October is Outstanding
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. I hope you enjoy!
The title gives my feelings for October away. It is my favorite month on the calendar. Gone is the heat and bugs of late summer and in its place is crisp beautiful weather just inviting you to the outdoors. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will explore the environment virtues of my favorite month, October.
The primary reason I love October is the vibrant colors flooding the landscape. Eleven months out of the year green and brown dominate the color palate of the Blue Ridge. For one marvelous month, we get inundated with reds, oranges, yellows, and purples associated with the fall foliage of Virginia. This phenomenon is triggered by photoperiod, which is the duration of an organism’s daily exposure to light. This along with fluctuation in local weather patterns will determine when chlorophyll production ceases in plants. When chlorophyll begins to break down, the green color disappears giving rise to our beloved red, yellow, and orange colors we see in our fall foliage. Weather also greatly affects the intensity of color each autumn. Low temperatures above freeze produce brilliant reds while early freezing temperatures reduce the red color. Rainy weather tends to increase fall color. Stress factors such as drought, disease or insects may cause fall color to come on early but with less coloration. An abrupt hard freeze can cause leaves to drop prematurely as well. Cedar Cliffs Main to Hemlock Springs is wonderful each fall due to the presence of large amounts of black gum and maples which add striking color to the majority oak/hickory forest.
Another spectacle that gets underway in October is the whitetail deer rut. This pre-breeding behavior of the male deer is also driven by photoperiod. Since late summer, the changes have been occurring as the days shrink. The male deer or bucks begin to separate from their bachelor groups and become more solitary. As the testosterone builds, the bucks start the pre-rut period. It tends to be characterized by bucks starting to make rubs and scrapes. Rubs are portions of small trees that have had the bark ripped off by a male deer rubbing their antlers on the tree. They do this primarily to mark territory and intimidate other bucks. A scrape is a patch of ground laid bare by a buck to leave scent behind as a means of communication. These patches are usually under an overhanging branch, which is also used to leave scent behind. The pre-rut period usually runs through all of October. The number of scrapes and rubs increases as we near the actual breeding season which usually occurs the first two weeks of November. Signs of the pre-rut will begin appearing all over the Wintergreen trails so keep your eyes peeled for the tell-tale signs as you explore.
An often-overlooked aspect of October is the lovely mushroom foraging opportunities. April has its morel crop and August with the chanterelles get most of the attention for foraging opportunities but October can be just as delightful. One of my favorite mushrooms is the oyster mushroom, which can commonly be found fruiting in October at Wintergreen. Oyster mushrooms, which can be found in almost every month on the calendar, become more common in the cool temperatures of autumn. They grow on dying or dead wood, preferably oak and beech. They can be identified by their oyster-shaped cap and their decurrent gills (gills that run directly down the stem). They are usually white to light brown with no warts or scales. Oyster mushrooms are mild and versatile for chefs. They are great pan fried in butter and garlic!
The weather has changed and the leaves are hinting at the coming colors. Make sure you get out plenty this October to find the best colors, tasty mushrooms, and sign of the rut!