Nature Connection: Taking Stock

By: Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond photo

Here it is, October, and I feel like I haven’t quite finished with my summer chores. Sure, it’s a chilly morn and I have my fuzzy socks and warm sweatshirt on while I sip my coffee, but my head is still swimming in a summer breeze of birds, butterflies, and tomatoes blushing on the vine. 

Like many others, I’ve seen my schedule amp up day by day until I sometimes feel busier that I was pre-COVID. Artists and writers don’t really retire; we just keep on keeping on. Those of us who also teach have seen class enrollment bounce back quickly as people who were cooped up for over a year have been eager to get out and back to a somewhat normal life. It’s a good thing, work, and I’m grateful to have it.

As I watch the marsh change colors on a now daily basis I know that true autumn is just around the corner. The perennial gardens are quieting though the mums and asters are having their days in the sun. Most of the vegetables have given up though late tomatoes, basil, lettuce, chard and even some beans are still hanging in there. Other herbs, such as rosemary and sage, are begging to be cut and dried for winter dishes, and I’ll take cuttings of some to grow in a sunny window over the sink to enjoy in the dead of winter.

The birds are busy feeding and figuring out winter territories. Some birds are quite nomadic and cover large areas, but others prefer smaller areas to keep watch over for food, water, and shelter. You may notice small and loose flocks of chickadees, titmice, downy woodpeckers, and nuthatches moving through your yards or in the brush as you walk in the woods. These loose flocks stay together through most of the winter, but the individual birds may move about a bit on their own.

Territories for breeding and raising young are tightly and vociferously maintained by vigilant birds in late winter, spring and early summer, but in the late summer and fall, those boundaries become much broader and looser. They don’t disappear completely for some species, though, and you will see some birds, such as mockingbirds, adamantly defending their chosen winter spots.

Even coyotes expand their territories in the fall. Often people see the same coyotes in different places without realizing they are the same ones they saw the day before. Their territories are actually quite large and although packs tolerate their own kin as interlopers, they will let others know in no uncertain terms how unwelcome they are. 

You may be seeing squirrels and woodpeckers stashing nuts and seeds. Blue jays do this as well. Squirrels are also padding their indoor nests, usually in holes in trees. They have nests of leaves in the summer, but winter demands stronger, warmer quarters where they can hole up and be safe. In my yard we have new young squirrels that are being taught traditional squirrel ways by a very vocal mother. This particular mother squirrel has been in my yard for three years now. She has a funky ear so is easy to spot, and if my calculations are correct, she has raised three nests of youngsters each year. Sometimes only one little one has survived as we have a very active and aware red-tailed hawk that also visits my yard regularly. This time she seems to have two surviving progeny and they are giving her a run for her money, as they say. They aren’t very good at jumping yet so I see them leap into the air, frantically clawing the air, hoping to make connection with a branch that is often too far away. They drop then to the branches below, but it only takes a few minutes for them to attempt it again. Often they behave like little kids and forget what they were doing and chase each other around instead. This brings on a loud scolding from mom who then appears and makes it clear they need to stop the nonsense. 

The young squirrels are learning to collect acorns and seeds and are especially excited to chase grackles and blue jays that may also be feeding on the lawn. I put out some squash seeds which caused great excitement for both squirrels and birds, but watching one little squirrel stuff its face so fast and full that seeds fell out as quickly as they were shoved in was worth the ruckus in the backyard.

Fall is always a good time to take stock. It’s when we check the wood pile and the cupboards. We pull out the warmer clothes and check to see if those old boots will last another year. We clean out the cobwebs and bring in the last of the tomatoes to ripen on the windowsills. Pumpkins show up everywhere, reflecting the oranges we see in the marshes on foggy mornings.

It is a time of dewy spiderwebs and horseshoe crab sheds, the last flights of butterflies and the massing of blackbirds on overhead wires.

As we take stock this October, I hope we take stock of our own habits when it comes to lawn and garden maintenance. Leave the dead flower heads and the leaves. The flower seeds feed many birds and the leaves allow for many small and beneficial critters to do their work. Please re-evaluate use of leaf blowers and other machines as they strip soil and nutrients while blowing your leaves into the street, which also, by the way, clog the drains that then allow your street to flood in a heavy rain. In other words, dropping the leaf blower is a win-win.

Happy October!