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.

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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.

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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.

August’s Beauty

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.

Great spangled frilillary on native monarda.

Great spangled frilillary (Speyeria cybele) on native monarda.

Woodland sunflowers grow in shadier patches along the road.

Woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus) grow in dappled sun along the road.

Jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not grows in moist, sunny spots.

Spotted jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis).

Native big bluestem is also called turkey foot grass due to the shape of the seed heads.

Native big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) is also called turkeyfoot grass due to the shape of its seed heads.

This common wood-nymph's bright eyespot caught my attention.

This common wood-nymph’s (Cercyonis pegala) bright eyespot caught my attention.

Non-native rabbit-clover is a low-growing plant that provides color along dusty country roads.

Non-native rabbit-clover (Trifolium arvense) is a low-growing plant that provides color along dusty country roads.

 

The native field thistle is a favorite of bees and butterflies.

The native field thistle (Cirsium discolor) is a favorite of bees and butterflies.

The field thistle's "down" is used by American goldfinches to line its nest and the seeds are a favorite goldfinch food.

Field thistle’s “down” is used by the American goldfinch to line its nest and the seeds are a favorite goldfinch food.

A white-faced meadowhawk watches for prey.

A white-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum) watches for prey.

Swamp or blue vervain prefers moist, loamy soil and lots of sun.

Swamp or blue vervain (Verbena hastata) prefers moist, loamy soil and lots of sun.

Brown-eyed Susan's and a few early-blooming asters.

Black-eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) or sweet coneflower and a few early-blooming asters.

Priarie or western ironweed (Vernonia fasiculata).

Priarie or western ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata).

Hog peanut is a member of the pea family. (More to come in a later post.)

Hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) is a member of the pea family.

Eastern-tailed blue (Cupido comyntas)

Eastern-tailed blue (Cupido comyntas).

European bull thistle with bumble bee.

European bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) with bumble bee.

First buds of sweet Joe-Pye begin to open.

First buds of sweet Joe-Pye (Eutrochium purpureum) begin to open.

Male American redstart warbler.

Male American redstart warbler (Setophaga ruticilla).

Harebells

Harebells growing on the banks of the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

Harebells grow on the bank of the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

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 are also known as thimbles, bluebells of Scotland, heath bells and bluebells.

Harebells are also known as thimbles, bluebells, bluebells of Scotland, wind bells and heath bells.

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.

Harebells blossom from June through summer, and often bloom again in autumn.

Harebells blossom from June through summer, and often bloom again in autumn.

Nature: Looking Back at 2013

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!

Trillium grandiflorum blooms at the base of a burr oak.

Large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and early meadow rue (Thalictrum dioicum) bloom at the base of a burr oak.

The maroon blossoms of Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadense) lie hidden beneath its leaves.

The maroon blossom of Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadense) lies hidden beneath its leaves.

Furled fiddleheads of an ostrich fern began to open.

Furled fiddleheads of an ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) begin to open.

Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) attracts hummingbirds in the spring.

Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) attracts hummingbirds in the spring.

The Snake River flows high and fast through spring and early summer.

The Snake River in east central Minnesota flows high and fast through spring and early summer.

Yellow warblers are one of the most visible and vocal of our warbler species.

Yellow warblers (Dendroica petechia) are one of the most visible and vocal of our warbler species.

A web moth rests on the trunk of a red pine.

A woodland moth rests on the trunk of a red pine (Pinus resinosa), Minnesota’s state tree.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are abundant through the summer and early autumn.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are abundant throughout the summer and early autumn.

Bluets (Enallagma) are plentiful along the river in late summer.

Bluets (Enallagma) are plentiful along the river in late summer.

Delicate native harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) bloom into autumn and are loved by bumblebees.

Delicate native harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) are loved by bumblebees.

The Snake River runs slower in autumn.

The Snake River’s water level drops in late summer revealing basalt river rock.

Many different kinds of colorful fungi appear in autumn.

Many different kinds of colorful fungi appear in autumn.

 Eastern chipmunks gather nuts, seeds and fruit for the winter.

Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) gather nuts, seeds and fruit for the winter.

Native bladdernut seeds ripen in papery husks.

Native bladdernut seeds (Staphylea trifolia) ripen in papery husks.

Falling leaves settle among pebbles and add color to the riverbed.

Falling leaves settle among pebbles and add color to the riverbed.

A basswood leaf glows in the late afternoon autumn sun.

A basswood leaf (Tilia americana) glows in the late afternoon sun.

In late autumn, the river...

In mid-October, soft green, beige, maroon and brown color the riverbank.

Birch branches, bare except for their catkins, ...

Male catkins on a paper birch (Betula papyrifera) stand starkly against an early-winter sky.

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.

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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.

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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.

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”.

Early October Wildflowers: Zigzag Goldenrod

Twelve or more species of goldenrod grow in Minnesota.  All provide an important source of autumn nectar to bees, butterflies and insects, and also give a burst of long-lasting color at the end of the growing season.  Most goldenrod species grow in sunny locations, but zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) prefers shady woods and woodland borders.  It’s smaller, daintier and better-behaved than many of its cousins.

Zigzag goldenrod with aerial yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenia).

Zigzag goldenrod with aerial yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenia).

A patch of zigzag goldenrod grows in dappled sun near a hazelnut thicket along the banks of the Snake River in east central Minnesota

A patch of zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) grows in dappled sun near a hazelnut thicket along the banks of the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

Known also as broad-leaved goldenrod, it has oval-shaped leaves rather than thin narrow ones typical of many goldenrods.  The stem bends a little bit at each node, hence the name zigzag.  An interesting fact:  Sometimes allergy sufferers blame their misery on goldenrod, but ragweed is the true culprit.  Unlike ragweed pollen, which is wind-dispersed, goldenrod has sticky pollen that is dependent upon insect pollination.  So, if you’re sneezing in the fall, it is primarily caused by the pollen of ragweed and nettle!  To learn more about the difference between ragweed and goldenrod, visit the University of Minnesota Extension website for an excellent, succinct overview.

Early October Wildflowers: Spotted Jewelweed

In early October, wildflowers in shades of orange-gold, yellow, purple and white light up Minnesota’s roadsides, fields, woods and riverbanks.  One of my favorites is spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), or touch-me-not.  Its small flowers are bright orange with red spots and are shaped like tiny funnels or cornucopias.  The name jewelweed refers to the way that water droplets bead up like shiny jewels on the plant’s leaves, and also to the blossom’s jewel-like appearance.  Touch-me-not refers to the ripe seed pods, which burst open and expel the seeds if touched.  When our teenage son was little, we loved popping open the ripe pods and watching the seeds fly out.

Spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)blossom and ripening seed pods.

Spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) blossom and ripening seed pods.

Native to much of Canada and the United States, spotted jewelweed grows along streams, rivers, damp roadsides and other moist, shady spots.  The one I photographed was growing in a shady wet area about four feet from the edge of the cabin road.  Hummingbirds, which are attracted to the bright, red-spotted blooms, are the main pollinator of spotted jewelweed.  The nectar is contained within spurs that are easily reached by the hummer’s long beak.  A closely related plant is pale touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida) which is light yellow with just a few reddish-brown spots.

Related Video:  Spotted jewelweed pods popping open.

Lake Darner Dragonfly

I love dragonflies for their aerial acrobatics, beautiful colors and ancient presence — they’ve flown Earth’s skies for about 300 million years.  In Minnesota, a few species of large, colorful dragonflies are active into October.  Last week I found a darner (Aeshna) dragonfly sunning itself on a nearby cabin.

A lake darner dragonfly (Aeshna eremita) rests in the sun.

A lake darner dragonfly (Aeshna eremita) rests in the sun.

Called darners for the resemblance of their long abdomen to a darning needle, the blue or mosaic darners can be confusing to tell apart.  I believe the one I photographed is a lake darner (Aeshna eremita), based on the notched side stripe, the vivid greenish-blue jewel-like coloration of the stripes, its length (about three inches) and its vertical perching position.  It flew away before I could get close enough to see its facial markings.  Lake darners are native to Canada and the northern United States, and are the largest species of North American darner.  They prey on mosquitoes, wasps, mayflies and most other kinds of soft-bodied insects.

Related Websites:

The Dragonfly Website includes a great overview of dragonfly facts in its “Frequently Asked Questions” section.

ARKive.org features a profile and photos of the lake darner, along with thousands of other plant and animal species.