Finally Fall for a Few Minutes

Our usual time for peak fall foliage here in northwest Ohio is mid-October, but the weather surprised us and delayed the much-anticipated colors this year. Feeling impatient, last week I drove a couple hours north into Michigan in search of some autumn scenes to photograph, and couldn’t find much leaf color there either. It was disorienting to see so many still-green trees in late October.

I’d almost given up on looking for it, and had cocooned myself indoors already, cozy with my furnace on and blankets laid out by my favorite chairs. But lo and behold, suddenly we’re at peak color in Toledo! I went out yesterday to document this beautiful season of transition.

This is a spot in Oak Openings Preserve where I always find a lovely fall scene. I like how I can frame the photo so the hiking trail draws your eye into it. Don’t you feel a desire to walk toward that opening in the woods? If you could enter this photo and do that, you’d find a peaceful woodland oasis with a trail thickly cushioned with pine needles, and the occasional rider on horseback passing by with a friendly hello.

Down the road a bit is Mallard Lake with its curving shoreline that frames the colorful reflections of the trees. It was a challenge to get a photo without other people in it, as this is a popular place for people to take pics for engagements, weddings, graduations, or just annual family photos.

I was accompanied on my outing by these two friends, who you’ve seen here occasionally. They always seem so relaxed and happy and I enjoy their pleasant company. They remind me to take a moment to be grateful for this globally significant place full of rare plants and animals, a place designated One of the 200 Last Great Places on Earth by The Nature Conservancy. They took a brief rest at this spot near the Girdham Sand Dunes, remnants of Lake Warren, the precursor to Lake Erie. You can read more about that here.

The dunes are a favorite spot to search for tiger beetles, robber flies, and sand wasps in the summer. I’ve lived here for five years now, and I still get a thrill at the presence of sand on hiking trails this far from the lake. It seems so incongruous, sand in the middle of the woods. But there it is.

I walked around the dunes for a bit, studying the amazing diversity of mosses, lichens and fungi. I can identify very few of them but that doesn’t stop me from admiring them. My gnome friend found this tiny puffball mushroom for me.

And then I found the British soldier lichen a few steps away.

And since I’ve mentioned gratitude, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I love fall is because it doesn’t last very long. Well, the season lasts for a while but the visual feast of leaf color is painfully brief. There’s a point each year when the rain or wind will come and ruin the show virtually overnight. Then there’s that day when I feel the burden of a long dark winter descend abruptly onto my shoulders.

Southern yellowjacket

That’s being overly dramatic, I know. Winter isn’t always awful, but it’s definitely my least favorite time of year. I much prefer to be outside watching insects feasting on my native plants. Speaking of insects, I found a few still out today despite the cold temperatures. There was a small cluster of some kind of larvae crawling around on a bed of bright green moss and then a lacewing resting on a brown oak leaf. The surprise discovery was a southern yellowjacket who crawled out from under the leaf litter as I was sitting on the ground looking at mosses. The yellowjacket was very lethargic, probably dying. I quickly took a couple documentation photos and then covered him back up with leaves.

On the way home I stopped for a bit at another of our beautiful metroparks, and spent some time gathering a collection of leaves from various trees. The predominant leaf color this year seems to be yellow, with just enough orange and red mixed in to make everything pop. As I walked on the edge of the road picking up leaves, I had a flashback to the annual rite of childhood when we pressed leaves between sheets of waxed paper. In this photo you’ll notice leaves from tulip, maple, oak, sassafras, and elm. The trio in the bottom left corner are all from sassafras trees, which can have three differently-shaped leaves on the same tree. That’s such a cool thing, isn’t it?

They’re usually called (from left to right) the “football,” the “mitten,” and the “ghost.” And I’ve just learned another interesting thing about those leaves. The distribution of those three leaf types on a tree isn’t random. “Two and three lobed leaves are more abundant than un-lobed leaves on the lower portions of the crowns of small trees and on the lower sides of the primary branches. Vertical branches tend to have all three leaf shapes equally present. It has been hypothesized that the leaves in the lower branches accumulate starches to a greater degree than upper leaves. These starches are known to inhibit cell division in leaves which can then cause a lobe to form.” (Source)

Since it was Halloween, I gathered some extras of the “ghost” leaves, and I couldn’t resist having some fun with them.

These two parks are my favorites for fall foliage photos because of their winding roads through the trees. Most of the roads around here are as straight as an arrow, and that doesn’t often make for interesting scenery. I’ll leave you (get it?) with this image from Secor Metropark.

Happily Eating My Words

Yellow-collared scape moth sharing sneezeweed with a common eastern bumblebee, Kim’s garden, October 10, 2021

During a phone conversation a couple days ago, a friend asked me if I would take him out looking for insects sometime, as he’d noticed that I do that for other people from time to time. I’m always thrilled when someone asks me to do that, and I happily agreed to go bugging with him. But I told him we’re at the end of the insect season and we wouldn’t likely find much still out there this year. I knew I could find some insects, but since most of the flowers are finished blooming, I’ve pretty much called it a year and haven’t been out much in the past week.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After we were done talking, I decided to go out to one of my favorite nature preserves to see what I could turn up. It was a gorgeous day with temps in the mid 70s and intermittent cloud cover. As soon as I got out of the car and entered the grass path, I was reminded that it was the peak of grasshopper season. My every step caused a half dozen of them to leap away in front of me. It was as if someone had turned on a grasshopper popcorn machine — pop! pop! pop! pop! pop! I confess to not being too enthusiastic about this particular family of insects thus far, but not because they’re not interesting. I love their crazy armored body structure, for one thing, but I haven’t taken the time to study them well enough to be able to identify them with any certainty. And the fact that there were so many of them jumping around had a kind of sense-dulling effect, making me want to tune them out.

This grasshopper landed on my front window, allowing me this unusual perspective

It’s sort of the same way I feel about birding during spring migration, when I’m out looking for warblers and other cool migratory species, but the woods are full of raucous red-winged blackbirds and grackles. It’s not that those birds aren’t interesting, just that their noise is so distracting that it’s hard to focus on finding other smaller and quieter birds. Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel about the grasshoppers, except instead of noise they just distract me by popping up left and right around me as I walk.

Face view of a narrow-headed marsh fly (Helophilus fasciatus) Click to see her bigger!

So I continued on, trying to see what else was there besides the hoppers. One of the most numerous species was the narrow-headed marsh fly (Helophilus fasciatus). These are some of our largest hover flies, and I find them to be plentiful in April and May, then again in September and October. Checking data on iNaturalist, I see that about 15% of the Ohio observations by other people were in the three months of summer, so they’re around in smaller numbers apparently. Most of our other hover flies are miniscule compared to these bee-size flies. As you can see, their colors and patterns make them bee mimics, which is believed to give them some protection from predators who might not want to risk a sting from these secretly-stingless pollinators.

Narrow-headed marsh fly posing for me!

I believe this one to be a female because of the space between the eyes, but I’m not positive. Anyway, she landed on a cottonwood sapling looking up at me (first pic above) and I snapped a couple quick shots, thinking that was all I would get. Then she flew to a bare stem and gave me a clear full-body shot. That almost never happens.

I found a few butterflies too, mostly sulphurs but also a copper and a duskywing. This mating pair of orange sulphurs were minding their own business when a second male crashed their party. His attempts to break them up were unsuccessful, and they flew to another spot to finish what they’d started.

Mating pair of orange sulphurs (Colias eurytheme)
A second male uses physical force to try to get in on their party

By this point I’d decided to get back to the pond to look for late season dragon and damselflies before I got tired. This was my first day out of the house after two days in bed. I’d gotten my Covid booster shot and had extreme fatigue from that, and at the same time I got a sinus migraine from a weather system that was moving through. The double whammy knocked me down good, and I was so happy to be outside, but still sort of tired.

When I got back to the pond, I found that the marshy area around it had enlarged after the recent rain. I normally just walk around the perimeter of this pond, but this time I decided to walk out in the shallow water to see if I could have more luck away from the edges. It felt so nice and cool on my feet through the water sandals! And I did find some interesting odes — a tiny citrine forktail glowing in the sun, some familiar bluets, one of which was caught in a spider web and being eaten by the spider as I took photos.

I was thrilled to find some blue-faced meadowhawks in a mating wheel, and they allowed me to watch long enough to get a few photos of their beautiful faces.

Blue-faced meadowhawks (Sympetrum ambiguum), male on top

If you enlarge this photo you can see the sperm transfer happening where the female’s abdomen connects to the male’s. And take a look at her lovely face and how her legs are grasping his red abdomen for stability. Dragonfly mating is fascinating, and I never tire of watching it.

There were four green darners hunting back and forth across the pond but I didn’t have the patience to try and shoot them on this day. I settled for the easier autumn meadowhawks and spotted spreadwings.

Autumn meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicunum)
Spotted spreadwing (Lestes congener)

After I’d been out there for about 90 minutes, the mosquitoes suddenly discovered me and I hustled back to the car cursing them under my breath. I’d sprayed my legs against ticks, but didn’t expect the mosquitoes to still be biting and hadn’t sprayed my upper body. Big mistake!

Today’s post is a public mea culpa to my friend Barry — I was wrong, the bugs are still there! But whether we go this month or wait until next spring, I look forward to a day in nature sharing the joy of insects with a fellow naturalist. 🙂

Familiar bluet, watching me watching him (Enallagma civile)

Senescent Saturday

Fall foliage at Secor - Kim Clair Smith

Senescence is the process of deterioration with age. We humans like to deny or ignore it in our own bodies, but we’re huge fans of it in trees. The changing colors of leaves in the fall are a result of senescence. As a natural part of the life of a tree, the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down, revealing the other pigments beneath the green.

Song for Autumn excerptSay what you will about spring and the rebirth it symbolizes, but I’ve always been partial to autumn. The most obvious reason for this attraction is the stunning beauty of the trees draped in splendiferous* robes of gold, red, brown, and orange. But when I’m in a more contemplative state of mind, as I am today, I think of how my appreciation of fall is also driven by the knowledge that it will be so brief. Fans of summer or winter have months to enjoy those seasons, but autumn demands your full attention before it’s gone in the blink of an eye. Or after a day of wind and heavy rain, as we’re having right now in Toledo.

Fall at Secor v2 Kim Clair Smith

I almost let fall slip past me this year, and have only gotten out briefly a couple times so far to take it all in. I fear by tomorrow much of the beauty will be on the ground, leaving us only bare branches to gaze upon for many months.

I’ve traveled to chase birds and dragonflies before, but this is the first time I’ve considered chasing fall. I might take a trip to southern Ohio to get a few more opportunities to capture fall with my camera. It’s a bit challenging up here in the flatlands of northwest Ohio to get interesting angles for landscape photos, but I expect it’ll be quite a different story in the hills down near the Ohio River. I’ll be anxiously watching the weather forecasts to decide if I can manage to fit in a quick trip.

Fence and fall foliage
The rain was just starting to fall as I made this last quick stop at Salamander Flats today. 

Fall foliage with gnome - Kim Clair Smith

Alert readers of this blog will have noticed this little guy before. He seems to show up often when I walk in the woods, and I’m always tickled to see the interesting places he chooses to take his naps. This time he was comfortable on this enormous tulip tree leaf — it was almost twice as big as my hand. I wonder if he’ll show up in the Appalachian foothills of Shawnee State Forest next week?

Gnome on fence - Kim Clair Smith

*Yep, splendiferous is a real word! I had to check, LOL.


Fall foliage (1) (640x427)I’ve been spending lots of time outdoors lately, trying to soak up as much of the autumn beauty as possible while it’s still here. The other day I went for a drive in a rural area about 25 miles away and spent a couple hours taking photographs of the pretty scenery. So often I found myself in awe of the stunning beauty — leaves quivering in the breeze with sunlight shining through all shades of golds, reds, and browns. It’s a struggle to come up with words to express how much I love this season. Places that wouldn’t draw a second glance for the rest of the year are magically transformed into art. Just look at the leaves floating on the water in this lake. See how the sunlight was filtering through to the rocks below? It was mesmerizing, with the leaves bobbing up and down on water stirred by a soft breeze, and the light patterns dancing around below.
Leaves floating on water with dappled sunlight and rocks (640x427)
I stumbled upon this little hidden lake and stopped to check for migrating waterfowl. I didn’t see any ducks there, but this view was worth the stop anyway.

Algoe Lake in Ortonville SRA - with fall foliage w sig

I was thrilled to come across a few Sandhill Cranes, and then some sheep sharing their pasture with a curious donkey.
Sandhill Crane on gravel road

Sheep through a fence
This road was typical of the scenery all afternoon, just one “feast for the eyes” after another. I’m not ashamed to say that I got teary-eyed more than once as I contemplated all the beauty around me that day. I experience autumn this way every year, with heightened awareness of the cycles of nature as well as appreciation of its beauty.

Curving rural road with fall foliage and sunlight w sig

But this year I can’t help but view autumn through a more personal lens. Just as the trees must shed their leaves to survive the winter, I had some letting go of my own to do. Just as those dead leaves will nourish the soil that keeps the tree standing, I believe the lessons I learned from the breakup of my marriage will help build a stronger foundation for the rest of my life. And just as new leaves will emerge on the trees when conditions are more favorable, it’s my hope that I’ll have a similar rejuvenation after a necessary period of dormancy.

Rural road in Lapeer county with fall foliage w sig

I’m learning to rely on myself and not to fear the unknown. I don’t know what lies ahead for me but I’m ready to start my journey and find out.

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