I began cutting back our garden on one of the few warm days before last week’s hard frost. It was sunny and windy. Yellow maple and apple leaves sailed through the yard. Blue jays called raucously. Chimpmunks and squirrels ate nuts and stashed others for the winter. A few flowers still bloomed, though most now sported full seed heads. Among the blooms were the last native bees and butterflies of autumn. Here are a few of late October’s simple gifts:
I first met the kingfisher on paper in a British literature class. The 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems feature themes of nature and religion, included the kingfisher in his sonnet, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” Many of his poetic works include beautiful images of nature and humankind, each one reflecting the Creator by fully being itself.
Several years later, I saw my first live belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) on the banks of the Snake River in east central Minnesota. A long, harsh rattle pierced the quiet river valley. Then, a flash of steely blue-gray sporting a shaggy crest swooped past as a belted kingfisher hunted for its dinner. Perching on a silver maple snag, it eyed the river intently for small fish, crayfish, mollusks, insects and other fresh-water delicacies. Soon, it hovered over the water, then plunged into the river headfirst and emerged with a small fish, scattering shards of sparkling droplets in the air.
Belted kingfishers are similar in size to a blue jay — 11 to 14 inches in length — with a larger head, a dagger-shaped bill and a stocky body. The male and female both have blue-gray upper parts and a white breast with a blue-gray breast band. In addition, females have a rusty belly band that makes them easy to identify.
Unlike most perching birds, belted kingfishers nest in the ground. Usually both the female and male excavate a burrow high up in a riverbank, though some choose a gravel pit or similar area away from water. In northern regions, kingfishers mate once each spring. A clutch of 5-8 pure white eggs is typical. The eggs hatch after 24 days and the young are dependent on their parents for about six weeks. Though kingfishers in Canada and the far northern United States migrate south for the winter, they remain year round in most areas where they can find open water.
Kingfishers primarily eat small fish and crustaceans, but may also eat tadpoles, insects and berries if fish aren’t available. Belted kingfishers don’t have many predators, but are eaten by foxes, raccoons, snakes and hawks, such as Cooper’s and sharp-shinned.
Worldwide, there are more than 110 species of kingfisher — and many of them are vividly colored, unlike their North American cousin. Most, such as the Philippine-dwarf kingfisher and the rufous-backed kingfisher are found in Asia. If Hopkins could have seen these handsome kingfishers, I think he’d have been even more delighted with the beauty of creation.
For further reading about kingfishers worldwide, visit:
September is hatching time — but don’t look to the trees for these babies: they are common snapping turtles! Every spring, in late May or early June, a large female snapper lumbers out of the Snake River, digs a nest nearby and lays between 20-50 (or more) round, leathery eggs. She picks a sunny location, and when she’s finished, she returns to the river to let the sun warm and incubate her egg clutch.
Three months later, the eggs hatch and the baby snappers dig their way to the surface. (We couldn’t locate the nest site this year.) Our neighbors, Ed and Melinda, who live year-round next to Pine County’s Snake River, say the snappers usually hatch on September 2nd. Some years there’s a slight variation; this year it was September 3rd and I was there to see part of it.
The babies take off in several directions, but generally head toward the river or the swamp across the road often stopping to rest. It’s a slow, dangerous journey from nest to water for the half-dollar-sized hatchlings. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, between 60 and 100 percent of each egg clutch is lost to predators. Baby snappers are a favorite food of many woodland creatures, such as herons, fox, skunks, mink and raccoons. Once they reach the water, they are vulnerable to many other predators, such as fish, frogs, northern water snakes, some birds and other turtles.
Those who survive infancy take at least 5-to-7 years to reach adulthood. Most settle in quiet water with a muddy bottom, such as a pond, stream, marsh or slow-moving river. They feed on crayfish, frogs, small birds and mammals, insects and many types of aquatic plants. They also scavenge dead plants and animals, which helps to clean their aquatic environment.
As adults, snappers typically measure at least 8-to-14 inches across the greenish-brown carapace or upper shell, and weigh 35 pounds or more. They have one main predator: humans who hunt them for their meat.
Snapping turtles are shy by nature. They are often docile if encountered in the water and will sink and swim away. However, on land they are vulnerable because they cannot completely retract into their shell. That’s because the plastron or lower shell is much smaller than that of most turtles. The smaller size makes it much easier for a snapper to move its head and neck, but provides less protection. If they are harassed and feel threatened, they may become aggressive, lunge forward and bite very hard.
Scientists believe that common snappers evolved in North America about 90 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. They outlived the dinosaurs and survived several ice ages. Today they populate North America from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, and from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Humans are the main threat to their long-term survival. In addition to being hunted for their meat, many are killed by motorists during the nesting season when females and hatchlings cross roads moving to and from water.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.