No one really gives autumn a chance here in Summit County. We don't even call it autumn; except for the few weekends where the aspens light up the hillsides, it's mostly just known as mud season, the time when the tourist traffic slows down and we're stuck in a dead zone between summer and winter sports. In the sense of calling a spade a spade, this nickname may be true, but if you really stop to look and explore, it's actually a pretty amazing time in the High Country.
Autumn is a season of change, which means there is a lot happening in nature. The best part is that it's all easy to see. This season removes our blinders and allows us to see some things more clearly. Sap retreats back into tree trunks, and bam, the leaves get vibrant, but the yellows, oranges and reds of xanthophylls and carotenes have been there all summer. The overwhelming green of chlorophyll has just been masking them, just like the brightness of the sun masks the exhibition of the stars during the day. Falling leaves, too, reveal the birds shaded within aspen branches: flickers, robins, juncos, and chickadees remain in this area longer than many other songbirds and can be easily identified. The orange undersides of the flicker's wings give it its defining name, while the junco has white stripes running along the outer length of its tail. The chickadee gets its onomatopoetic name from its call, chicka-dee-dee-dee, but you can be sure by checking for the characteristic black cap on the top of its head.
Even mud itself can be revealing. A single footprint can indicate the animal that last walked on your favorite hiking trail. Look for the general shape and number of toes, the gait pattern and the direction the tracks are going, and you'll begin to form a picture. Try filling the holes in the story - do you think the deer was looking for water? Running from a coyote? - and let your imagination build a tale.
Animals tend to be moving around a lot right now. Whether they are foraging for more food to store fat for the winter, or beginning their migration to a warmer climate, they are busy. Squirrels are lining their nests with leaves and grass, black bears are in constant nighttime search of insects, berries, and young vegetation to fortify them through their long winter's nap, and beavers are building up caches of food inside the lodges they've worked throughout the summer to build. If you look closely, you can see signs of them at work.
So think about re-considering mud season, which can actually one of the best times to go out and take a look around. True, it's no good for skiing and only marginally better for mountain biking, but that's okay. We cannot see what is all around if we only look down the fall line.
Chris DeKay is a Program Instructor at Keystone Science School. For more information on Keystone Science School, give us a call at (970) 468-2098 or visit www.keystonescienceschool.org.