By Scott Shalaway
EVENING FLIGHTS of chimney swifts swirling down to roost, nighthawks feeding by the lights at high school football games and nightly katydid choruses confirm the inevitable. Summer is fading fast.
The sun sets a few minutes after 8 p.m. this week, and in the morning the bedroom brightens at about 6:45 a.m. Ever shorter days send clear signals to migrating birds, hungry rodents and amorous deer — cooler, shorter days will only get cooler and shorter.
As I walked my favorite trails Wednesday, I noticed many other signs of the transition from summer to fall. Juvenile goldfinches have joined the adults on my finch feeders and some adult males have begun to lose their brilliant luster.
Among the most conspicuous changes in the landscape is the appearance of late summer wildflowers. Every patch of ground that escaped the mower’s blades this summer is covered with plants that reach well above my head.
Ironweed and Joe-Pye-weed attract dozens of tiger swallowtails, monarchs, fritillaries and skippers. A huge stand of nectar-bearing jewelweed along the road served my hummingbirds well while the family was on vacation earlier in the month. I’m sure my nectar feeders ran dry within two days of our departure, but when we returned, hummers returned to the replenished feeders within 30 minutes.
I’m already noticing fewer adult male hummingbirds, the ones with the ruby red throat. Adult males began to leave in mid August and, within another week, any males you see will be migrants from further north. Adult females and juveniles will linger for another week before heading south. But throughout September migrants from points north will continue to pass through and use nectar feeders. So, do not take nectar feeders down Labor Day.
Shorter days, not a dwindling food supply, trigger hummingbird migration. Plan to keep at least one feeder filled until the end of Sept. I never take my nectar feeders down until I go 10 days without seeing a hummer. That usually takes me into early October. And if you keep one feeder up until Thanksgiving, you just might see a Rufous Hummingbird, a western species that has been showing up throughout the east with increasing frequency in the fall.
Another sure sign of the end of summer are maturing pods of milkweeds. Keep an eye on them and when they split, collect seeds to plant next spring. Monarch butterflies will thank you by laying eggs on the spring growth.
As I walk the edge of the yard, I notice pokeweeds that tower two ft. above me. The productivity of this annual “weed” is remarkable. From a single seed grows an 8-ft. “wildflower” that bears hundreds, if not thousands, of succulent berries.
Fruit-eating birds, such as robins, bluebirds, catbirds and Brown Thrashers, disperse the seeds through their droppings, so there’s never a shortage of new growth. The stalks are just now beginning to droop under the weight of the ripening fruit. Only about a quarter of the berries have turned deep purple, so there will be an almost limitless supply of poke berries for the next six weeks. They usually keep flocks of notoriously nomadic cedar waxwings around the yard for at least a week.
The last blooms of summer are just beginning to appear in the hayfield. Goldenrod and asters add splashes of color to grasses just approaching maturity. And for the last two years, I’ve been watching several small patches of big bluestem, a tall grass prairie species typically found on the native prairies of the Midwest.
I picked up a few small bags of big bluestem seeds a few years ago and scattered them over some freshly mown spots. Much to my surprise, the big bluestem has thrived and spread. The tallest stems stand well over six ft. high.
Observing the predictable transitions from summer to fall can be a really learning experience. You’ve just got to know when and where to look. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette