Forest Journal: Greeting autumn and its many pleasures
WELCOME, autumn. New Hampshire's forests beckon leaf peepers to witness colorful leaves flame out and fall.
Autumn foliage is generally as reliable an annual crop as winter frost heaves and the ritualistic spring stone harvest from vegetable gardens. Yet by October, even the sturdiest leaves grow ragged and threadbare from combined effects of insects and weather. The leaves are almost ready to ... leave.
This year, conditions look promising for a spectacular fall foliage season. Hardwoods retained lush, green leaves due to ample summer rains without the stress of prolonged drought. This is one colorful silver lining to summer's dark clouds.
The economic forecast looks rosy too! State Travel and Tourism officials expect 7.9 million autumn visitors. Fall tourism travelers are expected to spend upwards of $1 billion, a 3 percent increase over last year. Not a bad little revenue to reap from the more rural and heavily forested regions. Cha-ching!
I have a 50-year-old, antique 1963 New Hampshire license plate - green print on white background - with the official slogan "Photoscenic," testament to how our forested landscape of briefly blazing fall foliage can convert skeptics to hard-core tree huggers. The weird part of leaf peeping (beyond hunting one elusive, fleeting instant of peak foliage) is the entire genre of foliage photos. Leaf shots fulfill some primal or at least photo-scenic human impulse to capture colors before they fade. Our famed, free-range fall foliage is cage-free, cruelty-free, GMO- and gluten-free. Pick up some autumn leaves today! I suspect many homeowners would happily provide rakes and bags in which to haul their leaves away. Skip raking leaves entirely! Take a hike in the crisp mountain air instead. My personal recommendation: Hike Mount Major in Alton.
Regardless of where you wander, enjoy the short-lived leaf peeping season before it's all just photographs and memories.
Farewell, summer. First frosts and hard freezes have doomed remaining mosquitoes. No more bugs, heat, humidity or deluges from thunderstorms - all of which made summer challenging and our dog neurotic.
We now bid adieu to veggie gardens. Another sodden legacy of the June monsoon is a garden that never fully recovered. We have grape jelly and raspberry jam aplenty but no homegrown pumpkins this year. On the other hand, apples are a bumper crop. The windfall apples in the backyard orchard are attracting enthusiastic wildlife diners nightly.
Out in the woods, beech nuts abound, but it is not a heavy acorn crop. The forest is full of increasing wildlife activity during the busy harvest season. Limited supplies of seeds and acorns - called "hard mast" - in the woods are driving wildlife to farm-field edges, back yards and orchards seeking "soft mast" - fruits and berries. Autumn is THE time for animals to feed, fatten and fuel for migration or for breeding (moose and deer) before winter food scarcity.The September hawk migration included sharp-shinned Cooper's and red-tailed varieties arriving to stalk our chicken yard. Impressive "kettles" of broadwing hawks have been taking advantage of rising warm, thermal air currents forming on sunny September days. Departing hawks surf the Appalachian ridges south - like point-break surfers in search of endless summer.
The warblers all left without saying goodbye. The last hummingbirds - an adult female with two fledglings - lingered late, perching in front-porch grape vines where their feeders had hung. They fueled-up on nectar from late phlox flowers. It seemed almost a gesture of appreciation to show off the fledglings raised from the feeders.
Other notable recent migrants have included waves of woodland thrushes and the brief return of bluebirds hawking insects. Yellow-shafted flickers are picking ants and making noise along roadsides, flashing white rump feathers when they flush. Soon the waves of white-throated sparrows will vacate alpine White Mountain breeding haunts to hop across lawns with tree sparrows and song sparrows on the October leg of their fall migration.
The day shift in the woods comprises chipmunks, squirrels and blue jays all busy hunting and gathering a limited acorn crop. I met a neighbor dressed in camouflage, a deer hunter scouting for a particular trophy buck that haunts his autumn hunting dreams year after year. The hunter is diligent in preseason reconnaissance scouting. Young bucks have begun creating rubs and scrape-lines in advance of November's peak rutting season. We see deer at twilight. They bed down before dawn. A recent wildlife camera photo sent to me revealed two young bucks beginning to skirmish and spar in advance of their first breeding season.
Night shift in the forest is far busier - bears, coyotes, foxes, porcupines, raccoons, opossums and deer visiting the apple trees. We hear barred owls calling nightly while in pursuit of mice. Under the full harvest moon, the effect was magical. With bedroom windows open, I smell a skunk shuffling between the house and garage in pre-dawn darkness. Local skunks extend professional courtesy to our domestic cats. No so for the barking border collie now nearly hoarse from pre-dawn protests inside the house.
After such an early wake-up call, I've been walking the woods each morning. The seasonal carpeting of the bare forest floor changes annually from winter snow to spring wildflowers to summer shade and back to autumn's fallen leaves.
As the leaf canopy thins and sun slants in sideways from low in the eastern sky, my chainsaw finger starts itching. When the leafy shade is gone in November, I want to cut wood along a backyard trail I hope to establish on a faded former logging road. I'd never consider that project in the sweltering green jungle of mid-summer. So, welcome back, autumn!
"Forest Journal" appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of education and volunteer services for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Forest Society website: forestsociety.org.