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Do you feel winter creeping in?


Thursday, October 05, 2017

October. I feel winter torpor coming on with the dark, but the wild ones can’t afford torpor this time of year. Survival for many requires storing food for the cold months ahead.

And for many, seasonal light change triggers hyper-activity needed to get the job done.

Tonight’s full moon (Thursday) is the harvest moon, well named as fruits, nuts and seeds are in peak production.

Most wild animals store food as body fat that’s burned through the winter, while a few cache food. Either way, foraging means a lot of coming and going, including across roads.

It’s peak roadkill season, too.

Migratory birds have left, for the most part. That’s their solution to winter’s food scarcity.

Insect-eaters are the first to head south in late summer. Swallows no longer course the skies and warblers are long gone.

Sparrows and other seed-eaters are the last to leave. They’ll scatter up along roadsides for a while now as cars approach.

In-between come the switch-hitters that feed on insects for the energy-demanding breeding season and just about anything in the off-season. Phoebes, tail wagging, still perch on fencepost or nestbox. Robins work backyard crabapples.

There have been few to no birds at our feeders. Chickadees and titmice haven’t made the switch to seed, as yet. The absence of goldfinches is a mystery. Even the mourning doves that tend to park on the small platform feeder are absent.

It’s likely that all are finding wild food, but their absence feels odd.

“Our” cardinal pair are reliable visitors at day’s end. A cardinal’s serious bill indicates seeds as major food, but caterpillars, tree buds and fruits are in the mix, too. Despite what appears to be an unwieldy bill, they manage to peel fall’s wild grapes, discarding skin and pulp to get at the seeds.

Pollinator activity is slowing in our gardens. Goldenrod was the late-summer focus and now it's asters in all their myriad colors.

The tall purple New England asters are abuzz with honey bees, too many to count. Most are packing golden pollen balls on their hind legs, food to be stored in their hive to get them through the winter.

Bumble bees are part of the aster feeding frenzy.

There's poignancy to the bumble bees. For most these are their last days. Only new queens survive through winter, dormant a few inches below ground. For fans of spiders, or crickets/grasshoppers/katydids, or butterflies, or moths, there's poignancy, too, no doubt.

The term "killing frost" applies to more than flower and vegetable gardens. Most adult insects don't live much longer than it takes to do their species job: producing the next generation.

Lovely luna moths take it to an extreme, living about a week as adults. They emerge, mate, females lay eggs, and all die. As they lack mouth parts, feeding isn't an option. They stay on their one task in their brief adult life.

I spent an hour or so Monday afternoon with butterflies at the other extreme of life expectancy.

Maude Odgers, one of the volunteer gardeners who plan and tend gardens in Peterborough's many public parks, had mentioned asters in Putnam Park, next to the Post Office. They're a magnet for pollinators.

I've never been so surrounded by butterflies and bees and may never be again.

Monarchs and painted ladies are migrating now, on their way to Mexico on their species' most improbable fall migration.

The fading light that tempts me to torpor, triggers hormonal changes in the generation of monarch and painted lady butterflies recently emerged from the chrysalis stage.

Reproduction is suppressed, freeing energy for migration and a longer life. Hormonal changes also enable what's known as the "supergeneration" to store considerable fat reserves.

Instead of a one-month life span typical of other generations, the supergeneration migrates to Mexico, overwinters, and begins the first leg of the return trip north in March or April.

Both species were nectaring on Verbena bonariensis, pictured here. It's a butterfly favorite that grows rampantly in Putnam Park—and intentionally, for the pollinators.

I took one photo that had two monarchs and six painted ladies in it.

As many people have noticed, and celebrated, it's a good year for monarchs, great news for a species that's been nominated for threatened-species status.

Painted ladies are less known than monarchs. A population explosion occurs every five or so years, and a good number make the trip north. It takes a couple generations, and then the supergeneration returns.

Monarchs and painted ladies return to their species winter home, mountain fir forests for monarchs and desert for the ladies, pinpoints on the map thousands of miles away.

They navigate a route and recognize a destination they've never been before.

As for Putnam Park's several asters, short to tall, upright to floppy, they were all crazy with bees, hyperactive not torpid, ignoring three humans taking photo close-ups.

I recommend a visit, soon, for bees and butterflies, while they last.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.