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Mr. FaganNATURE HAPPENINGS - September 2002

 

Autumnal Aspens
by Damian Fagan

This is role reversal at its finest - my daughter fishes and I sit. Her casts arc across the still waters of Warner Lake, and occasionally I am asked to help unsnarl her line. Otherwise, I’m free to play in the dirt.

From my chair I can pick up several nearby aspen leaves to examine them up-close. Shaped like squat pumpkins with saw-blade edges, most of them bear the yellow signatures of fall. A few are dotted with spots of green or red, cells of chlorophyll that are in different stages of demise.

I roll the leaf stem between my thumb and index finger and can easily see why these leaves are called “trembling aspens.” The long petiole acts like a wand allowing the leaf blade to tremble in even the lightest breeze. The plant’s scientific name bears this image, for Populus means “of the populace” and tremuloides means “trembling.”

Across the lake, the golden hillside is interrupted by an occasional stab of evergreen - a spruce or fir tree that has grown up in the shadow of these aspens. What a stark contrast these evergreens are to the clown-white bark of the aspens. These spruce and firs represent the next successional stage of the forest, the transition from pioneering aspen to coniferous forest. Growing up in the shade of the aspens, these evergreens have the patience of a fisherman.

I use my binoculars to scan the ridge above Gold Knob. I do not know if there is a mineral connection to the name, but today it seems appropriately named for this seasonal event. A red-tailed hawk floats along the ridge line, catching thermals or updrafts to keep it aloft. Perhaps the bird is a migrant, as many raptors and small passerines use the updrafts off of these peaks to propel them on their southern sojourn. I add redtail to my mental list which already includes golden eagle, American kestrel, Townsend’s and black-throated gray warbler, mountain chickadees, American robin, Stellar’s jay, and ring-necked duck.
The ducks are also fishing. They float around the far edge of the lake, safe from wayward casts. The ducks are after aquatic plants, small invertebrates and perhaps small fish. They bounce back to the surface at the end of their dive with water droplets sliding off their backs like autumn cares. Ah, the mountains in September.

As the morning progresses, so does my bird list. Swifts and swallows appear like rush hour traffic, picking off insects as the birds zoom across the lake. These birds must be migrants, their insectivorous diet driving them southward.

These birds are joined by a handful of dragonflies that are coursing around the lake edge also in search of small flying insects. Once called the “devil’s darning needles” dragonflies have had to shake their bad-boy image from an uniformed public. Tales of babies being bitten in their sleep or of poisons located in the tip of the dragonfly’s tails have did not endear these voracious mosquito and midget eaters to the general populace. But, consider the benefits of a single adult dragonfly that can consume around 300 mosquitos a day.

Finally, my daughter is done fishing. I have been sorely tempted to use the “Can we go now?” whine, but I don’t want to spoil the ambiance of this morning. My wife and I both know that our daughter can easily entertain herself outside when she is waiting for us, picking up leaves and playing in the dirt like her dad.

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