COLUMN: Dull landscape? Try to look a little closer


“During this dark time of year, we are treated to visual respite as a multitude of berries…are revealed to us,” the columnist explains.

The thick post-dawn fog that shrouded our valley created a natural “haunted house” feel to the landscape.

Dark skeletal trees loomed barely within sight, while the dead, still air allowed dewdrops to cling precariously to the dying ends of the crusty vegetation. In short, the perfect opportunity to grab the camera and go for a stroll!

Now that we are collectively in the month of November, the landscape is definitely brown. That, and gray. Dull, boring, dreary, and potentially depressing, especially compared to the riot of fall colors we’ve recently experienced.

As I walked silently along the leaf-covered driveway, my eyes slowly became aware, then focused on the subtle palette found in the sodden, misty landscape: Lined along the rows of fences were tall brown grasses and patinated yellows; stalks of reddish-brown weeds, heavy with seeds, clustered in talkative groups along the path.

Once upon a time (back in the mists of time, so to speak), I consulted a wildlife artist I know (and am married to) and learned that these dark colors can come in a wide range of tones, each with descriptive and mystical names. For example, the ubiquitous brown color comes in many shades, with earthy names such as burnt sienna, raw umber, and sepia.

If you look at a hobbyist’s painting of an cottontail rabbit, what color is the animal painted? Brown. And usually a uniform chocolate brown. However, there is very little chocolate brown on their fur, just a little near the tip.

The rest of the hair shaft has many color blends, ranging from light yellow to brown so dark it’s almost black. Not that every bunny lets you get close enough to check it out, but trust me, the multicolored browns are here.

At this gloomy time of year, we are treated to a visual reprieve as a multitude of berries, colored red, white, orange or blue, reveal themselves to us as the plants are stripped of their covering foliage.

One of the challenges of locating these fruits is getting them ahead of wildlife. For us, berries are just a fleeting experience, but for many wildlife, finding them means the difference between death or survival. Whether the creature is migrating, preparing for hibernation, or adapting to winter conditions, any easy food is a welcome find.

One species that produces very edible fall berries (according to some people) is the wild grape. The hanging clusters of blue-black berries are unmistakable, as is the shaggy-looking vine that supports the fruit. Although a jellie or two will help sweeten the grapes, always keep in mind that these are not the household products we enjoy in the supermarket. The tartness of wild fruits is perhaps best enjoyed in jelly form, rather than eating them straight from the vine.

As the vines approach, there are several beats of small birds in the tangle of vines. The fog leaves them as silhouettes until I approach slowly, very slowly, the edge of the field. Now I can make out the feather patterns.

The juncos, with their fluttering white feathers, which have just arrived from their breeding grounds in northern Ontario, are joined by other northern visitors: white-throated sparrows, tree sparrows and fox sparrows.

The fox sparrow is a treat to see as it is usually only seen during spring migration when it stops at our bird feeder. A second fox sparrow pops up from the shrubbery to enhance the experience.

When I study tree sparrows, the color patterns found on their wings and backs are works of art, a wonderful blend of deep and light colors. Also note that the rusty colors found on the birds match very closely to the browns found in the surrounding vegetation. Very interesting, this camouflage technique.

As sunlight begins to seep into the thick haze, a few more colors are noted.

Little red berries abound in fall, and trying to name them all can be a challenge. Lingonberry, highbush bilberry, bittersweet nightshade, jack-in-the-pulpit, wintergreen, and partridgeberry are scattered throughout local habitats.

Orange-colored fruits of plants such as European bitter vine, mountain ash, and fever grass are less commonly encountered; and the blue cohosh and the blue pearl lily are aptly named. The white clusters of baneberry, also called doll’s eyes, nod as I walk past them as I return through the hardwood bush.

Gray is that other dull November color, an understated mix of black and white. However, tree bark and rocks can reveal a wide range of color changes, with some species displaying a spectrum only found within themselves.

Beech trees are an elephant gray, while aspens are a mixture of yellow gray and gray bark maples turn almost black when wet.

Great gray owls, gray jays, and gray squirrels all rely on their namesake to help them hide or sneak up on other wildlife. Juncos, goshawks and shrews also use this bland color to survive.

The sun has won the battle and the day is now well lit. The camera is replaced by a rake, and I can now spend my time contemplating the hues, tones, and nuances of the shrunken sugar maple leaves against the flat layers of burgundy-infused red oak leaves. Always something to see.

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