After the slow, hot days of summer, September with its often cooler, drier days is a welcome relief.
Most of the fair-weather songbirds are still here, but some are already on the move by the beginning of the month. I looked out on a wet day in early September and caught a flush of birds taking shelter in the juniper tree beside my study window.
I easily identified a black-and-white warbler, black-throated green warbler, blue-headed vireo, two red-eyed vireos and a black-capped chickadee. But one bird stumped me. It turned out to be a first fall female chestnut-sided warbler, according to my Peterson bird guide, what he once called one of the “confusing fall warblers,” those that no longer sport the bright colors of spring. They are mostly the males but also include females and the young of the year.
In addition, with no need to attract mates, most male songbirds no longer sing which makes identifying them even more challenging. An exception is the common yellowthroat that is still singing his distinctive “witchedy, witchedy” song in mid-September. He also retains his black mask but neither the olive-brown female nor their young—all with yellow throats and breasts—have masks.
I’m not a keen birder, like two of my sons, so I am content to leave the sorting of the puzzling birds to them. Still, I appreciate yellow-rumped warblers that visit our First Field in flocks. They may be mostly brown and white in fall but both sexes and the immatures always sport bright yellow rumps.
Ovenbirds too remain the same, looking much like thrushes except for the orange patch lined in black atop their heads. In September the adult birds have left for their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America or the West Indies, and their offspring have to manage on their own. They are much bolder than their parents and continue walking on the woods floor when I encounter them.
One beautiful September day I sat inside our three-acre deer exclosure on Turtle Bench watching chipmunks, including one that had a hole at the base of a witch hazel tree a couple feet from the bench. But first one young ovenbird, followed by a second one, walked past and poked on and under the leaves searching for food. The first one ranged back and forth and then wandered off but the second ovenbird stayed near the bench probing at dead leaves. The youngster leaped up several times to snatch insects from a red oak seedling, but eventually it also wandered away. And all the while numerous chipmunks chased and called, ignoring me just as the ovenbirds had.
I’m never happier than when I can watch wildlife unaware of or uncaring of my presence. The easiest mammals to watch on our mountain are porcupines. One September morning I was almost to the top of our First Field Trail when I spotted a large, probably male, porcupine heading my way. I moved to the side of the mossy trail as he stumped past. Then I decided to follow him.
He sniffed at ferns as he passed them and clambered over or under fallen trees. He seemed bent on moving rapidly straight into the upper end of the exclosure fence. Since I was several hundred feet from one of the three gates into the exclosure, I paralleled him on the trail outside.
Occasionally, he stopped and sniffed but kept walking fast. He reached the Turtle Bench area where I had been sitting only moments before. I carefully opened the gate and eased my way into the exclosure. He sniffed around the base of our 1812 red oak tree and then headed directly toward me. I moved aside as quietly as I could, but the dried leaves crunched beneath my feet and he was alerted. He looked up, sniffed in my direction, and I could hear the clattering of his teeth as he fanned his quill-filled tail. Still, I didn’t move and he made several attempts to come toward me, clearly wanting to go through the gate area and back to the First Field Trail. Finally, he gave up, turned, and walked down through the middle of the exclosure.
I let him get ahead of me before quietly following. He circled a few trees sniffing and then sniffed and reared up on his hind legs like a woodchuck. Again he started toward me, but then turned and disappeared into a large area of horse balm and spotted touch-me-nots and flushed a young ovenbird. I assumed the porcupine either hid there until I left or went out through the fence.
Even though he knew something—a possible threat—was nearby, he didn’t climb a tree to escape as porcupines usually do. At 20 feet away, I had heard his warning teeth clacking. He seemed to have excellent hearing and sense of smell, but he showed no interest in food like a porcupine I had watched in the summer carefully picking and eating Pennsylvania smartweed from a large patch of stiltgrass.
I decided he might have been tracking a pre-estrous female. According to Uldis Roze, in his book The North American Porcupine, mid-September to mid-October is the mating time for porcupines, and males begin by following odor plumes sent out by pre-estrous females. Since females are only in heat 8-to-12 hours a year, males like to be on site several days in advance, guarding a female by climbing into her tree and waiting on a lower branch, sniffing the air or her branch to see if she is ready to accept him. The males often wait several days and sometimes compete with other males for her acceptance. The porcupine I followed did rub his head at the base of several large trees leaving his own scent I assumed, although Roze didn’t mention this action in his book.
Once I lost sight of the porcupine, I walked over to our 37-acre First Field, which was covered with goldenrod and asters. Dozens of monarch butterflies nectared on the wildflowers along with pearl crescents, smaller butterflies than the monarchs but also colored orange and brown. Unlike the monarch caterpillars, which fed on our common milkweed leaves in mid-summer, the pearl crescents’ food plants are asters.
We have several aster species in our woods as well as in the field. Aster means “star,” hence the words “astronomy” and “astronaut.” In September the Ojibwa Indians smoked asters in their pipes to attract deer and other game. I’m not sure how that worked, but I suppose archery hunters could try it!
Asters, with 55 species in the northeast and goldenrod with 50 are true native wildflowers. The Chippewas called tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), the last of the five species to bloom in our field, “squirrel tail” because they grow so tall.
Our field of gold draws other migrating butterflies in addition to monarchs. All three are in the genus Vanessa. Most notable are red admirals, which are black with orange and white markings and migrate south for the winter. So too do the orange, black and white, painted and American ladies, all of which also nectar on the goldenrod and asters.
Green darner dragonflies hawk insects above the field on their way south. Sometimes near dusk I have counted as many as 50 hunting on our barn bank.
September is the last month to find blooming wildflowers. At the base of First Field is a wet area that is excellent for turtleheads. Their genus name Chelone is Greek for “tortoise” because their pink and white flowers look like the heads of turtles. Orange and black Baltimore checkerspot butterflies lay their eggs only on turtlehead leaves+, and those butterflies are usually not found more than 10 yards from a patch of turtleheads, as I’ve discovered. The flowers are pollinated by large bees strong enough to push their way into the turtleheads’ one-to-two-inch-long flower tubes to obtain nectar at the bases of the flowers.
The spotted jewelweeds, also known as touch-me-nots, in the wetland section of our exclosure, have orange-spotted, cornucopia-shaped flowers designed to be pollinated solely by hummingbirds. Their long bills pick up pollen grains from inside the top front of one flower and drop them on the inside top of the next flower when they probe for the nectar. I spend hours there watching as ruby-throated hummingbirds zip from one jewelweed to another. I have also seen bees stealing nectar from jewelweed by biting through the backs of these flowers instead of trying to push their way through the blossoms.
Near the end of September, most of the wildflowers are fading, but by then the witch hazel and black birch understory have turned golden and the black gum trees are red, gold, orange, or pink, giving those of us who hike or hunt in the September woods a special early showing of autumn color that almost makes up for the loss of wildflowers and migrating songbirds, butterflies and dragonflies.