Although the month of September can still hold some sultry days, wildlife throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed is already receiving signals that autumn is coming.
Tree leaves have yet to change to warmer hues, but you’ll catch small splashes of orange as the monarch butterfly, one of the few butterflies that migrates, begins a remarkable journey south. The monarch, found throughout the United States and into southern Canada, is easily recognized by dark orange wings with black veins and white edge spots. From September through October, millions of monarchs will flutter south to overwinter in the Gulf States and remote mountain valleys of southcentral Mexico.
Migrating monarchs often rest on narrow-leaved trees like willows, maples and pines before crossing bodies of water. Because of this, peninsulas are often good places to see these migrating butterflies. Point Lookout, Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge and Black Walnut Point in Maryland as well as Cape Charles and Kiptopeke in Virginia often attract monarchs.
Watch the skies and you are likely to see other migratory wildlife. Raptors — hawks, falcons and eagles — are also beginning their migration just prior to the fall foliage color change. Juvenile birds lead the way and are beginning to move in September. Adult birds generally wait until later in the fall to join the southbound flight.
As they approach the Chesapeake Bay from the north, some birds are funneled along the coast while the others are steered along the mountains.
Popular spots to see these raptors along the coast include Cape May, NJ; Cape Henlopen, DE; the barrier islands of Assateague, MD, and Chincoteague, VA; and all points south along the beaches to Cape Charles, VA.
To observe hawks flying along a mountain passage, travel toward the Appalachian or Blue Ridge ranges. The west-facing ridges in Pennsylvania, western Maryland and Virginia provide excellent opportunities to see the southbound migration.
Maybe not as obvious as migrating butterflies or skies dotted with raptors, a more subtle change can be observed in open fields, along roadways and near sunny river banks. Late-blooming wildflowers give us our last splash of color and provide a critical nectar source for pollinators such as butterflies and bees.
Many species of native goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) dot the landscape with delicate yellow flowers. Meanwhile, the familiar black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) creates patches and gold and brown. Native asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) sport a range of colors with their white, blue and purple petals.
Not to be outdone, native grasses and grasslike plants of freshwater wetlands and brackish marshes are also transitioning. As they begin to flower, these stands of summer green will change to warmer hues of gold, orange and reddish brown.