Each autumn, after the leaves have fallen, I notice that my field of view has been expanded. Landscape that had been hidden by leaves is now visible. The bare branches no longer hide the rock outcroppings on the sides of these Kickapoo mountains.
The river, partially hidden by green leaves in August, is now completely visible. The ducks have nowhere to hide. A great blue heron is also easy to spot along the river bank; he sticks out like a sore thumb.
Only a couple of weeks ago, a deer stepping into the edge of the woods would be immediately hidden in the thick foliage. Now the same deer can be seen far into a stand of leafless timber.
High in the branches of a large red oak tree is the exposed stick-nest of the red-tailed hawks. Here and there on the branches of smaller trees I can see robins' nests. I like to count the nests I find around the yard; it gives me an idea of how many young robins were raised here this summer. The now-empty nests are made of mud and grass, and won't be used again. Through the winter and wet spring, they will decompose and fall to the ground.
Near the barn, a box elder tree kept a secret under its leaves this summer. Thirty feet up at the end of a now-bare branch is a football-sized oval nest wasp. I had seen a few of the large black-and-white bald-faced paper wasps during the summer, but never knew where their nest was until now.
The impressive nest is made from thick, regurgitated fluid from the paper wasps' mouths. The nest protects the wasp larva, which are tucked deep into the layers of gray paper. The young hatch and leave the nest in late summer, but the adult wasps may continue to use the nest as shelter until the first freeze. The nest is well insulated, so wasps may survive inside until the temperature drops to 20 degrees or so. Here in Southwest Wisconsin, that may not happen until the first week of December.
I don't recommend that anyone handle a nest until the ground freezes. Like most wasps, paper wasps are very aggressive when their nest is threatened, and their stings are very attention-getting. When it's safe to cut the nest down for a closer look, do so while it's still in one piece. Once birds discover the nest is dormant, they will tear the paper layers apart to feed on the dead wasps inside. I once watched a pair of hairy woodpeckers destroy one of these nests in an hour to get to the frozen wasps inside.
Birds had already discovered the nest I found in the box elder. They had torn away part of the bottom, exposing many thin layers of paper. Never ones to miss a feeding opportunity, a pair of black-capped chickadees pecked at the exposed layers in search of a tasty wasp or two.
As you walk, notice what things are no longer hidden by leaves. There's a lot to learn from what fall has uncovered.
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