Walking into Draper Twin Lake Park – East in September is almost like being Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz. The trails are lined with a wide variety of goldenrods and other sunny yellow wildflowers. Gold-and-black bees and beetles hum and scramble over them, making the most of late season nectar and pollen. Here and there the asters accent the gold with splashes of royal purple, lavender and white. Bronze and copper grasses dip and sway in the prairie, while summer birds finish their molts and prepare to move south or overwinter here.
So dodging between downpours and ensconced in my net anti-bug jacket, I ventured out into the thinning light of early autumn to enjoy early fall’s performance. Glad you’re here to join me.
Fall Flowers and Grasses Set the Stage in Early Autumn
Here in Oakland Township, goldenrods and tall grasses create the early fall backdrop within which all the other creatures hunt, forage and fly. Over the last few years, I’ve learned to notice the variety of goldenrods that paint their particular yellow on early autumn’s canvas. So I think an introduction to just four of our most common goldenrods is called for, in case you think “you’ve seen one goldenrod, you’ve seen them all!” [Click on photos to enlarge.]
A side note: Goldenrods do not cause “hay fever” as many fall allergy sufferers believe. Ragweed (genus Ambrosia) is the culprit! Its blooms are green and its light pollen is dispersed by the wind – right into people’s noses! Goldenrod flowers are yellow and their heavy pollen sticks to insects and can’t be carried by the wind. According to the Michigan Flora website, two kinds of ragweed grow in our county. So please let goldenrods off the hook for making you sneeze! A generous photographer from iNaturalist.org shared the ragweed photo on the left.
As the weather turns cooler, autumn adds in the late asters to complement the goldenrods. The name “aster” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “star,” so it’s wonderfully appropriate for this colorful family of star-shaped flowers to add sprays of contrasting color within the golden landscape.
Sprinkled here and there around the prairie and the marsh, other native wildflowers make an occasional appearance, adding more variety to the fall scenery. It always intrigues me that so many are yellow! It seems to be early autumn’s favorite color. The late season, many-stemmed Brown-eyed Susans and the Common Evening Primroses were plentiful this year. Maybe more rain helped?
And the tall, graceful, native grasses created a scrim along the trail, their dance moves providing the prairie’s choreography on a breezy September day.
Every performance needs a little drama, and the Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) with its pink stems and purple berries rises to the occasion near the marsh each year.
The Backdrop in Place, Insects Take the Stage
Insects act as the “supporting actors” in any landscape, taking on the essential role of pollinating plants even as the days get colder and flowers begin to fade. I hope you spotted the five black-and-gold insects on the Stiff Goldenrod in the photo above. What a generous host that plant that is!
Two of those insects were mating – or rather, the larger female was busy foraging as the mating occurred. Not much romance among Locust Borer beetles (Megacyllene robiniae), I’m afraid.
In early September, the prairie still hummed with the buzz of hundreds of European Honeybees and native Bumblebees. Later in the month, their activity seem to drop a bit; perhaps that’s because flight is more difficult for bees when temperatures fall below 50 degrees. Let me show you a small sample of the work bees were performing in September.
Butterflies, though fewer in number, were also playing their part in pollination. We saw several large Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), members of the “super generation” hatched right here in Michigan which will take on the entire 2,500 mile journey to their wintering grounds in Mexico!
Smaller butterflies made appearances as well. Butterflies don’t do as much pollination as bees, but they certainly add some fluttering color to an early autumn walk!
Every drama needs a couple of questionable characters. I met up with two of them in September at Draper Park East. The first was a non-native, the European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiousa). It may look like it’s praying, but in reality, it’s actually preying on beneficial insects as well as others. It’s a master of camouflage when vertical in tall green grass. Its triangular head can turn 180 degrees and its raptor-like front legs shoot forward in an instant to ambush unsuspecting insects. Even after my husband spotted it, I had trouble finding it in my viewfinder until it climbed up on a dying goldenrod. Quite an elegant shape on this predatory character!
Dr. Parsons informs me that the One-spotted is a native stinkbug that eats by piercing the leaves, stems, seeds and fruits of herbaceous (non-woody) plants in order to siphon out some liquid. Generally though, he says, this species isn’t considered a pest. However, the invasive, non-native Brown Marmorated Stinkbugs that I occasionally see at home can be a huge problem for orchards, and stinkbugs can be pests in years in which they are abundant. If they are crushed during the harvest, their scent is not a pleasant addition to the crop!
Birds, Our Usual “Main Characters” in the Landscape, are Busy Changing Costumes for Winter or Migration
The cast of characters in our parks diminishes in the autumn. Insects either hibernate or lay their eggs for next spring’s hatch and die. Cool weather means most birds have finished raising their young just about the time the insect population begins to plummet. They stay high in the trees, often hidden among the leaves, especially if they’re molting.
Fall is a quieter season than spring. Birdsong, after all, is part of spring courtship. This September some social birds, like the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) did whistle their high contact calls to one another as they gathered fruits in a Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina) or sallied forth to hawk into a cloud of gnats.
Juveniles may try out bits and pieces of adult songs or call plaintively to be fed long after they can feed themselves. The young Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens) below, however, stared in silence out into the big, wide world. One of my fine birding mentors, Ruth Glass, pointed out that this bird had the buff wing bars of a “first fall juvenile,” rather than the adult’s white bars. That means that this little bird is about to experience its very first migration. Somehow it will have to find its way to its wintering grounds in Central America or even northern South America! Courage and bon voyage, my young friend!
A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) surveyed the area from high on the tip of a snag. It may spend the winter here, though I see Flickers more often in the summer when they can drill the earth for their favorite food – ants! These birds used to be called “Yellow-Shafted Flickers,” because the undersides of their tail feathers (which can be seen below) as well as their wing feathers are bright yellow in flight.
On the eastern edge of Draper Twin Lake Park – East, several summer visitors chirped and chatted in a tangle of vines and small trees. The warm yellow throat of a female Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) flashed in the greenery. She gave a sharp “chip” call as she moved restlessly from branch to branch. She’ll soon be riding a north wind during the night down to the southeastern states or on to the Caribbean.
In the grass along the east path, a juvenile Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) hopped about, pecking in a desultory manner at bits of this and that. This little bird probably hatched in the boreal forests of Canada and is now headed for Florida or the Caribbean where the insects will be much more plentiful. Many thanks to expert birder Allen Chartier for an explanatory identification of this bird. Juveniles definitely challenge my developing knowledge of fall bird plumage.
I was lucky to see another migrator heading south from the boreal forest, the Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). This nattily dressed little bird with its fine stripes and buff mustache (malar) tends to scurry into tangles as soon as it lands. I’d seen one for only the first time a week before at Charles Ilsley Park, though others spotted it in the spring from its wren-like burbling, complicated song. So imagine my surprise and delight when it hopped up on a branch to preen and stayed long enough for a portrait!
A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) suddenly popped into the open too. Its “bouncing ball” trill burbled up from the prairies all summer long. This particular one looked a bit frowzy around the edges because it hadn’t quite finished its molt. It was still growing fresh feathers for its relatively short flight to Ohio and points south.
Becoming an Attentive “Audience” in the Natural World
In this piece, I’ve had fun imagining the prairie and its inhabitants as an early fall theatrical production – but that, of course, calls for the last element – the audience. Us! I find that paying as much attention to my natural surroundings as I would to a movie, a play or a concert reaps a similar kind of pleasure. I appreciate the color, the movement and the music of a prairie as much as I enjoy the scenery, the costumes and the gestures of a dance performance. A forest or a fen can be almost as mysterious and as filled with strange inhabitants as any sci-fi adventure. The care adult birds take with fragile nestlings is often as touching and as fraught as a family drama. And the ferocity of a large green insect’s ambush of its unsuspecting victim can be as creepy as the casual violence of an elegant but lethal villain in a murder mystery.
Stepping out into a natural environment is much like losing myself in a powerful story. I leave my ordinary life behind for a few hours and enter into lives much different than my own. Stories of life and death unfold. The sets and costumes change from scene to scene. The music, the dance, the voices, the behavior, the colors are not ones made by humans; I’m in a different reality. When I leave, I come back to myself refreshed, having learned something new, experienced something different than the everydayness of my life. And the only payment I’m required to make is paying attention. What a gift!