Observing Seasonal Cycles in Nature

Observing Seasonal Cycles in Nature

Monarch butterfly

Compleat Naturalist

By Laura & Hal Mahan

When do monarch butterflies migrate? When will we see the last hummingbirds at our feeders? When are the fall leaf colors at their peak? Goldfinches change from brilliant yellow to olive green. Acorns fall and squirrels gather nuts. We will likely have our first frost during the month of October. It may even snow for the first time of the season in the high mountains. Observing and recording the timing of these events is fun and rewarding for naturalists and “citizen scientists.”

Here in the Southern Appalachians we have a number of attention-grabbing natural events that draw interest, especially at this time of year. At the end of summer/ beginning of fall, the story of the monarch butterfly migration unfolds throughout eastern North America. Sometimes here in the mountains we are lucky enough to observe clusters of monarchs hanging from trees and bushes on a very cold morning. Thousands of monarchs make their way over the high mountains of the Blue Ridge range. The peak timing of monarch butterfly migration here in the Asheville area is usually around the last week of September or first week of October, but we have seen them winging through downtown Asheville as late as the beginning of November.

These amazing butterflies are on a journey, perhaps thousands of miles, to the high mountains of central Mexico where they overwinter. The following spring as temperatures warm they breed their way back north. It is truly amazing that this insect that weighs less than a postage stamp has the ability to navigate the journey when the migrating generation has never been there before!

We like to keep a record of dates and events that we observe from our house. For example, sometime around October 4–5 is usually when we see the last Ruby-throated Hummingbird at our feeder. According to our journal, April 15 is when we will expect them back.

Often in our store we’re asked when the fall color is at its peak. Of course this depends on your elevation, but consulting our notes, we know that in the Asheville area the color peaks around the third week of October, but can vary tremendously from year to year depending on weather and temperature patterns. You can see fall color much earlier, of course, as colors change at high elevation beginning in September.

Phenology is the study of seasonal life cycle events of plants and animals and how they are influenced by seasonal variations in climate. This sounds technical, but it is something that anyone can do, and is a way for people of all ages and backgrounds to contribute to science. The USA National Phenology Network ( is an organization that encourages people of all ages and backgrounds to observe and record natural phenomena as a way to discover and explore the nature and pace of our dynamic world. If you are interested, check out the website, and have fun observing the timing of these natural events each year in your own backyard.

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit or call 828.274.5430.

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