Autumn bits and pieces

Posted: Friday, October 08, 2010

I'm inclined to think of fall as "dud" season here. The birds are no longer nesting and few are singing; the forest is silent. Although we have our gorgeous, golden cottonwoods and sometimes some bright yellow willows, we don't have the dramatic and spectacular show of fall foliage that the Midwest and New England enjoy. The days are getting shorter and shorter. And then there is usually the rain ...

Courtesy  Of Bob  Armstrong
Courtesy Of Bob Armstrong

However, September brings us a number of good things too. Highbush "cranberry" bushes had a bumper crop again this year, and soon the pungent aroma of cranberry ketchup-making will fill my kitchen. Their pink and red leaves brighten the forest understory. Devil's club leaves make a fine yellow background for the bright red fruits. Brilliant scarlet dwarf dogwood berries dot the ground. In the muskegs, the leaves of shooting stars are bright yellow spears of light on a darker backing.

But the best color is in the alpine zone. The sedges and avens make a golden-brown backdrop for swathes of deer cabbage, whose leaves run the gamut of color from yellow through orange and red to purple. Dwarf dogwood is here, too, its leaves ranging from summer green to autumn crimson. Low-growing blueberry bushes make a purple-leaved carpet topped with a heavy crop of blueberries. Close up or from a distance, this is a color treat.

The blueberry crops on the ridges are rich pickings this year. With "berry rakes," it is possible for two people to gather over twenty-five pounds in an hour, and leave the patch still loaded with berries for later foragers.

There are two species of low-bush blueberries that grow up on the ridges (and in bogs). One has leaves with smooth edges; the other has somewhat darker leaves with very tiny teeth along the edge. The blossom-end of the berry is slightly different: the one on the toothy-leaved species looks like a small bulls-eye. Once you train your eyes, the two species are readily distinguishable. And, at least for some of us, it is worth making the distinction - berries of the toothy-leaved species (Vaccinium caespitosum) taste better (although the difference may dwindle if the berries are cooked).

In late September, the upper meadows still feature a few late flowers: an occasional purple monkshood, sturdy little clumps of the blue gentian, and lavender daisy-like flowers of fleabane. On the way up to Granite Basin, we even found a thriving stand of miners' lettuce in full flower, well past its usual blooming season.

Despite the paucity of bird song, there are a few treats for bird-watchers. Hawks migrate south along the ridges - Gold Ridge is a great place to see a variety of species, sometimes in considerable numbers. On a recent trip up to Naked Man Lake on Douglas, we spotted a lone female northern harrier coursing over the meadows and a sharp-shinned hawk dashing into a grove of trees. Flocks of pipits and lapland longspurs flit overhead in open habitats. In Granite Basin, we watched a flock of twenty-five or thirty ptarmigan fly up-valley and disappear behind the ridges. And occasionally, a soft, winter song of a dipper can be heard along the streams, or a song sparrow may trill from a shoreline thicket.

On the upper slopes of Ben Stewart, we saw a pair of Townsend's solitaires, presumably on their way south. This long-tailed thrush is a rather rare bird around here; it is more common in the open forests of the Interior. It typically nests on the ground on open slopes, cutbanks, and even cliffs, often tucking the nest under an overhanging rock, log, or tuft of vegetation. Summer foods include all kinds of insects and other invertebrates. But in winter, in montane woodlands down south, it commonly feeds on juniper berries. This food resource is so important that each bird defends a territory around clumps of juniper trees, to help ensure its winter food supply. Other fruits may be eaten, especially if juniper berries are scarce.

Even though it signals the onset of dark days, snow shovels and slippery streets, I rather enjoy watching the termination dust gradually increase on the peaks. At first it's just a beautiful powdered-sugar dusting on the highest crags. It may disappear for a spell, but the inevitable accumulation is imminent.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.



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