Autumn has arrived. The exact moment of the Autumnal Equinox occurred on September 23 at 2:50 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time. On that day we had equal amounts of day and night. Hours of daylight are ever so slowly decreasing and will continue to do so until the arrival of the Winter Solstice when days once again begin to lengthen.
There is a noticeable quickening of the pace of nature and although the temperatures are above the norm it’s the decreasing hours of daylight that set the pace. The dawn of autumn is one of my favorite times to explore our parks, walk our trails, or just set up my lawn chair and watch and listen to nature’s way. Here are just a few signs of the season that bid farewell to summer and greet the splendor of autumn in Oakland County.
I’ll start with Jewelweed, a beautiful yet delicate flower that thrives along the shoreline of many of our lakes and wetlands and sparkles in the dawn’s early light especially when heavy with dew. Jewelweed is often called touch-me-not. Why is that? When the seedpods ripen the slightest touch will cause them to snap open and launch their seeds a few feet away from the parent.
Strong gusts of wind send black walnuts plummeting downwards and when they hit the porch of my house, the thud is audible. Squirrels are busy once again today gathering those nuts. They store some away for a winter cache and feast on others near my house on a log that seems to serve as a dining table.
Bumblebees are buzzing about gathering pollen and, in the process of going from flower to flower, they ensure fertilization of the flower and ultimately the development of seeds. Unlike yellow jackets, which also visit the flowers, bumblebees are ‘mellow’ and ignore my frequent intrusions when I meander through fields of goldenrod and New England Aster at Independence Oaks County Park.
Monarchs are flitting about fields of goldenrod, a vital plant for their survival. Monarchs are dependent on their nectar as a fuel source in preparation for migration southward towards Mexico.
One of the most eye-catching fungi of autumn seems especially abundant this year. It’s hard to miss the fiery orangish-yellow color of Chicken of the Woods, a fungus that can be found growing on decaying logs and occasionally on dying oak trees. Chicken of the Woods, which is sometimes known as sulfur shelf due to its bright color, is edible when properly prepared. A word of caution: If you are not 100% sure of your fungi identification skills, just keep on walking.
Aptly named Autumn Olive berries are now ripe and abundant in many of the fields of our parks. They are tart, but also delicious and have a pleasant flavor. I even have them growing along the edge of my driveway, making for easy harvesting.
Buttonbush is a multi-stemmed shrub that thrives along the edges of our healthy wetlands. It’s a showy plant that is now producing one-inch globes that resemble whitish pom-poms. Butterflies and bees are attracted to the plant in these early days of autumn. It’s a very abundant plant but is often not noticed unless you are looking for it.
Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), also known as ghost plant because of its ghostly white color, is thriving in these early days of autumn. Once you see one, you will mostly see dozens more, almost as if they appeared just to welcome autumn. They are a fascinating plant in that they do not photosynthesize but obtain their nutrients by parasitizing a type of fungi that is associated with plant roots.
Red Maple trees are showoffs in early autumn! In the last few days, many of their leaves have already transformed from their summery green to bright red. That transformation serves as a reminder that the incredible beauty of autumn is about to unfold.
Hardly a week goes by without me seeing a snake sunning on a trail in one of our parks or at the edge of my gravel driveway. As hours of daylight shorten, they seem to be sunbathing more. What kind of snakes might you see? Garter snakes are the most common, followed by northern water snakes and if you are very lucky you might even encounter an eastern Massasauga rattlesnake enjoying a sunny autumn day before it’s time to hibernate.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.