There are certain days in the year when the season changes instantly. Leaves may have gone gold or brown, but many are still hanging on – until that sudden, bitter gust that shreds them off the branches and sends them flying. The day where clouds rain ice and the sun rises late and vanishes far too early. It happens quickly, but it takes time for my senses to adapt. When the sun returns and a small shadow flits across my path, I look up anticipating a bird or butterfly, only to find another leaf sailing down. A certain shape at the edge of the pond meant “turtle!” a few weeks ago, but is now just a cold, wet rock.
We play a game in science to illustrate what animals do to prepare for this seasonal shift: “Migrate, hibernate, adapt.” With each round of this tag game, kids act out the response of a different animal to winter’s arrival. “Winter” chases them down, attempting to freeze creatures that are not hibernating, have not migrated south, or have not grown a warm, thick coat. This game takes on a more realistic urgency as temperatures drop.
But then there are the days that bring summer’s creatures back for one more round. Last week kids abandoned their jackets and were playing in the woods in 70 degree temperatures. A shadow that passed overhead didn’t float to the ground, but kept moving purposefully to a place where it could bask: a variegated fritillary. We watched it, noticing that instead of moving from flower to flower in search of nectar, the butterfly was seeking warmth in spots of full sun. I saw this behavior at home with a comma butterfly that would fly up from the same place on the ground every afternoon when I passed by with the dog. It always landed on a nearby tree and positioned itself for maximum solar gain against the deep angle of the sun.
On one of those warm days at school, one of the youngest boys came running from the sport court to find me. “There’s a weird-scary -cool bug on a ball. Can you come get it?” It was a leaf-footed bug, a species that feeds on plant juices and seeds. The adults can overwinter under mulch and weedy places, so this one was likely hunting for one more meal.
Bess (patent leather) beetles turned up in several forts, emerging from their preferred habitat under rotted logs. We passed them around, held them close to listen to their squeaking, and tucked them back into hiding.
Frogs and salamanders hadn’t been spotted in weeks and were likely already situated in their winter quarters. But on that last warm day, the “SNAKE!” call echoed once more through the woods, and I found a small crowd gathered around a garter snake warming itself in a bit of sunlight near the stream. “Shouldn’t it be hibernating now?” someone whispered. The snake eyed the warm-blooded creatures surrounding it and slowly, silently slid back into the shadows under the fallen leaves. “Good,” said the concerned one. “I didn’t want winter to catch it.”