📷 Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Fall, Georgia | Larry Woodward / USFWS

As the days grow shorter and a chill creeps into the air, nature begins its enchanting transformation, heralding the arrival of autumn. For the National Wildlife Refuge System, this season brings a unique charm, a time when wildlife and landscapes prepare for the colder months. Here, we delve into the splendid signs of autumn that grace our national wildlife refuges, where the beauty of nature meets its vibrant, resplendent side.

Leaves Changing Color

Autumn’s fiery hues are unmissable

Leaves at Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Pennsylvania | Bruce Hallman / USFWS

Tamaracks in Fall | Courtney Celley / USFWS

Tamarack trees are deciduous conifers with needle-like leaves that turn gold in the fall and then shed. These trees are also referred to as hackmatack and larch.

Fall colors on Little Mountain in Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, Wyoming | Tom Koerner / USFWS

In the embrace of our national wildlife refuges, a spellbinding spectacle unfolds with the changing of leaves. The lush green canopy of summer begins to turn into a mesmerizing tapestry of gold and crimson. Here, deciduous trees, like old friends, surrender their vibrant green attire to reveal shades that dance with autumn’s warm glow. This metamorphosis is orchestrated by the refuge’s unique blend of temperatures and daylight hours, setting the stage for nature’s grand finale.

Migratory Birds

Birdwatching becomes an autumn delight

Ruby-throated hummingbird | Courtney Celley / USFWS

Sandhill cranes in the Huron Wetland Management District, South Dakota | Sandra Uecker / USFWS

Prothonotary warbler | John Flores / USFWS

As cool breezes begin to whisper through these pristine landscapes, it signals the great journey south. Just as nature paints the foliage, it beckons migratory birds to take flight. Throughout national wildlife refuges, an aerial ballet unfolds, where birds like the warblers, swifts, and swallows prepare for their long trek to warmer climes. It’s a season of goodbyes and hellos, with the return of cranes, waxwings, and waterfowl from the far reaches of the Arctic and the Boreal Forests of Canada and Alaska. In refuges, the skies are alive with the grace of avian travelers.

Abundant Harvest

cornucopia of nature’s offerings

Close-up of red berries and tundra foliage in Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska | Kristine Sowl / USFWS

Sage thrasher eating saskatoon serviceberries at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, Wyoming | Tom Koerner / USFWS

Gray tree frog resting on a vibrant American beautyberry | Peter Rea / USFWS

Autumn also brings forth a bountiful harvest of nature’s own. National wildlife refuges’ hedgerows and meadows are festooned with treasures like ripe serviceberries, elderberries, beautyberries, rosehips, and wild raspberries. A feast for the senses, these fruits are not just a culinary delight but also a lifeline for the refuge’s inhabitants. Deer, squirrels, bears, and songbirds indulge in this abundance, drawing sustenance for the coming winter and creating a vibrant cycle of life within the refuge’s embrace.

Blooms of Fall

Bumble bee on goldenrod | Jim Hudgins / USFWS

Monarch on New England aster | USFWS

Common buckeye on boneset | Jessica Bolser / USFWS

While much of the natural world prepares for a season of dormancy, goldenrods, asters, and bonesets burst into life, a haven for late-season pollinators. Hues of golden and purple paint national wildlife refuges and have a special view of bees and humans growing symbiotically together. Bees and butterflies, still active under the autumn sun, descend upon these blooms, savoring the last nectar of the season. It’s a reminder that even in the midst of change, life continues to thrive in the refuge’s sheltering arms.

Falling Seeds

Common milkweed seeds | Courtney Celley / USFWS

Acorn woodpecker with acorn | Kenny Seals / USFWS

A red squirrel snacking on a tree limb in Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, Massachusetts | Bill Thompson / USFWS

Autumn whispers secrets as the trees share their seeds. Plump acorns, pinon nuts, and pecans tumble to the ground, forming nature’s bounty at your feet. A quiet moment of contemplation reveals the orchestration of life within the refuge’s boundaries. Some seeds take flight with the wind’s gentle guidance, a dance of whirly maple seeds in the autumn breeze. National wildlife refuges are a stage where these seeds take their first steps into the next generation of forest giants.

Fungi’s Enigmatic Beauty

Indigo milkcap | Patrick Coin

Witches’ butter | Peter Pearsall / USFWS

Cortinarius growing in a mossy understory | Deborah Kornblut

Damp earth awakens the enchanting world of fungi, unveiling a spectrum of colors and curious forms. Refuges, where life thrives in many forms, host a grand spectacle of mushrooms. From the indigo milk cap to the whimsically named witches’ butter, these fungal wonders ignite the imagination. A word of caution: While these fungi captivate the senses, many are enigmatic and some even deadly. It’s a reminder that nature’s beauty often hides mysteries beneath its surface.

Autumn’s arrival in the National Wildlife Refuge System is a season of revelation, where nature’s canvas changes with breathtaking precision. In these sanctuaries of life, the signs of autumn remind us of the vital role of national wildlife refuges in conserving and celebrating the cyclical wonders of the natural world. As you explore the autumn treasures at your nearest national wildlife refuge, remember that every leaf that falls, every bird that soars, and every fruit that ripens is a testament to the endless beauty and resilience of nature.

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