Ebony Jewelwing

What do you associate with the words “winged beauties”? Many would answer birds and butterflies — and I’d add damselflies and dragonflies, too. On a sunny, warm morning, a pair of inky black wings flutter near the Snake River. At first I think it’s a butterfly, but a closer look reveals the electric-blue-green body of a male ebony jewelwing damselfly; he flashes cool and iridescent in the morning sun.

Inky black wings and a blue-green abdomen identify this male ebony jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata).

A member of the broad-winged damselflies, ebony jewelwings fly more like a butterfly than like their dragonfly relatives. Their wings are 1-to-1½ inches long and their body length is up to 2¼ inches. The male’s colorful abdomen — green, teal, blue, even a hint of purple — shimmers in the sunlight. A female ebony jewelwing is similar in appearance, but not as showy as a male. Her body is brown with little bits of blue or green. Her wings are more transparent black and display a distinct white spot near each tip. (See a female at Wisconsin Odonata Survey.)

In the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, look for ebony jewelwings perched along shady banks of shallow streams and slow-moving rivers from late May until September. Adults live for about 20 days. A mating pair will often fly attached in the heart-shaped “wheel formation” and remain connected for several hours. Females deposit eggs inside of submerged water plant stems in quiet sections of streams or rivers. The larvae or naiads live in the water for about a year and eat other aquatic larvae, such as mosquitos and mayflies. Adults eat most soft-bodied insects, for example small moths, mosquitos, mayflies, gnats, flying ants and termites.

The Snake River in east-central Minnesota provides the habitat needed by ebony jewelwings.

Even though jewelwings are voracious predators, they serve as supper to other creatures — turtles, frogs, fish, bats and birds, such as red-winged blackbirds, blue jays, flycatchers, purple martins and kingfishers.

How does one distinguish between a damselfly and a dragonfly? A few simple differences make it easy to tell them apart. Generally, damsels hold their wings folded vertically above their body, while dragons spread them horizontally when resting. Damselfly abdomens are more slender than the stout dragonflies’. Damselfly eyes are set far apart on the sides of the head, but dragonfly eyes wrap around and touch on top of the head.

A green darner dragonfly (Anax junius) exhibits the horizontal wings, stout body and wrap-around eyes characteristic of dragonflies.

Vertically folded wings, a slender body and eyes set far apart on each side of the head are characteristic of the ebony jewelwing and other damselflies.

Damselflies and dragonflies belong to the order Odonata, which means “toothed ones.” Many come in beautiful, iridescent color combinations. Fossil records indicate that Protodonata, the ancient ancestors of both dragons and damsels, arose about 325 million years ago. The first Odonata fossils are dated at a little older than 250 million years, which means they’ve inhabited Earth’s skies since before dinosaurs existed. I love to watch and think about these ancient, graceful creatures that add so much beauty to our woods and gardens.

 

Violets Aren’t Always Violet!

As a youngster, I thought violets should be just one color: the shade of Crayola violet in my crayon box. In fact, violet flowers aren’t always violet! Many are blue, shades of purple, white and even yellow. The native common violet, or wooly blue violet, grows in almost every Minnesota county and in most of the eastern United States and Canada. It’s what many of us picture when we think “violet” (excluding African violets, which are a different plant family altogether).

The common violet or wooly violet (Viola sororia) blooms from April to June in the eastern United States and Canada.

Violets are a sure sign of spring in Minnesota and bloom from April to June. You’ll often find them in woodlands, thickets, gardens, lawns, along roadsides and even growing in sidewalk cracks. Individual species of violets can be tricky to identify and botanists disagree on how to classify them. Many of the backyard and roadside violets are common violets (Viola sororia), which may be blue, purple or white. The downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens) is also common in most Minnesota counties. It differs from many violets in that the flower stem arises from the leaf axil instead of growing separately from the corm.

The white form of the common violet clearly shows the pollinator “honey guides” on the bottom petal.

This violet came from my mom’s garden. I’d never seen violets this shade and loved them.

The downy yellow violet’s (Viola pubescens) stems and undersides of leaves are covered in soft, downy hair.

A typical native violet has heart-shaped or circular leaves with rounded teeth. In most species, the flower stem grows directly from the corm, which is similar to a bulb. Each leafless stem holds a single five-petaled flower. The purple-veined area on the lower petal is a nectar guide for pollinators. Bees see ultraviolet light and scientists think that the enhanced pattern visible to their eyes helps lead them to the nectar. In early May, typical pollinators are mason bees, tiny sweat bees and skipper butterflies. But, because the early spring weather can be cold and pollinators may be inactive, violets produce a second type of flower called a cleistogamous flower that doesn’t open. It self-pollinates and forms a seed capsule that ripens, bursts and ejects small brown seeds away from the plant. These flowers don’t form until after the trees leaf out. Look for them underneath violet plants later in the summer.

The violet plant is an important host for the caterpillars of many species of fritillary butterflies. Just as monarch larvae feed solely on milkweed plants, most fritillary caterpillars feed only on violets. Humans can eat violet blossoms, but not the rest of the plant, which is toxic. The blossoms provide vitamins A and C. In earlier times, they were used to make a simple, sweet jelly that’s also beautiful. To learn how to make violet jelly, and about other ways the flowers were used, visit PBS Wisconsin’s “The Wisconsin Gardener” for a brief, interesting interview.

Many fritillary caterpillars feed only on violets. This adult great-spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele)  nectars on pink bergamot.

Violets sometimes form patches, especially in a garden or lawn. They are a good ground cover in shady places where grass does’t grow well. If you have too many growing for your liking, they are easy to remove. Just make sure that you pull out the entire root — and please consider leaving a few for early pollinators and for fritillary caterpillars to eat!

Seeking Winter’s Beauty

Nature’s beauty is spare and uncomplicated in winter.

In the Upper Midwest, there’s little that isn’t hidden under layers of snow in January. What remains is pared down to basics: bare branches, open seed pods and stripped down stalks. Their lines are clean, sharp, punctuated by frozen fruit and picked-over seed heads.

Prickly seed heads of Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).

Plump apples of the dwarf Tina Sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii ‘Tina’).

January’s color palette is simple: white, black, shades of brown, berry reds and green hues of conifers. Cloudless skies range from deep to powder blue during daylight, softening to a blue tint after sunset, and on moonshine nights, the snow glows with a cold, blue light seen only in midwinter.

 

Tart fruit of the nonpoisonous staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina).

Male downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens).

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

To find winter’s beauty requires ignoring the persistent desire to “just go back inside” to warm up! It is necessary to open one’s senses to the more subtle signs of life: perhaps you’ll hear the call of a black-capped chickadee, the tap-tap of a woodpecker looking for food, or the soft hoots of courting great-horned owls. Maybe you’ll spot the showy red of sumac fruit or plump crabapples. Perhaps you’ll touch the satiny inner lining of a milkweed pod, or the prickly seed head of a black-eyed Susan. If you’re fortunate enough to have native grasses growing nearby, stop for a moment and inhale their sweet, ripe scent — a lingering gift of autumn. Whenever you go outside, try to be open to winter’s spare beauty so very different from its abundance in spring, summer and autumn. Already the days are lengthening and the the sun is warmer. Winter will soon give way to spring.

A quiet place to observe winter’s beauty.

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.

Diverse Decomposers

Chicken fat mushrooms (Suillus Americanus) grow near white pine trees.

When I was little, I thought that fungi just meant the small, brown squishy mushrooms that appeared in the lawn after a wet spell — and I was squeamish about them. But that’s only a small part of the story. The hidden world of fungi runs deep within the soil like strands of microscopic silk. I imagine these tiny fungal strands as threads of life woven in a network in and around plant roots. What we see are the strange and often beautiful fruiting bodies — what we typically call a mushroom or toadstool — growing on a tree, a log, the ground, or some other food source. This visible part of a fungus produces reproductive spores.

Russulas often grow near oak trees.

In fact, fungi are one of Earth’s key recyclers of carbon and other materials. Along with bacteria, earthworms and other soil organisms, fungi decompose organic matter to release and recycle nutrients, feeding themselves and others through this process.

Bracket fungi and lichens grow on a log along the Kettle River.

Fungi are not plants; they have no chlorophyll, leaves, roots, flowers or seeds and do not make their own food. They are primarily strands called hyphae, which secrete enzymes that break down organic matter, such as leaves, dead trees, and animal remains. Scientists currently think that land fungi split off from the animal kingdom around 1.3 million years ago — about 500 million years before plants.

Tiny slime mold sporangia grow on a rotting log. (Slime molds are related to, but different than, fungi.)

Though some fungi are parasites that damage plants and other living organisms, mycorrhizal fungi form a symbiotic partnership with plants in which both benefit. The fungi obtain nutrients that the plant produces in photosynthesis. The fungal hyphae, in turn, break down organic substances releasing nitrogen, carbon, glucose and other nutrients, which they pass along to the roots of plants without parasitizing them. Many fungi also store carbon, meaning that less is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. All winter long fungi will nourish the soil for spring growth. As I walk on these autumn days, with so many leaves underfoot, I like to think about how they will be decomposed and used again in the spring to help create next year’s new life.

Peeling Puffballs (Lycoperdon) often grow in sandy, open areas, such as roadsides.

Though some fungi are harmful to plants, humans and other organisms, many provide antibiotics and food in addition to forming nourishing soil. So the next time you spot a fungus and think it’s gross, remember the benefits that many fungi provide to nature, the food chain and to us. Here are a few fungal fruiting bodies that I’ve seen growing in the woods this autumn. Fungi often are difficult to identify, so I don’t know all of their names, but I appreciate their shapes and colors.

Tiny orange Mycena toadstools growing in moss.

The underside of this Russula mushroom cap shows the spore-producing gills.

A silvery blue-capped fungus pops up through moss near aspens and pines.

An autumn toadstool grows under bur oaks next to the riverbank.

Amanitas grow in deciduous and mixed woodlands.

White polypore fungi slowly decompose a fallen tree limb.

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.

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 Pine County in 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 in Pine County, MN, 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 at our cabin in Pine County, MN. 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.