Autumn Meadowhawk

The late afternoon September sun is warm and soothing.  Cicadas whine loudly and a monarch butterfly nectars in our patch of sweet Joe-Pye.  But another garden critter catches my eye this afternoon:  the yellow-legged meadowhawk dragonfly.

Adult male autumn meadowhawks are red with few or no markings on the abdomen.

Adult male autumn meadowhawks are red with few or no markings on the abdomen.

Also known as autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum), their bodies flash gem-like red, orange and amber in the sun. Perched on daylily stalks, balloon flower seed pods and hosta stems, each dragonfly swivels its head watching for flies, small bees and wasps, and other soft-bodied insects.

Adult autumn meadowhawks are present from August into early November in Minnesota.  The species is common across much of the United States and southern Canada, and often is seen in yards and gardens. Their yellow or brownish legs set them apart from other types of meadowhawks, which have black or dark-striped legs. They also have minimal or no black marks on the abdomen.

Females are distinguished by the ovipositor visible near the end of the abdomen.

Females are distinguished by the ovipositor visible near the end of the abdomen.

When I see a meadowhawk flash in the garden, I think of the ancient history of these creatures. Scientists believe that early dragonflies (Protodonata) first inhabited Earth 300 million years ago.  They speculate that Earth’s warmer temperatures, and the atmosphere’s higher oxygen content, contributed to insects growing larger than today.  Fossils show that some ancient dragonflies had a wingspan of two feet. Today, most of the larger dragonflies have a wingspan of two to five inches, and meadowhawks are smaller yet at about one inch.  What they lack in size they make up for in the sparkle of sun on their transparent wings and the jeweled designs of their bodies.  And, after watching a meadowhawk grind up a small bee in its jaws, I’m glad they’ve evolved into smaller predators!

Sunlight captures the beauty of this meadowhawk's wings.  The ovipositor and the light red abdomen with faint black markings identifies it as a female autumn meadowhawk.

Sunlight captures the beauty of this meadowhawk’s wings. The ovipositor, yellowish legs and the light red abdomen with faint black markings identify it as a female.

A Harvest of Berries

In late November, most leaves have fallen to the ground, turned brown and tucked Earth’s northern regions in for the long winter.  But the bareness reveals new beauty in the form of a harvest of berries.  Many colorful berries decorate trees, shrubs and vines, both here in St. Paul and in the woods surrounding our cabin on the Snake River in Pine County, MN.  They also provide food for many birds and small mammals.  Here is a sample of this generous harvest:

Six species of dogwood are native to Minnesota.  Among the  most colorful are gray dogwood and swamp dogwood, also known as silky or blue dogwood.

gray dogwood

Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) leaves turn shades of maroon and purple. White berries or “drupes” grow on stalks that turn bright red in autumn.

Swamp or silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) berries ripen to dark blue. The shrubs form dense thickets that provide cover for snowshoe hare and other animals.

Swamp or silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) berries ripen to dark blue. The shrubs form dense thickets that provide cover for snowshoe hare and other animals.

Native hawthorns (Crataegus) are small trees with long, sharp thorns that produce a beautiful red fruit eaten by many songbirds.

Native hawthorns (Crataegus) are small trees, with long, sharp thorns, that produce a beautiful red fruit or “pome” eaten by many songbirds.

American woodbine’s scarlet leaves have fallen to reveal deep-blue berries on fire-red stalks or pedicels.  Woodbine is a close relative of Virginia creeper, but prefers sunnier locations and lacks adhesive cups at the end of its tendrils.

American woodbine berries are a winter food source for some species of songbirds.

American woodbine (Parthenocissus inserta) berries are a winter food source for some species of songbirds.

Many species of rose, both native and cultivated, produce beautiful fruit known as “hips”.  Rose hips are rich in vitamin C and other nutrients.

Squirrels eat the fruit or "hips" of (Rosa 'Henry Kelsey') before they've even ripened.

Squirrels eat the fruit or “hips” of (Rosa ‘Henry Kelsey’) before the fruit has even ripened.

rosehips3

Smooth rose (Rosa blanda) produces nutritious hips favored by many mammals and birds.

The feathery white plumes of starry false Solomon’s seal have grown into plump berries that gradually changed from bright green to beige mottled with coppery red, and now are bright, translucent red.

Ripe berries of starry false Solomon's seal (Maianthemum racemosum) hang in plumes.

Ripe berries of starry false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) hang in plumes.

November Moonrise

I miss the long, light days of summer with their extended periods of predawn and dusky twilight.  But, if there’s an advantage to the lengthy winter nights, it is the beauty and greater visibility of the moon and constellations.  The sun’s lower angle allows the moon to be visible during some daylight hours of the winter months.  The planet Venus also is visible high on the southern horizon in the late afternoon and early evening, and is referred to as the “evening star”.

The November moon rises in mid-afternoon.

The November moon rises in mid-afternoon.

A good resource to find out about what’s currently visible in the night sky — such as planets, constellations, comets, meteor showers and other heavenly objects — is Sky and Telescope‘s “This Week’s Sky at a Glance”.

November moonrise through red maple (Acer rubrum).

November moonrise through red maple (Acer rubrum).

Late-Season Ladybugs and a Lacewing

After a couple of unseasonably chilly days that put a skin of ice on a neighborhood pond, the temperature rebounded into the mid-50s on Thursday and Friday.  Many non-native multicolored Asian ladybug beetles came out of hiding and scurried about on sun-warmed concrete sidewalks and stone walls.

An Asian ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) soaks up the afternoon sun.

A multicolored Asian ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) soaks up the afternoon sun.

I’m not an expert at distinguishing between native and Asian ladybugs, but those I photographed seem to have characteristics of Asian ladybugs:  an “M” or “W” mark (depending on the viewing angle) on the thorax between the head and abdomen, variations in color among individual beetles, variations in the number of spots on wing covers among individuals, and remaining active into late autumn.

Individual Asian ladybugs show greater variation in color and number of spots number of spots amo

Individual multicolored Asian ladybugs show greater variation in number of spots and color than native species.

Asian ladybugs can be a competitive threat to native species and are sometimes pests indoors during the winter.  One November evening several years ago, we drove to our cabin for the weekend.  The ladybugs had gone into hibernation and when we heated the cabin, the warmth awakened a group of about 60 Asian ladybugs that had found a way inside.  They preferred the lights to us and were lined up like beads on a necklace around the tops of lamp shades, and on a lengthy pull-chain for a ceiling fan and light.  We never saw them again, so they must have found their way outside in the spring.

Like native ladybug species, Asian ladybugs eat large numbers of garden and agricultural pests, such as aphids.

Like native ladybug species, Asian ladybugs eat large numbers of garden and agricultural pests such as aphids.

I also found a green lacewing (Chrysopidae) on a window screen.  Lacewings destroy large numbers of garden and agricultural pests such as aphids and other small insects.  (I apologize for the poor photograph taken through the screen; unfortunately, the lacewing flew away as I went outside to photograph it.)

A green lacewing perched on a window screen soaks up suns itself.

A green lacewing (Chrysopidae) perched on a window screen suns itself.

The lacewing was a lovely and delicate gift on a late-autumn day; a symbol of spring to remember during the long winter.

November Maples

Ash trees are bare and golden birch leaves are falling rapidly.  Maple trees — red, silver and black species — smolder in shades of red, orange, gold and yellow on Saint Paul’s boulevards.  A mild, sunny day with strong, gusty southwest winds pulled many leaves from the trees, piling them in corners, catching them in bushes and long grass, and decorating all things still green with the fire of autumn.

Several species of maple show their colors on our St. Paul, MN, avenue.

Several species of maple display their colors on our St. Paul, MN, street.

A southwest wind blew together a small pile of maple and apple leaves with ash keys nestled next to blue fescue 'Elijah blue'.

A southwest wind blew together a small pile of maple leaves, apple leaves and ash keys nestled next to blue fescue ‘Elijah blue’.

A maple leaf, 'autumn blaze', glows against the dark green of a yew where it was trapped by the wind.

An ‘autumn blaze’ maple leaf glows against a deep green yew where the wind trapped it.

A bright patchwork sewn of maple leaves decorates our front lawn.

A bright patchwork of maple leaves decorates our front lawn.

Autumn Leaves Part II

Aspen, hazelnut, oak — both red and white — add their glow to the autumn hardwood forest.    Carotenoid pigments, which color pumpkins, yellow squash and corn, produce yellow, gold and orange leaf coloration.  Anthocyanins produce red and purple colors in raspberries, grapes, cherries and some autumn leaves.  The brown coloration found in some species of oak is produced by tannins, which also color tea, some kinds of wine, and some nuts, such as walnuts, pecans and acorns.   On a recent day-trip to our cabin, I photographed changing leaves in the woods along the Snake River in east central Minnesota.  Each tree has a unique beauty in the shape and color of its autumn leaves.

Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is a member of the Beech family.

Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is a member of the Beech tree family.

Bur Oak or Mossycup Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) leaves turn yellow or brown in autumn.

Bur or Mossycup Oak leaves (Quercus macrocarpa) turn yellow or brown in autumn.

Amaerican hazelnut (Corylus americana) bushes grow in thickets along the riverbank.

American hazelnut (Corylus americana) bushes grow in thickets along the riverbank and produce rose-colored autumn leaves.

A grove of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) grows west of our cabin.

A grove of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) soars skyward.

Aspen leaves tremblein the most gentle breeze and create a soothing rustle.

Quaking aspen leaves tremble in the most gentle breeze and create a soft, soothing, rain-like sound.

Autumn Photos and Phenology

Seasonal changes happen quickly in Minnesota during October and it’s interesting to watch the progression into autumn. For example, swamp milkweed seed pods break open, male goldfinch feathers transform from bright yellow to olive green, chipmunks and other rodents stash nuts and seeds for the winter, and bees and most other insects have either died or are hibernating until spring.

Naturalists use the term phenology to refer to these changes.  Phenology is the study of the changes that occur in plants and animals from year to year — such as flowering, ripening of fruit and nuts, emergence or disappearance of insects, and migration of birds — especially the timing and relationship of these events with weather and climate.  It also can include other observations, such as the occurrence of the first frost, the date on which a body of water freezes, and when specific constellations are visible in the sky.  Here are a few examples of current autumn phenology that I photographed along the Snake River in Pine County, MN:

 Northern red oak leaves begin to change color.

Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) leaves begin to change color.

Wild rose hips ripen to cherry red.

Wild rose hips (Rosa acicularis) ripen to cherry red.

Swamp milkweed (Esclepias incarnata) seeds pods release their silky seeds.

Swamp milkweed (Esclepias incarnata) pods release their silky seeds.

An eastern chipmunk collects acorns, hickory and hazelnuts in its pouches to store in its den for the winter.

An eastern chipmunk stuffs bur oak acorns into its pouches to store in its den.

Puffball mushrooms are common in autumn.

Puffball mushrooms appear in autumn.

Everyone who observes nature and records their observations contributes to the science of phenology.  If you’re interested in contributing your own observations, there are several organizations online, including:  “Nature’s Notebook” at the USA Phenology Network, the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Phenology Network  and the National Science Foundation’s “Project Budburst”.

First Hard Frost of Autumn

Early yesterday morning, as Orion sailed high overhead and strings of bright stars washed the sky in spite of an almost-full moon, the first killing frost zapped gardens in the urban core of St. Paul-Minneapolis.  About two weeks later than the average date of October 7th, the first hard frost turned basil and impatiens to mush, bedraggled morning glories and hyacinth beans, and shriveled the last blossoms of Japanese anemones and toad lilies.  But one hardy bloom survived: a newly opened cluster of climbing ‘Henry Kelsey’ roses.  The rose faces south and grows next to our brick garage, which helps to shelter it from north winds.  The National Weather Service predicts nighttime lows in the upper 20s the next two nights, so the roses won’t last much longer.  However, their fresh, simple beauty was a gift on a gloomy, unseasonably chilly day.  To read more about Minnesota weather, seasons and related topics, visit Updraft Blog: Weather and its Underlying Science at MPR.org.

Rosa 'Henry Kelsey' (Canadian Explorer Series) survived the season's first hard frost.

Yellow leaves of an ash tree accent Rosa ‘Henry Kelsey’ (Canadian Explorer Series) blooms that survived the season’s first hard frost.

Autumn Leaves

When leaves change color in autumn, people often say that the trees are “putting on their fall colors”.  In fact, many of the yellow and orange colors are already present in the leaves during the summer and are masked by chlorophyll, a green pigment. (The red and purple colors are primarily made in late summer as sugars are trapped in the leaves.)  Scientists haven’t yet identified all of the factors that influence the color change in leaves, but the primary factor is the decreasing amount of daylight in the fall.  As the days shorten, the veins that bring water and nutrients to leaves for chlorophyll production slowly close off.  Without nutrients, the chlorophyll dies and the leaves’ other colors are unmasked.

Lemony ash leaves (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) fall and mingle with Canada cherry leaves (Prunus virginiana).

Lemon-colored ash leaves (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) fall among Canadian red cherry tree branches (Prunus virginiana).

Green ash leaves have changed to bright lemony-yellow and are pulled from the tree by wind and rain.  They are the first trees in our St. Paul neighborhood to change color, along with white ash.  Black walnut, hackberry and a few sugar maples also have begun to change, with just a hint of muted color showing in red maples.  (More about autumn leaves in future posts.)

 Green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) is one of the first trees to change color and drop its leaves.

Green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) is one of the first trees to change color and drop its leaves.

To learn more about why leaves change color in the fall, visit the USDA Forest Service, or the Morton Arboretum websites.

Autumn Garden Creatures

Last Friday was a golden day with gentle sun, temps in the 70s and a southerly wind.  I walked at lunchtime and spent a few minutes in our back garden observing insects, birds and chipmunks.  It was the final day before a strong Canadian cold front and soaking rains moved in — and probably my last chance until spring to enjoy some of the garden’s inhabitants:

Autumn meadowhawk dragonflies, which fly late into autumn, still patrolled the garden.  The reddish-colored mature females, with clear wings tinted amber at the base and red spots at the top, added jewel-like color to the changing garden.

A male autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) suns on a stone wall in the garden.

A female autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) suns on a stone wall in the garden.

A celery looper moth visited the garden from morning until dusk each day for more than a week.  Though it’s not colorful, the contrast between the chocolate-brown wings and the bright silvery-white curved markings makes it glow in the sunlight.  Though looper larvae can be agricultural pests, the adults pollinate many varieties of plants.  This one seemed to prefer Sedum ‘autumn joy’.

A celery looper (   ) nectars on Sedum 'autumn joy'.

A celery looper (Anagrapha falcifera) nectars on Sedum ‘autumn joy’.

Celery looper

Side view of a celery looper moth.

Syrphid flies, also known as hover flies or flower flies, are small insects that zip between flowers much quicker than bees and wasps.  Syrphid flies are bee and wasp look-a-likes, but they don’t sting or bite!  Many species are helpful in the garden for two reasons:  The adults pollinate flowers and the larvae eat aphids and leaf hoppers, which cause a lot of damage and disease in plants.  They are called hover flies because they often hover in midair over the garden before zooming off in a new direction — sometimes flying backwards.  They are known as flower flies for their pollinating presence in the autumn garden.

A Syrphid fly, (Eristalis) pollinates native goldenrod.

A syrphid fly, (Eristalis) pollinates native goldenrod.

Another species of Syrphid fly pollinates garden asters.

Another species of syrphid fly (Helophilus) pollinates garden asters.

Hidden among the garden plants, an eastern chipmunk gathered seeds to store for winter use in its nearby den.  There’s a stable chipmunk population in our urban neighborhood, in spite of many gardeners’ attempts to eradicate the rodents.  At least the chipmunks retire to their dens until spring, unlike squirrels, which raid the garden during the growing season and the suet feeder during the winter months!

An eastern chipmunk surveys the backyard from its perch on our back steps.

An eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) surveys the yard from its perch on our back steps.

The backyard bird population is changing as many bird species migrate south.  For example, most of the warblers, orioles and swallows have left; ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers and white-throated sparrows are passing through from further north.  Daily visitors to our garden, trees and hedges include northern cardinals, blue jays, American goldfinches, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, American robins and a brown creeper. I don’t have a telephoto lens yet, so I don’t photograph many birds.  An excellent website with photos, key facts, bird calls and other information is allaboutbirds.org.

Lastly, bumble bees and honey bees nectared on the Sedum ‘autumn joy’ and garlic chives. (Earlier in the summer, I pruned the sedum to different degrees so that it would continue to bloom late into autumn.)  The sedum and asters were the main attraction for insects last week.  I haven’t seen either bee species since the weather turned cold and rainy.  I miss their industrious presence and look forward to their return next spring.

A honey bee nectars on garlic chive blossoms (Allium tuberosum).

A honey bee nectars on garlic chive blossoms (Allium tuberosum).

A bumble bee (Bombus) nectars on Sedum 'autumn joy'.

A bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) nectars on Sedum ‘autumn joy’.