Fall is official by the calendar
Although summer is no longer in residence in the Valley, it shows few signs of making way for fall. It doesn’t feel like a change of season yet. With scientists confirming that June, July and August were the area’s hottest summer months on record, federal forecasters agree that fall will be warmer than average this year for the entire USA.
Everything else in nature is on a fall schedule, with birds migrating, bears fattening, white tail deer getting ready for the rut, and raccoons getting fatter by the day. Seasonal change will come regardless of how warm it stays through fall.
There have been a few Monarch butterflies passing through the Valley on their way to Mexico for the winter. The warmer-then-usual fall should agree with their tiny insect systems since they can’t survive cold weather. It is only the last hatch of the Monarch that make the trek south. Daylight length and temperature changes trigger their migration south. The Monarch migration is more like a bird’s annual trip south than an insect. Since they are cold-blooded, they can’t fly in cold weather. They don’t fly until the sun warms the air.
The Monarch stores fat in the abdomen, and it is crucial for its survival throughout the winter. The fat fuels flight and has to last until next spring when the butterfly begins the flight back north. A Monarch sips a lot of nectar on the trip south and even gains weight. It will be next spring before numbers about population growth or decline are available.
This time of the year you never know what feathered creature you are going to see on area ponds and lakes. Recently James Poling spotted a wood stork that is more at home in Georgia and Florida than in the mountains of Western North Carolina at Owen Park. The bird looks like a flying dinosaur. Wood storks are prone to wander after nesting season is over and have been spotted as far north as Massachusetts and as far west as California.
The bird is the only wood stork in North America. It can grow to an astounding height of 4 feet with a wingspan of some 5 feet. Its body feathers are white accented by black flight feathers. It flies like a crane, with its neck and feet extended. Like hawks it rides the air currents, flapping its wings only when necessary. The bird used to be plentiful in the southeastern coastal states, but due to habitat loss it is more rare now.
Now wood storks nest from southeast North Carolina down the cost to South America. They moved into North Carolina only around 2000 to nest, establishing a new territory. They feed by shuffling through the water with their big gray beaks open underwater, feeling for prey. They nudge the prey out of its hiding place and into their beaks. During nesting season, more than 400 pounds of fish from 1 to 6 inches in length are needed to feed two adults and three to four offspring. They like minnows, crayfish, crabs, aquatic insects, snakes, small turtles, frogs and rodents. They also consume some seeds and plants. The wood stork has been removed from the endangered species list, after three decades of conservation efforts.
Goldfinches are bringing their offspring to feeders now to introduce them to handy backyard feeders stuffed with sunflower and thistle seeds. The offspring still sound like a pet’s squeaky toy when they flutter their wings and beg for food. The young goldfinches are dependent on their parents for food for at least three weeks from the time they hatch until they are on their own. Next month goldfinches will molt and lose all of their beautiful butter yellow feathers.
The White-throated sparrow will be among the first of the wintering birds to return to the Valley. By mid-October there will be a large population of the little birds visiting feeders. It will join other small birds shuffling around on the ground among fallen leaves looking for spilled seeds, and then visit feeders as well. It has a brown body and sports head strips of tan or white. It adds berries to its usual seed diet in the fall. It makes a wavering whistling sound. Sunflower seeds and white millet are favorite feeder foods.
Black bears are hungrier now than ever. Mothers are still nursing their cubs, but most cubs are eating solid food now. Bears that have been in full shed are beginning to grow hair for fall and winter. They are roaming constantly from sunset to sunrise looking for food.
Take in the bird feeders by late afternoon and keep out plenty of fresh water for bathing and drinking.
May you always hear the whisper of wings.