Even before the fiery colors of fall paint the landscape, you're likely to see splashes of orange and black. The monarch butterfly, one of the few butterflies that migrate, is on the move. Although it may still be hot outside and leaves have yet to change, when monarchs are moving the transition from summer to autumn has begun.
The monarch butterfly, easily recognized by dark orange wings with black veins and white edge spots, is found throughout the United States and into southern Canada. As the days grow shorter from September to the third week of October, millions of monarchs make their way south to overwinter in the Gulf States and remote mountain valleys of southcentral Mexico.
Peninsulas are good areas to observe migrating butterflies. Point Lookout, Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge and Black Walnut Point in Maryland and Cape Charles and Kiptopeke in Virginia often attract monarchs. Migrating monarchs often rest at these and other southern tips before crossing water. Look for them resting on narrow-leaved trees like willows, maples and pines.
And they are not the only animals on the move. Raptors, like hawks, falcons and eagles, begin their annual southward migration just prior to fall foliage color change. The earliest of these migrants are generally not noticed. Juvenile birds lead the way, 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, the land formation changes, causing some birds to funnel along the coast while the others are steered along the mountains.
To observe the hawk flights along a mountain passage, travel toward the Appalachian or Blue Ridge mountain ranges. The west-facing ridges in Pennsylvania, western Maryland and Virginia provide excellent opportunities to see the southbound migration. Locations to observe a coastal fall flight can be found along the southern end of peninsulas such as 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, Virginia.
And it is not just the skies that are busy. The Chesapeake Bay, and the waters that feed it, are highways for fish and other aquatic life.
American eels, which have been maturing in the rivers systems of the watershed, are readying for a long migration back to the oceanic waters of the Sargasso Sea to spawn. They stop feeding, their eyes and pectoral fins enlarge, and their color changes to a gray back and white belly. The migration occurs throughout autumn nights as adults descend streams and rivers.
Young American shad, usually in fresh or brackish water, also move toward the ocean. Some juveniles enter the ocean while others overwinter in deep holes near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Menhaden are also migrating south toward the North Carolina capes, where they remain until March and early April. Bluefish begin to migrate out of the Bay and move south along the coast, peaking in abundance near the mouth in October and November. Striped bass, though not far travelers, move to lower areas of rivers during autumn.
Even blue crabs are restless. Mating occurs in summer months, and although males remain in upper to middle portions of the Bay, they will head to deeper water. Mature females move south, overwintering in deep basins of the lower Bay.
And just when it seems that most of the Chesapeake wildlife is migrating elsewhere, roughly one-third of all waterfowl along the East Coast begins to return to the Chesapeake Bay to spend the winter.
Swans, geese and ducks from Alaska, Canada, northcentral United States and New England seek out the wetlands, shorelines and open water that provide food critical to their survival.
Autumn would not be complete without the V-shape of migrating geese in sky. Constant honking not only signals the arrival of the familiar Canada goose, but the return of autumn itself.