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Goldfinches Prepare for Winter

Winter is fast approaching and many birds are preparing for its arrival. Many song birds have already started their journey to the southern U.S., Central and South America where insects abound.

The birds that remain behind to face the winter must bulk up on as many seeds as they can find to form a fat layer to keep warm. Goldfinches gobble thistle seeds, cone flower seeds and wild grass seeds for stored energy.

One of the most interesting ways goldfinches prepare for the winter is to replace their golden feathers with gray feathers. This helps them blend in with the gray winter woods. If you examine the pictures closely, you can see the beginnings of the gray feathers. By winter they change from a golden yellow to a drab gray.

One of the goldfinches’ favorite food is thistle seed that you can purchase and put in thistle feeders in your backyard. You may even attract house and purple finches as well. This will help them survive the brutal winter temperatures and snow covered ground that cuts food off to them.

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The Shrub That Blooms in the Fall

It is late October and woodlands and the colorful autumn leaves are littering the ground. The woodlands are beginning to look barren as winter approaches. It is at this time that a shrub blooms providing some color to the barren landscape. It has many small spindly yellow flowers on branches devoid of leaves. It is witch hazel.

This large shrub  grows where there is acidic, sandy soils in the eastern U.S. from Maine to Florida. It is a food plant of the spring azure butterfly and birds eat the seed capsules produced by the flower.

Native Americans used a forked branch of this plant as a divining rod to find underground water. Its twigs and branches were boiled to make a medicinal brew called witch hazel which was used for several ailments.

Its flowers are a welcome sight in the late fall landscape, but it is a harbinger of the arrival of winter with cold temperatures and snow.

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The Red Tree

One of the most beautiful things to see in fall wetlands is the orange-red colors of autumn leaves from the red maple tree. This tree’s buds and flowers are red, its two-winged sumara are red tinged and it has red petioles. Red maple is also called swamp maple because it grows in wet woodlands and freshwater wetlands from the mid-west to the east coast. On New York’s Long Island it often grows alongside tupelo trees that also thrive in wetlands.

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The Golden Aster

Asters are a family of plants that give color to fall landscapes in fields and meadows. These flowers are often white or various shades of blue and purple. The Maryland golden aster stands out from the rest due to its golden yellow daisy like blossoms.

This aster thrives in well drained sandy soils in the eastern U.S. and like other asters, insects are attracted to its nectar and pollen. Because of its bright color, it is one of my favorite asters.

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Heath Aster Feeds Insects

Asters and goldenrods are fall wildflowers that produce nectar and pollen for many insects that are preparing for the upcoming winter. Heath aster is one of wildflower that blooms in the fall. Its heath-like growth and white daisy-like blossoms is what makes this aster stand out from other types.

Bumble bees, honey bees, wasps, butterflies, skippers, beetles, and moths are just some of the insects that harvest the nectar and pollen the aster produces.

The heath aster thrives throughout North America including Canada and the U.S. It is just one of many species of aster that blooms in the fall. Some are white, some are blue, some are purple and some are yellow. I will highlight a couple of other species in future posts.


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Six-legged Sex

Stepping out my front door, I walk right into an orgy of sex. I am surrounded by couples attached abdomen to abdomen. Crawling entangled bodies writhe in a mass next to the front window of the porch. It is late summer in Florida and the love bug mating season is upon us.

Love bugs are short lived. Their whole purpose as an adult is to breed. Everywhere I look male and female love bugs, attached abdomen to abdomen crawl on the front door, on the exterior house walls and on the shrubs. Some, still connected, fly in tandem, the male refusing to let go to prevent other males from having sex with its mate.

Piles of dead love bug bodies are strewn on the porch floor having lived out their three days of life. Fertilized females lay up to 350 eggs in the leaf litter, grasses and wood chips. She, too, will then die. In about three weeks the larvae will hatch from the eggs and will eat dead decaying plant matter until they grow large enough to pupate through the winter.

Next spring adult love bugs will emerge from their pupae and the six-legged sex orgy will begin again.


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The Last Big Harvest

Fall is the time of year when goldenrods brighten the fields and roadsides with showy yellow blossoms. It is the time for the last major harvesting of nectar and pollen by bees, wasps, migrating butterflies  and many other insects. Nectar gathered by bumblebees and honeybees will help these insects survive the winter. Pollen is also eaten by several species of beetles.

One species of goldenrod is the downy goldenrod. It has bottlebrush-like spikes of yellow flowers and with a magnifier you will see fine hairs on its stems and leaves. Its stems are  dark purple-brow.. The downy goldenrod grows in the eastern U. S.

People often have allergies in the fall from a different plant called ragweed. Unlike goldenrods that depend on insects for cross pollination, ragweed depends on the wind to blow pollen from plant to plant. Its pollen is so light that it is carried into the atmosphere where it is breathed in by people, some have severe allergies to it. Often ragweed grows alongside goldenrods, but because goldenrods are showy and ragweed is not, goldenrods get the blame for people’s allergies.

Goldenrods are not the only fall wildflower to provide pollen and nectar for insect. The aster is another another prolific plant in fall landscapes that many insects depend on for their fall harvest.

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