Nature in Autumn: What to Look out for in the Ecological World

The days start getting shorter, the nights are cooler, and the leaves start to turn vibrant colors. Fall is a time of change and when plants and animals start to prepare for the long winter months ahead. It is a great time to get outdoors and observe nature’s seasonal changes.

Broad Winged Hawk. Photo by April Thibaudeau, Thacher Park.
Broad Winged Hawk. Photo by April Thibaudeau, Thacher Park.

One of the Northeast’s finest wildlife spectacles happens in fall, the autumn migration of hawks. Beginning in early September until the end of November, broad-winged hawks, falcons, eagles, kestrels, harriers, and more travel from their northern breeding grounds south due to scarcity of food during the winter. The birds soar on thermal updrafts, minimizing energy expenditure. A group of birds in a thermal is termed a “kettle” and may resemble a spiral of ascending birds. The migrators utilize these updrafts to glide over ridges and down the coast to regions as far as Central and South America where food is plentiful. Thacher Park hosts an annual Hawk Migration Watch at the escarpment overlook where visitors can help count passing birds and learn more about the species they see.

Burr Oak nut showing the cupule of the acorn, which protects the fruit while it grows and matures. Photo by Ben VanderWeide, Oakland
Burr Oak nut showing the cupule of the acorn, which protects the fruit while it grows and matures. Photo by Ben VanderWeide, Oakland

Plants start dispersing their seeds in the fall by way of wind, water, animals, and even explosion or ballistic seed dispersal. It all starts at the end of August when blackberries, mulberries, and other fleshy fruits start to ripen and fall to the ground. These fruits contain small hard seeds and are dispersed after passing through the digestive system of animals, but make a yummy treat for us!  Acorns are theseeds of oak trees and sprout rapidly after falling to the ground. Squirrels can be seen scurrying around this time of year, storing nuts to eat later in the winter. Luckily for trees, squirrels only find about 30% of the nuts they hide – allowing more seedlings to sprout in the spring.

Puff ball mushroom. Photo by April Thibaudeau, Thacher Park.
Puff ball mushroom. Photo by April Thibaudeau, Thacher Park.

A warm summer leading to damp September days is the perfect combination for mushrooms to sprout throughout the forest floor.  Fungi are made up of a vast underground network called mycelia, which helps decompose leaf litter, dead animals, and rotting wood. The mushrooms we see above- ground are the fruiting bodies of the mycelium and are composed of spores that disperse in the fall to continue the growth of their kingdom. Puff balls, hen of the woods, oyster mushrooms, and fly agaric are just a few of the mushrooms to look for on a forest hike. It is important to have a great deal of knowledge on mushrooms before picking any to eat, as some can be fatally poisonous.

For fall hikes happening at Thacher State Park check out our Program Calendar.

 Post by April Thibaudeau, Student Conservation Association Intern, Thacher State Park

For further information about these topics please consult:

Hawk Migration

http://www.hawkmountain.org/raptorpedia/migration-path/page.aspx?id=352

Seeds and Nuts

http://bioimages.vanderbilt.edu/pages/fruit-seed-dispersal.htm

Fungi

http://www.countrysideinfo.co.uk/fungi/struct.htm

http://www.fs.fed.us/nrs/pubs/gtr/gtr_nrs79.pdf

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