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For Love of Nature: Fall migrations, fungi and changing leaves

For Love of Nature: Fall migrations, fungi and changing leaves

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After a hot, muggy summer, cooler temperatures finally have arrived, along with other promising signs of autumn.

Hikes in the woods are becoming more pleasant, with the first leaves cascading to the ground.

Black gums and dogwoods are losing chlorophyll to reveal red leaves, while white oaks are dropping large, bright green acorns that will ripen to chocolate brown for turkey and deer to munch on when winter arrives.

Squirrels already are gathering walnuts, acorns and other nuts for their winter larder.

Thanks to an extremely wet August, the woods are full of mushrooms, popping out of moist soil and fallen logs in colors ranging from white and yellow to orange and red in multiple shapes and sizes.

While we often refer to these edible fungi as mushrooms and their poisonous cousins as toadstools, these are not scientific terms. Mushrooms are simply the fruiting bodies of a fungus, the parts that produce spores for reproduction.

Most of the fungus itself is underground, and the cap appears in the autumn months for most types. The other parts of the fungi, including those that process and draw nutrients from dead and decaying matter, are underground, so we don’t see them.

As days shorten and food supplies dwindle, fall also brings magical migrations, and a few early migrants already are on the wing.

Monarch butterflies are heading south to Mexico on an arduous journey across the Gulf of Mexico. As we know too well, their numbers are dwindling due to pesticides and habitat destruction.

While a few friends have reported seeing a handful of these orange- and black-striped butterflies, I have yet to see a fall migrant. They usually migrate in September so keep your eyes open.

Several species of dragonflies also migrate long distances each season. The aptly-named wandering glider can fly 11,000 miles across the Indian Ocean.

In North America, dragonfly migrations occur annually in late summer and early fall, when millions of insects stream southward along coasts, lake shores and mountain ridges from Canada to Mexico and the West Indies.

A handful of tiny wood warblers, robins and blue jays already have flitted past, and faithful bird watchers are counting hawks and other raptors.

The hawk migration starts with a few pioneers in August, with stragglers spotted into early December.

The largest kettles, or circling masses, of hawks are formed by the broadwings. Only a few have been spotted in recent days at Harvey’s Knob, the closest hawk watch recorded on hawkcount.org.

Rockfish Gap on Afton Mountain and Kiptopeke on the Cheapeake Bay are two other popular sites among the 18 in Virginia. Rockfish often reports larger kettles of broadwings while the Kiptopeke site already has seen lots of ospreys.

But mid- to late-September usually is when broad-winged hawks can number in the thousands, providing a true spectacle of nature.

The Lynchburg Bird Club is sponsoring a hawk watch Saturday on Candlers Mountain. Birders will meet at 10 a.m. If you’re interested, email Gene Sattler at edsattle@liberty.edu.

No matter what, enjoy the fall!

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