Like most Mainers I am a big fan of fall but I have to say I wasn’t prepared to see summer come to such a sudden end. One day this week the hummingbirds stopped coming to the feeders, and most of my garden plants (squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and beans) have long since bit the dust. The sunflowers are drooping now, and most of the wildflowers have started to fade. I have been getting lots of new morning glories lately and the blooms are beautiful, but the plants themselves are yellowing and have that “last gasp” look about them. It’s simply that time of year and we all have to adapt to the changes along with our plants.
I’ve been spending more of my time in the woods in anticipation of the October and November hunting seasons and the basic assessment is: it’s wicked dry out there. I passed a couple of vernal pools that, in most years, are full of water but this year they look like someone’s unkempt lawn. There were deer and raccoon tracks in the shoreline mud, and several leopard frogs skittered through the grass as I walked along the pools’ borders, but there is not a teaspoonful of standing water anywhere.
One of these pools drains to the east and feeds a small brook about 300 yards away but neither the tributary nor the larger brook have any water in them – not even random pools where, in most dry years, frogs and mosquitoes abound. This year there’s nothing but muck, dried mud, or grass; water is hard to find even in the lowest places.
The great debate among naturalists is how the drought conditions are going to affect fall foliage. I don’t know the science of it but I do know that the usual first-turners (swamp maples and sugar maples) are not necessarily changing color – they are simply fading away. The bright reds and yellows of wetland maples and birches are few and far between. Most of the colored leaves I have seen are drying up and withering, showing very little of the brilliant hues we normally see. I would think that there would be water in the usual swamps and bogs to provide enough moisture for a normal change of seasons but, except for an occasional splash of color here and there, it’s an exceedingly dull world out there at present.
Colorful foliage is an important part of the fall transition but I’m just as happy seeing bright blue skies and enjoying the feeling of low humidity in the air. It definitely feels different now, cooler and crisper, and there’s no doubt that the days are getting shorter. It’s just getting started but change is coming.
I’m also waiting to see how the lack of water will affect the fall migration of ducks and geese through our area. Those vernal pools normally hold a handful of wood ducks but unless we get some significant rainfall the birds will spend their time elsewhere. The shorelines of many small ponds are below normal as well, which also has an effect on waterfowl. With no water near shore the birds can’t find suitable hiding places, which means they’ll have to seek shelter in areas where they might not normally be found. I’m going to do some kayaking over the next few weeks and see if the birds have shifted to backwaters, bogs and beaver flowages, which are likely to be the only places where they can find the proper mix of water, food and cover. Fortunately, ducks and geese can simply fly to the nearest, best habitat so they aren’t required to endure unfavorable conditions. Maine has plenty of water so I doubt that the birds will head south any time soon. They’ll just be more difficult to find in the coming weeks.
I have noticed that while there are geese around they are not roaming from pond to pond as they have in the past. It’s mid-September and I have not heard the first flock flying overhead. Normally I’ll hear the birds as they move about just after sunrise and again at sunset, but thus far the skies have been empty in my little corner of the world.
The only thing that has not changed all summer is the early-morning passing of a pair of loons that have kept to their flight schedule ever since the ice went out back in March. Each morning these two birds have come yodeling above the tree tops, making the rounds between ponds at nearly the same time every day. Soon they will follow the hummingbirds to warmer climes and only the ravens, crows and jays will be left to serenade us.
I have not just been out there listening to the birds, however. Maine’s archery deer season opens Sept. 29, and with this in mind I have been checking for signs of whitetail activity as well. Tracks and trails are easy to spot in the low spots and muddy areas, and I know the animals have made a few passes at my garden in the night, so it’s clear that they are around. As the leaf cover begins to diminish the deer will begin to fade into underbrush, making it more difficult for hunters to pattern their movements. Traditional bedding areas and crossings will likely provide the most productive hunting as time goes on, but during the early part of the season deer will still be hanging close to their summer haunts. The whitetails will be near water, cover and food. Hunters who can connect the dots and find a place to stand along the animals’ travel routes will have the best luck. It all sounds so easy!
Now more than ever is the time to get outdoors and enjoy the outdoors while it is still bright, cool and humidity-free. We’re sure to have a few more warm, sultry days but the mornings and evenings will be some of the best of the year, perfect for sitting out or taking a walk in the woods. Don’t let yourself become too busy to enjoy Maine’s primo fall weather!