Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

When we think of autumn, we often think of fall colors, specifically the onset of the kaleidoscope of colors created by the changing hues of tree leaves. But there are many other fall colors to enjoy that require looking down, not up. Here is a sampling from the past week or two here in the woods.

Swamp Sunflower exhibits one of the dominant flower colors of autumn – bright yellow (click photos to enlarge; all photos taken with iPhone)
Obedient Plant shows the other fall color so common in our late wildflowers – purple. The combination of purple and yellow must be attractive to the late season bees.
The rich brown of Painted Buckeye seeds on the forest floor
Jewelweed has had a very good fall in our garden and the hummingbirds loved it. The swollen seed pods shoot the seeds when touched giving the plant another common name, Touch-me-not.
A very late season Monarch caterpillar on Common Milkweed
The beautiful orange, white, and black of a freshly emerged Monarch Butterfly
Orange and black again, from?…these have been very active the past week or so.
Mushrooms, like this Russula sp., have been popping up all over our woods and yard the past few days
My favorite mushroom find was a few of these Carolina blue, Lactarius sp. milk cap mushrooms down in our woods

Leaves Aren’t The Only Fall Colors

Now is the time of the illuminated woods…when every leaf glows like a tiny lamp.

~John Burroughs

Autumn creeps into these woods slowly. I notice it more at sunset, when the light streaming across the ridge now has a distinct yellow tint that it lacks in the heat of summer.

Maple leaf backlit 1

Autumn maple leaf back lit by afternoon sun (click photos to enlarge)

On still afternoons, a close look at a leaf in its final days, reveals a world of intricate detail and beauty. But, there is more than leaf color waiting to be appreciated if you look closely. I walked around the yard yesterday, no particular purpose in mind, just looking closely at the changing landscape. Two weeks ago, I posted about a surprise discovery of what I thought might be my last larva of the waning warm season. I was wrong.

Red-humped Oakworm 1

Red-humped Oakworm

Not sure why I saw it as it was on the underside of a small sapling oak, but see it I did…another late season larva. It looked dressed for the season in a kaleidoscope of color and pattern. It also looked familiar, but I had to spend a few minutes paging through my worn copy of Wagner’s Caterpillars of Eastern North America before I found what I think it is – a Red-humped Oakworm, Symmerista canicosta.

Red-humped Oakworm 2

Colors befitting the season for this beautiful caterpillar

Apparently, this species is almost identical to another, the White-headed Prominent, S. albifrons, which shares this part of their ranges. I later learned that it may be possible to separate the two based on the relative widths of the black and white lines on their dorsal surface, which, of course, I didn’t manage to capture in my photos.

Red-humped Oakworm

A real beauty, whichever species it may be

These caterpillars start life as gregarious feeders and become solitary in later instars. They can also apparently cause widespread defoliation of oaks, especially in the northeast. When disturbed, they assume a curved position that makes it tougher to discern which end is which. I don’t know if there is an unpleasant surprise awaiting any predator that attempts to feast on either end, but many species with this behavior secrete noxious chemicals at both ends to deter would-be diners. In any case, whether I learn its true identity ,or why it behaves the way it does, this little guy brought some color and amazement to my stroll outside, and you can’t ask for more than that, at any time of year.

Autumn’s Palette

Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower.

~Albert Camus

hickory tree 1

Hickory tree canopy highlighted by late afternoon sun (click photos to enlarge)

Years ago I had a school grounds workshop scheduled for a week day in October near Asheville. I didn’t get a hotel room ahead of time since I figured it would not be a problem during the week. After checking various places with no vacancy, one clerk told me I would probably need to drive 30 minutes or more east before I could find a room…“After all, hon, it is leaf season”. Leaf season, of course. The annual display of leaf colors in autumn is one of the most magical aspects of living in a region dominated by temperate deciduous forests. While our mountains are highlighted as the place to see the most dramatic colors, I find beautiful hues across much of our state, and I love to take in the show, especially late in the day when the low angle of the sun makes the colors even more vibrant.

Chalk maple leaf

Chalk Maple leaf

These past few weeks when the colors have peaked in this area I have been very busy, and have not been out as much as I would have liked to capture the beauty. So, I went back in time to the files of previous Fall photos to bring out a few taken in the woods of Chatham County. Most are taken late in the afternoon on windless days. I especially like to shoot leaves that are back lit by the setting sun, as it really highlights their textures and imperfections. I only wish the show lasted a little longer…the strong winds and rain coming in the next few days will surely cause the few remaining colorful leaves to drop, leaving only the reddish browns of the oaks out front to hang on into winter. And we will all have to wait until the next leaf season to marvel at the dazzling beauty in the trees around us.

tulip poplar leaf

Tulip Poplar leaf

maple leaves

Red Maple leaves

hickory leaf

Hickory leaf

maple leaf 1

Red Maple leaves

maple leaf 2

Red Maple leaf edge

fall color

Chalk Maple leaf

Autumn, the year’s last, loveliest smile.

~William Cullen Bryant

maple leaf backlit 1

Red Maple leaf




Elk and Islands in the Sky

Elk meadow in Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley (click photos to enlarge)

I had an outing this weekend with a great group of folks in Cataloochee Valley and up on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our goals were to observe the elk during the mating season ritual called the rut and experience the beauty of the mountains during the fall leaf season. I’d say mission accomplished on both. It was overcast and cool on Saturday morning as we drove into the valley. We were greeted at the entrance by one lone bull elk and a little farther down the road a large crowd of visitors at the first elk herd.

Bull Elk in Cataloochee Valley

Bull Elk in Cataloochee Valley

One large bull was busy herding his harem of cows and occasionally chasing off a small spike bull that was feeding some distance from the herd of cows (but apparently not far enough away for the big bull). Early morning is one of the best times to see the elk as they tend to be feeding and, during the rut in September and October, interacting with one another.

Bull Elk bugling

Bull Elk bugling

Each year at this time males in their prime (usually 5 to 8 years of age) gather small herds of cows and calves and aggressively defend them from other bulls. This is done by a series of displays: bugling, a hauntingly beautiful and surprisingly high-pitched call; thrashing bushes and other vegetation with their antlers; and occasionally engaging in sparring matches with other large bulls by locking antlers and shoving in a show of strength.

Bull Elk checking a cow in his harem

Bull Elk courting a collared cow

When the cows come into estrus, the mating begins. A cow is receptive for mating less than 24 hours. She won’t be willing to mate again until her second estrus cycle arrives in 20 days so bulls are constantly checking on the cows in their herd. Bulls can be quite aggressive toward cows as they herd them, but then during courtship their behavior is decidedly more gentle. He may approach her and lick her to check her receptiveness and, if she is ready and willing, mount her to mate. This day had no actual mating or fights with other males, but the bull stayed busy, bugled often, and looked exhausted at times (bulls may lose 20% of their weight during the rut).

Palmer Church

Palmer Church

The rest of the day we explored the woods and stream sides and walked around some of the many historic structures in the valley. Several houses and barns, a one room school, cemeteries and a church are all that remain of a once thriving community that had to leave when the land became part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. There are auto tour brochures available for a nominal fee at the information kiosk near the valley entrance that give a detailed history of the valley and some of its notable inhabitants.

Bull Elk

Bull Elk with fall color

Late in the day we found ourselves (along with hundreds of other visitors in often car-clogged roads) watching the elk as they returned to the fields after being in the shade of the forest much of the day.

Mist along mountain ridge

Early morning mist along Blue Ridge Parkway

The next morning most of the group wanted to head up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for some fall color so we headed out and started heading north from Balsam Gap. The cool night and humid atmosphere had created ideal conditions for mist and low hanging clouds, a photographers dream for this time of year on the Parkway.

Ocen of clouds in valley below Blue Ridge Parkway

Ocean of clouds in valley below Blue Ridge Parkway

At first, we saw only patches of mist hugging some ridges. As we climbed in elevation and the road shifted to the other side of the mountains, an ocean of clouds spread out above the valley floor with isolated peaks popping through the gray sea. This type of scene has given rise to the name, Islands in the Sky, for these mountaintops protruding above the misty sea of clouds. It also refers to the unique ecological communities that are adapted to the cold conditions atop our highest mountains.

panorama from Richland Balsam

Panorama from Richland Balsam

As we continued north, the warmth of the sun caused the sea of clouds to recede leaving us with an unobstructed view of row upon row of ridges speckled with fall colors.

Yellowstone Falls 1

Lower part of Yellowstone Falls

Our final stop was a short hike down to Yellowstone Falls, one of the more popular hikes along this section of the Parkway. After winding through a thicket of Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel, you come out on a beautiful series of waterfalls. The hike is well worth the steep climb back out. And here’s something to consider next time you visit a popular waterfall. If you are at the top of the falls and look down and see a group of people with cameras looking up at you, try not to stay too long out in the open…they may be waiting for a chance to get a photo or two of the scene without people in the picture. As we parted ways, I think we all were appreciative of the sights and sounds we had experienced on this magnificent fall weekend. I look forward to the cooler weather and changing landscape and wildlife that the new season will bring.

Here are a few more photos from the trip.

Barn siding

Boards of historic barn in Cataloochee Valley

Young bull Elk with velvet on antlers

Young bull Elk with velvet on antlers

Rough sawn board on Palmer barn

Rough sawn board on Palmer barn

Mountain Ash berries 1g

Mountain Ash berries

Sassafras leaves

Sassafras leaves

Red Spruce against ocean of clouds

Red Spruce against ocean of clouds