What To Look For in Fall

An excerpt from A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay by Anne Murray

Gradually the trees change color, the mornings are heavy with dew and spiders’ webs appear suddenly throughout the garden. Sunny days at this time of year are some of the nicest times for a walk along the bay or through the woods. There is once again a bustle of activity among birds and animals, fungi are sprouting up everywhere in all their wonderful variety of form and colour and berry bushes are heavy with fruit.

The leaves of deciduous trees turn from green to yellow, gold, red and brown, before falling to the ground. Chlorophyll production, a process which accounts for the green color, is reduced as a response to cooler temperatures and shorter daylight hours, and the underlying yellow pigment then becomes more visible. Trees stressed by drought, pollution or low levels of nitrogen produced the glorious red coloration as a “sunscreen” so that leaves can linger longer, helping the tree survive.

Out in the farmland, sweet corn ripens and pumpkins swell orange in the field. Rolls of hay and silage in white plastic rolls stand around like a giant marshmallow harvest, and flocks of Canada geese fly in to feed on the stubble. Waterfowl numbers build steadily in September as skeins of ducks fly in from northern and interior regions.

A succession of shorebirds arrives on mudflats, shores and upland fields around Boundary Bay, including unusual visitors, like sharp-tailed, stilt and buff-breasted sandpipers. Warblers pass through quickly, difficult to spot in their drab non-breeding plumage. Finches and sparrows gather into flocks to spend the winter roaming hedgerows and weedy fields. Squirrels can be seen everywhere, preparing for winter by searching for nuts and finding dens. Garter snakes become torpid and retreat to hibernacula.

Warm, misty September days merge into October and a sudden fruiting of fungi takes place. Thin white fungal strands, or mycelia, lie hidden underground and in rotting wood all year, and colourful mushrooms and toadstools appear overnight in clumps and masses on lawns and gardens and all over the forest floor. Fungi are vital components of forests and an amazing number and variety exist, including many that are poisonous and difficult to identify. Wet weather produces the greatest diversity; however, even in a dry fall, dozens of species can easily be seen in a short woodland stroll.

For spectacular sights, it is hard to beat the annual autumn gathering of lesser snow geese on Westham Island. Late in October, long white skeins suddenly appear, drifting across the sky, and we hear their distinctive cries, so evocative of the north country and wide Arctic skies. Thousands upon thousands gradually descend onto the fields of Alaksen National Wildlife Area, George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary and Westham Island Herb Farm, reaching a peak of 80,000 birds or more in a good breeding year. They have come from Wrangel Island, off the northeastern coast of Russia, high above the Arctic Circle at 74 degrees north.

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