Looking out of my office window, a flash of moving red and black catches my eye It's a monarch butterfly, aimlessly (it seems) flying past the building, Then I see another and a little while later, another.
Now I know, autumn has begun. Although it's still hot outside and leaves have yet to change to into their warmer fall hues, now I know that autumn has begun.
The monarch butterfly, one of the few butterflies that migrates, is easily recognized by dark orange wings with black veins and white edge spots. This 4-inch butterfly is found throughout the United States and into southern Canada. From September to the third week of October, as the days grow shorter, 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. The butterflies sometimes rest on narrow-leaved trees like willows, maples and pines.
And they are not the only ones on the move. Raptors (hawks, falcons and eagles) begin their annual southward migration just prior to the fall foliage color change.
The earliest of these migrants are generally not noticed. Beginning their move in September, juvenile birds lead the way Adults 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 others are steered toward the mountains.
To observe the hawk flights along a mountain passage, travel toward the Appalachian or Blue Ridge mountain ranges.
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, VA.
And not only are the skies 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 rivers systems of the watershed, are preparing 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, move toward the ocean. Some juveniles enter the ocean while others overwinter in deep holes near the Bay's mouth. 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 Bay's mouth in October and November. Striped bass move to lower areas of rivers in autumn.
Even blue crabs are restless. Mating occurs in summer months and although males remain in upper to middle portions of the Bay, they do head to deeper water. Mature females move south, overwintering in deep basins of the lower Bay.
And just when it seems that all of the wildlife is moving out of the Bay, 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, which 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 that autumn itself has returned.