Signs of fall

Emily Stone

Autumn meadowhawk dragonflies are one of the latest to emerge.  Photos by Emily Stone. 

At the end of one of those perfect summer days – sunny and 75, with low humidity – I hopped on my bike for scenic ride along the east side of Lake Namakagon. A light breeze tickled the water, and brought to my nose the sweet smell of algae being tossed and turned at the surface. I scanned for otters among the thick beds of water lilies and purple-blooming thickets of pickerel weed. And then a glimpse of color caught me by surprise. I don’t remember what came out of my mouth. It was some garbled shout of startled dismay. There, in the corner of the bay, where the forest and marsh grass intermingled, stood a maple tree with every single leaf changed to red.

I love fall. This year, though, I’m not ready for summer to be over. The Museum only just opened to the public, after pandemic-related delays in the construction of our “Mysteries of the Night” exhibit. My usual milestones of Loon Pontoon Tours, Master Naturalist Programs, our Summer Benefit Party, and Junior Naturalists playing games in the Outdoor Classroom were nowhere to be found. And now, already, by the first of August, signs of a changing season have appeared out of nowhere.

Honestly, red maples catch me off guard every year. These adaptable trees can survive in both wetter and drier soils than their sugar maple cousins, but not without sacrifices. The soil in swamps is often low in essential nutrients. Unlike trees in richer soils, “swamp maples” can’t risk losing any nutrients to an early frost. Each year around the beginning of August, they pull valuable nitrogen and phosphorus back out of the leaves and into the twigs, where they’ll remain on-deck to fuel next spring’s leaf growth.

Next, sugars in the leaves break down and form anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are pigments that absorb UV light, especially at low temperatures. Like sunscreen, they protect the leaf cells. They provide cover while swamp maples withdraw every last nutrient drop from fragile leaves. To create anthocyanins they need lots of sugars, which requires dependable soil moisture and sunshine. Happily, that’s the definition of a swamp.  

Red maples growing in swamps make sure to conserve nutrients by losing their leaves early.

That red maple opened my eyes to other signs of fall I’d been trying to ignore. The dappled yellows in the roadsides show that the oval leaves of spreading dogbane and the lacey fronds of bracken ferns are following red maple’s example. While their yellows will soon drift to the ground, another one flashes upward. Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers are one of our only migratory woodpeckers, and right now they’re heading from Canada to the southern U.S.

While on the ground, flickers’ smooth brown back with black bars and dots blends in well with soil and leaf litter. They catch ants and other insects with their long, sticky tongues. As they startle, handsome yellow feathers are visible under their wings and tails, and yellow feather shafts show through from above and below. Their white rump patches flash brightly and give another vibrant identification clue during short, undulating flights.

Once flickers lead your eyes to the edge of the woods, mushrooms start to materialize in the shadows, too. Along my driveway, the pure white blobs of Peppery Milkcaps have emerged from the netherworlds, still wearing little caps of pine needles and oak leaf duff. I’m always amazed by the way that mushrooms seem to appear out of nowhere after late summer rains. The Anishinaabe noticed this, too, and use the word “puhpowee,” to describe “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.”

Peppery milkcap mushrooms aren’t edible, but that’s ok because my gardens are thriving. As I poked around the hops vines and ferns—still in my bike shorts and vest—I found several small, orange dragonflies perched in the waning sunshine. Once I’d identified them as female autumn meadowhawks, using the SEEK app, it became easy to discover that these are the one of the latest dragonflies to emerge from their aquatic childhoods each summer. The adults are unusually tolerant of cold, and withstand temperatures of 50 degrees F or lower as they survive into October and November.

Also in my garden, I spotted a very fat monarch butterfly caterpillar. Will this one become a butterfly that flies to Mexico, or a monarch that lays more eggs and sends its progeny south for the winter instead? It’s around this time of year when the day length, temperature fluctuations, and worn-out milkweed plants trigger caterpillars to metamorphose into the “super generation” of butterflies. They will live eight times longer and travel ten times farther than their parents and grandparents.

They’d better move fast. Already, our pollinator gardens have reached their peak, and some blossoms are beginning to fade. Out in the roadsides, the bright pink flowers of fireweed have bloomed their way up the stems with seed pods chasing close behind. A few have even burst open to reveal clouds of delicate fluff. “When fireweed turns to cotton, summer is soon forgotten,” they say in Alaska.

It’s a nice rhyme, but it’s not quite true, is it? These perfect summer days – with their colorful hints that fall is coming—are when we kick our memory-making into high gear. Every swamp maple we see dressed in its autumn attire is a reminder to enjoy the end of summer to its fullest and store up memories of sunshine for the long winter ahead.

Emily Stone is the naturalist/education director at Cable Natural History Museum. Her award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com to receive free shipping. For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with the brand-new Mysteries of the Night exhibit.