The breeze feels like August; warm, close, comforting. But the sun and the landscape reveal the day’s true identity: mid-October. Deep red, maroon, cranberry, orange and yellow leaves replace the myriad greens of summer. A few tattered wildflowers remain, but most have given way to sharp, sturdy seed heads in shades of brown and cream. Thick, warty milkweed pods crack open and set free their silky seeds. The woods are much quieter now without thrushes, warblers, orioles and so many other nesting birds to sing their courtship songs. A few chickadees, kinglets, nuthatches and woodpeckers call in the trees and thickets, and small groups of Sandhill cranes bugle overhead as they fly between fields. On the bank of the Snake River in Pine County, MN, a brown morph leopard frog rests in the long grass, and a few wood ducks splash and take flight as I approach. Chipmunks scold each other as they scramble to collect and store red acorns for their winter stash. Most insects have disappeared for the season, but an eastern comma butterfly suns itself, ladybugs swarm looking for a place to wait out the winter, and hardy bumble bees seek the few remaining wildflowers. During the coming winter, I’ll hold close these memories of the sun’s gentle warmth and the glowing landscape.
The bush seemed too weak to support the pileated woodpecker’s (Dryocopus pileatus) size and heft. Catbirds, robins, chipmunks and squirrels easily picked the ruby and purple fruit from the spindly chokecherry branches. But, the crow-sized woodpecker struggled to alight and balance in the bush. Its black forehead and mustache stripe identified this pileated as being a female. First, she flew straight into the bush, but the branches bent and sank under her weight. Next, the woodpecker landed in each of the bur oak trees that flank the chokecherry and then dropped into the bush; still unsuccessful.
When we returned to our cabin on the Snake River the following weekend, she had solved the problem. Sometimes the pileated used her wings and tail to brace herself — even hanging upside down. At other times, she seemed to pluck the fruit from midair. The beauty of her wings unfurled in waves of ivory and black that thwacked the air. Her red crest glowed like a flame in the bush.
Though pileated woodpeckers primarily eat insects such as carpenter ants and beetles found in bark, they also eat a variety of berries and fruit, and sometimes visit our backyard suet feeder in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Our deck is just 6 feet from the bush, and if we were silent and still, the woodpecker payed no attention to us. When I tried to photograph her she flew immediately. As a result, I had to photograph her through the cabin windows, which reduced photo quality.
August’s warm, sunny days hum with insect activity. Many kinds of bees and wasps, butterflies and grasshoppers inhabit the colorful swaths of wildflowers and grasses along country roads. The buzzing of bees is soft against the louder trills and whirs of crickets, grasshoppers and gray tree frogs. Scents of sweet clover and grass fill the air. Here is a sampling of the beauty my husband and I enjoyed when we walked along the road near our cabin on the Snake River in Pine County, MN, last weekend.
I first saw harebell flowers as a young teen hiking the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. They grew out of a tiny crevice in the lichen-covered basalt slabs along the lake, and the delicate blossoms mirrored the violet-blue water on that sunny midsummer day. Next to them, in the shallow depressions in the rock, were pools of water in which tiny tadpoles swam. I was enchanted by all of it. Years later when my family built a cabin near the Snake River in Pine County, MN, I was delighted to find harebells growing on the riverbank and along the woodland edges.
Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) are native to the northern regions of the United States, Europe and Asia. They grow on slender upright stalks ranging in height between 6 and 20 inches. Narrow grass-like leaves cover most of the stalk; round leaves at the base of the plant often die before the flowers bloom. Milky sap in the stems is another identifying characteristic. The delicate bells begin blooming in June and continue through the summer. We usually see a modest second bloom in the fall. Besides being beautiful, harebells are a source of nectar to many species of bees during the summer and I’ve noticed bumblebees frequenting them during the second bloom in autumn. Other common names for harebells include: thimbles, wind bells, heath bells, bluebells and bluebells of Scotland.
Snow, ice and cold blanket Minnesota now, but last June through October the woodlands bustled with life. From unfurling ferns, to hummingbirds and harebells, to the changing Snake River and autumn woods in Pine County, MN, here are a few of nature’s simple gifts in 2013 that I recall with gratitude — and look forward to seeing again in 2014. Happy New Year!
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.
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.
Many species of rose, both native and cultivated, produce beautiful fruit known as “hips”. Rose hips are rich in vitamin C and other nutrients.
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.
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:
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”.