By the time we get to early October, we have been in autumn for about ten days and it continues to unfold. With less daylight than darkness, we have sunrise after 7 a.m. and setting before 7 p.m. Though days are shorter and cooler, dazzling colors continue.
Reds, present for a couple weeks, are waning a bit, but yellows are in no hurry to pause. This leaf glow prevails until later in the month when the foliage will be dropped. But more is happening.
Walks at dawn reveal changes each day. Besides new leaf color or more fallen, lingering wildflowers often hold crystals of frost. And there are the migrants. In addition to daily flights of passing Canada geese and ducks, there are southing songbirds. Varieties of sparrows abound now as do yellow-rumped warblers. Since many songbirds migrate at night, we can see them in the morning.
Besides walking at dawn, I like to go to a nearby swamp at dusk during these days. It is about a quarter of a mile walk along the road to get there. As I wander, I often have passing acquaintances with bears and deer. Barred owls and coyotes call to welcome in the evening while a distant flock of Canada geese tell of their travels.
Despite the cooling temperatures, when I settle in to observe the “night fall," I am greeted by some insects. Moths flutter by, a few crickets scratch out tunes and the latest mosquitoes are glad to find me. Looking over the water of the swamp, I frequently see the local beaver patrolling his estate. And I’m surprised to hear calls from a couple lingering frogs.
After the sun disappears in the west, ducks of various species, probably migrants, fly over from west to east. They come from an undisclosed daytime site to another undisclosed location for night. Nearly every evening, I also see the flight of a woodcock. But it is the flight of two others that brings me here: one mammal and one insect.
About 20 minutes after sunset, big brown bats will circle over this wetland in search of insects that are active here since water may be warmer than air. Most of the insects are too small for me to see, but one I can: the giant water bug. On autumn evenings, these huge aquatic insects rise from swamps and ponds for a dispersal flight to a larger body of water.
The giant water bugs belong to a group of insects that are correctly called "bugs." They are about 2-3 inches long and 1 inch thick, and truly robust. Huge hind legs are well adapted for swimming and front legs are like pinchers for catching prey. In addition to this, their mouth is piercing, like a nail. They are voracious predators to other aquatic insects and tadpoles. Living under water all summer, we usually do not see them, until now.
As cool weather moves in, their homes get chilly and they move to larger bodies of water for winter. This emigration flight happens at night. And yes, I’m able to see them take wing at dusk. The destination is the deeper water of a lake. However, flying at night, they can get distracted by lights on porches or parking lots. Confused, they fly until exhausted.
We may find them the next morning. But what I see during these autumn evenings is the flight of large powerful insects.