WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Oakland County woodlands, meadows, and lakes are attractive throughout the year, but take on a special aura of beauty in autumn. As shades of summer green surrender to the fiery scarlet of sassafras, glittering yellows of aspens, the reddish-orange hues of maples, and finally, the misty pale yellow of swamp-loving tamaracks, our changing patchwork of kaleidoscope-like colors against a sky of blue can almost overwhelm the human eye. If that’s not enough to lure a nature lover to our hundreds of miles of trails and thousands of acres of parks and wildlands, fantastic fruiting fungi in a rainbow of colors is also emerging along our trails.
October is, without a doubt, the season to walk a paved pathway, hike a woodland, or just sit in solitude by a lakeshore dazzled in colors and enjoy the peace and healing powers of nature’s way. But where? The answer is almost anywhere in our expansive system of Huron-Clinton Metroparks, Oakland County Parks, State Parks and Recreation Areas, and dozens of local municipal parks and nature conservancy lands. For those that are reluctant to hike in woodlands or explore sites unknown to them, consider parking at one of the access points to our trails, including Paint Creek, Polly Ann, Clinton River, West Bloomfield, or the recently opened Michigan Air Line Trail. Those five trails are also cyclist friendly.
Equestrian trails abound in our county with trails at Rose Oaks County Park, Addison Oaks County Park, and the Ortonville State Recreation Area among the most popular equestrian accommodating trails that are also open to hikers. They all present riding opportunities under canopies of falling leaves, and excellent views of hillsides and small ponds. A footnote here: The equestrian trails of Ortonville State Recreation Area are the most primitive, rather hilly, and at times, very muddy. It’s a minimally managed wildland and a good place to expect the unexpected.
October is not too late to paddle a kayak on the Shiawassee River, Clinton River, or Huron River, as colorful leaves drift in the water with waterfowl as your companions. Or, perhaps, you could also consider an early evening placid paddle on Crooked Lake at Independence Oaks County Park. The last time I did that, I watched Great Egrets perched stealthy along the lakeshore waiting for the telltale movement of a frog or fish. Then, it was stab, grab, and gulp time! Although Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons are migratory species, they have no need to fly south yet and many stay here as long as our lakes and rivers are ice free. Perhaps they like the color show too.
A warning first before you set out adventuring: You may fall head over heels in love with the joy of autumn exploration once lured to the woods and trails by fantastic fall foliage. The rapid appearance of colorful foliage also brings the question of, “why do leaves change colors?” The short answer comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“As summer fades into fall, the days start getting shorter and there is less sunlight. This is a signal for the leaf to prepare for winter and to stop making chlorophyll. Once this happens, the green color starts to fade and the reds, oranges, and yellows become visible.”
“Throughout the spring and summer, the deep green color of chlorophyll, which helps plants absorb life-giving sunlight, hides any other colors present in the leaves of trees. The vivid yellows and oranges of fall leaves are there, but hidden. In the fall, trees break down the green pigments and nutrients stored in their leaves. The nutrients are shuttled into the tree’s roots for reuse in the spring. It’s then that the trees take on their autumn hues.”
For more on the kaleidoscope of colors story, visit the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s website.
The colors, signs, and scents of autumn are not just found in trees. Some of our most eye-catching autumn mushrooms go all but unnoticed amidst a sea of colorful leaves. I have three favorite yellowish-orange species of fantastic fall fungi to photograph that are now being seen. They are the Fly Agaric, which is one our most common (and poisonous) members of the Amanita family, the Yellow Tipped Coral (also poisonous), and the much sought-after, delectably delicious, Chicken of the Woods. A word of caution here: Never trust Facebook ID for species confirmation. Mistakes happen and some poisonous species resemble edible species when they first emerge and vice versa.
Need more reasons to go “adventuring?” Fall foliage in early October reminds me to stay alert for other seasonal changes, including increased woodpecker activity, Woolly Bear Caterpillars searching for logs to hibernate under, and on warm sunny days, Painted Turtles emerging from under carpets of duckweed to bask in the warmth on partially submerged logs. On rare occasions, an Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake might even be spotted sunning near the edge of a trail or one may catch a glimpse of an Eastern Coyote stalking nut-gathering squirrels that are being a bit too carefree in their harvest time activity.
In October, squirrels scurry about the forest floor in search of fallen nuts, at times pausing to look about their surroundings. Hawks take note of their increased activity and add fresh squirrel to their autumn menu. Great Horned Owls are chiefly nocturnal, but to catch a squirrel they need to be active in the day and so these masterful night hunters adapt to the situation. They perch on a branch with eyes to the ground, waiting for a squirrel to pass carelessly by underneath. A silent swoop usually assures a meal.
Meadows and fields reveal their hidden secrets for those that walk slowly, stop often, look, and listen. A careful observer may spot a buck all but camouflaged in a golden field, a doe watching cautiously from the woodlands edge, or a fawn that is now almost on its own, moving through late season wildflowers. As trees lose their leaves, other secrets of winter preparation become more visible, such as fresh mud added to the walls of a beaver lodge, exemplifying the home building and design skills of the best dam building engineers of Oakland County.
Don’t let the sun set on our fantastic fall foliage season without embracing the wonders of nature and finding a trail to explore, and perhaps a place for an autumn picnic. The cool days of October present plenty of picnic tables and lakeshore benches where social distancing is easy. Recreate responsibly, enjoy your adventuring, and let your nature-embracing moments serve as a reminder that for everything, there is a season on the wilder side of Oakland County. October is the season to hike and celebrate the artistry and diversity of nature’s way.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.