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 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.
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.
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 east central Minnesota, 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!
Large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and early meadow rue (Thalictrum dioicum) bloom at the base of a burr oak.
The maroon blossom of Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadense) lies hidden beneath its leaves.
Furled fiddleheads of an ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) begin to open.
Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) attracts hummingbirds in the spring.
The Snake River in east central Minnesota flows high and fast through spring and early summer.
Yellow warblers (Dendroica petechia) are one of the most visible and vocal of our warbler species.
A woodland moth rests on the trunk of a red pine (Pinus resinosa), Minnesota’s state tree.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are abundant throughout the summer and early autumn.
Bluets (Enallagma) are plentiful along the river in late summer.
Delicate native harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) are loved by bumblebees.
The Snake River’s water level drops in late summer revealing basalt river rock.
Many different kinds of colorful fungi appear in autumn.
Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) gather nuts, seeds and fruit for the winter.
Native bladdernut seeds (Staphylea trifolia) ripen in papery husks.
Falling leaves settle among pebbles and add color to the riverbed.
A basswood leaf (Tilia americana) glows in the late afternoon sun.
In mid-October, soft green, beige, maroon and brown color the riverbank.
Male catkins on a paper birch (Betula papyrifera) stand starkly against an early-winter sky.
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 in east-central Minnesota along the Snake River:
Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) leaves begin to change color.
Wild rose hips (Rosa acicularis) ripen to cherry red.
Swamp milkweed (Esclepias incarnata) pods release their silky seeds.
An eastern chipmunk stuffs bur oak acorns into its pouches to store in its den.
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”.