October Yellow (Move Over, Red!)

 

It’s easy to focus on the “can’t miss” colors of autumn’s oaks and maples. Orange and red dominate October’s landscape.  But, look more closely: Yellow’s quiet beauty slowly swells from a few bright pockets of heart-shaped basswood leaves, to entire bluff-sides wrapped in lemon, butter and gold of birch, cottonwood, maple and hickory. Woods that were deeply shadowed and cool green just a few days ago, now glow on a sunny afternoon. The air smells good — earth, ripe seeds and the slightly tangy scent of aging leaves — all part of autumn’s final act before winter spreads its monochrome blanket.

 

Thoughts About Dad

Autumn was our dad’s favorite season. This was his last one. He died three weeks ago, when a hint of color tinged the maples and the asters were beginning to bloom. The day before he died, I told him about the chipmunks and squirrels scrambling to stash acorns and walnuts; the zigzag goldenrod glowing in the woods, and bumblebees nectaring in asters along a woodland trail. I read to him essays about autumn by Minnesota naturalist Sigurd Olson whose books he loved.

When I walked an autumn-painted path along the Mississippi River last week, I thought about Dad; how he loved the fiery maples and muted red oaks, the earthy smell of leaves, and the songs and calls of birds. I remembered some of the ways that we shared nature together.

Dad taught us about the natural world a little differently from Mom’s gardening and nature lessons. He taught us to fish on the lakes surrounding Spooner, Wisconsin. We used children’s hand-held red droplines with colorful bobbers that first year. (I keep mine in my tackle box for the memories.) We baited our own hooks, watched our bobbers for nibbles, and learned to gently release the hook from bluegills, pumpkinseeds and other panfish. It wasn’t all fishing, however. We also took side trips into quiet bays where turtles lined up on logs to sun, loons swam with their chicks riding piggyback, and mats of waterlilies floated with their exotic-looking flowers and beautiful leaves. We relaxed in the warm morning sun and watched the blue damselflies that rested on the boat. It was peaceful.

As youngsters, we spent many late-autumn weekend evenings outside. In the 1960s, beautiful vase-shaped American elms towered over our streets like cathedral arches. The whole neighborhood would be outside to rake their yards and burn leaves; each household tended a small fire on their cement apron bordering the alley. We kids ran with friends while our dads tended the burning leaf piles. We stopped and talked at each fire. Stories were told and we looked at the brighter stars and planets as we warmed up by the fire. The scent of burning leaves was aromatic in the brisk air filled with our laughter and chatter.

In later years, Mom and Dad built a cabin on the Snake River in East Central Minnesota. They loved being there during every season of the year. I spent many days with them as a young adult and am grateful to remember so many experiences. Dad loved to stand on the front deck at dusk. Evening songs of wood thrushes, veerys, robins and other birds harmonized with the burbling river running over rocks. He became a birder of sorts. He already could identify many species of ducks and geese. Now he learned to recognize different grosbeaks, thrushes, woodpeckers and warblers. An eagle pair nested nearby and Dad watched the nest year round.

He delighted in the creatures that lived around the cabin; a white-tailed doe and her twin fawns, black bear, a red fox family, buffleheads, mergansers and wood ducks, mink, and snow-white ermine in winter. One autumn evening, an otter popped up onto a boulder with clams. We watched it open the shells, eat its dinner and frolic in the river.

Summer evenings sparkled with fireflies blinking over the marshes, fields and roadsides. Barred owls were regular nighttime visitors as were tiny flying squirrels. Frogs — leopard, green, wood and others — serenaded the night, adding their voices to the songs of nocturnal insects and the river.

Dad lost his vision to glaucoma four years ago. Thanks to Amazon Echo, he continued to read (another passion) by listening to audible books. But there wasn’t a way to replace the loss of seeing nature. He rarely complained about his blindness. Sometimes, I close my eyes and try to imagine his loss and cannot. We kids described all that we saw in nature, and we read to him often. At least he was able to be outside during the summer. He loved the sun’s warmth, the mild breeze, the rustle of leaves, and that we could be with him after the long months of COVID separation.

The week that Dad died was beautiful; golden September sunlight, warm days, mild nights, bumble bees and hummingbirds still busy in the wildflowers and crickets chirping in the garden. How he wished to be sitting in the sun on the cabin’s front deck by the river. As he peacefully slipped away, I hope his thoughts were of blue sky, warm sun, the scent of colorful autumn leaves and the gentle music of the river that he loved so much.

A Stick isn’t Always a Stick!

This northern walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata) is close to 4 inches long and is most likely a young insect or nymph, which are light green.

The northern or common walkingstick insect is a master of mimicry. Slender, green or brown, nocturnal and timid, it looks like a twig or branchlet. I’ve only spotted a few at our cabin in Central Minnesota over several years’ time. They were brown — except for this one, which was pearly green and sitting on the side of our cabin.

Since they are wingless, slow-moving and don’t bite, northern walkingsticks need some way to elude their predators — mainly songbirds and parasitic insects. They are extraordinary mimics and blend in perfectly with tree branchlets and twigs. Unless you spot them crawling, or they roost on a building or another object, it’s very difficult to see them. Males are brown and about three inches long. Females are greenish brown and closer to four inches in length.

So what do walkingsticks do? They are primarily nocturnal and rest during the day extending their front legs forward next to their antennae, which makes them appear more sticklike. At night they eat! The larval stages eat leaves of shrubs that are close to the ground, especially hazel, rose, blueberry and serviceberry. Adults feed in the tops of trees and appear to favor oaks, basswood, black locust and black cherry. When eating, they often sway like the leaves and branches around them, which provides greater camophlage.

Walkingsticks fold their front legs straight forward, next to their antennae, to appear more sticklike.

Northern walkingsticks mate in the afternoon and evening from late summer to mid-autumn. The female lays her eggs from high up in the trees. The eggs just drop to the ground to overwinter in the leaves. In the south, the eggs hatch the following spring. In the northern states and provinces, there’s a two-year cycle in which the eggs don’t hatch until the second spring. So, in Minnesota, the odd-numbered years produce many young and the even-numbered years produce fewer insects. The newly hatched larvae, or nymphs, climb up into shrubs where they molt several times before reaching adulthood. They are miniatures of their parents, but are green like new spring leaves.

We have just one species of walkingstick in Minnesota — it lives in the eastern United States and the southern portions of adjacent Canadian provinces. Most of the world’s 3000 stick insects live in the tropics.

Further reading: 

Northern Walkingstick: UW-Milwaukee Field Station

Walkingstick: Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

Northern Walkingstick: Minnesota Seasons

Summer Afternoon Country Walk

The scent of sweet clover, insect songs and heat ride the wind along this country road.

The farm road near our cabin is bright, hot and breezy on high-summer afternoons. Musical chirps, metallic clicks and shrill whines of crickets, grasshoppers and cicadas wash over the fields. At mid-August, bird song is minimal — a few call, but do not sing. Most vocal are American goldfinches, with their lilting calls and flight. There are eastern bluebirds and an eastern kingbird. A broad-winged hawk circles a few times whistling its high, quavering note. 

The dairy farmer who owns these fields, borders them with several feet of perennials — common milkweed, red clover, rabbit-foot clover, monarda, native sunflowers, blue vervain and goldenrod. Not only do these swaths of plants help stop runoff and pollution into the nearby Snake River, they also support bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Today, painted ladies, monarchs, eastern-tailed blues, yellow sulfurs, cabbage whites and mourning cloaks zip quickly through the hot, sunny air. Painted ladies dominate the aerial dance. Dozens swoop and swirl around us in the roadside flowers, and fly up from the wet, sandy road where they drink water and minerals. 

Painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) nectar on prairie fleabane (Erigeron strigosus) in the field borders, which are critical habitat for many forms of wildlife.

Common milkweed (Asclepius syriaca), a crucial source of nectar for monarchs and other pollinators, borders fields of corn and soybeans.

The road winds into groves of hardwoods along the river. Red and white oak, basswood, willow and silver maple shade the road and lower the air temperature by several degrees. Now goldfinches are accompanied by the nasal “yank-yank” call of white-breasted nuthatches, scrappy blue jays and the gurgling calls of tiny black-capped chickadees. The woods are much cooler, still lush and green with ferns, river grapes, Canada ginger, false Solomon’s seal, and the ripening green-blue berries of sarsaparilla. Mushrooms pop up in shady, damp areas and I spot russulas, white puffballs, bracket fungi and others whose identity I don’t know.

Oaks, basswood, and maples arch over the road along the Snake River. Their shade refreshes us on this sultry afternoon.

Ferns and Canada ginger (Asarum canadense) flourish with oaks near the river.

Russala mushrooms are bright spheres against green moss.

The week’s thunderstorms raised the river more than a foot. Water burbles and tumbles over rocks and  riffles. Ospreys, eagles and belted kingfishers frequently fish these waters. I hear the kingfisher’s rattle offset by the more plaintive calls of the larger birds of prey. 

Water tumbles over river rocks and creates a bubbling melody.

A bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), clutching its fishy catch, perches momentarily in a riverside silver maple.

We leave the woods and river once again and return to the hot August sun and breeze. I close my eyes and stand quietly. The wind ripples fields of hay, soybeans and field corn. It smells so good — ripe grain and grass, damp earth and sweet clover. I memorize the scents, sounds and heat of high summer. I will hold them close when the inevitable winter returns.

Native black-eyed Susan’s (Rudbekia hirta) spring up along most country roads in August.

White sweet clover (Melilotus Albus) scents the air along the road.

Wind, sun and insect song create a peaceful setting along a rural road in Central Minnesota.

Butterfly Sampler

A painted lady (Vanessa cardui) basks in the sun on a roadside rock to warm its flight muscles.

Like miniature floating tapestries —  stippled, spotted and striped — they decorate gardens, yards and roadsides. Butterflies are plentiful this summer. Alongside the bumblebees, they pollinate many flower species and aid with seed production. But honestly, I love them more for their color, grace and elusiveness; for the joy they evoke in the eyes of children and the hearts of people of all ages. I delight in the first and last of every season — often a mourning cloak or red admiral in late April and a tortoise shell or red admiral in October.

Here are a few of the butterflies I’ve seen recently:

Eastern-tailed blues (Everes comyntas) are active May – September in the Upper Midwest and southern Canada.

This hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis) was attracted by sweet apple juice in my pail of apple windfalls.

Mourning cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) overwinter as adults and are often the first butterfly active in April. They favor oak and maple sap; watch for them at woodpecker drill holes.

Two rows of yellow spots on the forewing distinguish the black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) from the eastern tiger swallowtail female dark form (Papilio glaucus).

This female monarch (Danaus plexippus) deposits an egg on the underside of a common milkweed leaf.

White admirals (Limenitis arthemis arthemis) are common in areas with aspen and birch. They prefer sap over flower nectar.

Red-spotted purples (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) are a southern subspecies of white admirals and the two often hybridize in the Upper Midwest. This one’s wings show that it has survived a bird attack.

Banded hairstreaks (Satyrium calanus) lay their eggs on oak trees. This adult rests on common milkweed in our garden.

Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) favor nectar from Joe-Pye weed, blazing star and phlox.

Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) migrate north in April and usually depart in October. Their caterpillars feed on nettles.

Ebony Jewelwing

What do you associate with the words “winged beauties”? Many would answer birds and butterflies — and I’d add damselflies and dragonflies, too. On a sunny, warm morning, a pair of inky black wings flutter near the Snake River. At first I think it’s a butterfly, but a closer look reveals the electric-blue-green body of a male ebony jewelwing damselfly; he flashes cool and iridescent in the morning sun.

Inky black wings and a blue-green abdomen identify this male ebony jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata).

A member of the broad-winged damselflies, ebony jewelwings fly more like a butterfly than like their dragonfly relatives. Their wings are 1-to-1½ inches long and their body length is up to 2¼ inches. The male’s colorful abdomen — green, teal, blue, even a hint of purple — shimmers in the sunlight. A female ebony jewelwing is similar in appearance, but not as showy as a male. Her body is brown with little bits of blue or green. Her wings are more transparent black and display a distinct white spot near each tip. (See a female at Wisconsin Odonata Survey.)

In the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, look for ebony jewelwings perched along shady banks of shallow streams and slow-moving rivers from late May until September. Adults live for about 20 days. A mating pair will often fly attached in the heart-shaped “wheel formation” and remain connected for several hours. Females deposit eggs inside of submerged water plant stems in quiet sections of streams or rivers. The larvae or naiads live in the water for about a year and eat other aquatic larvae, such as mosquitos and mayflies. Adults eat most soft-bodied insects, for example small moths, mosquitos, mayflies, gnats, flying ants and termites.

The Snake River in east-central Minnesota provides the habitat needed by ebony jewelwings.

Even though jewelwings are voracious predators, they serve as supper to other creatures — turtles, frogs, fish, bats and birds, such as red-winged blackbirds, blue jays, flycatchers, purple martins and kingfishers.

How does one distinguish between a damselfly and a dragonfly? A few simple differences make it easy to tell them apart. Generally, damsels hold their wings folded vertically above their body, while dragons spread them horizontally when resting. Damselfly abdomens are more slender than the stout dragonflies’. Damselfly eyes are set far apart on the sides of the head, but dragonfly eyes wrap around and touch on top of the head.

A green darner dragonfly (Anax junius) exhibits the horizontal wings, stout body and wrap-around eyes characteristic of dragonflies.

Vertically folded wings, a slender body and eyes set far apart on each side of the head are characteristic of the ebony jewelwing and other damselflies.

Damselflies and dragonflies belong to the order Odonata, which means “toothed ones.” Many come in beautiful, iridescent color combinations. Fossil records indicate that Protodonata, the ancient ancestors of both dragons and damsels, arose about 325 million years ago. The first Odonata fossils are dated at a little older than 250 million years, which means they’ve inhabited Earth’s skies since before dinosaurs existed. I love to watch and think about these ancient, graceful creatures that add so much beauty to our woods and gardens.

 

Black Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

An eastern tiger swallowtail black form female nectars on nepeta ‘Walker’s low.’

It’s late spring with the entire summer ahead of us. Nature’s greens are deep and full. Tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucous) are on the wing now, the first of two times during the Minnesota summer. The first flight is typically in May-June and the second in July-August. The offspring of the second flight overwinter in their chrysalides.

I watch a bright yellow male patrolling his territory, repeating the same route through the large silver maples across the alleyway, over our apple tree and under my neighbor’s birch tree. He is quick to give chase to other males that trespass.

Eastern tiger swallowtail males are always yellow with black stripes and lack the wash of blue on the hind wings.

On this sunny, breezy morning, a black form female nectars in a sea of blue nepeta in our front garden. Her iridescent blue-on-black wings flutter repeatedly from one end of the garden to the other. She is full of energy and free of wing tatters and tears.

The female’s underwings are marked with bright orange spots and light blue scales.

Most eastern tiger swallowtails in Minnesota are yellow with black stripes. However, the female is dimorphic, or appears in two forms: the familiar black-striped yellow and a rarer black form washed with shimmering blue across its hind wings. Faint black stripes are often visible on the dark female.

Just a tiny percentage of females appear in the black form, especially this far north, but are  common in the southern United States. Why? Scientists think that the black form is a mimic of the pipevine swallowtail, which tastes horrible because the caterpillars feed solely on pipevine plants. (Think of monarchs and viceroys, another example of mimicry. Birds hate the taste of monarchs because they eat milkweed. Viceroys closely resemble monarchs, so birds often avoid them.) Pipevine swallowtails occasionally come as far north as Minnesota.

Interested in attracting eastern tiger swallowtails to your yard or garden? Favorite caterpillar foods include: chokecherry, ash, poplar, maple, apple and mountain ash. Adults nectar on many flower species including phlox, milkweed, Joe-Pye weed, blazing star, bee balm/bergamot and red clover.

Violets Aren’t Always Violet!

As a youngster, I thought violets should be just one color: the shade of Crayola violet in my crayon box. In fact, violet flowers aren’t always violet! Many are blue, shades of purple, white and even yellow. The native common violet, or wooly blue violet, grows in almost every Minnesota county and in most of the eastern United States and Canada. It’s what many of us picture when we think “violet” (excluding African violets, which are a different plant family altogether).

The common violet or wooly violet (Viola sororia) blooms from April to June in the eastern United States and Canada.

Violets are a sure sign of spring in Minnesota and bloom from April to June. You’ll often find them in woodlands, thickets, gardens, lawns, along roadsides and even growing in sidewalk cracks. Individual species of violets can be tricky to identify and botanists disagree on how to classify them. Many of the backyard and roadside violets are common violets (Viola sororia), which may be blue, purple or white. The downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens) is also common in most Minnesota counties. It differs from many violets in that the flower stem arises from the leaf axil instead of growing separately from the corm.

The white form of the common violet clearly shows the pollinator “honey guides” on the bottom petal.

This violet came from my mom’s garden. I’d never seen violets this shade and loved them.

The downy yellow violet’s (Viola pubescens) stems and undersides of leaves are covered in soft, downy hair.

A typical native violet has heart-shaped or circular leaves with rounded teeth. In most species, the flower stem grows directly from the corm, which is similar to a bulb. Each leafless stem holds a single five-petaled flower. The purple-veined area on the lower petal is a nectar guide for pollinators. Bees see ultraviolet light and scientists think that the enhanced pattern visible to their eyes helps lead them to the nectar. In early May, typical pollinators are mason bees, tiny sweat bees and skipper butterflies. But, because the early spring weather can be cold and pollinators may be inactive, violets produce a second type of flower called a cleistogamous flower that doesn’t open. It self-pollinates and forms a seed capsule that ripens, bursts and ejects small brown seeds away from the plant. These flowers don’t form until after the trees leaf out. Look for them underneath violet plants later in the summer.

The violet plant is an important host for the caterpillars of many species of fritillary butterflies. Just as monarch larvae feed solely on milkweed plants, most fritillary caterpillars feed only on violets. Humans can eat violet blossoms, but not the rest of the plant, which is toxic. The blossoms provide vitamins A and C. In earlier times, they were used to make a simple, sweet jelly that’s also beautiful. To learn how to make violet jelly, and about other ways the flowers were used, visit PBS Wisconsin’s “The Wisconsin Gardener” for a brief, interesting interview.

Many fritillary caterpillars feed only on violets. This adult great-spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele)  nectars on pink bergamot.

Violets sometimes form patches, especially in a garden or lawn. They are a good ground cover in shady places where grass does’t grow well. If you have too many growing for your liking, they are easy to remove. Just make sure that you pull out the entire root — and please consider leaving a few for early pollinators and for fritillary caterpillars to eat!

Spring Ephemerals: Hepatica

This year, I look for spring close to home. I haven’t hiked in a nature preserve yet, and we’ve stayed home from our cabin. I miss those places, but I’m enjoying many simple delights right here, including a few native spring flowers. While bloodroot blooms fade, another spring ephemeral¹, hepatica, buds and opens.

Round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis) blooms range from white to purple in color.

Hepatica, liverleaf, or liverwort, is named for its leaves that are three-lobed and can be a brownish-bronze color (like the human liver) at winter’s end. Each spring, the fuzzy flower stalks push up through the old leaves to bloom in pastels ranging from white to purple. In Minnesota, hepatica can begin blooming anytime from early April into May — before the trees leaf out. Bees, early butterflies, beetles and flies pollinate the small flowers depending on how early they bloom. Fresh green leaves will grow up from beneath the flower stalks to remain until next spring.

Hepatica’s fuzzy flower stalks slowly unfurl to reveal the delicate flowers.

Hepatica leaves are three-lobed. The previous year’s leaves are often brownish-red or bronze and reminded earlier people of the human liver. (Hepatica is from the Greek word for liver.)

In it’s natural setting, hepatica often grows under oak trees — that’s where I first spotted it peeping out among tattered brown leaves one warm April day at our cabin. (I purchased the hepatica in my garden at a local nursery.) It is a woodland wildflower that prefers full spring sun that becomes dappled sun as the trees leaf out. Two species are native to Minnesota — round-lobed and sharp-lobed — and are very similar in appearance. It’s also very well-behaved, so a gardener needn’t worry about hepatica overtaking the garden!

This week in the yard, besides the blooming hepatica, bloodroot leaves unfurled and increased in size as seed pods swelled. Many tiny native bees, and a not-so-tiny queen two-spotted bumble bee, pollinated the spring flowers. A wave of hermit thrushes ate insects and seeds in the backyard most of the week before continuing north to their nesting grounds. 

As the bloodroot blossoms (Sanguinaria canadensis) wilt, the leaves unfold and the seed pods begin to swell.

A queen bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus) hovers above glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) blossoms.

A hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus), one of the most ethereal songsters I’ve heard, rests on its journey to northern Minnesota and Canada.

Nesting sites are a hot commodity locally, too: A female mallard sits on her nest completely hidden in our neighbor’s daylily garden. Robins nest in arbor vitae behind the garage and cardinals nest in a neighbor’s small evergreen shrub. Each day, the cardinal pair visits our garden where the male gently feeds his mate. In a few weeks, the begging calls of this year’s first fledglings will fill the air. I look forward to seeing their plump, downy bodies following their parents around the garden!

¹Spring ephemerals are perennial plants that appear quickly in early spring and die back until the next year, such as bloodroot, hepatica, trout lily and Virginia bluebells.