conditions are suitable.
The woody plants must have a way to keep the above ground stems alive through the harsh conditions. The evergreens drain much of the fluid from needles but will be able to continue photosynthesis late into fall provided tissue temperatures are above 40 F and they will be able to become active earlier in spring than deciduous plants.
The deciduous plants like the red maple are completing activity in late September and October. Now is the time we take pleasure in the demise of this year’s leaves as they become red in their final days of life. As the sun was nearing sunset and peaked through breaks in the clouds, it shined its spotlight on tree tops making them burst flame red above green leaves below. Cloud bottoms shined red and orange glowed, making the evening a pleasure to spend outside. Life will appear to drain from trees as leaves fall leaving a dead appearing skeleton but spring will demonstrate a resurgence to life.
Soon other trees in fall will change to yellow, brown, red, and mixtures of color. A spectacular few weeks of change will progress in a manner determined by adaptations suitable for each species survival. Pay attention to which trees change first and the species sequence as each prepares for winter. Notice those struggling to live. We had a Black Cherry that became red weeks earlier than other cherries for a few years and died. Its skeleton stood at the edge of the backyard where birds found a wonderful perching location for about 25 years. Last year it finally blew down. Birds found a new viewing perch next to it in an ash tree that was killed by the Emerald Ash Borer. Life and death provide a dynamic of constant change in our yards.
The seasonal flame of color reoccurs annually around us. Do not let it pass without notice.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at firstname.lastname@example.org – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.