Signs Of Late Summer

by Jim Rapp

Jim Rapp tells us how nature on Delmarva is in a visible state of transition as August shifts to September.

Bustling beach resorts that hosted millions of tourists in the summer feel like small towns after Labor Day. The lush, green corn stalks lined up along our country roads are beginning to turn brittle and yellow. School buses, not seen since early June, appear again on the weekday morning commute, full of sleepy kids getting back in the habit of waking up before 8:00 a.m.

Late summer may be the very best time on Delmarva to get outside and explore the beaches, bays, forests and fields. The water is still warm, and the nights are cool enough to break out a sweatshirt or cozy up to a beach bonfire. There are fewer cars on the road and boats on the water, so cyclists and paddlers can enjoy the natural sounds of late summer.

Watchers of wildlife become giddy as the annual migration of shorebirds, songbirds and raptors starts to pick up, as many species we saw in the spring stop again on our shores as they fly from northern breeding grounds to winter in the tropics. Birds that have chosen our fair Peninsula for raising their own young are preparing for the southern journey themselves, with young ones in tow.

For birds such as warblers, vireos and hummingbirds, Delmarva's native plants produce critical nourishment to sustain them during migration. As you explore the shore in August and September, you'll notice their brightly colored berries and flowers, which have evolved to attract these feathered pollinators and seed dispersers.

Along forest edges, you'll find plants with fruits and berries ripening in the late summer sun. The Devil's Walking Stick has a slender stem covered in sharp spines. It produces clusters of white flowers in August, followed by purplish-black berries in September. Pokeweed has long, drooping clusters of dark purple fruits with juicy, crimson insides. Don't sample these beautiful berries yourself: they contain toxins that can make people sick. However, the berries make perfect forage for migrating and resident songbirds.

Trumpetvine grows along the edges of Delmarva's forests. In late summer, it produces a beautiful, bugle-shaped reddish-orange flower that attracts tiny Ruby-throated hummingbirds on their way to winter in Central America. Hummingbirds will start to fly south in mid-August, and they need to gain up to 40% of their body weight before they start migration. Hummingbirds have excellent color vision, which is important for spotting the bright reds and oranges of the nectar-rich trumpetvine flowers.

The bright yellow flowers of the tiny Partridge pea can be found in wild, open fields. The flowers produce skinny pods that burst open and scatter seeds in early fall. Partridge pea is a particular favorite of the increasingly rare Northern bobwhite. This quail is a small ground-dwelling bird, with a mottled, camouflaged pattern of brown, white, black and gray feathers. Males have a white throat and stripe over the eye, and make the distinctive, whistling "bob-white" call once commonly heard during the Delmarva summertime.

Northern bobwhite populations are in serious decline due primarily to habitat loss. To thrive, quail need a mix of wild meadows and hedgerows with forests bordering the edges. They don't like traveling far into the dangerous open where they feed on partridge pea and other seed-producing shrubs and grasses. Quail need the safety offered by thick hedges and dense, low shrubs to run and hide from aerial predators, such as red-tailed hawks, and land-based hunters, such as red and gray foxes.

Years ago, Delmarva's agricultural lands created the perfect habitat for Northern bobwhite, with their weedy, overgrown fencerows, seasonally fallow fields, and nearby forests. Modern farming practices designed to maximize production have all but eliminated the protective thickets needed by quail, and have quieted the "bob-white" call from much of Delmarva.

This is Jim Rapp and you're listening to the Delmarva Almanac. We're talking about late summer wildflowers and wildlife.
Along open fields and roadsides in late summer, you'll spot the pink pompom-shaped blossoms of milkweed. Later in the fall, the milkweed produces large, bumpy pods that burst with hundreds of white, hairy seeds that float and disperse to new turf on the gentle autumn breezes.

In the spring, milkweed produces food for the caterpillars of the orange-and-black Monarch butterfly, another late summer migrant. The loss of native milkweed throughout the butterfly's range, mostly due to the use of modern pesticides that kill wild plants indiscriminately, has caused a 90 percent decline in Monarch populations.

The migration of Monarch butterflies along Delmarva's beaches in late summer is a magical experience. To make the journey to their wintering roosts in Mexico, the butterflies feed on the nectar produced by Seaside Goldenrod, which grows behind the sand dunes on Delmarva's beaches and barrier islands. This wonderful wildflower has large, feathery clusters of tiny, golden-yellow blossoms at the top of a tall green stem. The flower clusters become so thick and heavy that they cause the plant to droop as summer turns to fall.

Monarchs flit gracefully between the patches of Seaside Goldenrod, fueling up for their epic journey south. On a warm late summer beach day, make certain to look up towards the sky and back to the dunes as you relax in your beach chair. If you focus and start to count, you may tally several hundred Monarch butterflies feeding and migrating.

Back towards the marsh behind Delmarva's coastal beaches, another unusual summer visitor has been appearing more recently over the past ten years. The White Ibis, a large wading bird familiar on golf courses and suburban lawns in Florida, started showing up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the summer months, but has now made appearances all the way into upper Delmarva on both shores of the Peninsula.

Like their cousin, the Glossy Ibis, the White Ibis' signature feature is a long, down-curved bill that is used to probe marshes and fields for worms, insects and other invertebrates. The bill on the adult bird is bright red, and they have long red legs, snow-white bodies, and black tips on the wings. Immature birds that have dispersed from breeding grounds further south are more commonly seen on Delmarva. Young White Ibis have light orange bills, with a brownish back and dusky tan neck. Older youngsters have mottled brown and white feathers.

Don't wait too long to appreciate the subtle nuances of the late summer landscape, which you will find bursting with color and energy before the hues of autumn take hold. Take advantage of the cooler temperatures on Delmarva and the tranquil post-tourist season atmosphere to enjoy the wildflowers, butterflies and birds before they disappear for the year. For the migrants, this is not a farewell; rather, it's a "see you later." We look forward to seeing them again next spring and summer.