Winter is Coming – Finally

It seems summer has dragged on forever, but cooler weather is finally here. Fall officially began on September 23, at the time of the autumn equinox and winter isn’t far behind.

Fall often seems to bring grasshoppers. Hopping, fluttering, clicking and buzzing, as usual they are clearly oblivious to the Grim Reaper of winter lurking just offstage. True to Aesop’s tale of the Industrious ant and careless, lazy grasshopper, those long-legged hoppers will give their lives to the first killing frosts, while industrious ants will just huddle deep in their nests, awaiting the return of warmer weather.

Praying mantises, those fraudulently pious insect assassins, mate in the fall. Perverse eating machines that they are, the female often has her mate for breakfast following their nuptial night! She then lays several hundred eggs in a layered, light brown foamy mass that hardens into a waterproof case tightly glued to trees, shrubs, grass stems and the brick walls of my house. The eggs will overwinter and produce a new crop of pest eating mantises in the spring.

Walking stick insects, often four or more inches in length and only an eighth of an inch thick, concealed in grass and shrubs during the summer, often make a brief public appearance in the fall. They are also short-timers. Soon they will lay a hundred or so birdshot-like eggs, letting them fall where they will, waiting for the warmth of spring to cause them to hatch. Then the adult walking sticks will pass on to insect heaven.

Wooly bears, those big, fuzzy, banded caterpillars that appear in the fall, offer other clues that summer is over. With a broad band of reddish-orange “fur” in their middle and black hairs on their front and back ends, they are the larvae of the Isabella tiger moth. Hibernating through the winter under the bark of trees and beneath forest floor litter, they will emerge in the spring and cover themselves with a silk cocoon mixed with their own hair. After a short time of transformation from a pupa to adult, they will emerge in late spring as an adult moth.

Weather myth proclaims that the narrower the wooly bear’s black bands, the more severe the winter, but scientists say band width is dictated only by age and moisture. Older caterpillars feeding in more moist areas have wider black bands. The patterns really do not predict winter’s rigors.

Of course, if fall is anything in East Texas, it’s deer season and hunter’s necks are swelling. (Just kidding!) Actually, buck’s necks do become thicker during the rutting season and they’ve now grown antlers, or in local jargon, “horns,” to use in impressing and battling for does.

Squirrels, of course, have been scurrying around for some time, gathering and storing acorns and my pecans and other food. I see them holding pine cones like ears of corn as they munch the scales off to get at the seeds inside. They regularly drop these cone bombs. Be careful where you stand. Squirrels are litter bugs; look for piles of scales and corn cob-like cone cores littering the ground under their favorite pine trees.

Even the heavens proclaim the season’s changes. By 9:00 p.m., the Pleiades star cluster, known as the Seven Sisters, whom the ancients believed brought rain and cold weather, is high in the east-northeast. Orion the Hunter is rising over the eastern horizon. Trailed by his hunting dogs he can safely begin his grand march across the fall and winter skies. Between Orion and the Pleiades, Aldebaran, the red eye in Taurus the Bull glares down. Look for brilliant Jupiter almost overhead.

For most people, the most obvious harbingers of fall and winter are the leaves of trees and shrubs changing color and falling. In spite of our serious drought, fall colors this year have been unusually vibrant.

Meanwhile, the sun is sinking lower in the sky with each shortening day, and the earth is soaking up less and less heat. Soon we’ll be complaining that it’s too cold! Winter officially begins December 22nd when our days reach their shortest.

But go outside anyway and see the changes taking place in the great outdoors. Fall is one of the greatest times of the year in East Texas!

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.