October is marked by intense colors and nature activity

Barbara Hootman Columnist

Autumn is a colorful and aromatic transitional time. The arrival of fall brought badly needed rain, to the relief of trees and shrubs. Creeks and waterfalls are running full force again.

Wafting through early morning and late evening air, there is the smell of wood smoke from early stove fires. Fire pits glow steadily in heavy fog-shrouded nights, creating an eerie atmosphere.

Roadside streams are becoming littered with summer’s cast-off leaves. Ponds are brimming with cattails - another sure sign that fall is here.

October wind continues to shimmer with thistle and is rich with fall fragrances. The katydids still fiddle through the night, but weaker now, while the crickets make the night hours quiver. Soon frost will silence them. Orb weaver spiders spin their beautiful webs nightly and then re-absorb the web by morning.

Fall wraps up one phase of the year, but a new one is beginning. Buds appear as the trees shed the old, worn leaves. Trees and shrubs stand naked in the fall but are covered with everything that will unfurl in the spring.

We often refer to nature resting in late fall and winter, but she is as busy as a mad hatter with work unseen by the human eye. She is closing the harvest shop and unpacking new goods. If it isn’t done now, it won’t be done next March when spring bursts with stored energy.

Preparing for fall foraging, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers started flocking together in late August. Titmice along with other small birds are frequent diners at bird feeders. Titmice look large among smaller birds. Their large head with doll eyes, thick necks and full bodies give the illusion of being big and bossy. Although they like sunflower seeds, they will eat mixed seeds, peanuts and suet.

There are a lot more titmice at fall feeders because their offspring usually stay with the parents through the first fall and winter. They can be hard to spot in trees because they are so well camouflaged when perched among gray branches and brown leaves. They seem to disappear.

When eating, titmice always choose the biggest sunflower seed. They select one seed, fly off and hold it with their feet and pound it open with their short, stout bills. They eat part of the seed and cache the rest for later, and back to the feeder they come to start the process over again. They cache seeds under loose bark and even on the ground. The voice has an echo quality, but the bird has a high-pitched alarm call, and when added to that of the chickadee, every bird around knows danger is imminent.

Blue jay families usually stay together through early fall. Jays eat a wide variety of foods, including fruit, berries, grain, seeds and insects and small invertebrates. They will readily take human food from a picnic table or garbage can, warring with crows that are there also for the pickings. They enjoy suet, peanuts, cracked corn and sunflower seeds at feeders or on the ground.

Mike Carraway, a district wildlife biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission, says that following a bumper crop last year, the white oak acorn crop is poor this year. It isn’t a total failure, but the white oak acorns are scarce. There are some red oak acorns, and deer and bear will eat them in a pinch.

A poor acorn crop does not mean the bears will den early. They will continue to prowl looking for food throughout the fall and into winter.

Polk are the only berries left, and the crop is almost gone. There are some hickory nuts, but they are not the preferred food of bear or deer.

Not only from tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow, but deer, gray and red squirrels, chipmunks, wild turkeys, crows, flying squirrels, rabbits, opossums, blue jays, quail, raccoons, wood ducks, and bear rely heavily on acorns in the fall. The acorn reigns supreme on the menu for many in the wild.

White oak acorns, the choice of wildlife, germinate quickly after hitting the ground. The red ones lie dormant for months and are not nearly as tasty to wildlife. Wildlife leave the red acorns until well into winter when they are sure the white oak ones are gone.

Woolly bear caterpillars begin to show up. Late hummingbirds are still migrating through the Valley. Young raccoons without siblings are venturing out on their own to raid food.

Keep out plenty of fresh water for bathing and drinking, and keep taking the bird feeders in by late afternoon. Without a steady supply of acorns, bears will be on the prowl for a long time this fall. Keep the hummingbird feeders out during the day and take them inside at night.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.