October’s Painted Lady

A painted lady’s (Vanessa cardui) underwing sports four eyespots and pink patches. It is nectaring on asters (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium).

Mild October days bring butterflies to our garden. We commonly see red admirals, painted ladies, commas and tortoiseshells, but in 2022, I’ve seen fewer numbers of butterflies all season. The only painted lady (Vanessa cardui) that I’ve spotted appeared in late October on a mild, sunny day (77°F/25°C). 

It spent hours nectaring on late-blooming asters in the company of many bees, and flew energetically around the garden every few minutes. While most of the native bees perished in a hard frost (24°F/-4°C) more than two weeks ago, a few hearty bumblebees survived, as did the honey bee colonies. Bees and butterfly got along well and were simply focused on collecting nectar for energy. As I gardened nearby, the gentle humming of the bees was soothing and complemented the rustling of falling scarlet-red maple leaves.

A painted lady’s upper wings carry black and orange markings with a few white spots near the wingtips.

Two days later, the painted lady disappeared from our garden on a warm wind heading south. I miss them during the long northern winter. Also known as the “thistle butterfly,” (because thistles are a favorite food source for both caterpillars and adults), painted ladies migrate to wintering grounds in the southern United States and Mexico to return in late spring.

Further Reading:

Weber, Larry. (2006). Butterflies of the North Woods. Duluth, Minnesota: Kollath & Stensaas Publishing.

Painted Ladies – Nature, Garden, Life

Painted Lady Butterfly – Wisconsin Horticulture

Cherish the (Butterfly) Ladies – UW-Milwaukee Field Station

Exploring Nature with Young Children

Two toddlers exploring rocks under their parents’ watchful eyes. (They both enjoy nature as young adults now!)

 

Love for the natural world begins when we are very young. Even the smallest of hands-on experiences ignites a child’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder, and these early encounters stay with us. I remember evenings with my mother…sitting on our front steps and listening to her stories about trees, stars, moths and whatever else presented itself. I know the wonder those times created deep inside of me; a reverence and joy I continue to nurture.

Recently, I watched a mom walk with her toddler, stop and lift him up to touch the leaves of a young maple tree, and pluck a leaf for him to carry. Then the little guy spied an ant hill on the sidewalk. He and his mom watched the bustling activity for a few minutes before moving on to explore a boulevard garden.

Colorful tree leaves are a simple way to introduce nature to young children.

 

Seeing them raised memories of giving our son leaves, pinecones, acorns and rocks to hold under our watchful eyes. He loved his “pet caterpillars.” He squeezed the first wooly bear I showed him too hard, but we worked on “gentle touch” and held other caterpillars, baby toads and small frogs. Butterflies also were an early delight, both in the garden and while out hiking.

Black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) and other butterflies are easy to show to children.

 

Each summer we watched American robins, cardinals, house wrens, blue jays and mourning doves nest in our urban yard. Using binoculars, we observed them raise their nestlings in our hedge and apple tree. At the cabin, we saw yellow warblers, American redstarts, Baltimore orioles, bluebirds, woodpeckers and many others. In both locations, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and herons were common overhead.

A hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villous) hunts for insects on an old American elm stump.

 

Something about those early, joyful experiences stuck with our son. Even now as he studies medicine and has little time outside, he’ll text us about a Cooper’s hawk perched on a fence, a barn swallow nest in a hospital parking ramp, a winter moonrise, or the ducklings and goslings paddling on the creek near his apartment.

If you have children in your life, show them the simple things in nature; there are so many easy activities to enjoy together. Finding rocks, leaves and large seeds is a great place to start. Talk about their shapes, colors and textures. Learn to identify a few of the common trees where you live.

Getting dirty in the garden is great fun for most kids and adults! Plant seeds and tend them together. Carrots, green beans, radishes and marigolds were the first seeds we planted. (We also grew a potted cherry tomato.) We checked for progress everyday, from the first sprout, to buds on beans and marigolds, to harvesting and eating the veggies.

“Watering the garden” was a favorite task at our house!

 

While gardening, watch for butterflies and moths. Large ones, such as monarchs and swallowtails are easy to point out and talk about. If you grow milkweed, dill or parsley in your garden, you may find caterpillars to show children; monarchs on the milkweed and swallowtails on dill, parsley and other plants in the carrot family.

Monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on a common milkweed plant (Asclepias syriaca).

 

In autumn, take a “leaf walk” together and collect colorful leaves. Some kids enjoy pressing the leaves to make a book of the different types, shapes and colors. Most will enjoy piling up the leaves and jumping in them! While you’re out walking, watch for colorful birds and listen for their songs. Learn about the birds that inhabit your community.

Many children like to create nature journals. When our son was a preschooler, he made simple journals from scrap paper. He drew pictures of dragonflies, bees, birds, flowers, rocks and whatever else in nature caught his interest. He’d dictate a few sentences for me to write about each item until he was old enough to write his own. There are also simple journals that you can buy to record your observations together. We used both the “Bird Log” and “Nature Log” by Adventure Publications. These days there are many more options from which to choose. Here’s a link to a few other nature journals for children.

The early darkness of winter evenings makes it easier to view the night sky. Watch the moon wax and wane from a tiny crescent to a luminous globe and back to a sliver. Point out the brighter planets: Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. If you live away from urban lights, or can drive outside of the city, look at the beautiful Milky Way overhead and at a few of the easier-to-recognize constellations, such as Orion, Canis Major, Gemini and Ursa Major in the Northern Hemisphere. Many children, especially those living in cities, have few opportunities to marvel at a sky full of stars.

During a snowfall, walk together and notice the hush that settles over the land as falling snow muffles all sound. It feels magical, especially at dusk or in the evening. Catch snowflakes on your mittens and point out the variety of their beautiful shapes. A fresh, clean snow is also the perfect opportunity to look for animal tracks, and if the time is right, see the creature who made them! A walk in the woods on a mild winter day reveals the shapes of trees, native grasses and wildflower seed heads. Watch for woodpeckers that stay with us through the long winter and listen for the hooting of owls.

Winter walks are a good time to look for tracks and the creature who made them, like this red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus).

 

As children grow and continue to learn, we can talk with them about endangered and extinct plants and animals, and what each of us might do, even in small ways, to prevent further loss. To that end, providing youngsters with fun experiences and happy memories of nature can help them connect meaning and joy with the natural environment — and that may create a deeper commitment to caring for our beautiful world.

 Our summer days included checking the flowers and watching bees, butterflies and other garden insects.

Green Darner Migration

Common green darner female (Anax junius)

On a windy, warm September evening, the sun has set; the air is soft and dusky. Migration is underway, but not the avian sort. A few large common green darner dragonflies zigzag beneath the trees hawking insects. I look skyward and far above me, a river of swarming green darners surges — hundreds of them — straight south ahead of a cold front.

Born in Minnesota, these green darners migrate to the Gulf Coast of the southern United States and Mexico. When they arrive, they’ll mate and lay eggs to produce the next generation, which will migrate north in April or May. When they arrive here, they will mate and give rise to a new generation before dying. These progeny will hatch by late August and continue the cycle of migration and reproduction. 

But that’s not the entire story! Common green darners are present in the north all summer — so where did they come from? There’s a resident population that doesn’t migrate. They’re active and deposit eggs throughout the summer and autumn. However, their young, called naiads, won’t mature until the following spring. They will wait out the winter on the bottom of a pond, marsh or slow-moving river or stream.

Averaging 3 inches in length, and with a wingspan of 3.5 inches, green darners are among our largest dragonflies. This one also is a female. Males’ abdomens are bright blue.

Green darner adults eat mosquitoes, midges and other flying insects. The aquatic naiads feast on mosquito larvae and other aquatic insects, tadpoles and tiny fish. Green darners are eaten by spiders, large robber flies and birds such as kestrels.

Further Reading

Mead, Kurt. (2009). Dragonflies of the North Woods. Duluth, Minnesota: Kollath & Stensaas Publishing.

Smithsonian Magazine

UW-Milwaukee Field Station

Hidden Music Maker

Katydids’ green bodies are easily mistaken for plant leaves. Can you spot one under the flower on the right?

Walk outside and listen on a late-summer or early autumn evening. Insect music has replaced the chorus of robins, mourning doves, northern cardinals and other birds. The new songsters might include tree and field crickets, cicadas, grasshoppers and katydids.

Unlike their more somber-colored cricket cousins, katydids are often bright green and are well camouflaged by plant leaves and stems. Very long antennae and wings held vertically over the body distinguish them from grasshoppers. Many could pass for a small leaf on a plant! I often hear katydids calling, but rarely see them.

Similar to their cricket kin, katydids create sound by rapidly moving the sharp edge of one wing against a ridge of bumps on the other wing — this is called stridulation. Each species creates a different sound. Most produce clicks, rattles or buzzes that differ in pitch, pattern and volume. Only one species, the common true katydid (Pterophylla camellifolia) “says” its name. (The link includes both group and individual recordings.)

Katydids’ ears are located below the knee joint. Zoom in to see the small, dark oval shapes called tympanum.

Katydids have narrow hearing organs located below each knee on their front legs. Though the location differs from mammalian ears, the ear structure is similar to our own. Simply put, sound waves cause a katydid’s eardrums to vibrate. The vibrations rock a small plate that transmits sound waves to the auditory vesicle, which contains fluid. The waves move through the fluid over tiny sensory cells that glean information and send electrical impulses to the katydid’s brain. Scientists theorize that locating a mate and avoiding predators are two key purposes of katydid hearing.

What eats katydids? Owls, kestrels, other birds, rodents, tree frogs, insects and spiders prey on them. Mainly vegetarians, katydids eat leaves and flowers of plants, but sometimes eat insects — including other katydids!

Next time you’re outside in the evening, listen for katydid calls. Crickets aren’t the only nighttime musicians!

Further Reading

Katydids – Wisconsin Horticulture

Katydids – Tettigoniidae

Songs of Insects

Only This Moment

White-tailed doe (Odocoileus virginianus)

The eyes of a white-tailed deer are liquid and deep. Walking at a nature preserve, I sense and then spot a doe’s motionless face gazing at me from a dry creek bed. We stand alert and silent. Though I don’t see them, a young fawn or two are probably hidden nearby waiting for their mother’s signal to move. Birdsong, the wind and children’s voices in the distance fade away behind the curtain of green foliage. There is only this place and moment.

Skimmer Dragonflies

Male widow skimmers (Libellula luctuosa) are dark brown with a bluish frost called pruinose.

What do you think of when you hear the term skimmer? A shore bird, a kitchen utensil, or perhaps a type of shoe? Skimmer also refers to the earth’s largest family of dragonflies, Libellulidae

Skimmers might be the image that many envision when they “think dragonfly.” Skimmers’ wings are large and patterned with spots — usually black and a powdery grayish-white. Like all dragonflies, skimmers hold their wings spread out horizontally from the body when resting. The head is large with eyes that contact each other on top. Two inches is a common body length, but it can vary between one and three inches. Adult skimmers dine on many soft-bodied insects, especially mosquitoes, flies, small moths and winged ants. Nymphs, or immature dragonflies, develop underwater where they eat mosquito larvae, fly larvae and other aquatic organisms. Skimmers are preyed upon by raccoons, skunks, shrews, bats, turtles, snakes, frogs, fish, spiders, larger insects such as praying mantids, and many bird species.

A female twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella) perches on a dead forb in an urban oak savanna.

The twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella) and the widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) are two common skimmers of Minnesota. Though similar in appearance and size (about two inches long), the difference is in their wing spots. Male twelve-spots carry 12 black patches and eight white spots between the black ones. Male widow skimmers show a dark black wing patch from the wing’s base to about midwing. One large white spot extends outward from the black patch. Female and young juvenile males of both species only exhibit black patches. Males and females of both species are coppery brown, but adult males develop a whitish-blue dusty or frosted appearance, called pruinose, on the abdomen. Both species sport bright, neatly etched side stripes — yellow in twelve-spots and orangish in widow skimmers. In addition, the thoraxes of mature twelve-spotted skimmers display two yellow stripes. 

Why the name widow skimmer? One explanation is that most male dragonflies carefully guard their mates during egg-laying, but widow skimmer females deposit their eggs unguarded, and thus became commonly known as widows. Another is that the black wing patches were thought to be reminiscent of a widow’s shawl.

A female widow skimmer’s wings show the black pattern reminiscent of a widow’s shawl.

Both skimmer species may be found near ponds, lakes and marshes, but they also venture away from water into fields and meadows. I observed two twelve-spotted skimmers in a small area of oak savanna in Saint Paul, about three city blocks away from a pond. One perched on a dead tree limb, the other atop a dried up forb, wings spread horizontally and glistening in the sun. 

Though not the most eye-catching of dragonflies, I like them; they’re easy to observe because they often forage in open areas away from water and remain close to their conspicuous perches. Both species share a similar geographic area. Twelve-spots range throughout most of southern Canada, the continental United States and northern Mexico. Widow skimmers occur in southern Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, across the United States, except for the Rocky Mountain region, and in a portion of northern Mexico. Both skimmer species are on the wing during the summer months and the twelve-spotted skimmer is active through September.

Further Reading

Minnesota Dragonfly: Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Minnesota Dragonfly: Widow Skimmer

Seashore Early Morning

Early morning on a Gulf Coast beach in West Central Florida.

Early on there is the sound of seabirds and surf, the scent of sand and salt with a hint of fish. Steel-blue water surges inward tossing up sea jewels with names like cockle, calico scallop, cat’s paw, coquina and lucina on the sand before it retreats in a quiet hiss.

Willets, sanderlings, terns and other tiny shorebirds race ahead of the surf on their skinny legs. They probe the wet sand for breakfast invertebrates after each retreating wave. In contrast, brown pelicans swoop in soundlessly over the water. One plunges sharply, surfaces with a fish that squirms as the pelican swallows. On shore, a great blue heron stands companionably near a fisherman, waiting for the catch of the day.

Sanderlings (Calidris alba)

Royal terns (Thalasseus maximus)

A few feet from shore, the rising sun lights up sea oxeye daisies, blanket flowers, dune sunflowers, seaside gentians, sea oats, sea grapes and other native plants. They help anchor the dunes and provide habitat for many insects, birds and other creatures.

Seaside gentian (Eustoma exaltatum)

Florida west coast dune sunflower (Helianthus debilis vestitus)

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella)

They are lovely, but it is to the sea that I return; sea and open sky. The rhythmic swoosh and hiss, ebb and flow, lulls, relaxes, and focuses me on this present moment. It is peaceful, joyful, hopeful. A fresh start.

Kentucky Coffee Tree

Kentucky coffee trees form thick, leathery pods that reman on the tree during the winter.

Walk down Twin Cities’ streets and look at the trees. June berries grow next to basswoods, red maples with hackberries and crab apples. The single-species plantings of the past are being replaced with a broad mix of native species and more resilient hybrids.

The Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is one such native that’s interesting in appearance and history. The tree’s dark pods, open branch structure and scaly bark caught my eye because they differ from the smooth, gray-barked basswoods and red maples growing nearby.

The scaly, craggy bark of Kentucky coffee trees sets them apart from trees with smooth, gray bark, such as basswoods and red maples.

I didn’t think that a tree with Kentucky as part of its name would survive so far north, but it’s native to several counties south of the Twin Cities and new cultivars grow well north of the cities. It is listed as being native to Ontario, Canada, and the Central United States from Pennsylvania west to Nebraska and from Minnesota south to Oklahoma. It typically grows in small clusters because, in spite of its large seeds, it spreads mainly by forming suckers or root sprouts. The tough, impermeable seed coats result in a low germination rate. You’re more likely to find it growing on a city boulevard than in the woods. As a result, in Minnesota, the Kentucky coffee tree is listed as a “species of special concern.”

Female Kentucky coffee trees develop large green pods that darken in late summer.

The ripe seed pods contain several marble-sized seeds, which are toxic unless thoroughly cooked.

Like locust trees, the Kentucky coffee tree is a member of the pea or legume family, but its pods are large, reddish-brown, woody and thick compared to its relatives’, which are much slimmer. Whitish-green male and female flowers grow on separate trees. The fertilized female flowers form light green pods that ripen to the dark coloration in autumn. The tough pods contain several marble-sized seeds surrounded by sticky pulp and remain on the trees through winter. Native trees prefer rich, moist soil near rivers, but above the flood plain.

How did a tree in the pea family garner the name coffee tree? Early Kentucky settlers thought the seeds resembled coffee beans, but there’s no relation between the tree types. According to several sources, settlers roasted the seeds and used them to brew a coffee substitute — but don’t brew your own! They stopped this practice as soon as coffee could be imported because the beverage tastes very bitter — and unless they are thoroughly roasted, the seeds and pods are toxic!

This young Kentucky coffee tree shows the full foliage and green seed pods of summer.

Further Reading:

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

University of Kentucky Department of Horticulture

Autumn Nostalgia

It rained leaves yesterday: red and silver maple, elm and basswood. Ash and birch fell last week. Other maples, oak, aspen, hackberry and ginkgo are still to come. The sky was hazy sun, the air windy and mild. A few late asters bloomed and honey bees jostled each other seeking the season’s last pollen and nectar. I am nostalgic for another summer gone by and I do not look forward to winter. 

The leaves kindle warm memories of the past: Nighttime walks scuffling through dried leaves with family and friends; autumn bonfires, years of after-school leaf walks with our young son. His warm, small hand held mine and his other was packed with leaves for projects — leaf bouquets, nature collages and little booklets with leaves and seeds of neighborhood trees. 

I miss the leaves; every year it’s the same. I miss their spicy scent, earthy and tangy with just a touch of sweetness as they break down. I miss their nighttime whispers on warm, summer winds, and the rattle of older, dry leaves in autumn. November winds whip them into swirling, airborne eddies and send them skittering down streets. They catch among rocks and old stalks, tucking in our garden until spring. Summer’s green umbrella slowly smolders to yellow, orange, russet, red and maroon. The canopy thins and falls, nestling woodlands and yards under a colorful quilt for winter.

Wooly Bear Caterpillars

I found this little wooly bear asleep in the garden under a pile of fallen leaves and tucked it back in for the winter.

I miss the hum and activity of bees, butterflies and other insects that populate our garden. But, as I finished up some outdoor work, I was reminded that their absence is temporary. I spotted a familiar small, fuzzy form: a banded wooly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) asleep for the winter beneath some fallen leaves.

Though we usually call these little creatures wooly bears or wooly worms, there are more than 260 different species of them in North America. Each has a different coloration and becomes a distinct species of moth. The banded wooly bear is black on both ends with rusty orange in the middle. When the caterpillar reaches maturity, it becomes an Isabella tiger moth. Though I’ve seen many banded wooly bears, I have yet to see the moth, which is usually a muted orange, salmon or yellow color with black spots on its body and wings.

Wooly bears are generalists — they eat many types of plants including grass, clover and weeds. This one had just crossed the Lake Nokomis walking path in Minneapolis.

The banded wooly bear caterpillar grows up to 2 inches in length. Its fuzzy body is covered in tiny bristles called setae that are black on the caterpillar’s ends and rusty orange in the middle. The number of orange segments increases as the caterpillar grows. Though a few people might be sensitive to the bristles, most have no problems handling the caterpillars. I remember carrying them around as a child and holding them with our toddler son on nature walks. 

Is it true that the size of a wooly bear’s orange band predicts the quality of the winter ahead? No, according to the sources that I read (please see the list below). Explanations include: the size of the orange band increases as the caterpillar grows; those with more orange grew up in a drier habitat and those with more black segments grew up where it was moister; lots of variety occurs naturally among caterpillar populations; and there’s plenty of disagreement among all of these views. In spite of the arguments, it’s fun to observe, compare and chart the size of wooly bears bands — especially with children!

Banded wooly bears in Canada and the northern United States typically produce one brood each year, though two generations are possible. Those that hatch in August feed until late autumn. They eat a broad range of grass, weeds and wildflowers, and aren’t crop pests. In autumn, they enter quiescence (a type of insect dormancy) for the winter, usually in leaf litter, or under a log or rock. 

Look for wooly bears on sunny, mild autumn days. This one crossed the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail in southern Minnesota.

How do they survive our harsh winter? They produce a cryoprotectant,¹ an antifreeze to prevent cells from rupturing when they repeatedly freeze and thaw. The bristles or setae also help the caterpillar to freeze on the outside first, protecting the inner organs. In the spring, each caterpillar will awaken from quiescence, resume feeding and spin its cocoon. About two weeks later, an adult Isabella tiger moth will emerge.

Banded wooly bears range throughout the United States, Canada and even into Mexico. You might catch a glimpse of them feeding in the spring, but it’s more likely that you’ll spot one in autumn when you’re out walking, biking, or working in your garden.

wooly-bear-caterpillar-tom-2

Sources List for Further Reading

The Infinite Spider Blog 

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

NPR Science Friday video

National Weather Service

Scientific American Blog

University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee: Bug of the Week Blog

¹The cryoprotectant is produced by other wooly bear species, too. In fact, the Arctic wooly bear (Gynaephora groenlandica) caterpillar has a life cycle that stretches over seven or more years! The Arctic summers are so brief that the caterpillars must feed and enter quiescence repeatedly for several years before gaining enough biomass to metamorphose into a moth. Overall, they spend 90 percent of their lives dormant and frozen! (For more about the Arctic wooly bear, follow the link above to the Scientific American Blog.)