Fall is a season of daily changes in nature

Barbara Hootman Columnist

Goldenrod is dead for the season, swaying in the breeze with dry, gray heads, much like an aging woman’s hair. There is the dry rustle of leaves stirred by Mother Nature’s breath.

The leaves rushing along in the wind have taken the place of the noise of the katydids and crickets that were so prominent. For most of the insects, their clocks have run down and can never be reset.

The fall sunsets settle the breezes that stirred the leaves and fading seed pods throughout the day. The sounds of dusk are subdued.

Sugar maples stand in pools of their own gold. Milkweed is stick-straight, capped by a seed pod offering its silk to the winds.

By Oct. 8, some migrating Monarch butterflies were spotted entering Mexico. By last week, some were arriving in Coahuila, Mexico which is about 650 miles from their winter destination in Michoacan.

Many Monarch enthusiasts have been worried about the effects of Hurricane Patricia on the Monarch migration. The hurricane made landfall west of the Monarch overwintering region, and its path was predicted to stay to the west and north of the region. A downgraded Patricia was expected to reach a Monarch migration pathway near Monterrey, Mexico, but the winds had lessened to tropical storm category by then.

Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch said that for the moment at least there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that Monarchs have been adversely affected by the winds and rains that accompanied Hurricane Patricia.

There is always much talk and close observation of what the leaf color will be like in October. Prognosticators predicted one of the most vibrant leaf turning seasons in recent memory. What happened?

Two major storm systems and unseasonably warm October temperatures conspired to dampen the fall color season. Drier than normal conditions during much of the 2015 growing season had Kathy Mathews, Western Carolina University’s associate professor of biology and chief color predictor, calling for bright fall leaf color. Then stormy weather hit the mountains in early October, dramatically altering the outlook.

Mathews believes heavy rains and wind that the mountains experienced the first week of October were a detriment to the fall color development. A lot of leaves were lost during the heavy rains, and what remained on the trees appeared drab at best.

The heavy rains were followed by a warming trend that delayed the degradation of chlorophyll (the pigment that gives leaves their green color in spring and summer). The yellow and orange colors result from other pigments that leaves make throughout the year that hide under chlorophyll’s green color. As days grow shorter and nights colder, the chlorophyll breaks down to reveal the hiding pigments. Mathews said the extended warm temperatures allowed the chlorophyll to persist, which muted the other pigments that provide color.

Mathews expected last weekend to be the peak of color season rather than mid-October as usual. There will still be spotty good color in many lower elevation places into November.

Regardless of when the color peaks or how intense the leaves colors are expected to be, visitors never find it difficult to find good fall colors to take home with them on their cameras. The more than 100 tree species in the Southern Appalachians guarantee it. Visitors to the mountains just wonder what all the fuss over leaf color is about.

If you haven’t seen the elk in Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains Park, treat yourself to a visit. It is a success story for man to be able to reintroduce a species successfully. It is just a little less than a two-hour drive from the Asheville area to the Cataloochee Valley to see one of the most majestic animals still roaming the area. Add a bugling elk walking out of the early morning fog, and you have an unforgettable memory.

Migratory birds like the junco are still moving into the Valley for the winter. White throated sparrows are joining the ranks of hungry birds at feeders. Soon the winter avian population will be in place, with no more migrants arriving for the season. Make sure your feeders are full, and there is a source of clean water.

Crows are beginning to congregate in their winter roosts. They don’t mind spending the winter in urban areas to the stress of some humans, because winter roosts can be large.

Pine siskins, nomadic in fall, may be spotted in early November. Some years they are present, and other years they aren’t. Titmice, chickadees, goldfinches and nuthatches are the most frequent visitors to backyard feeders now.

Continue to take in the bird feeders at night. Bears are still on the prowl. Make sure there is fresh water for drinking and bathing.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.