Red Lanterns

Red maple leaves

Red maple leaves

Sunday’s tour was bracketed by visits from a red-tailed hawk, which allowed me to tell the heartwarming wildlife story of the week. It’s very probable that the banded hawk soaring over us before we began our hike, and then perched high in the white pine nearest the visitor center as we finished, was the same one rehabilitated earlier this month.

On Oct 14, a visitor and photojournalist discovered an ailing hawk in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens. She notified Arboretum staff, who assessed the bird’s behavior and called in wildlife rehabilitators. The bird was netted and captured, and treated for dehydration, starvation, and parasites. At midday on Thursday, Oct 20, the hawk—now healthy and strong—was released near the spot where she’d been found.

Since hawks are quite faithful to sites, there is every reason to believe it is the same hawk we saw twice on the 23rd. Thanks to a visitor with a good zoom lens, we could see a band on its leg. If that visitor is reading these notes, I hope she has sent at least one of her photos to the Arboretum so we can confirm the bird’s identity.

All of that said, a red-tailed hawk sighting never fails to thrill me, even when I don’t know the “back story,” and Sunday was no exception.

Our stated tour purpose on this beautiful October afternoon was to find “Red Lanterns”—leaves glowing scarlet in the autumn sunshine. We take the title from Aldo Leopold’s October essay in his environmental classic A Sand County Almanac.

Leopold was writing about hunting grouse and partridge, and his red lanterns were blackberry leaves, which he stated “must have first learned how to glow in the sand counties of central Wisconsin.” For this tour, we have broadened the definition to include any and all red leaves we may spot—sumac, Virginia creeper, red maple, even poison ivy—as well as blackberries. Perhaps even the tail feathers of a certain hawk?

From the porch overlook where we began, we could see numerous brilliant sumacs scattered across the Curtis Prairie. As we wended our way through the Wisconsin Native Plant Garden, we couldn’t help but notice a red-leaved shrub growing next to a nearby building. It wore no tag, but a visitor pronounced it to be blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium), and I have no reason to doubt this identification. This species is known to have excellent fall color. [Proper ID: native Carpinus caroliniana, known in the common vernacular as musclewood or American hornbeam.]

The greatest concentration of blackberry bushes in the Arboretum is located along the trail we call the marsh connection, between markers F1 and F2. I can state that they are, indeed, glowing red at this time. Whether or not they will “blow out their lights: on the last day of hunting season, as Leopold wrote, remains to be seen.

On the Teal Pond spur trail, we even counted the highbush cranberry fruits—hanging high and backlit by the afternoon sun—as tiny red lanterns. At the pond, four painted turtles sunned on a log, catching a bit of warmth. Very soon they will dig into the mud at pond’s bottom and overwinter.

A young red maple tree in the white birch grouping near the F6 intersection provided yet another beacon. While in Gallistel Woods, we took a slight detour from Leopold and lanterns onto the Icke Boardwalk, the better to see a brand-new muskrat den which has been constructed there. It’s very prominent near the gazebo, on the left-hand side of the boardwalk as you are going out. I seized the moment for an Onondaga story about how humble Muskrat helped to create the earth, succeeding where grander animals had failed.

As we looped through the forest, delighting in sun-illuminated leaves and watching as a few of them sifted down in the October breeze, we were treated to the sight of a large garter snake. I always pay attention to rustling sounds in the woods! You never know what you might see! Like the turtles at Teal Pond, this snake will soon go into hibernation until spring.

A small group of wild turkeys roamed among the trees of Gallistel Woods. One seemed to be giving a distress call. Anthropomorphizing is always dangerous, but the squeals sounded for all the world like “Hey guys! I’m over here! Don’t leave without me!”

The final lanterns of the afternoon were blazing sumacs on the Juniper Knoll hillside, like so many of the others beautifully backlit by the post-meridiem sun. A most pleasurable walk in excellent company, proving the truth of Leopold’s statement “Almost anything may happen between one red lantern and another.”

—Kathy Miner