Since life began on our watery-blue planet, the sun has ruled the seasons. It is a calendar by which all living things keep time. The Autumnal Equinox occurs when the sun crosses the celestial equator in its southward march towards winter. As the days grow shorter, the northern hemisphere begins to cool. I have always been in awe of the effects the sun has on life and how fast nature responds to it’s movements. The changes that occur once we pass the fall equinox happen so fast, that if you close your eyes for only a moment you will surely miss something wonderful!
Almost immediately after the equinox the first leaves begin to change colors and flocks of new and interesting birds begin roving through the woods and meadows. The Ozarks are located in the middle of the central flyway and we often have the opportunity to see many bird species that are not native to the Ozarks. In preparation of the annual fall migration, we have pulled out our well-used bird book and cleaned the lenses of the binoculars.
Interestingly enough, birds aren’t the only creatures that migrate. Several types of butterflies found in the Ozarks also move with the changing season. Of course, the Monarch is the most famous migratory butterfly. Not only do monarch butterflies migrate in huge numbers, they are the only butterfly to migrate both north and south every year.
Some northern monarchs will fly up to 2,000 miles to reach their winter home in the Sierra Madre of central Mexico. But the truly amazing thing about their migration is that only the newly emerged juveniles born during the current year make the return trip south – the adults die before migration ever begins. The ability of these young, inexperienced butterflies to negotiate such a long voyage to a very specific forest without the aid of the adults to show them the way is a mystery that many scientists would love to solve.
Another, more subtle sign of the passing of the autumnal equinox comes from creatures that cannot leave their terrestrial homes as the monarchs do and many normally shy creatures can be seen roaming about in broad daylight as they search for food to fill their winter caches or to add an extra layer of fat beneath their winter coats.
Indeed, creatures of all stripes are busy rounding up acorns, seeds, nuts, rosehips, wild onions and other native delectables and stashing them anywhere they can: including our homes or beneath the hoods of our cars. Some, like the Asian Ladybug, find man-made structures more than suitable places to hibernate. And while this can sometimes be an irritant, we try our best to be patient with their otherwise unwanted behavior.
The coming of the fall equinox also finds many animals, such as fox, groundhogs, skunks and armadillos using the gentle weather of fall to dig or enlarge their winter dens. Many of these animals give birth to their young in late winter, so their dens must be ready well in advance. It is easy to spot this activity simply by searching for fresh mounds of dirt or disturbances at the base of large rocks, felled logs and dead or hollow trees.
And while deer don’t hibernate, dig burrows, or cache food, they still make preparations for the journey into the fall mating season. The bucks are now sporting their full racks and marking their territories by rubbing their downy antlers against young pliable trees and saplings. As the rut nears full force, we often hear the clash of rutting males coming from distant corners of the woods.
My two favorite seasons are spring and fall – perhaps because there is so much going on. Of course, the fall colors are always worth the wait and I hope that with the recent rains, we’ll be seeing our fair share here in Oz.
If you long for the country life or love the outdoors, you will appreciate this beautiful and inspiring book. Set in the rugged heart of the Missouri Ozarks, A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted memoir filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Available in print and eBook through the Show Me Oz bookstore.