Tag Archive: autumn


Elk and bison feeding on dry grass in late fall along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park.

Even when you’ve been a veterinary student, a scientist, a pet and livestock owner- even then, and maybe especially then- it’s hard to watch animals suffer in the wild.  You should know better, right?  Animals live, animals die.  Even without the hazards humanity poses for wild animals, a host of potential killers lurks behind every rock and bush. Weather, predators, disease, childbirth, battles with competitors, broken bones, rotten teeth, wildfire, and the list goes on.


We always want to see them cross to the other side of winter and make it to spring

My trip to Montana coincided with the cooling fall winter that heralds subzero temperatures and snow to come.  Winter drops a curtain between the robust and the weakened or just weaned.  On one side of the curtain, animals move on into the next spring. On the other, they become food for everything from insects and mice to birds, wolves, and bears.

In Yellowstone National Park, I saw for the first time in several trips young bison calves in late fall.  I have a pasture-bred horse that was born late August in Idaho, which isn’t optimal.  His mother likely “threw” the first fetus and rebred too late the previous year.  He made it, and is 20 years old now, but these young bison calves may not. They will  not benefit from human intervention in the way that my horse did.


This frost isn’t a spring morning, but late September- a bad time for a little red calf to be puttling on weight.


This calf isn’t far behind the one above, just shedding the last of the baby fur.


This calf is taller, older, and in good weight.  It still may not survive, but has a better chance.

On a trip to Red Rock Lakes Refuge, I found a decent herd of pronghorn antelope leaping around the grasslands crossed by the road.  When one that was lying down stood, I gasped to see its condition- no body fat, and a withdrawn look that says the animal is giving up and preparing to die.


Protruding bones and sunken eyes- it just hurts to see it.


Healthy animals that will be able to cope with winter.


At a pullout on the Madison River, a crowd of us watched this young elk cow lying in the grass, seemingly contented to chew her cud while other cows browsed nearby.


The cow occastionally made a peculiar, grimacing expression.


When she stood to eat, it became apparent that she’s walking on a very tender hind foot. This could make her vulnerable to predators, getting bogged down in snow, or reducing her ability to keep her weight up.


These elk look healthy, but the young one on left kept fighting to follow the herd, getting caught in barbed wire cattle fencing.  Elk calves can get hung up in fencing and struggle to death within 15 minutes according to a USFWS Refuge ranger. 

Something different happens when we’re out wildlife watching.  We want to see animals frolicking wild and free in nature.  We want to feel hope for wildlife.  It’s hard to watch suffering and death.  Maybe the sympathy we want to feel for the sometimes hateful human race gets subverted as we gaze on sick and injured animals.  Maybe it’s the same gut-wrenching sadness we feel when children, the elderly, and disabled people suffer.

At least with wildlife, we can take comfort knowing that there is a circle of life.  The emaciated pronghorn will feed the food chain.  Wolves and bears may survive the winter on bison too young and too old to make it through.  It’s not the end: the rest of the herd, and the beneficiaries of death will make it through to the other side.

Calm river in early fall

Calm river in early fall

Autumn is a season of giving and a prelude to the fear winter brings.  Gentle storms wash loosen leaves from trees, to be gathered in piles for mulching summer-parched plants.  Fruits, berries, and seeds that escape the beaks of birds drop to the soil to become next year’s volunteers. Pumpkins and squash wither in the chill and spill meat and seeds when mice make holes in their softened husks. Throughout my little landscape, plants bed themselves down with needles and leaves that will cushion them when rains pound and nourish their growing roots as they sleep.

Rainbows Mean Rain

Rainbows Mean Rain

Some rain has fallen, an antidote to a terrible, dry summer with historic stretches of heat and skies smudged with wildfire ash. The rivers ran low and hot, choking fish and shutting down fishing. Berries mummified on branches and canes.  If we had lived in a time before grocery stores, we would worry

about the coming winter.

Calm river below smoky skies

Summer’s smoky skies- there are mountains behind that smog

After a couple rainstorms, plants bloom again as if spring has arrived.  Grass springs back to life in the emerald green of first warmth even as the days become shorter and colder. The harvest moon looms large over the damp pasture at night as young coyotes steal under fences, hunting rabbits and voles.

Hey wait! It's fall, not blooming time!

Hey wait! It’s fall, not blooming time!

A late visitor- red admiral butterfly visiting a coneflower

A late visitor- red admiral butterfly visiting a coneflower

The barn swallows left after Labor Day, tiny agile pilots navigating the incredible journey to Central America.  Now snow geese are back from the opposite direction in the Arctic, their barking unmistakable on a foggy morning when they can’t be seen flying overhead.  A Stellars jay has returned after the summer, with its straggling imitation of a red-tailed hawk that impresses no bird foraging in the yard. A surprise visitor appears one sunny afternoon- a red admiral butterfly apparently affixed  to a coneflower bloom.  It seems late for this butterfly, but with an expanding crop of nettle to lay eggs on, it may be the product of multiple hatches this year.

Open-faced dahlias continue feeding bees

Open-faced dahlias continue feeding bees

Pacific chorus frogs croak from trees and shrubs on damp days.  There aren’t many frog-friendly days, what with the strong El Nino that is creating havoc elsewhere.  Here, we are still too dry.  My cedars are flagging, and a noble fir sacrifices needles on some branches that jump out visually when they turn yellow. Fall is usually a good time to plant trees and shrubs potted and tended over the summer, but this year, my shovel turns up dust a foot deep.

As I put my landscape to bed, clean gutters, and spread gravel in paddocks, I wonder what will be left on the other side of winter.  Will it be our turn for historic, destructive storms like the rest of the nation experienced this year?  Will my horse with his decaying ligaments still be alive?  Will the roof last, or will more windstorms peel off enough shingles to warrant an emergency repair? Will the river swell and breach the dikes with typhoon moisture from Japan, swept in on tropical winds from Hawaii? Or maybe we’ll sit parched all winter, with no snow for skiing this winter, or next summer’s river flows.

I’m always dubious about autumn- the gifts it presents are perhaps an apology for what comes next.  I’m sure people from time immemorial have looked askance at autumn, unsure of what the next months would bring. For thousands of years, people must have hoped for somewhere else to be the bullseye when the monster winter storm or evil deep freeze set in. They must have flipped a coin or a chunk of bone or a point carved of rock, anything to ward off the worst of winter while they still had a chance.  We’ll see.  We’ll see what’s left next spring.

Autumn Sunrise

Autumn Sunrise

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