Who Will Nest Here?

Black-capped chickadees, downy woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches recently explored this cavity in our apple tree.

Our beacon apple tree is pushing 80 years old. It’s dropped a few limbs over time; some splintered under the weight of apples, others weakened with age and rot. One old limb bears a small cavity. “So what?” you think —  unless you’re a chickadee, nuthatch or other cavity dweller looking for a nesting site. All three species frequently explore and tussle over this cavity, and I believe the chickadees are winning.

One sunny, frigid afternoon, a downy woodpecker pair ducked in and out of the cavity and were confronted and chased away by a black-capped chickadee. A curious white-breasted nuthatch also sidled over for a peek and was waved off by the chickadee. Later, three chickadees fluttered around the opening until two chased off the third. The remaining pair excavated and removed wood chips from the cavity interior; evidence they are preparing a nesting site! The male sings his territorial “fee-bee” (sometimes “fee-bee-bee”) song. I first heard him sing on December 31. 

One member of the black-capped chickadee pair (Poecile atricapillus) removes wood chips from the apple tree cavity.

Chickadees deposit excavated wood chips away from the nest site to avoid leaving signs for predators.

Will this pair nest in our apple tree? Black-capped chickadees prepare multiple nesting sites before the female chooses one, so we won’t know for a few weeks. Wherever they nest, the female will line the tree cavity with moss, soft plant fibers, feathers, hair and fur. She will lay 1-13 (usually 6-8) white eggs marked with reddish-brown spots. The female incubates the eggs and the male feeds her on the nest. Once the hatchlings are old enough to be alone for a short time, both parents feed them. Insects (including their eggs and caterpillars) and spiders comprise most of their high-protein summer diet. Black-capped chickadees also eat other small invertebrates, seeds, nuts and berries. They’ll visit seed and suet feeders in the winter. One cold afternoon, as I topped off our sunflower seed feeder, a cheeky chickadee landed on the edge of my filling-cup, snatched a seed off the top and flew into our arbor vitae hedge to either eat its treat, or cache it for another day.

Black-capped chickadees remain in Minnesota year round.  They are common in much of the northern United States and most of Canada.

I enjoy the chickadees’ curiosity, high-energy antics and their melodious breeding calls, especially as winter drags on. Stay tuned to find out whether or not they nest in our apple tree.

Further Reading

Black-capped Chickadee; Audubon Bird Guide

Chickadee Delight. The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch. February 3, 2020.

Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild. (First edition). New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

January Silence and Sound

Male cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) typically begin singing during mid-January in Minnesota. (I photographed this fellow on a sunny winter morning.)

The weight of winter silence presses on my ears. Heavy snowflakes drape tree limbs, topple seed heads and cover squirrel nests with a crystalline blanket. Falling snow absorbs the whir of auto engines, which pass almost noiselessly down the street. Even the incessant hum of the airport is muffled.

Suddenly, in the snowy hush a northern cardinal sings: “What cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer.” He repeats his joyful song four times and falls silent. His call momentarily illuminates the quiet. His red brilliance punctuates the black, gray and white of a January snowfall.

It is the first time I’ve heard a cardinal sing since last summer. In Minnesota, they typically begin singing in mid-January and will soon renew pair bonds and breeding territories. I welcome his upbeat melody that, along with the lengthening daylight, signals another milestone on the journey to spring.

Further Reading:

Northern Cardinal (All About Birds)

Northern Cardinal Minnesota DNR

Winter Crane Flies

Maple and basswood line the banks of the Mississippi River.

We hike along the Mississippi River as a cloudless sky, calm wind and a mild 52°F settle in for the afternoon. (The average high for Minneapolis-Saint Paul is 28°F today.) Blue jays, black-capped chickadees, and red-bellied woodpeckers call; gray squirrels rattle through the crisp fallen leaves. The river’s surface is unmarked by ripple or wave, and two Canada geese float a few feet from shore, honking softly to each other. 

Winter crane flies (Trichocera species) swarm and mate on mild winter days.

Wherever rays of winter sunlight stream through bare branches of basswood and maple, the air shimmers with small swarms of winter crane flies. The low December sun ignites their wispy forms into sparks of gold. They zip around as energetically as though it were July.

Most types of crane flies are abundant in summer. Just a few species mature and mate in the winter. The swarms shimmering in the afternoon sun consist mainly of males. Females join them briefly to mate, and then lay their eggs in rotting leaves and soil. When not in flight on mild days, the adults rest in protected areas such as hollow trees and caves. (What could they possibly find to eat during a Minnesota winter? Not much. In fact, adults typically don’t eat at all! The larvae eat rotting vegetation, fungi and animal scat.)

They sparkle like tiny gold jewels in patches of winter sunlight.

Winter crane flies are most common in late autumn, early spring and sometimes on mild winter days. Today, they never stray from the sun’s mild warmth — nor do we! A rare Minnesota December day, indeed, and one to remember when winter weather returns.

Further reading:

Winter Crane Fly (Family Trichoceridae)

Winter Crane Flies

 

 

November Honey Bees and Asters

A honey bee (Apis mellifera) nectars in asters (Aster novi-belgii) on a summer-like November day.

Two weeks ago, temperatures bottomed out at 15°F and a winter storm buried gardens, yards and colorful-leafed trees under almost 10 inches of snow. Now, sun and a week of daytime highs around 74°F have awakened chipmunks, spurred American robins to sing and enticed honey bees from their hives. The bees found our last asters of the season. In a sunny location, and protected by an overhanging arbor vitae hedge on the north side, the pastel blossoms continue to open despite the early snow and frigid cold. What a gift — a sweet treat for the honey bees and an unexpected return to autumn beauty for us.

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.