September Hatchlings

Newly hatched snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are half-dollar sized and usually charcoal or black in color.

September is hatching time — but don’t look to the trees for these babies: they are common snapping turtles! Every spring, in late May or early June, a large female snapper lumbers out of the Snake River, digs a nest nearby and lays between 20-50 (or more) round, leathery eggs. She picks a sunny location, and when she’s finished, she returns to the river to let the sun warm and incubate her egg clutch.

Three months later, the eggs hatch and the baby snappers dig their way to the surface. (We couldn’t locate the nest site this year.) Our neighbors, Ed and Melinda, who live year-round next to Pine County’s Snake River, say the snappers usually hatch on September 2nd. Some years there’s a slight variation; this year it was September 3rd and I was there to see part of it.

This hatchling still carries mud on its shell from recently leaving the nest.

The babies take off in several directions, but generally head toward the river or the swamp across the road often stopping to rest. It’s a slow, dangerous journey from nest to water for the half-dollar-sized hatchlings. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, between 60 and 100 percent of each egg clutch is lost to predators. Baby snappers are a favorite food of many woodland creatures, such as herons, fox, skunks, mink and raccoons. Once they reach the water, they are vulnerable to many other predators, such as fish, frogs, northern water snakes, some birds and other turtles.

The turtles moved slowly, many taking naps along the way. I lost sight of them in the tall vegetation on the riverbank. However, this little one popped out on the rocky shore.

Those who survive infancy take at least 5-to-7 years to reach adulthood. Most settle in quiet water with a muddy bottom, such as a pond, stream, marsh or slow-moving river. They feed on crayfish, frogs, small birds and mammals, insects and many types of aquatic plants. They also scavenge dead plants and animals, which helps to clean their aquatic environment.

As adults, snappers typically measure at least 8-to-14 inches across the greenish-brown carapace or upper shell, and weigh 35 pounds or more. They have one main predator: humans who hunt them for their meat.

The hatchling headed straight into the water. Notice the grass and seeds picked up during its trip to the river.

Snapping turtles are shy by nature. They are often docile if encountered in the water and will sink and swim away. However, on land they are vulnerable because they cannot completely retract into their shell. That’s because the plastron or lower shell is much smaller than that of most turtles. The smaller size makes it much easier for a snapper to move its head and neck, but provides less protection. If they are harassed and feel threatened, they may become aggressive, lunge forward and bite very hard.

Scientists believe that common snappers evolved in North America about 90 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. They outlived the dinosaurs and survived several ice ages. Today they populate North America from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, and from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Humans are the main threat to their long-term survival. In addition to being hunted for their meat, many are killed by motorists during the nesting season when females and hatchlings cross roads moving to and from water.

The baby snapper began to swim upriver. It was not taken by predators while I watched it. I hope it will be part of the slim percentage that survives infancy.

To learn more about snapping turtles, check out these resources: Tortoise Trust, The Staying Power of Snapping Turtles, Common Snapping Turtle.

The Year’s First Monarch Caterpillar

This tiny monarch caterpillar is about 7mm long and is feeding on common milkweed.

I spotted my first monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) of the season last week. I almost overlooked its tiny black, white and yellow striped body, which was about 1/4 inch, or 7mm long. It crawled slowly on a milkweed plant (Asclepias syriaca) where I saw my first adult monarchs of the year on June 3.

This tiny caterpillar faces many challenges on its journey to adulthood. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of all monarch eggs metamorphosize into butterflies, according to Monarch Joint Venture. Many garden critters prey on monarch caterpillars, especially parasitic wasps, tachnid flies, jumping spiders, the larvae of Asian ladybugs, and lacewing larvae. Most eat the caterpillars. Others, such as tachnid flies, lay their eggs on them. The eggs hatch and burrow into the caterpillar, which they use for nutrition and protection. It’s easy to dislike insects that prey on monarchs, but these predators also destroy many garden pests and are vital to the health of gardens and woodlands.

Weather conditions, food availability, pesticide use, damage from being stepped on or run over, and infection from bacteria and viruses also reduce monarch caterpillar numbers. The 10 percent that survive grow quickly on their milkweed diet and will molt five times over 9-to-14 days. Each stage between molts is known as an instar. The 5th instar usually leaves the milkweed plants in search of a safe place to form its chrysalis, where it completes the change to adulthood. The entire process from egg to adult lasts about one month.¹

Monarch caterpillars can be very elusive, but I’ll keep watching for them. In spite of predators, poor weather and other challenges, it’s likely that at least one or two will complete their journey to adulthood in our garden. They’ll pollinate many plants, lay eggs for the next generation of monarchs, and add beauty to our world.

An adult monarch nectars on Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum).

¹Three interesting resources about monarchs include Monarch Lab-University of Minnesota, Monarch Watch-University of Kansas, and Monarch Joint Venture.

A Ribbon of Native Prairie

Monarda, coneflowers, black-eyed Susan’s and big bluestem stretch across a prairie restoration area.

When I was young, I loved to imagine what life on the prairie would have been like in the 1800s. Inspired by Willa Cather’s novels, it wasn’t the rigorous lifestyle that attracted me, but rather the beauty of the land — nothing but open sky overhead, the sweet music of meadowlarks and bluebirds, a sea of wildflowers and native grasses.

The word prairie is French for meadow. There are four different types of prairie in Minnesota including shortgrass, sand dunes, wet meadow and tallgrass prairie. The prairies in the Upper Midwest were formed about 10,000-12,000 years ago by receding glaciers.¹ It’s estimated that Minnesota once had 18 million acres of prairie that stretched across the state from northwest to southeast. Today, slightly less than 2 percent remain, and they are small pieces that weren’t plowable. All of the other acres were replaced with crops.²

Long-headed coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera) are a native prairie wildflower and attract many species of butterflies and bees.

Fortunately, there are many places in the state where prairie restoration is underway. Two wonderful prairie habitats in Minnesota are Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne, MN, and the Jeffers Petroglyphs near Comfrey, MN. Blue Mounds features 1,500 aces of tallgrass prairie, a bison herd in its native surroundings and beautiful rock outcroppings of Sioux quartzite, which look purplish to blue depending on the light. Jeffers Petroglyphs also includes prairie and prairie restoration. The Sioux quartzite contains ancient symbols, some as old as 7000 years and the most recent thought to be 350 years old. We don’t know which American Indian nations carved the original symbols, which include thunderbirds, turtles, deer, buffalo and humans. When I visited, our guide emphasized the sacred nature of this place to American Indians and asked us to treat it with reverence.  When I took time to stop and listen, I felt presence and peace there.

Pearl crescents (Phyciodes tharos) are common on the prairie and grasslands during August and September.

Native prairie restoration at Lake Elmo Park Reserve.

I recently walked on a trail through a much smaller prairie restoration area at the Lake Elmo Park Reserve: Big bluestem, butterfly weed, blazing star, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and other forbs roll in wind-swept waves; the sound of swishing grass beneath a symphony of crickets, grasshoppers, katydids, bumblebees and other singing, buzzing, chirping insects; migrating monarchs floating everywhere. I close my eyes and listen: How expansive and lovely this land must have been before settlers arrived. Let us teach our children the value and beauty of the prairie.

Indian or wood grass (Sorghastrum nutans) has bronze and yellow flowers.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is a major source of nectar for migrating monarch butterflies.

Goldenrod, big bluestem and other native grasses and forbs bloom in a swath of restored prairie at Lake Elmo Park Reserve.

¹Minnesota DNR overview of the prairie biome.

²Minnesota DNR prairie conservation plan.

Late Summer Along Minnesota’s Snake River

Bottle gentians (Gentians andrewsii) signal the arrival of late summer in east central Minnesota.

Much as I hate to admit it, (since I’m a big fan of sun and warmth), the unmistakable signs of late summer color the banks of the Snake River in Pine County, MN.  After 36 summers and autumns along the river, I know them well.

A female long-horned bee (Melissodes, spp.) pollinates a tall sunflower (Helianthus giganteus).

The season’s first bottle gentians, ironweed, tall sunflowers, native field thistle, Joe-Pye and goldenrod add their showy flowers to black-eyed Susan’s, fleabane, monarda and coneflowers already in bloom. Riverbank grapes turn dusky blue, dogwood berries ripen to white on scarlet stems, wild rose hips, hawthorns and chokecherries hang plump and red.

It’s a productive year for the bur oaks. Acorns fall like small rocks that bounce and roll down the roof before they plunk onto the wooden decks. Chipmunks, squirrels and mice snatch up ripe hickory nuts and soon the hazelnuts will be ready. As hard as I’ve tried, I’ve never beaten the squirrels to the tasty hazelnuts.

Crickets and katydids sing in place of wood thrushes and robins. Thank goodness for cardinals that sing at dawn and dusk, and for the melodic cooing of mourning doves during the hot afternoons.

It’s all lovely, and I wouldn’t change it — perhaps stretch it out further into the year — but this late-summer beauty makes me wistful for abundant hours of sunlight, wide-open windows, warm breezes and a simple outfit of shorts and a T-shirt. Let’s hope for a long, mild autumn.

Our neighbor, Ed’s, puple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) attract many species of butterflies.

Native field thistles (Cirsium discolor) provide pollen and nectar to insects and nutritious seeds for birds and other creatures.

Green-headed coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata) provide pollen to bees later in the fall. A hover or flower fly (Toxomerus geminatus) rests on the bloom.

Bur or mossycup oaks (Quercus macrocarpa), a type of white oak, are named for the fringe that surrounds the top of the acorn cup. They are an important food source for many birds and animals.

Riverbank or frost grapes (Vitis riparia) are a native Minnesota grape that favors a moist environment and feeds many bird species.

Gray dogwood berries, or drupes (Cornus racemosa) are a favorite of thrushes, robins and other birds.

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) mix with fleabane and field thistle in a colorful patch next to the road.

Garden Bugs: Nifty or Nasty?

Like most of life, my garden is a mix of good and not so great: desirable plants and weeds, loamy soil and heavy clay, beneficial insects and annoying pests — and early August brought many types of insects to our garden. Here are just a few stand-outs.

Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica), an invasive species, are a type of scarab beetle that destroy many plant species in North America.

The biggest pest in our yard is the Japanese beetle, which skeletonizes the flowers and leaves of many plants. A few weeks ago they favored apple and crabapple trees, but I’ve also pulled them off of my rose, asters, day lilies and purple coneflowers. Now, they are shredding my hosta and anise hyssop blossoms. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the beetles are native to northern Japan and probably arrived in a shipment of iris bulbs in 1916. They have no natural predators, although some birds, such as starlings, robins, bluejays and sparrows will sometimes eat the adult beetles and the grubs, which live in lawns.

Yesterday I picked 46 beetles off of my royal standard hostas. I used to squish them, but that releases their pheromones, which attract more beetles. Now I pick them off by hand and drop them in a small pail of soapy water, which kills them quickly without releasing their pheromones. I don’t use an insecticide because so many beneficial insects would die from the chemicals.

The convergent lady beetle (Hippodamia convergens) is a North American native that feeds on aphids, whiteflies and other pests.

Not all ladybugs are red or orange. The tiny esteemed ladybug (Hyperaspis proba) is black with yellow spots.

Unlike the Japanese beetle, ladybugs, or ladybird beetles, especially those native to North America, are beneficial to gardens. More than 500 species of ladybugs have been identified in the United States. Mom taught us never to harm ladybugs because they eat aphids, a major garden pest. Our native ladybugs don’t bite, so if you feel a pinch and find it’s from a ladybug, it is likely to be an Asian ladybug, which do nip — mainly because they seek moisture and salt, or they feel threatened. Asian ladybugs were imported in the 1970s to help destroy predators in agricultural operations. I let them be when I find them because they destroy so many aphids and other pests. However, the native ladybugs are better suited to our gardens and plant species.

Aphids, that favorite food of ladybugs, are tiny, often wingless, and very plentiful. There are more than 300 species of aphids in Minnesota and they are found on all types of plants. Most aphids on a plant are females that reproduce asexually, without having to mate. They also give birth instead of laying eggs. The newborns are clones of their mother, so they, too, are female. (Environmental conditions sometimes cause females to produce both female and male offspring, which are genetically identical to the mother, except that males lack one sex chromosome.) They come in many different colors. I’ve seen green, black, red, and I have orange ones on some of my milkweed plants. When aphids suck a plant’s sap, it causes curling, yellowing and browning of the leaves. Aphids also secrete a sticky, sweet liquid called honeydew. Last summer, during a heavy infestation of aphids, my milkweed plants were dripping with honeydew and covered with ants, which are attracted to the sweet liquid. Even though I washed the milkweed with water from the garden hose daily, the plants were disfigured and messy.

Tiny soft-bodied aphids (Aphids nerii) suck plant juices from common milkweed. The white specks are moltings that are stuck in the honeydew.

 

This juvenile male eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) will attack any type of insect its own size or smaller, including others of the same species.

In contrast to the slow, rather clumsy flight of beetles, several species of dragonfly dart and swoop among the garden plants. Perched on a milkweed leaf, a green eastern pondhawk zips lightning-quick from its perch to capture a fly. Its powerful jaws quickly crush and consume its prey. Common in gardens, dragonflies eat mosquitoes, gnats, flies and other insects. Their shining colors add beauty to the garden.

Most meadowhawks (Sympetrum spp.) fly in late summer and autumn.

Monarchs, red admirals and other butterflies are frequent visitors to our garden — especially now when the milkweed is blooming and the plants are in their prime for feeding monarch larvae. These tiny caterpillars feed only on milkweed and I discovered two of them a week ago. Adult monarchs sail through the garden stopping to nectar on milkweed, Joe-Pye, garden phlox and purple coneflowers.

Monarch caterpillars hatch and grow only on milkweed plants.

Adult monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and many other butterfly species nectar on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

A red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) nectars on garden phlox (Phlox paniculata).

Red admirals are smaller and fly faster and more erratically than monarchs. A male finds a sunny spot and watches for a female to fly by. After mating, the female lays eggs on nettle plants. Adults nectar on milkweed, red clover, ripe fruit and tree sap. They are one of the few species that overwinter in Minnesota, often in a wood pile or mound of leaves.

The summer garden harbors so many interesting, and often beautiful, insects. Next time you’re working in your garden, or simply enjoying your yard, take a look at the diversity of these tiny creatures all around us. The majority of them are either beneficial or harmless. Nifty or nasty? You decide!

Winged Beauty

The numerous blue scalings along the wing border identify this as an eastern tiger swallowtail female (Papilio glaucus).

Just before supper on a hot August evening, the air is heavy with smoky haze from Canadian forest fires. I hear the constant whine of cicadas and smell the scents of garden phlox and royal standard hostas. In a corner of our garden a creature of great beauty nectars in the Joe-Pye; its striped wings open and almost glow against a background of green leaves and shades of pink. The deep blue spots lining its hind wings reveal it to be a female eastern tiger swallowtail. She’s oblivious to the numerous bumblebees that gather nectar and pollen around her. At one point a territorial monarch chases her from the Joe-Pye. (The monarch repeats its rounds through the yard many times an hour, and tries to oust “intruders” — especially other large butterflies.) The two dance a quick scuffle in the air and the “tiger” disappears over the neighbor’s fence for a few minutes. She soon returns to the Joe-Pye garden and continues to nectar.

Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) is a favorite source of nectar for eastern tiger swallowtails.

I like to recall such moments of warmth and beauty in January and February as I mark off the days on the calendar and wait for spring. I’ll think of the gentle humming of bumblebees, the lilting call of a goldfinch passing by, and the delicate, colorful wings of all of the butterflies that sail through the garden, especially the tiger swallowtail. I’ll remember that her progeny will overwinter in chrysalis form — attached to tree bark, a plant stem, or in leaf litter — snug and asleep under the snow. In May, they will hatch to continue their life cycle of beauty.

Walk in the Woods

Oak woods are a cool place to hike on a hot day.

If you’re looking for a cool, peaceful place on a hot day, go to the woods. One recent morning, my husband and I walked in the woods of a Twin Cities nature center. Mature white oaks shielded the trail from the day’s growing heat. The woods were filled with birdsong and I “birded by ear” because the thick foliage hid their colorful bodies. I heard the songs of Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, common yellowthroats, black-capped chickadees, house wrens, red-eyed vireos and many more. The only other sounds were the swishing of leaves and long grass in the steady breeze, and a few quiet “good mornings” from other walkers.

I love the lush canopy of green leaves untouched by any change of color. These trees are primarily white oak with an understory of dogwood, chokecherry, sumac and common elderberry. Though we hadn’t reached the peak bloom time of native wildflowers, a few species blossomed on the woodland edges: vervain, common yarrow, tick trefoil, water lilies, monarda and the year’s first black-eyed Susan’s. In the marshy areas, dragonflies hovered and darted like flashing jewels. We set our stride for a long, peaceful hike content to be still and absorb the quiet beauty.

Pointed-leaved trefoil (Desmodium glutinous) commonly grows along shaded woodland edges.

The tiny blooms of blue vervain (Verbena hastata) attract many native bees and small butterflies.

Black-eyed Susan’s (Rubeckia hirta) are a drought-tolerant and long-blooming species of coneflower.

Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was used to treat pain and inflammation in many cultures.

The red fruit of smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) feeds many birds and small mammals during the winter.

Widow skimmers (Libellula luctuosa) are large, slow dragonflies that can approach two inches in length. The white and black wing patches indicate this is a male.

Immature and female widow skimmers are brown and lack the white wing markings.

This dragonfly’s completely separated eyes indicate that it belongs to the clubtail family, possibly a lily pad club (Arigomphus furcifer) with its azure eyes.

An American water lily (Nymphaea odoranta) blooms in the shadows on a quiet lake.