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.