Spotting Fall: 7 Signs in Marin’s Natural and Working Lands
By Matt Dolkas,
Senior Manager, Marketing
September 22, 2023
The fall equinox is kind of a big deal.
This year the equinox takes place on September 23, marking the official start of autumn and giving us all permission to exclusively wear flannel and puffy jackets. With the sun directly over the equator, for a few days there is an equal amount of daylight and nighttime hours — a pivotal moment in the cyclical rhythms of the planet and a signal to all life that winter is coming.
The fall is a time for migrations. As you read this, thousands of migratory birds are on their way to their winter habitats, many of whom will seek refuge in the abundance of open spaces (including MALT-protected farm and ranchland) around the San Francisco Bay, the largest estuary on the Pacific coast of both North and South America — it’s an avian paradise.
But the birds are just some of the first to arrive and herald the changing of seasons and soon follow the butterflies, whales, and salmon. As the warmth of the summer season continues to fade, our natural and working lands undergo a dramatic transformation as a new chapter of life begins to unfold. Can you feel it too?
Here are seven signs to spot the fall season here in Marin County:
For the Indigenous communities in California, like the Coast Miwok here in Marin, the ripening of acorns marked the beginning of the new year. Acorns were a staple part of both diet and cultural tradition and were collected in the fall to later be processed into flour. Today, some Indigenous Californian communities are revitalizing these traditional practices, celebrating the rich history and importance of acorns in their heritage.
Acorns also play a vital role in sustaining California’s biodiversity by serving as a key food source for various wildlife species, like acorn woodpeckers, black-tailed deer, and gray squirrel. In fact, the abundance or scarcity of acorns in any given year can affect the overall health and population dynamics within our local ecosystems.
Monarch Butterfly Seeking Refuge
The fall is also a time to spot monarch butterflies on their seasonal migrations to their wintering grounds along the Pacific Coast — one of the longest known insect migrations on the planet. Flying up to 2,000 miles and as high as 10,000 feet, monarchs migrate to escape the freezing temperatures inland and seek refuge within the mild climates along the central coast of California. Here they form clusters called “roots” to hibernate through the winter months before beginning their reproductive cycles.
The western monarch butterfly population has been in perilous decline in recent years, with fewer than 2,000 individuals counted in 2020. While the population has rebounded some, scientists estimate that the population is less than 90% of what it used to be — highlighting the importance of local land conservation for habitat connectivity as well as careful land stewardship.
Ranchers Spreading Compost
With the promise of rain on the horizon, local ranchers in Marin County are busy this time of year applying compost to their pastures before the grass begins to resprout. These essential nutrients help improve overall grass health and increase the forage quality for grazing animals. The enhanced soil structure also helps promote water infiltration which aids in drought resistance and helps prevent erosion.
These added nutrients from the fall compost applications also help stimulate photosynthesis in our local grasslands and the land’s ability to capture carbon from the atmosphere. So, the big heaps of compost you might see piled in our local rangeland will soon be spread evenly across the pasture, nourishing the land’s vitality, our local food system, and helping stabilize the planet’s climate — totally cool!
Black-tailed Deer in Rut
On your next visit to one of our local open spaces, listen carefully to the sound of crashing antlers as male black-tailed deer, known as bucks, combat for the favor of wary females, called does. In preparation for the fall rut, bucks grow magnificent antlers for the season’s combat. Each year a buck’s rack grows slightly larger, a threatening signal to young challengers and a handsome show of strength to attentive does.
Simultaneously, does this time of year become receptive to mating through hormonal changes spurred by environmental cues like the changes in sunlight — a rhythm they’ve followed for millennia. It’s that time of year again for the black-tailed deer and love is in the air.
Pickleweed in Fall Color
There’s no need for an expensive visit to New England to experience the beauty of autumn’s color as, in my humble opinion, our local wetlands provide all the fall color you’ll need. This time of year, pickleweed, a salt-tolerant native plant that grows in abundance within the Bay Area’s wetlands, is adorning the landscape with rich shades of red and orange. Forget the Great Smoky Mountains, head to the Bay!
Through the summer months, pickleweed takes salt water up through its roots and stores salt in the top of its “pickles.” When the plant is full and cannot hold any more salt, the cells break down, die and parts of the plant turn red and fall off, ridding it of excess salt. As a staple food source for the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse and many protected birds, you’ll also enjoy witnessing a staple in our bayland’s ecological cuisine.
California Fuchsia in Bloom
While most of the Golden State’s native wildflowers bloom in the spring, California’ fuchsia is one of the few to wait for the fall season, bursting with a display of tubular flowers of deep red and orange. As a common choice for native gardening enthusiasts, they’re often easiest to spot within our manicured, urban landscapes.
Aside from its aesthetic value, California fuchsia plays a vital role in supporting local wildlife, serving as a critical nectar source for hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. Its fall blooms are particularly crucial, providing sustenance during a time when fewer nectar-rich flowers are available. Find them at your local nursery!
Farmers Markets Brimming with Abundance
From heirloom apples and pears, to colorful pumpkins and squashes, our local farmers markets are one of the best places to savor the bounty of the fall season. We’re lucky here in Marin County — largely thanks to MALT — to have access to so much delicious local food.
Now is the time to celebrate the season and our agricultural heritage with a visit to your local farmers market!
Enjoy the season!