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Autumn can be a polarizing season, but I have become quite the enthusiast of this time of harvest, leaf peeping and ubiquitous festivals. I like the hot cider and apple fritters, but what I love most are the seasonal changes we can experience in the natural world.
Chesapeake Country is a fine place to experience those changes. The watershed we call home is an enormous place — over 64,000 square miles stretched across six states and Washington, D.C. Within those miles are diverse physiographic regions: the ancient Appalachian Mountains, the rolling hills of the central piedmont plateau and the low-lying, marsh-encompassed Atlantic coastal plain. In each of these regions, birds are migrating and mammals are on the move as they forage for precious calories. Exquisite colors adorn the many species of deciduous trees.
From the Beaches …
Close to home, the tranquil, still wetlands of Calvert Cliffs State Park in Calvert County give us a double image of autumn color: in the trees and reflected on Bay waters. As well as its namesake cliffs and fossilized shark teeth, the Bayside park also invites wildlife viewing. I have encountered wood ducks and muskrat as they swim through the season’s colorful double image.
To the Marshes …
At Calvert County’s Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, you’ll find an unexpected color transformation. An easy stroll on a boardwalk takes you into one of the northernmost naturally occurring stands of bald cypress trees in the lower 48 states. This cypress appears evergreen, but it is deciduous, and its needles change to beautiful fall colors before dropping. If you are lucky, you may be treated to the sight of a bald eagle or barred owl.
For a unique sighting of autumnal color, head to saltier marshes to search for patches of glasswort. The plant has simple or branched stems that resemble asparagus stalks. Beginning in late September, it transforms to a brilliant crimson red, making it simple to scan for and identify. Stunning to behold, it is in perfect contrast to the cordgrass, which is turning from green to brown. A great location for glasswort is the salt marshes of Assateague Island.
To the Mountains …
Take in the bounty of autumn leaves in our mountain regions. Two of my favorite locations are Shenandoah National Park and Catoctin Mountain Park, both operated by the National Park Service.
The famed skyline drive of Shenandoah is a 105-mile historic highway beginning in Front Royal, Virginia, and traversing the length of the park along the Blue Ridge Mountains. By mid-October the drive will be adorned with a kaleidoscope of autumn color. Additionally there are numerous trails in the park, including the Appalachian Trail, to take you farther into the woodlands.
There’s a trail for everyone, from the novice hiker to the experienced backpacker, and varying levels of intensity. For an easy walk try the Limberlost trail, which is wheelchair accessible. The more intrepid might spend a day hiking Old Rag Mountain and its famed rock scramble. Be on that trailhead early, as the mountain’s popularity equates to large crowds and long lines on the rock scramble. Bring plenty of water and a backpack to clean up after yourself, and follow the adage to leave only your footprints behind.
Shenandoah National Park holds a wide variety of wildlife, including whitetail deer, coyotes, bobcats and wild turkeys. Its most famous inhabitants are a thriving population of black bears, which will be active as they seek high-calorie acorns before winter sets in. Seeing a bear in the autumn woods is a real treat. A black bear is a rather timid animal and is more likely frightened by you than the other way around. For a safe as well as memorable encounter, always give the bear plenty of space and admire it from a distance.
Catoctin Mountain Park in western Maryland is much smaller but no less breathtaking, with numerous trails and vistas. While there, make sure to look down at the leaf clutter and you may be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the ruffed grouse, a chicken-like upland bird that blends in with the forest floor.
By November, when the leaves have moved past peak color and the thought of Thanksgiving dinner is piquing our senses, another color not normally associated with autumn is just returning. The marshes and agricultural lands around the Bay will be sprinkled with the color white, signaling the return of snow geese and tundra swans to the Chesapeake.
When thousands upon thousands of snow geese blast off in flight together in a cacophony of goose call, it is quite the sensory experience. These birds flock to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County, where another large white bird, the while pelican, is also just returning.
I hope these ideas inspire you to experience autumn in the natural world.