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 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.

 

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies

A female eastern tiger swallowtail – black form (Papilio glaucus) nectars on an ironweed flower.

It was an unexpected gift on an August afternoon: A black eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, its wings faded and worn, even tattered in places, showing its age.  It settled in for a long drink of nectar from an ironweed flower on the banks of the Snake River. Though we’re more likely to see the yellow form of the tiger swallowtail in the North, the black form isn’t rare or even uncommon — but it only occurs in females. The butterfly’s name refers to the long projections on its tail, which resemble a barn swallow’s tail.

An eastern tiger swallowtail – yellow form nectars on a monarda blossom.

In the northern United States, eastern tiger swallowtails typically fly from mid-May to late August or September. They usually have two broods per summer, and the young of the second group overwinter as chrysalids to emerge the following May. The caterpillars are bright green with two blue eye spots. (They turn brown when ready to form a chrysalis.) They mainly feed on the leaves of trees such as wild cherry, chokecherry, basswood, cottonwood, ash, willow and maple. Adults nectar on many types of flowers, but prefer wild cherry and lilac in spring, Joe-Pye weed and milkweed during the summer.

The name swallowtail comes from the long tail projections that resemble a barn swallow’s tail.

The ironweed on which I spotted it belongs to the Composite family, which also includes coneflowers, sunflowers, daisies, goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, asters and others. Ironweed is a native perennial, prefers full sun and often grows near marshes, along riverbanks, edges of moist fields, and wet prairies. It’s typically 4-to-6 feet tall and its violet-colored flower clusters are often visited by bumblebees. The black tiger swallowtails seem attracted to ironweed and I’ve seen them on the blossoms in past years, too. I enjoy seeing both forms of the butterfly.

Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) grows on the banks of the Snake River in Pine County, Minnesota.

 

Winter Trees

A weathered old northern red oak (still living) has been a home to many birds and other animals.

A weathered old northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is home to many species of birds and other animals.

A tree’s beauty is easily noticed in three seasons: Spring’s first green haze of buds; summer’s rustling crown of leaves; and autumn’s smoldering colors. Winter uncovers a different kind of beauty: that of bark, interesting shapes, animal shelters and open sky — the guts of things not often seen.

A small stand of northern red oak includes a tree that was sheared off in a summer windstorm two decades ago. Neighboring branches hide the jagged top most of the year, but in winter the scarred wood’s polished grain and shape are revealed, along with hidden nesting cavities. Squirrels, great-created flycatchers, red-bellied woodpeckers and most recently, pileated woodpeckers have nested and raised their young in this red oak.

Crabapple trees (Malus) provide food for many birds and add winter color.

Crabapple trees (Malus) provide food for many birds and add winter color.

Crabapple trees, especially those with long-lasting fruit, add warm crimson to the stark black and white landscape. Their small shapes and curving branches remind me of bonsai trees. By late spring, most of the plump fruit will be consumed by cedar waxwings and robins.

The bark of river birch (Betula nigra) is multicolored and has a shredded texture.

The bark of river birch (Betula nigra) is multicolored and has a shredded texture.

Bark patterns and colors are more pronounced in winter with fewer distractions from the rest of the plant world.  One of my favorites is the papery bark of the river birch. The colors range from soft brown to salmon, pink and ivory. The bark shreds and flutters in the wind. Paper birch bark (Betula papyrifera) is pretty too, especially at sunrise and sunset when low rays add blush to the tips of twigs and branches.

White spruce (Picea glauca) and other evergreens shelter many creatures.

White spruce (Picea glauca) and other evergreens shelter many creatures.

The white spruce has grayish-red bark with a rough mosaic-like texture. Its evergreen branches shelter cardinals, kinglets, juncos and chickadees. At the end of winter, new burgundy cones appear, like tiny ornaments, on the tips of branches.

New cones form on a white spruce.

New cones form on a white spruce.

Winter trees reveal the hidden face of nature — textures, hues, patterns weathered and worn — and more open sky to view the moon, stars and urban sunsets; beauty to the eye that looks carefully. What do you see?

Winter sunset over Saint Paul, MN, on Feb. 22, 2017.

Winter sunset over Saint Paul, MN, on Feb. 22, 2017.

 

October Gold and Blue

White oaks shine against a cloudless October sky.

Bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) shine against a cloudless October sky.

The fleeting season of gold and blue arrived in central Minnesota last week. The golden hues of bitternut hickory, bur oak, aspen and ash glow against a sky the color of a newly opened morning glory — a shade unique to autumn. Along the Snake River, the steely blue-gray wings of a great blue heron swoop over the sparkling water.

A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) swoops over the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) swoops over the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

Sky blue morning glories continue to bloom in October.

Heavenly blue (Ipomea purpurea) morning glories continue to bloom in October.

Closer to the ground, the last of the powder-blue bottle gentians and asters — some with center disks as bold as the sun — bloom among the grasses. Fallen aspen leaves accent walkways, and the heart-shaped leaves of the carrion flower vine wind their tendrils skyward. In a few days, this lovely combination will dampen down to more muted tones, the gentle softness that insulates the earth for winter’s palette of black and white.

Bottle gentian blooms (Gentiana andrewsii) turn dark and dry out as their seeds mature.

Bottle gentian blooms (Gentiana andrewsii) turn dark and dry out as their seeds mature.

Asters (Symphyotrichum novi-begii) provide nectar to these hoverflies and many other autumn insects.

Asters (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii) provide nectar to these hoverflies, or syrphids, and many other autumn insects.

Aspen leaves and moss decorate a walkway at our cabin.

Quaking aspen leaves (Populus tremuloides) and moss decorate a walkway at our cabin.

The heart-shaped leaves of the carrion flower (Smilax herbacea) add light and color to the October woods.

The heart-shaped leaves of the carrion flower vine (Smilax herbacea) add light and color to the October woods.

 

Michigan and Turk’s Cap Lily

Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense) growing near the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense) growing near the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

They are a gift of wet years, often not blooming in summers of little rainfall. Native to eastern North America, the Michigan lily’s (Lilium michiganense) delicate tepals curve up and backward, setting it apart from most other native lilies. They range in color from light orange to red-orange and are speckled with purple. The closely related Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum) is almost identical in appearance. Turk’s caps can sometimes be distinguished by the presence of a green star in the flower’s throat, and anthers longer than 1/2 inch that are colored magenta or darker.  It is native to areas south of Minnesota, but has been widely introduced here. Both lilies grow from a bulb, reach a height of four to seven feet, and form thin, tiny seeds in a pod.

When our son was little, one of the first things he did when we arrived at our cabin was to check all of the damp spots where we’d found Michigan lilies in previous years. They like “wet feet” and grow in moist right-of-ways, near drainage ditches, and edges of woodlands along the Snake River and other streams. He delighted in finding them, and I was excited to find many in bloom last week.

The tepals curve up and back toward the base of the flower.

The tepals curve up and back toward the base of the flower.

Hummingbirds, sphinx moths and butterflies, such as monarchs and fritillaries, are attracted to the reddish blooms.  I’m attracted to them for a different reason. I think of light, joy and life when I see them glow so deeply in the morning sun. Both types of lily are becoming more uncommon in the wild due to roadside mowing and cultivation. If you spot these lilies growing on your property, please let them stand undisturbed until the plants become dormant in the fall.

Glimpses of a Mid-October Afternoon

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 riverbank, 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.

American hazelnuts, October

golden october

Red oak, October

Sumac, October

Seedheads, October

American hornbeam seeds, October

Common milkweed seeds, October

chick oct2

Bugling cranes, October

Tattered bloom, October

Late bumbler on aster, October

Asian ladybird beetle, October

Eastern comma, October

Toadstool, October

Leopard Frog, October

chipfor tom

October road

Pileated Acrobatics

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.

pileated5

When we returned 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.

pileated1

pileated4

pileated3

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.

Chokecherry fruit (Prunus virginiana).

Chokecherry fruit (Prunus virginiana).

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.