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.

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.


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.


Thoughts on a Butterfly

Sun glows on the wings of a crescent butterfly (Phyciodes).

Sun glows on the wings of a crescent butterfly (Phyciodes).

I spotted a small orange-and-black butterfly in a patch of white clover. Most butterflies rarely sit for more than a few seconds; this one was an avid sunbather, fully opening its dark-spotted wings and resting on a clover bloom for several minutes. Its wing pattern indicated it was a type of crescent butterfly.

Because of their similar appearance and habitat, crescents challenge us to identify them correctly, and this could have been either a pearl or northern crescent. Adults of both species nectar on white clover, asters, thistles and dogbane. Their brown, spiky caterpillars feed primarily on the leaves of asters, and they overwinter to become next spring’s first generation to take flight.

Look closely at the photos and you’ll see the crescent’s worn, tattered wing — evidence that it’s no newbie, has seen some extended flight time, has already lived a good portion of its life. And still, though it shows some wear and tear, it remains beautiful even as it ages and lives out its brief days.

Tattered butterfly wings may indicate a close call with a predator, or advancing old age.

Tattered butterfly wings may indicate a close call with a predator or advancing age.

I think of the recent death of my mother-in-law, Mary, and of my friend, Cathy, last January. I watched them complete their lives, I held their hands, hoped they could hear my prayers and words of comfort. I wonder about them often, and deeply hope that, as the simple brown caterpillar morphed into a creature of light and air, they too have transformed into something lovely and eternal.

Silent Snow

Pond Snowy Day

Low, heavy clouds lumber overhead, and the world narrows down to the bare-treed woods and pond.  Outside, I listen to the quiet  —  so still that I can feel the pressure of silence.  All traffic and aircraft noise is muffled and absorbed by feathery flakes.  I hear only the occasional ruffle of wind swishing snow crystals across open space in powdery swirls. A lone crow soars black against the sky not breaking the stillness.

In the morning, the predawn darkness is tinted with the odd light that accompanies a new snowfall.  I am up early and watch as daylight slowly builds beneath slate clouds.  I hear no birds, but there’s a gentle huffing sound: the breathing of white-tailed deer.  Gradually, several appear on the shore of the pond.  They nibble the tips and buds of willow saplings and other tender plants that protrude from the ice-covered pond and its bank.

Pond Deer Feeding

A second group grazes along the pond’s far shore.  As I watch them, I daydream of seeing their spotted fawns in a spring world filled with green leaf buds, lush moss, wildflowers, glorious birdsong, and wood ducks and mergansers sailing on the pond.  But for now, the winter world remains black, white and still.

Pond Distant Deer

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

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 in east central Minnesota 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).