Forest Explorations

October in the Fells

The air is crisp. The whole forest is dressed in oranges, reds, and yellows that flash in the autumn light. It’s a feast of colors today but one can feel that Fall just passed its peak. The colors are vibrant, stunning but they are disappearing as quickly as the wind gusts detach the leaves from trees and shrubs…

About the Author: Claire O'Neill ➔

Claire is the founder of Earthwise Aware, which focuses on bringing biodiversity knowledge, ecological ethics, and environmental leadership to the heart of communities, and in the daily life of people. She strongly believes that individually and altogether we can be ethically & ecologically engaged–whoever we are, whatever we do, and wherever we are.

Ethical Nature conservation is not circumstantial, it is a mindset that you acquire which then turns into a way of life. Once on that path, a great many rewards for us becomes obvious. And the satisfaction out of practicing good ethics is almost addictive. There is no looking back...

Her favorite words: “Earthwise Aware as A Way of Life”

Once a month, EwA leads a biodiversity walk in the Fells. It’s a free form activity of ours which only purpose is to explore what Nature wonders are in season: what is flowering, fruiting, passing by, living here?

Here are highlights of our walk interspersed with some of our favorite observations gathered during our Fells biodiversity fieldwork sessions this month.


Turning a New Leaf

Maple, Tupelos, oaks, hickories… All are turning new leaf colors, leaving behind the many hues of summer greens. Like bright and happy confetti, the leaves drop, fly and dry on the floor, ponds and pools of the forest. There, they offer shelter to a myriad of other life forms, including frogs, bees and beetles that are preparing to winter…


What’s in Flower?

I don’t really have any favorite plant or tree. I kind of embrace forests as a whole. Yet, in fall, I surely have a soft spot for the American witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). Late October, I look intently for that moment when its flower buds burst and reveal their delicate flower hearts and slender petals.

Next time you pass a witch hazel in the forest, and if it still has some leaves, look also for little witch hats on top of those leaves. Those conical black “hats” are the chemical reaction of the leaf to an aphid, the Witch-hazel Cone Gall Aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis). That aphid disturbs the leaf surface with its ovipositor, leaving behind a tiny egg. At this time of the year, they’re gone but know that that leaf was instrumental to its development.


Common Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) is also known as the Heartleaf Aster. It’s an herbaceous perennial that is native to rich, dry to moist woodlands, forest margins, fields and other habitats in eastern to central North America. It also is a very important food source for a large number of native bees.


What’s in Fruit?

Another autumn favorite of mine is the Mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium). Its fruits are still hanging there –a little less fleshy maybe but providing food to late fall shoppers. White-throated Sparrows, Cardinals and Hermit Thrush, as well as chipmunks and squirrels, are among those who consume the fruits and disperse the seeds.

What changed though compared to last month is the color of their leaves which vary from orange-brown to purple-burgundy.


Looking down on the forest floor often at the feet of conifers, look for Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). It is a prostrate evergreen vine. The bright red berries pop like beads lost among the deep green leaves of the creeping vine. Ruffed grouse, bobwhite, wild turkeys, red foxes, skunks, and white-footed mice eat the fruits. To us, the berries edible but are tasteless and seedy.


Other Special Gems & Findings

All throughout the month, you could feel and see a frenzy of bird, mammal and insect activities in preparation for the cold months to come.


After I left our Biodiversity hikers back to their day, I went back in the forest for a couple more hours to scout a potential vernal pool that I know was closeby. When you’re alone in the forest, walking furtively, attentive to sounds, then, you can catch friends by surprise. Here, an Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) saw me – stopped – and sized me out quietly. We spent a good 5 minutes peacefully looking at each other. Unphased by the non-threat that I represented, he resumed attending to his newly found acorn.

The squirrel and chipmunk feeding frenzy peaks in early autumn. By late October it begins to quiet down a bit when the rodents have already stored away most of their winter supply.


Joe, who co-led the walk with Mike and I, went back into the forest later that day. He caught a beautiful sighting of a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).

Short tail, thick neck, these stubby little birds are often seen foraging head down the bark of trees. Maybe working their way down gives them a unique view of what might be hiding there, a niche behavior of some sort.

Starting in the fall Nuthatches cache as many seeds as they can. They store seeds in the bark of trees. Those seeds are a very important part of their winter diet. Caching seeds so they can be seen going down the tree may keep them safe from other birds going up the tree…


Let’s not forget the many insects that are also visible at this time of the year. There may be less, but they’re there. Throughout our walk, we could hear the trilling of Fall field crickets (Gryllus pennsylvanicus). Here, Joe caught the sighting of a Leathery Sweat Bee (Lasioglossum coriaceum) –and the first iNaturalist record in our forest! That’s just Great!


What a great month and what a great morning walk! Thanks to Mike and Joe who co-led this walk with me, and to everyone who joined us! Check all our other sightings that day at the Fells here. See you next month ( 📅 Join one of our biodiversity walks)!


Oct, 27th 2019 | by Claire O’Neill 

The photos in this article are visual observations that Joe and Claire have recorded in the Fells during the Oct 26st, 2019 Forest Explorations event or later that day. They  are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC). The photo of the pond is the property of Claire.

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