The Longest Autumn

red oak in snow

red oak in snow (all photos in this post by Dave Bonta except where indicated)

Every autumn the first hard frost comes later. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, when we were engaged in intensive gardening, we could expect a hard frost in the first week of October. Gradually, as the years passed, the hard frost date arrived in the second week. Then, in this century, it moved into the third week. And last October it finally came on October 28.

Just as the date for the first hard frost has advanced year by year, so too has mild autumn weather. Instead of several days of Indian summer weather at the beginning of November, we have stretches of Indian summer weather throughout November and, last autumn, well into December.

Final leaf fall is also later every year. In the seventies and even into the eighties, we could count on a brisk wind at the end of October shaking down every last leaf and leaving us with the bare branches of November. Yet despite last October’s heavy snowstorm, most of our red, black, white, chestnut and scarlet oaks held on to the majority of their leaves until the third week of November.

Remembering the previous year’s mid-October snowstorm that brought down so many trees and branches overburdened with leaves and snow, I was apprehensive when I woke to snow on October 29. As the snow piled up on leaves and branches, I walked down our road, dreading to hear the sound of breaking branches, but I heard only a few. Once I picked up an oak branch, its leaves heavy with snow, and marveled at its weight.

Later in the day, the thermometer slowly rose to 34 degrees. The trees dripped even as it continued snowing, but the warmth saved most of our leafy trees. The one casualty I found was a large, live, black oak along our road. But it was hollow throughout much of its trunk length and would have come down soon in any case.

bottom of the First Field in an October snowstorm

bottom of the First Field in an October snowstorm

By November most of the snow had melted, and we finally had a couple weeks of what is normally “October’s bright, blue weather” and dazzling leaf color after a mostly soggy October. The sugar maples along the Far Field Road were still a blaze of red and gold. The coppery gold of American beeches lit up the hollow. And from Alan’s Bench, I gazed at the oaks of Laurel Ridge, which glowed reddish-gold and burnt orange.

Although I saw an occasional buck during my walks, squirrels, chipmunks, and turkeys were scarce. What few acorns the oaks had produced had been plucked from their branches by blue jays weeks before. I also saw little evidence of hickory nuts. Even our black walnut yard trees hadn’t produced many nuts. After the previous year’s feast, the wildlife was faced with famine. As soon as I put my bird feeders up, in early November, they were mobbed by gray squirrels and chipmunks.

The birds were not as affected even though our wild grape crop had also failed. Berry eaters, such as robins, cedar waxwings, and bluebirds still called most warm days. Carolina wrens caroled back and forth in our yard. The female tapping cardinal returned to our stairwell window. Winter wrens called and bounced up and down beside the stream. Golden-crowned kinglets foraged in the spruce grove. And, in Margaret’s Woods one day, I found dozens of singing, foraging white-throated sparrows, several dark-eyed juncos, a Carolina wren, and at least one fox sparrow in a large hedge of multiflora rose covered with bright red rose hips.

Raptors, too, were plentiful. A male American kestrel sat on his favorite power pole overlooking our First Field. On a hazy warm day in late November a male northern harrier flew silently past me as I sat on Coyote Bench. Driving down our hollow road, I flushed a sharp-shinned hawk. And on Thanksgiving Day our son Steve and his wife Pam watched a barred owl swoop down on a tree branch beside the Far Field Road. Steve also saw a golden eagle migrating along Sapsucker Ridge that day.

Hermit Thrush in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, November 9, 2011

Hermit Thrush in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, November 9, 2011 (photo by Christopher Eliot, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial licence)

But I had the most unexpected sighting of Thanksgiving. As I circled the Far Field on Pennyroyal Trail, I flushed a hermit thrush. Never had I seen one so late in the season. When I checked McWilliams’s and Brauning’s The Birds of Pennsylvania, it reinforced my belief that hermit thrush migration peaks during October, which is when we usually see them. By the second week in November most hermit thrushes have moved south. A few winter over at low elevations in Pennsylvania, particularly in the Piedmont area. But more surprising than my sighting occurred three days later, on a warm November 27, when our son Dave heard a singing hermit thrush on Laurel Ridge. Since we rarely hear one singing here during spring migration, we were especially surprised to hear one so late in the autumn.

Whether it was the acorn failure or merely the lure of our birdseed, we had many excellent views of southern flying squirrels at our feeder area. Because it was still warm and some bears were no doubt still about, I brought in my feeders every night throughout November and December. On Thanksgiving evening I turned on the back porch light before going out to retrieve the feeders. A flying squirrel was busily scarfing up seeds on the porch floor. So intent was it that my husband Bruce was able to take several photos of the creature through the storm door. It only fled down the steps when I went out to get the feeders.

My next sighting was the first of December when I watched one flying squirrel chase off another on the birdseed-covered ground below the back step. The victor continued eating, even burying most of its body beneath the grass and seeds in its quest for food.

A full moon illuminated the sky on the tenth of December when Bruce startled a flying squirrel on the back porch. It zipped up the porch railing and sailed over near the juniper tree where it made a rough landing and disappeared down slope. The next evening I surprised the flying squirrel on the back porch steps, and it performed the same maneuver as it had for Bruce the previous night.

flying squirrel on a black locust tree in Plummer's Hollow

flying squirrel on a black locust tree in Plummer’s Hollow

We saw at least one flying squirrel at our feeder area throughout December, and we thought it was only fair that we should feed flying squirrels at night since we hosted at least 11 gray squirrels by day.

Whether or not the flying squirrels were affected by the unusual warmth, at least one woodchuck was. Below the back porch a fat male woodchuck continued to emerge from his hole every afternoon to eat the fresh greenery on the slope into December. The last time I saw him was mid afternoon on December 22, again a record breaker here for a woodchuck. Usually, they are tucked into their hibernation dens by mid-November and we don’t see any until the following February when the males are busy visiting female dens.

Plants also responded to the continual warmth. Several so-called green immigrant flowers, those that came from over seas, bloomed later than I could remember. On November 27 I found a pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) blooming beside Alan’s Bench. A member of the Composite family, it was once dried and used in making memorial wreaths and for decorating vases and wall brackets. Today it still appears in dried flower arrangements. Its small, white, globular-shaped flowers grow in clusters atop a cottony stem with thin, toothless leaves that are sage-green above and woolly-white beneath. Other names for it are silverleaf, cottonweed, lady-never-fade, Indian posy and ladies’-tobacco. Since it came from Europe, Indian posy seems inappropriate and I doubt whether ladies smoked it. But they did use it for coughs and as a poultice for bruises in pioneer days. Its latest blooming month, according to Rhoads’s and Block’s The Plants of Pennsylvania, is October, which was why I was amazed to find it flowering in late November.

On that same day several forsythia flowers blossomed on a scattering of branches. Forsythia originated in South China where it grew wild. The Chinese called it golden bell. Robert Fortune, a young Scot, was sent into China to collect new plants for the Royal Horticultural Society of London in 1845, three years after the Opium War, when westerners were resented and mistrusted. So Fortune, disguised as a Chinese man, dressed in native garb and wearing a pigtail, explored the South China coast with a crew of Chinese workmen in springtime. There he found the countryside filled with forsythia. Although he later named it for the second curator of London’s Chelsea Gardens—William Forsyth—who was also a Scot, golden bell is a more evocative name that was quickly forgotten.

Dandelions also thrived in our driveway and during this longest autumn, I found a dandelion blooming on Butterfly Loop on December 5. It too came over with the colonists who used it as a cleansing herb and pot herb. It probably originated in Asia Minor long before anyone thought to notice it because both the Greeks and the Romans cultivated it. The Chinese called it earth nail and used its long taproot and green leaves for food and medicine while in Japan it was grown as a decorative plant. In Britain, the Celts used it for both food and wine and the Anglo-Saxon tribes that settled in the British Isles after the Romans left valued it as cure for scurvy and as a laxative and diuretic. Here in Pennsylvania, the Germans grew dandelion in their gardens and even today the Amish value and use the plant in early spring. Years ago, I too harvested the leaves every spring and served them with an Amish bacon dressing that I devised.

dandelion seedhead

dandelion seedhead

As the warm weather persisted, so too did Lyme disease ticks and I continued to pick them off my pants throughout December. Even on December 15 it was 54 degrees late in the day.

It rained on the winter solstice and the following day. But it was back to Indian summer the next two days before winter weather finally settled in, at least for a short time. What changes I have seen during my 41 years here on our central Pennsylvania mountaintop. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined, back in the 1970s, when autumn began at the beginning of September and ended at the end of November that the seasons would shift and autumn would become the longest season of the year.