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What Time is it in Nature: Early Signs of Fall

October 10, 2014

It’s starting to look a lot more like fall at Prairie Ridge and signs of cooler weather are all around.  Today, let’s explore some of the many early signs of fall you might see during an upcoming visit to Prairie Ridge!

Changing leaf color is one of the most obvious signs of fall, and one that most people look for to tell them when fall has begun.  Several of our tree species have been experiencing leaf color changes and falling leaves.  The Red Maple produces bright red leaves:

Red maple leaf

These trees are one of the first to bloom in the spring and one of the first to start changing colors in the fall.  You can easily pick out the Red Maples in the forest by looking for the flaming red, tall trees along the margins as you walk the Forest Trail.  There is also one massive Red Maple that shades the picnic tables outside the Nature Play Space that produces a particularly lovely display.

The Winged Sumac is also starting to change:

Winged sumac turning red

I’ve written about Winged Sumac before, but it is similar to the Red Maple in being one of the first trees to change color in the fall and changing to a deep, vibrant red.  Look for the bright red compound leaves to the left of the wooden walkway to the Outdoor Classroom, but do it soon!  The Winged Sumac is also one of the first trees to lose all of its leaves in the fall, so the red leaves won’t last long.

Some trees start to produce their fruits in the fall.  The Flowering Dogwood develops bright red fruits in late summer and early fall:

Dogwood berries

These fruits provide an important food source for birds and mammals, one that helps them survive through the winter.  You can see a few Flowering Dogwoods along the Forest Trail as well as one with fruits just to the left of the wooden walkway to the Outdoor Classroom that you can see over the railing just before you go through the door.

While springtime is generally thought to be the primary flower season, many native plants bloom in the fall instead.  The Tickseed Sunflowers are just about finished for the year:

tickseed sunflower

You’ll find them along the road into Prairie Ridge and in the prairie.  Look out for Monarch Butterflies on the flowers!  They seem to be a popular flower for the butterflies as they make their way south for the winter.

There are plants blooming in the garden as well, including the Eastern Aromatic Aster:

Eastern aromatic aster

These bright purple flowers add a bold splash of bright color right before winter sets in, making it a popular garden plant in the southern US.  It is also attractive to a variety of butterflies and bees and is an important source of nectar for the insects that linger until winter sets in.

Fall is a time when many grasses flower or produce seeds.  Purple Muhly Grass is one of the most striking fall blooming grasses with its clouds of pinkish-purple flowers:

Purple muhly grass

Purple Muhly Grass looks like a pretty standard, nondescript grass for most of the season, but it really shines in the fall.  Look for it around the base of the wind turbine and in the garden beside the gate to the road as you drive into the Prairie Ridge parking lot.

The start of fall is a great time to look for mushrooms:

Stinkhorn mushroom

We have a variety of stinkhorn mushrooms at Prairie Ridge, including this big grey beauty.  You can often find them by following your nose!  They’re called stinkhorns because they produce a foul stench to attract flies and other carrion loving insects that help spread their spores to new locations.  You’ll often find stinkhorns growing in mulched areas and along the upper part of the Forest Trail between the office trailer and the Natural Playspace.

There are even some insects that are associated with fall!  Woolly Bears are very commonly spotted at this time of year:


Woolly Bear caterpillars start moving around as they look for places to overwinter in early fall, so you’ll see them crawling across the road into Prairie Ridge or along the Forest Trail.  Legend has is that the amount of brown banding on Woolly Bears will tell you how severe the winter will be.  Whether this is actually true or not… Only time will tell!

Another caterpillar makes a big appearance at this time of year, the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars:

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillar

These caterpillars feed on the Woolly Pipevine along the fence to the right of the entrance to the Nature Neighborhood Garden, so take a look!  If you flip up enough leaves, you’re bound to see caterpillars munching happily away.  If you *listen* very closely, you can even hear them chewing!  These caterpillars often pupate on the underside of the green roof above the entrance to the garden, so look up and you might see a pretty golden brown pupa attached to the ceiling as well.

Fall is a great time of transition at Prairie Ridge, one in which the plant life undergoes major changes, the summer only birds are swapped out for the winter only birds, and the insects begin to disappear from view.  The weather becomes cooler and the sky becomes a little bluer as the sun sinks lower on the horizon.  Pretty soon it will be getting dark shortly after we close in the evening, at which point I encourage you to take a moment to look out over the prairie about a half hour before sunset.  During that “golden hour,” the sun slants across the landscape and the grasses, trees, and flowers begin to glow:

The prairie during golden hour

Currently, the late afternoon light on the Goldenrod is quite spectacular, but even the dead grass will to look beautiful in the winter sun as the days get shorter.

What other signs of fall will you see on your next visit to Prairie Ridge?  Things will start changing fast, so come on out and explore before it gets cold!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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