The Year’s First Monarch Caterpillar

This tiny monarch caterpillar is about 7mm long and is feeding on common milkweed.

I spotted my first monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) of the season last week. I almost overlooked its tiny black, white and yellow striped body, which was about 1/4 inch, or 7mm long. It crawled slowly on a milkweed plant (Asclepias syriaca) where I saw my first adult monarchs of the year on June 3.

This tiny caterpillar faces many challenges on its journey to adulthood. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of all monarch eggs metamorphosize into butterflies, according to Monarch Joint Venture. Many garden critters prey on monarch caterpillars, especially parasitic wasps, tachnid flies, jumping spiders, the larvae of Asian ladybugs, and lacewing larvae. Most eat the caterpillars. Others, such as tachnid flies, lay their eggs on them. The eggs hatch and burrow into the caterpillar, which they use for nutrition and protection. It’s easy to dislike insects that prey on monarchs, but these predators also destroy many garden pests and are vital to the health of gardens and woodlands.

Weather conditions, food availability, pesticide use, damage from being stepped on or run over, and infection from bacteria and viruses also reduce monarch caterpillar numbers. The 10 percent that survive grow quickly on their milkweed diet and will molt five times over 9-to-14 days. Each stage between molts is known as an instar. The 5th instar usually leaves the milkweed plants in search of a safe place to form its chrysalis, where it completes the change to adulthood. The entire process from egg to adult lasts about one month.¹

Monarch caterpillars can be very elusive, but I’ll keep watching for them. In spite of predators, poor weather and other challenges, it’s likely that at least one or two will complete their journey to adulthood in our garden. They’ll pollinate many plants, lay eggs for the next generation of monarchs, and add beauty to our world.

An adult monarch nectars on Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum).

¹Three interesting resources about monarchs include Monarch Lab-University of Minnesota, Monarch Watch-University of Kansas, and Monarch Joint Venture.

A Nuthatch Winter

This male white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) retrieved a seed from tree bark crevices. Notice the long, third toe used for balance.

The tiny, high-energy nuthatch is one of my favorite winter birds. Why the curious name “nuthatch”? “Hatch” was the Middle English word for hack or pound: nuthatches obtain much of their food by placing acorns and other nuts in bark crevices to hammer or hack open. They also store nuts and seeds under loose pieces of bark. I’ve seen red-breasted nuthatches use tiny sticks and other objects to lever the nuts out of a hiding place.

If you live near woods, or have trees in your yard, you’re likely to hear and see nuthatches. The white-breasted nuthatch is a year-round resident in Minnesota, and in most of the United States, Mexico and part of southern Canada.1 Its smaller cousin, the red-breasted nuthatch, is present in fewer numbers during the winter because most remain on their northern breeding grounds — unless there’s a shortage of spruce seeds, their primary food. In that case, they migrate in large numbers to the northern and eastern United States. This movement is called an irruption and it’s happening in 2018. (I saw my first red-breasted nuthatch of the season in our backyard on August 27.)

Similar in size to a house sparrow, the white-breasted nuthatch is a small bird with a big voice. I hear them call on the coldest winter days when most birds are silent. Its call is described as a nasal “yank-yank”. During the breeding season, the males also make a nasal “wha-wha-wha” song. They like deciduous trees, especially white oaks. Favorite foods include the nuts or seeds of oak, hickory, beech, maple, pine and spruce in the winter. They often come to suet and sunflower seed feeders, too. Insects and spiders are choice foods for the summer.

This red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) uses a stick to search for hidden seeds in the bark of a red pine. (Photograph used with permission.)

The tiny red-breasted nuthatch is present year-round at our cabin in east central Minnesota. Smaller than its white-breasted cousin, it’s about the size of a kinglet. Its song is also a nasal,“yank-yank,” however, it is higher pitched and has been compared to the tone of a toy tin horn. They frequently make fast, high-pitched squeaking calls. Red-breasteds favor coniferous forests, but can also be found in deciduous woods, parks and yards during a winter irruption. They eat the nuts of spruce and other conifers in the winter, and visit feeders for suet, sunflower seeds and peanuts. Insects and spiders are summer favorites.

Nuthatches are cavity nesters — red-breasteds often select dead aspens because the wood is soft and easy to excavate. White-breasteds nest in both deciduous and conifer trees — they’ll frequently use an old woodpecker nest, rather than dig out a new cavity. Both build a bed of grass and shredded bark, then line it with fur, feathers and other soft material. Each species raises one brood per year.

White oaks are a favorite food source of white-breasted nuthatches.

Both species sport blue-gray, black, and white coloration. However, the red-breasted nuthatch has a wide, black eyestripe, whereas the white-breasted shows mainly white around its eye. Upper parts on both nuthatches are blue-gray. All have a black crown except for the female white-breasted nuthatch, which has a blue-gray crown. Red-breasted nuthatches have rusty or rufous-colored underparts in contrast to the white-breasted’s mainly bright, white belly. Both species have a long rear toe that is used to grip the bark of trees. (Other climbers, such as woodpeckers and brown creepers, use their tail to support themselves when climbing a tree trunk.)

Red-breasted nuthatches are easily identified by their small size, rusty colored underparts and high-pitched calls.

 When you’re outside on winter days, listen for nuthatch “yank-yank-yank” calls and keep an eye on tree trunks for tiny blue-gray, black and white birds intently inspecting the bark. Since nuthatches often join small flocks of other winter birds, you might also see downy woodpeckers, brown creepers, chickadees and kinglets as an added bonus!

1North America has four species of nuthatch: the brown-headed and pygmy nuthatches, in addition to the white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches. There are 25 nuthatch species worldwide.

For the Beauty of the Earth

For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth,
Over and around us lies,
Lord of all, to thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

The St. Croix River Valley near Afton, MN.

Being a lover of nature, this simple hymn became a favorite of mine the first time I heard it. The story is that in 1864, 29-year-old Folliot S. Pierpont was walking in the English countryside near the River Avon and was filled with joy by the beauty of creation. He composed a poem, originally titled “The Sacrifice of Praise,” that was set to music by Conrad Kochler (and later by others).

There is such natural loveliness, both simple and complex, all around us. If possible, take a few minutes to notice nature every day — whether you live in a city apartment, or a house in the country; whether it is autumn-going-to-winter, or spring-going-to-summer in your part of the world; whether you can just look out a window at the moon and sky, or are able to walk in the woods. And, if possible, share it with a friend, child, parent, spouse, neighbor or other companion. I find that it makes for a grateful heart and a lighter outlook on life. Here are a few images of late autumn nature in Minnesota. What delights you in nature where you live?

A spider web catches the sun on the bank of the Snake River in Pine County, MN.

Prairie native big bluestem or turkey foot grass at Woodlake Nature Preserve in Minneapolis, MN.

Milkweed seeds are abundant in late November.

Late afternoon sun glows on prairie grass.

Pink-tinged seed heads of native Joe-Pye weed add color to gardens and prairies.

The soft seed heads of asters attract many birds, such as cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees and nuthatches.

The sky’s beauty is more visible as the trees shed their leaves. Just a few apple leaves remain on our tree.

 

 

Diverse Decomposers

Chicken fat mushrooms (Suillus Americanus) grow near white pine trees.

When I was little, I thought that fungi just meant the small, brown squishy mushrooms that appeared in the lawn after a wet spell — and I was squeamish about them. But that’s only a small part of the story. The hidden world of fungi runs deep within the soil like strands of microscopic silk. I imagine these tiny fungal strands as threads of life woven in a network in and around plant roots. What we see are the strange and often beautiful fruiting bodies — what we typically call a mushroom or toadstool — growing on a tree, a log, the ground, or some other food source. This visible part of a fungus produces reproductive spores.

Russulas often grow near oak trees.

In fact, fungi are one of Earth’s key recyclers of carbon and other materials. Along with bacteria, earthworms and other soil organisms, fungi decompose organic matter to release and recycle nutrients, feeding themselves and others through this process.

Bracket fungi and lichens grow on a log along the Kettle River.

Fungi are not plants; they have no chlorophyll, leaves, roots, flowers or seeds and do not make their own food. They are primarily strands called hyphae, which secrete enzymes that break down organic matter, such as leaves, dead trees, and animal remains. Scientists currently think that land fungi split off from the animal kingdom around 1.3 million years ago — about 500 million years before plants.

Tiny slime mold sporangia grow on a rotting log. (Slime molds are related to, but different than, fungi.)

Though some fungi are parasites that damage plants and other living organisms, mycorrhizal fungi form a symbiotic partnership with plants in which both benefit. The fungi obtain nutrients that the plant produces in photosynthesis. The fungal hyphae, in turn, break down organic substances releasing nitrogen, carbon, glucose and other nutrients, which they pass along to the roots of plants without parasitizing them. Many fungi also store carbon, meaning that less is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. All winter long fungi will nourish the soil for spring growth. As I walk on these autumn days, with so many leaves underfoot, I like to think about how they will be decomposed and used again in the spring to help create next year’s new life.

Peeling Puffballs (Lycoperdon) often grow in sandy, open areas, such as roadsides.

Though some fungi are harmful to plants, humans and other organisms, many provide antibiotics and food in addition to forming nourishing soil. So the next time you spot a fungus and think it’s gross, remember the benefits that many fungi provide to nature, the food chain and to us. Here are a few fungal fruiting bodies that I’ve seen growing in the woods this autumn. Fungi often are difficult to identify, so I don’t know all of their names, but I appreciate their shapes and colors.

Tiny orange Mycena toadstools growing in moss.

The underside of this Russula mushroom cap shows the spore-producing gills.

A silvery blue-capped fungus pops up through moss near aspens and pines.

An autumn toadstool grows under bur oaks next to the riverbank.

Amanitas grow in deciduous and mixed woodlands.

White polypore fungi slowly decompose a fallen tree limb.

Brightness in the Gloom

Maple and ash leaves contrast with gray skies and sidewalks on these gloomy days.

Cold, rainy, dark. These adjectives capture the weather and mood of the past three weeks here in Saint Paul, Minnesota. No blue October skies and warm afternoons so far, and none in sight, according to the National Weather Service. I hear lots of complaints from people to the tune of, “My grass is lush green, but I am so crabby;” or, “I just want to read and sleep all day;” or, a straightforward “I am so depressed!”

I don’t like it either and I understand these sentiments. Most of all, I miss gardening and walking outside. As dank as it is, my husband and I have walked in the rain a few times and I gardened in it for a half hour last Sunday. I feel happier and more energetic after I go out to garden or walk, even though I get wet. I’ve noticed others doing the same — students at morning recess in the mist, gardeners cutting back their spent plants, even a few people trying to mow saturated lawns in the persistent drizzle.

When we walked yesterday, I was struck by the contrast between the heavy sky and the splotches of color lighting up the gray sidewalks — maple, birch and ash leaves — their hues more vivd for being wet. The rain and strong winds tore down the leaves prematurely, but I am grateful for the beauty and glow of their colors on these gloomy days.

The leaves of the white ash (Fraxinus Americana) turn orange, red or purple in autumn.

 

A Ribbon of Native Prairie

Monarda, coneflowers, black-eyed Susan’s and big bluestem stretch across a prairie restoration area.

When I was young, I loved to imagine what life on the prairie would have been like in the 1800s. Inspired by Willa Cather’s novels, it wasn’t the rigorous lifestyle that attracted me, but rather the beauty of the land — nothing but open sky overhead, the sweet music of meadowlarks and bluebirds, a sea of wildflowers and native grasses.

The word prairie is French for meadow. There are four different types of prairie in Minnesota including shortgrass, sand dunes, wet meadow and tallgrass prairie. The prairies in the Upper Midwest were formed about 10,000-12,000 years ago by receding glaciers.¹ It’s estimated that Minnesota once had 18 million acres of prairie that stretched across the state from northwest to southeast. Today, slightly less than 2 percent remain, and they are small pieces that weren’t plowable. All of the other acres were replaced with crops.²

Long-headed coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera) are a native prairie wildflower and attract many species of butterflies and bees.

Fortunately, there are many places in the state where prairie restoration is underway. Two wonderful prairie habitats in Minnesota are Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne, MN, and the Jeffers Petroglyphs near Comfrey, MN. Blue Mounds features 1,500 aces of tallgrass prairie, a bison herd in its native surroundings and beautiful rock outcroppings of Sioux quartzite, which look purplish to blue depending on the light. Jeffers Petroglyphs also includes prairie and prairie restoration. The Sioux quartzite contains ancient symbols, some as old as 7000 years and the most recent thought to be 350 years old. We don’t know which American Indian nations carved the original symbols, which include thunderbirds, turtles, deer, buffalo and humans. When I visited, our guide emphasized the sacred nature of this place to American Indians and asked us to treat it with reverence.  When I took time to stop and listen, I felt presence and peace there.

Pearl crescents (Phyciodes tharos) are common on the prairie and grasslands during August and September.

Native prairie restoration at Lake Elmo Park Reserve.

I recently walked on a trail through a much smaller prairie restoration area at the Lake Elmo Park Reserve: Big bluestem, butterfly weed, blazing star, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and other forbs roll in wind-swept waves; the sound of swishing grass beneath a symphony of crickets, grasshoppers, katydids, bumblebees and other singing, buzzing, chirping insects; migrating monarchs floating everywhere. I close my eyes and listen: How expansive and lovely this land must have been before settlers arrived. Let us teach our children the value and beauty of the prairie.

Indian or wood grass (Sorghastrum nutans) has bronze and yellow flowers.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is a major source of nectar for migrating monarch butterflies.

Goldenrod, big bluestem and other native grasses and forbs bloom in a swath of restored prairie at Lake Elmo Park Reserve.

¹Minnesota DNR overview of the prairie biome.

²Minnesota DNR prairie conservation plan.

Late Summer Along Minnesota’s Snake River

Bottle gentians (Gentians andrewsii) signal the arrival of late summer in east central Minnesota.

Much as I hate to admit it, (since I’m a big fan of sun and warmth), the unmistakable signs of late summer color the banks of the Snake River in Pine County, MN.  After 36 summers and autumns along the river, I know them well.

A female long-horned bee (Melissodes, spp.) pollinates a tall sunflower (Helianthus giganteus).

The season’s first bottle gentians, ironweed, tall sunflowers, native field thistle, Joe-Pye and goldenrod add their showy flowers to black-eyed Susan’s, fleabane, monarda and coneflowers already in bloom. Riverbank grapes turn dusky blue, dogwood berries ripen to white on scarlet stems, wild rose hips, hawthorns and chokecherries hang plump and red.

It’s a productive year for the bur oaks. Acorns fall like small rocks that bounce and roll down the roof before they plunk onto the wooden decks. Chipmunks, squirrels and mice snatch up ripe hickory nuts and soon the hazelnuts will be ready. As hard as I’ve tried, I’ve never beaten the squirrels to the tasty hazelnuts.

Crickets and katydids sing in place of wood thrushes and robins. Thank goodness for cardinals that sing at dawn and dusk, and for the melodic cooing of mourning doves during the hot afternoons.

It’s all lovely, and I wouldn’t change it — perhaps stretch it out further into the year — but this late-summer beauty makes me wistful for abundant hours of sunlight, wide-open windows, warm breezes and a simple outfit of shorts and a T-shirt. Let’s hope for a long, mild autumn.

Our neighbor, Ed’s, puple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) attract many species of butterflies.

Native field thistles (Cirsium discolor) provide pollen and nectar to insects and nutritious seeds for birds and other creatures.

Green-headed coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata) provide pollen to bees later in the fall. A hover or flower fly (Toxomerus geminatus) rests on the bloom.

Bur or mossycup oaks (Quercus macrocarpa), a type of white oak, are named for the fringe that surrounds the top of the acorn cup. They are an important food source for many birds and animals.

Riverbank or frost grapes (Vitis riparia) are a native Minnesota grape that favors a moist environment and feeds many bird species.

Gray dogwood berries, or drupes (Cornus racemosa) are a favorite of thrushes, robins and other birds.

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) mix with fleabane and field thistle in a colorful patch next to the road.