Rejoicing the end of summer

Russet browns of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grass (Sorgastrum nutans) blend with still-green foliage in early autumn at White River Balds Natural Area in southwestern Missouri.

Last week I awoke to refreshingly cool temperatures for the first time in a long time – a brutal heat wave that had gripped the Midwest for some time had finally (if only briefly) passed. Missouri typically experiences substantial heat and humidity during the height of summer, a result of warm, moisture-laden air sweeping up from the Gulf of Mexico and over our mid-continental position.  The first cool snap in mid-August, however, usually marks the beginning of the end of protracted heat. High temps may return (and usually do), but they are intermittent and the writing is on the wall – summer’s end is near, and fall is on its way! For most of my life, the coming of fall has always been something to which I looked forward eagerly – it really is my favorite time of year.  I don’t just love fall, I adooore it!!!  As a result, I sometimes forget that not everyone shares my feelings, so when I mentioned to a colleague last week how excited I was that fall was on the way, I was a little surprised by her less-than-pleased reaction. Kids I can understand –  fall means a return to school and the end of fun and sun and no responsibilities.  However, for most adults, fall does not entail as dramatic a paradigm shift – we get up and go to work everyday regardless of the season. Indeed, to my colleague, fall was not dreaded so much for what it is but what it portends – winter! I convinced myself that if she was as interested in natural history as I, surely she would appreciate fall as a time of transition in the natural world.  This logic proved faulty, however, when just a few days later one of my favorite entomologist/natural historian bloggers voiced a similar lamentation.

Xeric calcareous prairie (''cedar glade'') in southwestern Missouri - habitat for Cicindela obsoleta vulturina.

That the charms of fall are not immediately apparent to everyone is beyond me.  Who in middle America doesn’t rejoice the end of long, sweltering days as they cede to the cool days of fall?  Who dreads the crisp, clean, autumn air and its pungent, earthy aromas?  Who doesn’t marvel as they watch the landscape morph from summer’s monotonous shades of green – its forests becoming a riot of red, orange, and yellow, its grasslands a shifting mosaic of tawny, amber, and gold, and in all places shadows cast long and sharp by a cool yellow sun riding low in a deep blue sky?  For the natural historian, fall offers even more than just these sensory gifts – it’s not the end of the season, but rather part of a repeating continuum that includes birth, growth, senescence and quiescence.  Plants that have not yet flowered begin to do so in earnest, while those that have shift energy reserves into developing seeds.  The spring wildflowers may be long gone, but only now do the delicate blooms of Great Plains Ladies’-tresses orchids rise up on their tiny spires.  Grasses also, anonymous during the summer, now reach their zenith – some with seed heads as exquisite as any summer flower.  Insects and other animals step up activity, hastily harvesting fall’s bounty to provision nests or fatten their stores in preparation for the long, winter months ahead.

Gypsum Hills in south-central Kansas. Habitat for Cicindela pulchra.

For myself, it is tiger beetles that are fall’s main attraction.  Yes, tiger beetles are out during spring and summer as well, but there is something special about the fall tiger beetle fauna.  Glittering green, wine red, and vivid white, a number of tiger beetles make a brief appearance in the fall after having spent the summer as larvae, hidden in the ground while feeding on hapless insects that chanced too close to their burrows, until late summer rains triggered pupation and transformation to adulthood.  As the rest of the nature prepares for sleep, these gorgeous beetles take their first, tentative steps into the autumn world for a brief session of feeding and play before winter chases them back underground for the winter.  Every fall for the past several years now, I have looked forward to the annual fall tiger beetle trip to see some of the different species and the unique landscapes which harbor them.  From the “cedar glades” of Missouri’s Ozark Highlands and Gypsum Hills of south-central Kansas, to the Sandhills of central Nebraska and Black Hills of South Dakota, I’ve acquired an even greater passion for a season that I already loved.  I’ll never forget the first time I saw Cicindela pulchra (beautiful tiger beetle) flashing iridescently across the barren red clay.  I still remember the excitement of seeing my first C. obsoleta vulturina launching itself powerfully from amongst the clumps of big bluestem. I recall my amazement at my first encounter with C. limbata (sandy tiger beetle) as it danced across deep sand blows, undaunted by scouring 30 mph winds.  No doubt I have many equally vivid memories awaiting me in the future, as I intend to keep the annual fall tiger beetle trip a long-standing tradition.  For this year, I’m hoping that C. pulchra and a few other species will reward a late-September drive to the Nebraska and South Dakota Badlands.  Whether they do is almost irrelevant – I love fall, and the chance to see new localities during my favorite time of year will be reward enough.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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14 Responses to Rejoicing the end of summer

  1. Dave Stone says:

    I’m with you on the start of fall, Ted, and I’m a teacher! I was first introduced to the biodiversity of central Illinois in 1980, by University of Illinois entomology professor Ellis MacLeod, in my first graduate level arthropod taxonomy class. Each fall now begins with my being able to do likewise with a group of 24 high school seniors. I guess the cycle continues.

    Since taking up photography a little over a year ago, I’ve come to really enjoy photographing the myriad of early fall pollinators. I’m taking my field biology class out for the first time tomorrow. Can’t wait. A whole new world is about to open for many of them and I get to be the host!

    • You know, I almost said something about teachers being excepted from other adults but thought it sounded too presumptuous. I would expect that any teacher who really enjoys what they do would be downright excited about the new school year and the chance to impart passion into a few more young minds. It sounds like you’ve got the juice.

  2. Great post Ted! I have to admit that in the past I begrudged fall (school, winter, etc) but recently my attitude has changed and I’ve come to appreciate fall! Good luck with your trip and I hope you get the beetles you desire!

    • Thanks, Morgan. I don’t know that I ever dreaded the start of school – it was always an exciting time I thought, intellectually and socially. Add the sensory delights of fall on top of that and it was a magical time (visions of the Mizzou campus in autumnal colors now flashing in my head :))

  3. Thanks for this well written article, and I agree completely!
    I love our four seasons (even if our winters drag on a bit…) and the different expectations they bring. While our summer has been particularly cool and damp this year, I normally find autumn a welcome break from the heat and the mosquitoes. Winter brings the prospect of time to slow down, reorganize and plan for the coming spring. It is a cycle of life that suits me well.

    • Glad you liked it, Adrian. It’s nice to know that even in the cold north fall and winter are welcomed by some. I’m totally with you on winter as well – were it not for the chance it provides to ease up, take a breath, and regroup for the next season, I’m sure I’d burn out.

  4. jason says:

    Awesome, Ted! This was such a marvelous sensory ride. And how true about autumn being an exciting time. Though winter is my favorite season, the transitions of spring and autumn are probably the most exciting. So much activity, so much change, and it’s all there to be enjoyed. Well, that and it means an end to the oppressive heat of summer that pretty much sucks the life out of everything–especially me!

    • Thank you, Jason. It had been awhile since I’d done one of my more effusive, romantic posts – waking up to that first cool snap was all the stimulus I needed for something to well up inside me.

      I, too, am a 4-season lover, including winter for the unique opportunity it offers. Spring is exciting, but the explosive rate of its change is almost too frenetic. Fall’s transition is more subtle, a slow, muted winding down that can be savored – oh sorry, there I go again…

  5. Dave says:

    There’s a commercial on tv here with a girl in shorts walking down a sunny street when she suddenly jumps back and screams – and a yellow maple leaf floats down to the sidewalk. That’s pretty much how I react to the first goldenrod. Alberta’s summer is too short and cool (I think the record high in Edmonton is 95 F – and it hasn’t been that warm since I’ve been here) to feel any relief when the warmth is gone. As Adrian noted, this year has been very cold and wet. Although the mosquitoes have prospered this summer, the other insects would probably appreciate a few more weeks before the frosts start. I’m with the bugs.

    • I can certainly forgive my northern friends for wanting to hang onto summer as long as possible. I think our falls are probably like your summers – ergo we really do like the same thing🙂

  6. James C. Trager says:

    I’m sympathetic to a certain wistfulness about the end of summer, but the relief of cooler weather has become an ever stronger source of mitigation of this sadness as I mature and become less heat-tolerant.

    • Ability to withstand extreme conditions – even succeed despite them – in my quest for insects has always been a source of pride. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Fall collecting is my reward for putting in time during the heat of the summer.

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