Once again the forest is almost empty of birdsong. Only an occasional blue-headed vireo holds forth. Even the waves of migrants are mostly quiet as they flit from tree to tree searching for insects and fruit. Noisy blue jays call as they harvest acorns. Eastern wood-pewees cry “pee-a-wee.” Confused looking immature ovenbirds blunder about on the forest floor. How brief is the time of birdsong. “Our” birds are already heading south to spend most of their year in warmer climes.
Along Sapsucker Ridge Trail, resident black-capped chickadees lead migrants to food sources high in the treetops, but I catch glimpses of eastern wood-pewees, red-eyed vireos, black-throated green, Nashville and magnolia warblers. Flocks of cedar waxwings join in along with resident tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers. When I reach the spruce grove, I hear the tin drum calls of red-breasted nuthatches. They, at least, may be coming to spend the winter.
Most people welcome the cool, crisp days of autumn, and I can’t deny that by September I’m tired of the heat and humidity of summer. But I’m not tired of birdsong, butterflies, wildflowers, and the green of our deciduous forest. All too soon the green will be replaced by a brief flame of gold, orange, scarlet, and purple. By the end of October, most of those leaves will be on the forest floor, and my world will be primarily gray and black for almost six months.
Because I regret the approaching end of the fruitful season, I’m out every day in September, gathering memories to take me through those months until spring returns. One windy afternoon I sit in our goldenrod field with our four-year-old granddaughter Elanor. The plants tower over her head and she pretends it is a rainforest. (She’s a big fan of Dora the Explorer.) I am the mommy tiger and she the baby tiger. But mostly we marvel at the golden beauty enveloping us. She uses her binoculars to look at the honeybees and bumblebees nectaring on the goldenrod and at the turkey vultures wheeling overhead and coasting along the ridgetop. I also show her how to squeeze the blossoms of butter-and-eggs to make them talk.
Later, I take a walk by myself to admire the towering and spreading wingstem over the old covered farm dump. Its branchless, wing-shaped stem, which can reach as high as 13 feet, accounts for its name wingstem. This moist site is the only place it grows on our property and, according to one range map I looked at, we are at its northern edge. It is much more common farther south and west. It’s also called yellow ironweed because, like ironweed, it is tall, likes moist conditions and has similar lance-shaped leaves. But wingstem leaves are alternate, hence its species name alternifolia, meaning alternate leaf. Because they are bitter-tasting, herbivores such as deer and rabbits usually don’t eat them. That may be why wingstem lines West Virginia country roads during August, as we discovered the same August wingstem showed up on our property for the first time.
At the top of its stem are sprays of golden flowers. Each flower has 2 to 10 yellow ray florets that droop down and surround prominent and numerous greenish-yellow disk florets visited mostly by long-tongued bees, especially bumblebees. Caterpillars of silvery checkerspot butterflies relish the bitter foliage.
While I always know where to find wingstem, nodding ladies’-tresses move around like other members of the Orchid family. I first discovered 15 plants years ago at the edge of Far Field, but then the deer found them. By the time we fenced them, only a few remained. The following year I discovered a few farther out in the field and none inside the fence. Then two years ago one appeared inside the fence. In the meantime, I literally stumbled on a small patch at the base of the spruce grove in First Field. That patch too has moved around, and last September I found only one plant.
Nodding ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes cernua) are not showy flowers. As many as 60 small, bell-shaped, white flowers grow on a hairy spike in two to three tightly twisted spirals above grass-like leaves at its base. An early successional species, it prefers disturbed areas that are open, wet to dry, and often sandy. Its species name means “nodding,” which refers to its slightly nodding flowers. Ladies’-tresses was so-named because the stalk of flowers reminded earlier observers of a woman’s braided hair. Altogether there are 32 species in the genera Spiranthes. Nodding ladies’-tresses grow in most of eastern and midwestern United States and Canada except for Florida, Newfoundland and Labrador.
I say goodbye to many other wildflowers too including the aptly named turtlehead, as I point out to Elanor during a stream walk, ranks of lemon-scented horse balm, white wood asters, and even pearly everlasting, which does not quite live up to its name, although it does make a nice addition to a dried winter bouquet.
During September I also spend many hours at the top of First Field, sitting on Alan’s Bench and watching migrating monarch butterflies. One morning I was there by 9:00. Fog filled the valleys, but sun illuminated our 37 acres of goldenrod and asters. The first monarch sailed high overhead in the morning breeze, the second swooped low over the field, and the third fluttered across the trail. Then a fourth did what they all do eventually, It flew straight up from the goldenrod, over the bench and spruce grove, and on down the ridge heading south.
First Field is butterfly central. One warm, breezy day, in addition to monarchs, pearl crescents, orange sulphurs, cabbage whites, summer azures, meadow fritillaries and my favorites, the tropical-looking tiger swallowtails, nectared on the bonanza of asters and goldenrods. Numerous monarchs fluttered up from the field, some almost too high to see, coursed back and forth for a few seconds as if trying to catch a wave, and then sailed over the spruce grove.
On that day I did not see the dozens and dozens of monarchs that our son Dave had reported previously. But I was pleased that they seemed to be recovering from their disastrous all-time low in 2009-10 when the area of Mexico where eastern North American monarchs spend their winters reported the lowest numbers ever, according to Lincoln Brower, who has been studying monarchs for decades. Not only are monarchs threatened by illegal logging in their Mexican wintering habitat, but by land development and herbicide use where they breed in the summer. Dr. Brower wonders if the monarchs’ migratory phenomenon will survive.
But Mexican poet and novelist Homero Aridjis, who led the effort to persuade Mexico’s president to create the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve that hosts most of the monarchs from the United States and Canada east of the Rockies, is determined that it will survive. Calling it the “environmental cause of my life,” he remembers as a boy climbing up into the hills of his native Michoacan State and seeing the monarchs “explode from the tree branches when the sun hit them.” And I remember, not so long ago, seeing a few of the deciduous trees on Sapsucker Ridge fluttering with monarchs on a windy September day.
Almost everyone can appreciate the beauty and grace of butterflies and the showier moths, but they aren’t as fond of the caterpillars from which they develop. One September afternoon, as I crossed First Field, I noticed an incredible infestation of caterpillars on one of our largest catalpa trees. The caterpillars were black with yellow bellies and a thin yellow stripe on their sides. A long, straight, black horn projected from its rear. Nothing was left of the tree leaves but stems. Catalpa sphinx moth caterpillars (Ceratomia catalpae) had caused the defoliation.
A member of the Sphingidae family, they are known collectively as hornworms because most have a horn, eyespot, or hardened button at A8 or abdominal segment 8 (out of 10) in entomological terms. They metamorphize into undistinguishable brownish gray moths, although some sphinx or hawk moths, as they are also called, are more attractive such as the Abbot’s and Nessus sphinx moths that nectar on our lilacs in spring and the day-flying hummingbird clearwings that hover like hummingbirds to drink flower nectar from a variety of plants.
But the caterpillars of the catalpa sphinx moth only feed on catalpa leaves. As a boom and bust species, it is “occasionally common enough to defoliate catalpa trees,” David L. Wagner writes in his Caterpillars of Eastern North America. “Females raft the eggs, sometimes laying several hundred in a single cluster… The catalpa sphinx is a ‘barfer’ and thrasher. When molested, the larva regurgitates a somewhat viscous green fluid from the foregut and thrashes violently.” When I touched a branch, the caterpillars leaped into the grass.
Although we have a couple dozen catalpa trees in First Field, only a few had been attacked by the catalpa sphinx moth caterpillars. And that was the first time in 38 years that I’d seen an infestation. Two weeks later, Dave found a parasitized catalpa sphinx moth caterpillar covered with white wasp cocoons. At least that caterpillar would suffer the fate that many do — being slowly eaten alive by developing braconid wasps.
But as September progresses, the forest understory changes color. First the black gum trees turn red, pink, and purple. Then black birches, witch hazel, and striped maples form golden bowers as I walk my trails. Ash trees at the back of our house turn bronzy red and gold. Our yard black walnut tree leaves have not only turned yellow, but many have already fallen and litter our veranda and front porch. Only when I walk to the top of First Field for a view of the mountains do I see still green forests.
Reluctantly, I say goodbye to all of that — visitors from the tropics, wildflowers, butterflies, moths, and green forests — until next spring.
All photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated. Click on the photos to see larger versions at Flickr.