By David Wheeler
The gold and crimson palettes of oaks and maples. The refreshing chill to the air after so many months of heat and humidity. That timeless first night of wood smoke from fireplaces down the street. And the crunch of freshly fallen leaves underfoot.
Fall outdoors is special for so many well-known reasons, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that we humans aren’t the only ones appreciating autumn in all its glory.
The great fall migrations in the birding world are well underway, but will go strong until late November. New Jersey is hard to beat for bird spotting during these times. Large raptors like hawks, falcons, and eagles fly south in hard-to-believe numbers on their way to winter warmth. Millions of songbirds add color to the New Jersey skyscape each fall, with neotropical songbirds like Baltimore orioles and scarlet tanagers flying as far south as South America. And along our coasts, great blue herons, egrets, and waterfowl ascend from our waterways en masse to reach more temperate nesting grounds.
Many fish like Atlantic salmon and bluefin tuna migrate south as well this time of year, as do those strikingly delicate butterflies that color our meadows and wildflowers. Monarch butterflies famously winter on mountains in central Mexico, and with their short lifespans, entire generations of Monarchs do little more than fly south from birth to death.
Many mammals are feverishly at work during this period in preparation for their winter rests. Beavers stockpile food to last through the winter, while our black bears feed rapaciously each fall to get them through hibernation. The red fox enjoys a few more months of consuming insects and berries before changing its diet over to a more carnivorous diet of small rodents. Fall offers a great chance to spot these often reclusive animals.
Our cold-blooded reptile and amphibian friends like turtles, snakes and toads soak up those last radiant rays of sunshine before most of them retreat to their cozy shelters underground, not to permanently surface again for many long months. New Jersey’s most melodious singers – spring peepers and other tree frogs – simply bury themselves under dead leaves to make for quick returns on a warm day.
Yes, fall is a time for New Jerseyans to savor, to pack in the dwindling daylight hours with all that must be done before the coming winter. But we’re not the only ones. Look outside your window – those cardinals at your birdfeeder and chipmunks gathering seeds are not so different after all. Feathers and fur for them, and a regular Octoberfest for the rest of us, best explored outdoors amidst nature.
David Wheeler’s book, “Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State,” is being published in January 2011 by Rutgers University Press. He is the founder of the daily nature blog WildNewJersey.tv.
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