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Blane Klemek: Signs and scents of autumn arrive

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Summer is drawing to a close. Days have shortened, nights are cooler, leaves on the trees have begun to change color and songbirds are less musical than they were just a short time ago.

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Indeed, it doesn’t seem that long ago when the sweet whistled songs of male Baltimore orioles were raining down from springtime treetops everywhere. These days, it’s only their infrequent call-notes or the occasional glimpse of orange and a vacant nectar feeder with corpses of wasps floating in the medium that remind me of those more active times.

I have enjoyed my evening walks and looking at all the late summer blooms. I already miss the sweet scent of blossoming lilac, basswood, dogbane, and lead plant, but am thankful for the eye-catching yellow pigment that has gradually replaced their green leaves.

Still, the blooms of some flowers such as goldenrod, maximillian sunflower, giant blue hyssop, Indian paintbrush, butter and eggs, asters, blazing stars, and wild bergamot continue to splash fields and ditches with an assortment of dazzling colors.

Broods of Canada geese and ducks, though late in coming this spring because of the cold snowy weather right into the month of May, are all looking and acting like adults now. The eastern bluebirds that nested inside the birdhouses are less abundant, too.

It was enjoyable watching the endless routine of parents feeding the young in my nest box across our driveway once again. As soon as one parent would arrive at the box and slip inside to feed the nestlings and leave, the other parent would immediately take its place with more food for the hungry mouths. However, only one brood was raised this season — normally it’s two.

I think the yellow-bellied sapsuckers were less attracted to my backyard birch trees. Many of the trees that eventually succumbed to their girdling, which I have cut down, are now beautiful young birch-clumps with clones of 15 to 20-foot tall birch trees. And though an interesting and attractive woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsuckers are sometimes problematic for birch and other trees, especially when the stress of drought is harm enough. This year, I’ve modified an old oriole nectar feeder for the sapsuckers to use. It could be that they’re opting for guaranteed-easy-access sugar water rather than pound away at a few birch trees (one can hope anyway).

Even so, the demise of one species (birch) from the result of another and the benefit for (sapsuckers) often provides bounty for others, too. Over the years, I’ve watched hummingbirds, wasps, bees, and other insects feasting on free meals of sweet sap oozing from sapsucker portholes. And every once in awhile I’ve spied opportunistic squirrels and porcupines enjoying the sugary liquid as well.

This summer has also advanced to the point, once again, with the delightful antics of young-of-the-year hummingbirds buzzing my feeders. I’ve counted as many as 16 hummingbirds around my feeders engaged in chaotic displays of blurred wings and dive-bombing bodies. Their feeding frenzies and uncommon abundance may have been hastened once again by drought diminished blooms and the impending urges to migrate and build fat reserves. Very soon these mighty feathered missiles will be long gone for yet another year.

A few evenings ago my Chesapeake, Duke, strolled down to the little lake behind the house. The cool season grasses have cured, I noticed, and much of the emergent vegetation across the surface of the lake was no longer lush and green, but dark and decomposing. No longer were there male red-winged blackbirds defending sprigs of cattails from other males either — gone were their distinctive and pleasant sounding “kon-ka-reeee!” songs.

The abundance of fruits and berries and nuts has been a satisfying surprise despite the late spring and recent drought. Raspberry and blackberry and blueberry plants have been especially “fruitful” this late summer. Earlier in the summer, juneberries were hanging heavily from their branches and were so full of sweet juice that each mouthful was like drinking a cup of fruity wine.

Acorns and hazelnuts appear to be spotty at best. Some hazel shrubs are full of nuts, while others have none at all. The bur oak trees in my woodland have produced acorns, but most are quite green yet and don’t seem — at least in my neck of the woods — to be much of a crop this year. If this observation is occurring everywhere else in the region, then bears, deer, squirrels, and other species of wildlife that depend on hard mast, might be in for some slim pickings this season.

But once again, signs and scents of autumn have begun to permeate the fields and forest with foliage color-change and the aroma of decaying vegetation. For many of us, these annual seasonal changes seem too early, but then again, our spring arrived very late.

And while rose-breasted grosbeaks are beginning to migrate as other migrants have begun to gather in larger groups in preparation for their annual exodus, black-capped chickadees, blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy and hairy woodpeckers seem to be stopping by our feeders with increased regularity now — soon to be only a few of the handful of species that we’ll be observing at our feeders in the coming months as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

— BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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