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.

Signs of Autumn

Grape woodbine vines (Parthenocissus inserta) weave color through an old wood pile.

The warm, windy afternoon feels summery, but there’s no denying the first signs of autumn present in the woods and fields of Pine County in East Central Minnesota. I smell the sharp, earthy scent of crisp, dry leaves. Many trees are still green, but basswoods are shedding their leaves, silver maples are going gold, and red oaks show splotches of bright color. The most colorful leaves belong to the grape woodbine vines that climb over an old wood pile and thread scarlet up the trunks of many trees.

Ripe acorns drop, swishing through leaves as they fall. Some hit hard like a rock; some bounce and tumble down the cabin roof; others plunk and splash into the water of the Snake River. Blue jays, chipmunks and gray squirrels scramble to collect and store the nuts for winter. The turf is also littered with hickory nuts, walnut husks and basswood nutlets.

Grape woodbine and lichens light up the trunk of an old silver maple tree.

The large heart-shaped leaves of basswoods, or lindens (Tilia americana), are the first to be shed this year.

A mossycup or bur oak acorn (Quercus macrocarpa); the seed of a white oak that prefers rich, moist soil and grows along the riverbank.

Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) gather acorns, hickory and other nuts to eat over the winter.

Roadsides and fields offer a bounty of autumn wildflowers — native asters, tall sunflowers, bottle gentians, Black-eyed Susan’s and a few others. Bees, wasps and painted lady butterflies hang like ornaments on the blossoms and the air is heavy with their busy drone.

Mixed groups of migrating warblers hunt for insects, swinging like tiny acrobats on tree branches. The pesky gnats, mosquitos and other tiny bugs that annoy us fuel the warblers’ journey to Central America.

A bumble bee (Bombus spp.) pollinates tall sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus).

A bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculate) drinks nectar from panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum).

Painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) are attracted to red clover, thistle and other autumn wildflowers.

A bladk-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia) hunts insects in the river shallows.

In a few short weeks, all of this busy activity will disappear and the quiet of winter will descend. In the meantime, I hope for a long, warm autumn and will enjoy the changing beauty of trees, flowers, seeds and creatures. What signs of autumn do you notice?

Gray dogwoods (Cornus racemosa) develop white berries and maroon leaves in autumn. The berries are a favorite food of grouse and pheasant.