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October: Fall Colors

Leaf-peeping along the coasts can be just as vividly colorful as it is in the mountains.

catbird feeding

Fall foliage -- the annual spectacle of a green landscape turning russet, gold and scarlet -- draws many visitors to the north, specifically to the mountains of New England and northern New York. But autumn's fiery paintbrush does touch the Harbor Bight region -- and quite vividly, if you know when and where to look.

Stands of sugar maple -- the star of the foliage show to the north -- can be found in the lower Hudson River Valley and in New York City, but most of the local color is provided by other trees and shrubs. In upland areas, oaks change from green to yellow-orange or bronze. Closer to the waterline, sassafras and sumac turn brilliant red.

As the days shorten, the transformation of leaves from green to yellow and red is triggered by cooler temperatures and declining sunlight. With diminished sunlight, the tree begins to shut down for the winter. A corky membrane grows between leaf stems and the branches from which they protrude, partially blocking the flow of nutrients into the leaf -- and speeding the decline of chlorophyll production in the leaf.

fall colorChlorophyll, of course, is the linchpin of photosynthesis, the process by which trees convert the energy of sunlight into sugars. And there is so much of this green compound in a midsummer leaf that it masks other pigments in the leaf -- the yellows, oranges, browns and reds we see during foliage season. When nutrients cease to flow from the tree into the leaf, the chlorophyll breaks down and these other pigments begin to emerge. Yellow occurs if the leaf is rich in carotene (as hickory and birch leaves are, for example). Red occurs when the concentration of sugar in the leaf increases and chemicals called anthocyanins are formed -- this is common in red maples, red oaks and sumac. Red leaves on a tree or plant attract birds to forage on seasonal seeds and berries (blueberries, black gum, and dogwood, for instance).

Where to See It: Seeing the Harbor Bight's best fall color is as much a matter of timing as location. In the Manhattan area and along the southernmost tip of the New Jersey Shore, colors tend to peak during the last two weeks in October, while on Long Island the average color peak occurs the last week of October and the first week in November. And in the lower Hudson Valley and New York City's parks, look for the blaze of sugar maples around the third week in October.

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More Highlights Raptor Migration: As they make their way south for the winter from their summer breeding grounds up north, raptors -- including hawks, eagles, ospreys and falcons -- can be spotted by the thousands if you're in the right place at the right time.

These magnificent birds of prey fly to warmer climes as far away as South America by the hundreds of thousands, and you have a decent chance of seeing the spectacle from places such as Jones Beach, Central Park, Sandy Hook, and most famous of all, Cape May.

Best of all is to participate in an organized "hawk watch," during which southbound raptors of different species can be counted. Three notable watches in the Harbor Bight region are the Cape May Point Hawk Watch, Chimney Rock Hawk Watch and Fire Island Hawk Watch.

kestrel

Photos: Don Riepe/Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

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