October phenology

Sylvia MarekCare for the Earth, Friends of Wisdom Prairie, Phenology Leave a Comment

Heron on Lost Lake

Heron on Lost LakePhenology is a science focused on observing and recording biological events from year to year and their relationships to the change of seasons and climate.

These are the “normal” phenology events we expect to see here and in the Madison area this month. We would love to hear about what you are seeing on the grounds of Holy Wisdom Monastery. Please comment on this post with what you are observing, where at Holy Wisdom and the date you observed the event.

October Phenology

The following favorite observations are from notes I have kept for many years. October phenology does not begin on the first of October and end on the last day. It often begins in mid-September. Notice that many of my entries are listed in the phenology for September as well.

  • Daylight decreases. Beginning of October, 11 hours 42 minutes and by the end of the month, 10 hours 28 minutes.
  • Hunter’s Moon. Starry nights. Look for Orion and the Big Dipper.
  • Northern Lights are possible.
  • Indian Summer. Days are clear, calm and mild. Nights are clear and chilly. Occurs usually after a few frosts.
  • Migratory birds continue to arrive from the north. Some stay, others continue south.
  • Waterfowl migration.
  • Male deer polish antlers.
  • Last blooms of asters, goldenrods, gentians, and sunflowers.
  • Insects are active. Many prepare for future generations in the form of eggs, larvae, or cocoons.
  • Fall color usually peaks in mid-October.


  • Neotropical and short distance migrants continue to stop here before heading to Central and South America and the southern U.S. Although many warblers have passed through, look for Cape May, Nashville, Tennessee, magnolia, chestnut-sided, redstart, parula, orange-crowned, black-throated green and others. I have observed the uncommon and beautiful black-throated blue as late as October 12.
  • Look for flocks of yellow-rumped and palm warblers. These late migrants will spend the winter in southern U.S.
  • Look for eastern towhee, eastern phoebe, catbird, brown thrasher, hermit thrush, yellow-bellied sapsucker, flicker and vireo species.
  • Some years it is possible to see a few chimney swifts, nighthawks, and hummingbirds especially in early October.
  • Robins and bluebirds form flocks.
  • Thousands of red-winged blackbirds, grackles and brown-headed cowbirds gather and move from feeding grounds to night roosts. As the season progresses, they will migrate south.
  • Many sparrow species can be observed. Look for Lincoln’s, fox, swamp, song, field, chipping, clay-colored, vesper and Savannah. A few uncommon sparrows include Harris’s, Le Conte’s, and Nelson’s sharp-tailed.
  • Flocks of white-throated, white-crowned and tree sparrows arrive. (tree sparrows spend the winter here).
  • Winter wrens, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets pass through.
  • Purple finch, brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch and flocks of juncos and siskins arrive from the north. Many will spend the winter.
  • Eagles, rough-legged and broad-winged hawks, kestrels, and merlins migrate.
  • Waterfowl migrate. Look for coots, loons, canvasback, common merganser, pied-billed grebe, bufflehead, redhead, shoveler scaup and geese.
  • Sandhill cranes start staging and can be found feeding in fields.
  • Saw-whet owls migrate. A few spend the winter.
  • Listen for the duet calls of great horned owl pairs.
  • Barred owls call “Who cooks for you. Who cooks for you-all?”
  • Downy woodpeckers drill holes in buildings!
  • American goldfinch males molt and look like females during the winter.


  • Deer (bucks) polish antlers on tree trunks and are often crossing roads at night.
  • Flying squirrels visit bird feeders at night.
  • Field mice and chipmunks gather thistle down for their nests.
  • White-footed mice move into abandoned bird nests for winter.
  • Squirrels and chipmunks continue to store seeds and nuts.
  • Woodchucks fatten up and prepare for hibernation.
  • Muskrats build houses in marshes and make new entrances to their burrows.
  • Little brown bats migrate.


  • Monarch butterflies continue on their journey to Mexico.
  • Butterflies you might see include: yellow sulphur, cabbage white, painted lady, comma, red admiral, mourning cloak, buckeye and black swallowtail.
  • Woolly-bear caterpillars (Isabella moths) reach peak numbers. They seem to be in a hurry to find a place to spend the winter.
  • Red-bodied dragonflies (autumn meadow hawks) are abundant.
  • Field and tree crickets and long-horned and short-horned grasshoppers call when the temperature is above 50-55. (There are 95 species of short-horned grasshoppers in Wisconsin and 6 overwinter as adults.) Snowy tree crickets call during the day now. They will give you the temperature if you count the number of chirps in 14 or 15 seconds and add 40.
  • Last buzzing of cicadas.
  • Honeybees, flower bees, and bumblebees are busy visiting flowers.
  • Look for two-marked treehoppers (Enchenopa binotata) and their small sticky white egg masses dotting twigs.
  • Look for woolly alder aphid egg masses on the stems of alders. They look like cotton and are white and sticky. The adults look like fluffy white puffs of cotton when in flight. (I call them pom-pom fairies).
  • Soldier and long-horned beetles can be found on goldenrod flowers.
  • Orange and black, and red and black milkweed bugs are found on milkweeds.
  • Asian ladybugs (multicolored lady beetles-Harmonia axyridis) gather on sunny sides of houses before entering. These non-natives arrived in Wisconsin around 1992. They have a black M against white on the upper back. They bite!
  • Cluster flies enter buildings.
  • Insects call when the temperature is above 50.
  • Mosquitoes and ticks still active.
  • Some insects overwinter as adults. Others prepare for future generations in the form of eggs, larvae or cocoons.


  • Sparkling wispy webs.
  • Tiny spiderlings and some adults produce silk that is laid for dispersal on the wind.
  • Daddy longlegs or harvestmen are quite abundant (incidentally, they are not true spiders)


  • Many of the asters, goldenrods, gentians, and sunflowers that bloomed in September continue to put on a lovely show.
  • Asters include New England, frost, calico, heath, short’s, arrow-leaved, shining, sky blue and smooth.
  • Goldenrods in bloom are showy, dyer’s or old-field, Riddell’s, elm-leaved and zig-zag.
  • Gentians include bottle, fringed, stiff and downy.
  • Sunflowers in bloom – saw-tooth and tall or giant.
  • Other flowers in bloom: yarrow, fleabane, white snakeroot, smartweeds, a few Queen Anne’s—lace and chicory.
  • It is not unusual to find a few violets and dandelions in bloom.
  • Look for the fleshy green and purple inflorescences (look like teepees) of skunk cabbage in wetlands. The plants will bloom in late winter or early spring.
  • Red-osier dogwood often blooms again.
  • Witch-hazel, the latest native blooming shrub, displays lovely delicate yellow star-like flowers.

Seeds and Colorful Fruits

  • Red, orange, blue, purple and white fruits disappear quickly. Those that have not been consumed by birds and mammals are abundant.
  • American bittersweet has red-centered fruits that hang in clusters near the ends of the woody vine. Non-native oriental bittersweet has yellow-orange centered fruits that are smaller and are scattered along the vine.
  • Red-osier dogwood has white fruit.
  • Winterberry, cranberry viburnum and crabapples have red fruit.
  • Chokeberry and female buckthorn trees have black fruit.
  • Virginia creeper and grapes – blue and purple.
  • Poison ivy – creamy white.
  • Sumac – red fuzzy fruits.
  • Nuts fall.
  • Tan, brown and black seeds provide food for many seed eaters.
  • Seeds are dispersed in many ways: by wind (milkweed, thistle, dandelion, asters and goldenrods); by people and mammals (trefoil, beggar –ticks, enchanters nightshade and other burrs); by explosions (jewelweed and witch-hazel).
  • Box-elder samaras (winged seeds) hang on after leaf fall.
  • Orange pumpkins!

Fall Color

  • Average peak color occurs in mid-October. According to my notes, peak color can occur as early as October 7 and as late as October 25.
  • Gold and yellow seem to dominate: maples, birch, aspen, elm, ash, ginko, American beech, ironwood, witch-hazel, basswood and honey locust. Smokey gold tamaracks at end of month.
  • Red and orange: maples, sumac, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, and euonymus (burning bush).
  • Brilliant glossy red: black gum (tupelo).
  • Scarlet and burgundy: oaks.
  • Purple: certain white ash.
  • Brown: older pine and arborvitae needles turn brown and fall.
  • Prairie grasses now have lovely fall color: tan, golden yellow, orange, red, pinkish, bluish and purple.
  • Stems of pokeweed are brilliant scarlet.


  • Mushrooms are abundant. Puffballs, slime molds, stinkhorns, indian pipe, polypores, russulas, honey mushroom, fairy rings, marasmius, earth stars, bitter panellus (glows in the dark), coral fungus, amanitas and more.
  • Chorus, tree frogs and spring peepers call occasionally as late as the 27th. They start to seek overwintering spots in the woodlands.
  • Toads hop to woodlands and dig in for winter.
  • Leopard frogs, painted turtles and snakes are active on warm days and soon will hibernate.
  • I have recorded a few migrating salamanders October 1 (most migrate to woodlands earlier).
  • Frost can be expected. My notes indicate frost can be as early as the 5th or as late as the 30th.
  • Snow fell on October 12, 2006.

Enjoy October’s bright blue weather.

Sylvia Marek is a highly trained and experienced naturalist. She works for the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and is a first rate birder.

Please share the biological events you notice while at Holy Wisdom Monastery below (remember to include what you see, where and when).

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