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

October’s Gifts

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:

A tiny green bee (Agapostemon virescens)) looks for nectar in a blanket flower blossom (Gaillardia pulchella).

Common bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) are a hardy native bee. This one looks for nectar on a native sunflower (Helianthus spp).

A painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) suns itself on a native sunflower.

This tiny garden spider built a large web among some spent daylily stalks.

Thin-leaved coneflowers (Rudbeckia triloba) resemble miniature black-eyed Susan’s and bloom into early November.

The seed heads of the native perennial white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) are soft and fluffy.

These spent purple flowers of Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) will ripen to a mass of soft, brown seeds.

Common milkweed pods (Asclepias syriaca) split open and released their soft, parachute-like seeds.

An eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) enjoys the mild afternoon on our back stoop.

An albino eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) snacks on nuts from its perch under the arbor vitae hedge.

I love hearing the sassy blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) call when most birds are quiet in the fall and winter.

Beacon apple leaves (Malus domestic ‘Beacon’) glow in the afternoon sun.

Quaking aspen leaves (Populus tremuloides) quiver and rustle in the smallest breeze creating a peaceful sound.

Red maples (Acer rubrum) smolder on crisp, late October afternoons.

Belted Kingfisher

The rusty band across this bird’s abdomen identifies it as a female belted kingfisher.

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.

A female belted kingfisher hovers over the river just before dropping into the water to catch a fish.

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.

Notice the dark, pointed wing tips and blue-gray upper body coloration.

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. 

The kingfisher’s shaggy crest and long, pointed bill are identifying characteristics.

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:

Wildlife Journal Junior – Belted Kingfisher

Allaboutbirds.org

 

 

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.

 

November Bulbs: Hope for the Spring

‘Maureen’ tulip bulbs bloom in late spring.

In the darkness of a warm, late November evening, my sister planted hope for the spring in my garden: five waxy-smooth, tear drop-shaped “Maureen” tulip bulbs. As she dug the bulb planter into the moist earth, the soil released fresh scents of spicy bee balm, native geraniums, and the pleasant odor of dirt and old leaves.

We nestled each bulb into its own little chamber, filled each space with dirt, lightly watered them and returned the blanket of fallen leaves. I placed a temporary cover of chicken wire and stones on the soil, until it freezes, to discourage squirrels from digging up the bulbs.

Spring bulbs emerging from their winter sleep is a highlight of spring for me.

I think about those small packets of life tucked into the dark earth, and wait for them to ride out the winter. Yes, it’s later than desirable to plant bulbs, but it is how it worked out this year for many reasons. I choose to have hope that they will survive. While I wait, I’ll dream of a mild April day when I’ll walk out the back door and spot bright green shoots poking up through the wet soil. I’ll watch them form buds and bloom; cool ivory against a field of blue Siberian squill and green foliage. In a special way, I will recall the two “Maureens” in my life: a wise aunt who died this past summer and a wonderful young niece who shares her name.

A ‘Maureen’ tulip from a previous spring.