By Paula Musto
Western North Carolina is known worldwide for its spectacular autumn season when thousands flock to the mountains to see colorful foliage. As summer slips into fall, it’s a favorite time to hit the hiking trails and to look up at the magnificent palette of changing leaves.
But there are other and more subtle changes taking place outdoors from September through November that merit our attention. As the days grow shorter and temperatures drop, wildlife is busy preparing for the long winter ahead. It’s an excellent time to view animals in their natural habitat.
“I love all the seasons, but autumn is special,” says Keith Mastin, the former head of education at the Western North Carolina Nature Center. “It’s a great time to admire the changing leaves, but you should also take time to look around and on the ground. So much is happening.”
A large number of animal species hibernate or go into a deep stupor during the winter months, which means much of the wildlife world goes into high motion in the fall, readying for the cooler months ahead. It’s time to stock up on food and find warm places to shelter over the winter.
“The autumn equinox, when day and night are of equal length, is on September 23,” Mastin says. “This signals the start of fall and a time of nature’s plenty, with bountiful harvests of berries, nuts and seeds on the ground or for easy picking. Critters take advantage of this wild harvest and will chow down on whatever they can find to build up reserves of fat for migration or hibernation.”
Even a novice wildlife enthusiast will note that many wildlife species appear heftier in the fall. Bears, deer and wild turkeys are just some of the species that fatten up before the first frost.
Squirrels are especially active this time of year, earnestly stockpiling food. You can watch them frenetically scampering about, especially underneath the large oak trees that blanket the ground with acorns, their food source of choice.
“Squirrels do a lot of good for us,” says Nina Fischesser, director of the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Banner Elk. “Seventy percent of the oak trees in the country are here because squirrels bury nuts but don’t always remember where they put them.” The overlooked acorns have the potential to sprout, with the unintended result of aiding new forest growth.
Autumn is deer and elk rut season. Breeding begins to take place when testosterone-fueled males clash antlers, sometimes in fierce battles, to determine who gets to mate with the females. Males with the biggest antlers, typically older animals, usually win these battles and dominate small herds. September through October is a good time of year to visit Cataloochee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to see the elk, where the echoes of males “bugling” to attract females can be heard throughout the mountains.
Perhaps the most impressive display of autumn wildlife is the migrating birds that can be seen along the Blue Ridge Parkway. “We see more varieties of birds in the fall than at any other time of the year,” says Fischesser, who enjoys watching the migratory hawks that fly over the Blue Ridge Mountains in late September.
One of the best places to see this exhilarating spectacle is Grandfather Mountain, one of the more than 200 HawkCount sites in the nation, where birders equipped with binoculars record the number of hawks flying overhead to help ornithologists better understand the population shifts and environmental changes affecting these federally protected birds of prey. More than a thousand hawks have been sighted in a single day, Fischesser says.
Fall is also a good time of year to forage for mushrooms. If there has been a recent rain, mushrooms pop up all over the place: in woodlands, on the ground and on the trunks of trees. It can be fun discovering the mysterious world of fungi, but novices need to be careful. Some species are highly poisonous and unless you are an expert, you’ll need a guide to identify the ones safe to eat.
The autumn months can be a magical time of year for outdoor enthusiasts. But one popular activity that wildlife supporters prefer you skip is the annual raking and disposal of fallen leaves. Savvy gardeners know that letting leaves remain on the ground greatly benefits wildlife. There’s a whole mini-ecosystem in those leaf piles that provides food and shelter for turtles, toads, birds, butterflies and other species.
If you are not a fan of critters in your yard, Appalachian Wildlife Refuge recommends raking the leaves into one part of the yard where you don’t frequently walk. That way, animals still have a food source and a place to go as winter approaches.
Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge. Visit AppalachianWild.org for a free wildlife activities booklet and to learn what to do if you find an animal in need of help.