By Keith Roumfort, AFF Education Program Manager
The calendar says that January 1 is the start of a new year, but for many who enter classrooms either in front of desks or behind desks, or even send youth to them, September serves as the benchmark for a new year as so many things change. Outside the classroom, the world of nature marks these changes in different ways.
Nature pays no regard to the calendar or the holidays that bookend the summer season. Nature’s cue is the decreasing level of daylight (photoperiod) and decreasing evening temperatures. A careful observer gets to savor these subtle signs all for oneself as the fall season advances.
The tell-tale sign of our planet’s orbit past the summer solstice is the brilliant changes in colors in the leaves of deciduous trees. Those of us in more northern climes get to see this spectacle either in our yards or along roads. The food-producing leaves of deciduous trees face an annual dilemma: how to survive when the length of solar-powering energy decreases. These trees start cutting off these energy-draining organs off their branches, and with that the green-pigmented chlorophyll leaves too revealing red anthocyanins, yellow xanthophylls, and brown tannins. Keep an eye out for black gum trees amongst a forest of trees. Black gum (black tupelo) trees are often the first to flirt with an autumnal palette. Their simple, oval-shaped leaves begin to flicker with red-orange in a prelude to its neighbors’ leaves.
Evening entertainment displays in the backyard change too. Fireflies’ flickering light show fades into a symphony of chirping crickets. Whether it is light or sound, these displays are acts of courtship who don’t mind the human audience. On those crisp, cool fall evenings, count the number of chirps in 14 seconds and add 40 to that number to get the current outdoor, Fahrenheit temperature.
Those with a tuned ear will notice a change in bird calls and songs amongst the trees as light levels dwindle. Snowbirds aren’t just people who vacation in Florida. There are birds who take wing almost overnight for a long journey south in pursuit of more food. The bright songs of warblers and flute-like calls of thrushes become silent in our woods leaving behind the hardier stalwarts, like chickadees and cardinals.
With the ever-growing darkness, many wild plants start preparing for new offspring with forming and dispersing seeds. Whether spread by wind or by animal, seeds lay with dormant expectation until spring. However, not all seeds reach their expected potential; often they are the food source for fattening animals which realize an impending food scarcity is coming.
It’s human curiosity that we like to know what’s coming up around the bend. Nature gives us glimpses of some changes if we attune ourselves to them. If one doesn’t just see but looks, and if one doesn’t just hear, but listens, you can see all the subtle signs of an amazing season of change.