WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
The splendor of October swept into Oakland County on schedule with traces of frost on the first day of the month. Hours of daylight are shortening, but opportunities for trailside adventure and colorful kayaking adventures are increasing. It’s a month of cider-making, corn mazes and pumpkin hunting. October is the time to watch geese high overhead, listen to trumpeting of Sandhill Cranes, and celebrate Eastern Bluebirds beneath a clear blue sky. Set out an autumn bird bath, and it just may lure these beautiful birds, and a House Finch or two, as quickly as late season wildflowers lure honey bees. The days of October are in a word, glorious for all that love nature’s way and the hundreds of miles of trails that enrich our county and increase accessibility to our woodlands, wildlands and parks.
October is one of the most productive months to follow my practice of walking slowly, stopping often, and most importantly looking and listening when on a trail. Wildlife is very aware of, and wary of human movement. A slow approach to a sunny pond may present the opportunity to capture photos of turtles lined up on a log in the exact same angle to warm themselves under the most direct rays of the sun. A quick approach brings nothing but a series of splashes where the turtles sink beneath the carpet of duckweed. Practice the same slow procedure and then stand still in the early morning hours on our woodland trails and curious deer may respond by actually moving closer to you as this one did for me earlier this week.
Coyotes yip soon after dusk and Barred Owls sing to the sunrise. The hum of crickets is nearly constant at night and will remain so until a heavy frost brings the sound of silence. One of those crickets of the night is the common Snowy Tree Cricket: an accurate teller of the current temperature. Simply count the number of chirps in 15 seconds and add 40 and you are within a few degrees of the temperature in Fahrenheit.
The Woolly Bear Caterpillar is a much-loved false prophet of the winter to come. Folklore has the width of the brown band in the middle of the two black bands indicating how mild or severe the winter will be. Not a shred of science-based evidence gives any more credibility to that fun fairy tale than to the powers of Punxsutawney Phil, the famous fibbing groundhog that forecasts spring. Just the same, kids love watching woolly bears crawl over and under crunchy autumn leaves as they search for a hibernating spot. So do I. Quaking aspen trees turn golden in October and flutter and rustle in even gentle breezes. Green frogs stay motionless in shallow waters waiting for bugs before their seasonal lethargy sets in.
October is the month baldfaced hornet nests are spotted in trees, yellow jackets visit cider mills and honey bees guard their hives. It’s also the season poison ivy and poison sumac leaves turn scarlet and humans let their guard down. When gathering wild fruits or tree nuts of the season, it’s wise to look before you reach, even low-hanging fruit may hide a hidden danger as I discovered a few days ago. Abandoned pear trees always draw my attention for they produce delicious fruits. I stumbled upon a pear tree in Brandon Township at the northern edge of our county and just as I was about to reach for my treat I noted the yellowish white clusters of poison ivy berries dangling next to the pear. Almost the entire tree trunk was covered with vines of poison ivy. I left those pears of October to the squirrels.
Squirrels feast on a near record crop of acorns, hickory nuts and black walnut nuts. Squirrels are hoarders when it comes to a great harvest, but they also sample their bountiful crop as the gnawed remnants of the nuts confirm. Large black walnuts cascade down onto barn roofs with noticeable thuds, and every now and then hit the windshield of a passing car. I’ve noticed crows peck at the walnuts that are freshly crushed by car tires: an excellent example of wildlife adaption to our behavior, just as we adapt to seasonal changes.
Fantastic fall fungi is emerging. Some species such as the Shaggy Mane and Chicken of the Woods are edible and quite tasty when properly gathered and prepared. Other mushrooms of October, including the Amanitas and Jack-o-Lanterns are poisonous. My advice to someone who is not skilled in wild mushroom foraging is don’t experiment, just enjoy their beauty and shapes.
Hardly a week goes by without someone asking “What are these funny round things hooked onto leaves?” a question that surfaces ever October. Most of those “funny round things” turn out to be Oak Galls, a plant growth which is stimulated by a reaction between natural plant hormones of the oak tree and growth regulating chemicals produced by a wasp species that laid an egg inside the leaf. The galls are usually an inch or two in diameter and filled with a spongy mass that houses a single wasp larva. It does not harm the tree.
October is also a month for common sense caution. Not fear, caution. Before October fades into memory, most snakes will slither under logs and thick layers of leaf litter to hibernate. The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (EMR) spends the early weeks of this month basking in sun-warmed areas and that might include a sunny trail. I’ve been fortunate to have had EMR encounters twice, once on the hike-bike trail of Indian Springs Metropark, and one two years ago this week when I encountered an EMR sunning at the edge of a trail at Independence Oakland County Park. Live and Let live is the way to go in these rare encounters, and it’s also the law, for this increasingly rare reptile is protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
Click HERE to watch a video of an EMR that I filmed two years ago at Independence Oaks.
There is no point in denying that the warm days of summer are rapidly fading even if we have a few more weeks of unseasonable warmth and dryness. With that comes wildfire season, an often overlooked threat to the good life on the wilder side of our county. Wildfire creates a clear and present danger to thousands of homes and outbuilding that are on the wildland/urban interface zone. Wildfire in itself is natural, and flora and fauna adapt. Homes and outbuildings do not “adapt” to fire and far too many Oakland County residents build their homes, wooden decks and outbuildings with little thought of the potential of a fast-moving wildfire. Dialing 911 is not the solution. Be cautious and proactive. To learn how to protect your home and property from a field fire, brush fire or woodland fire on the ‘wilderside’ of our county, explore the Firewise USA website with special attention to their link that shows how to create “defensible space.” Do it before you smell woodland smoke, or see flames coming from the brush and creeping uphill toward your wooden deck. The fact of the matter is clear: if a series of wildfires breaks out on dry and windy October day, available home protection fire department resources may be stretched beyond their capability.
October is never a month to sit indoors. Find your park, find your trail, find your lake or river and get outside and explore. Bring the kids. Bring the family. Be safe. Have fun. Embrace the season and never forget that October is the glorious month to keep your appointment with nature on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.