Have you noticed there is a change in the air? I have! Outside I could see my breath this morning. It was 40 F and I think there was a touch of frost in the low-lying bogs. August flew by and now we are into September and you know what that means; the nights continue to get longer, the days shorter, and the fall colors and frosty mornings will be with us in a few short weeks. In other words, lots of things are happening in nature right now as plants and animals get prepared for the upcoming fall and winter. Here are a few examples.
Our American goldfinches are late nesters. They just now are bringing their young into our feeders and teaching them how good our sunflower seeds are. Soon male goldfinches will be molting into drab olive colors after sporting bright yellow colors to attract year-round drab looking females during courtship season that has long passed. Some of the males have already started molting.
Bird migration is well underway as millions of birds move south for the winter. Sometimes I wish I could go with them! Notable among long distant migrants moving through the area are insect-eating nighthawks that that can be seen in the early evening darting around capturing insects in the air as they migrate 4,000 miles to Argentina for the winter. Over 27,000 nighthawks were seen over Duluth, Minnesota, on recent Monday, so keep watching the skies but, by the time you read this, the peak of the migration will likely be over.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are also on the move. The males leave first followed by the females and the young of the year. The ruby-throated hummingbird, weighing about three grams, small enough to send up to 10 of them in the mail with a first-class stamp, begins its migratory flight with up to 40% of its weight as fat. Using fat as fuel, it crosses the 500-mile expanse of the Gulf of Mexico in a 20-hour nonstop flight to its wintering grounds in Central America. Amazing indeed! Even though many of our hummers have already left, we keep our feeders out until about the end of September to help feed the migrants coming through from the far north.
Flocks of warblers are also on the move south migrating at night and stopping to rest and refuel during the day. For example, the blackpoll warbler has a most remarkable migration flight flying 2,500 miles nonstop from the east coast of Canada over the Atlantic Ocean landing in South America in two to three days. If this small bird was an automobile, it would get a gas mileage of about 720,000 miles per gallon and, if a runner, it would maintain a four-minute mile for 80 hours. Amazing indeed!
Warblers and vireos will often stop to refuel along the way in mixed species flocks hooking up with our local resident nuthatches and chickadees who know their habitats well and can help look out for predators using amazing vocal alert systems.
Our migratory monarchs are on the move too heading to their wintering place in Mexico about 3,000 miles from here. Monarchs can travel between 50-100 miles a day; it can take up to two months to complete their migratory journey. The farthest ranging monarch butterfly recorded traveled 265 miles in one day. Amazing, indeed! Their fall migration extends from August to November. Scientists rely on the help of citizen scientists to understand the monarch’s conservation needs. Your observations make a valuable contribution—and help tell the dramatic story of the monarch’s journey to and from Mexico. You can contribute your sightings while tracking the migration on real-time migration maps at Journey North at: https://journeynorth.org/monarchs
As far as the plant world is concerned, our garden flowers are past their peak, but the rudbeckia, sometimes called brown-eyed Susan, are still going strong along with blue asters and yellow goldenrod in the fields. Now that most of the monarchs have left, the milkweed they depended upon are starting to yellow up and milkweed pods are setting their seeds, soon to sail away on the wind to start new plants. Some of the red maples in the swamps have leaves already turning their fall crimson red. Leaves of many other trees are showing signs of aging after a long spring and summer of producing food and shade and they will soon be changing into brilliant colors by the end of September, or before.
Red squirrels are caching cones for their winter food supply and black bears are bulking up fat for the long winter ahead. White-tailed deer are starting to lose the velvet on their antlers, so they will be ready to defend themselves against rival males looking for females. Both deer and squirrels like to eat mushrooms which are starting to sprout up at this time of year.
It is really an exciting time of year in nature as the summer season changes to fall with shorter days and cooler nights and all the plants and animals preparing to survive the upcoming winter. What a great outdoor show we have instore for us as our great Northwoods changes seasons, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy and share what you see.
The private Nature Education Center in Fifield operated by Tom & Mary Lou Nicholls is open seasonally by appointment only. Nicholls can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.