A Golden Month Gone By

The golden month we call October is over but what a marvelous month it was to hike, cycle, paddle a kayak or canoe, sit in a lawn chair amidst falling leaves, or just embrace the beauty of nature while walking along a lakeshore. I did a bit of all of that; perhaps more lawn chair sitting in my arbor than I care to acknowledge. Here’s a look back at October.  

I hiked at nearby Independence Oaks County Park two or three times a week and look forward to new adventures and trailside explorations and treks in our Metroparks as well. Indian Springs Metroparks remains one of my favorite locations for early morning autumn explorations. I just might be there tomorrow.  

I spent much of last weekend at Addison Oaks County Park with the Addison Oaks Trail Riders at their 11th annual Camp & Ride event. It was a great time to share tales at their campfire, hike in the park and enjoy the kaleidoscope of colors. If you are an equestrian, you might consider joining them next year at their 12th annual event.  

A screech owl hooted just as I started to write the first draft of these words a few evenings ago but my attempt to capture it on camera resulted in a rather dramatic trip and fall at the edge of my porch that also silenced the owl for a few minutes. A brown snake was far more cooperative the day before and all but posed for the camera on a paved section of a trail that circles Crooked Lake at Independence Oaks County Park.  

Brown snake.

Brown snakes are one of the county’s lesser-known snakes, and like all snakes, it flicked its forked tongue back and forth to better “understand” the creature it encountered. When a snake flicks its tongue, it collects odors floating in the air that are interpreted in the Jacobson’s organ located within the roof of the snake’s mouth. After a few photos, I set the snake carefully back down to let it continue to bask and I continued to keep an eye out with the hopes of seeing an eastern massasauga rattlesnake.  

Rattlesnakes are present in Oakland County and are very much at home at both Independence Oaks County Park and Indian Springs Metropark. I always smile when I read the massasauga caution signs at Independence Oaks advising hikers to stay on the trails. The fact of the matter is on a sunny November day, the perfect place for any snake to bask will be on a sunny trail. I’ve not seen any rattlesnakes this autumn but suspect they may have seen me. This video is from several years ago at Independence Oaks. The still image is of a rattler basking on the popular hike/bike trail at Indian Springs. 

I’ve been seeing woolly bear caterpillars on the move almost every sunny day. According to folklore, the longer the black band is on their bodies, the more severe the winter will be. There is no evidence showing any truth to that, but they are fun to watch as they crawl about in preparation for winter or curl into a ball when disturbed.

Wild turkeys.

Wild turkeys are very common in many sections of Oakland County, happily for me in my woods as well. They are omnivorous creatures, and this small flock appeared to be hunting insects in the grass and along the shoulder of a dirt road near Stony Creek Metropark. With October behind us, their diet now includes far fewer insects while their intake of acorns, seeds and fruits will increase — with fallen apples a favorite.

Staghorn sumac is a very common shrub in sunny fields and many rural roadsides. Their leaves, which are already falling, are now fiery red. The red leaves are how the plant earned its common name of red sumac. Of note, staghorn sumac has a fuzzy cluster of red seeds. Poison sumac, which is also common in our county, has small whitish-yellow berries and grows in wetlands.     

Hiking in the waning days of October gave me a chance to look for old bald-faced hornet nests, but I will not collect any until after a few killing frosts. Bald-faced hornet nests, unlike honeybee hives, are abandoned during autumn and are not used the next year. The only hornet survivors are the queen hornets, which are already fertilized and spend the winter under fallen logs, leaf piles and occasionally under loose shingles on homes.

Although I certainly enjoy hiking with others, I find that when I hike alone, I spot more things that I never noticed before; this tree “couple” is a perfect example. It’s a sugar maple and beech tree that appear to be fused near their base. From now on I will consider this couple at Independence Oaks as the “best friends forever tree.” 

Ever since I was a little kid running barefoot in the fields of Connecticut, I’ve been attracted to milkweed seed pods in autumn. Their discovery way back then was perhaps one of the ways nature fueled my passion for nature exploration and remains today. The seeds are attached to silky floss that allows them to travel to new destinations on the gusty winds of November.  

In these early days of November, the dual between the seasons is intensifying. These two photos are just a few days apart. The frosty leaf is from an early morning hike at Independence Oaks County Park- North Unit and the very next day a leopard frog hopped along the edge of a trail near the same location. Those two encounters had me smiling. It’s a reminder that although the calendar gives firm dates for seasonal changes, in reality, the transformation is variable but constant. 

I just may find the time for a day or two up at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to embrace the last few days of the color change with some late-season hiking and camping near the Platte River. Even if you rarely leave the county, there is so much to see here no matter where you meander. Just remember to walk slowly, stop often, and look and listen. If you do, nature will speak to you. 

Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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