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.


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 bank of the Snake River in Pine County, MN, 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

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.

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”.

Autumn Garden Creatures

Last Friday was a golden day with gentle sun, temps in the 70s and a southerly wind.  I walked at lunchtime and spent a few minutes in our back garden observing insects, birds and chipmunks.  It was the final day before a strong Canadian cold front and soaking rains moved in — and probably my last chance until spring to enjoy some of the garden’s inhabitants:

Autumn meadowhawk dragonflies, which fly late into autumn, still patrolled the garden.  The reddish-colored mature females, with clear wings tinted amber at the base and red spots at the top, added jewel-like color to the changing garden.

A male autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) suns on a stone wall in the garden.

A female autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) suns on a stone wall in the garden.

A celery looper moth visited the garden from morning until dusk each day for more than a week.  Though it’s not colorful, the contrast between the chocolate-brown wings and the bright silvery-white curved markings makes it glow in the sunlight.  Though looper larvae can be agricultural pests, the adults pollinate many varieties of plants.  This one seemed to prefer Sedum ‘autumn joy’.

A celery looper (   ) nectars on Sedum 'autumn joy'.

A celery looper (Anagrapha falcifera) nectars on Sedum ‘autumn joy’.

Celery looper

Side view of a celery looper moth.

Syrphid flies, also known as hover flies or flower flies, are small insects that zip between flowers much quicker than bees and wasps.  Syrphid flies are bee and wasp look-a-likes, but they don’t sting or bite!  Many species are helpful in the garden for two reasons:  The adults pollinate flowers and the larvae eat aphids and leaf hoppers, which cause a lot of damage and disease in plants.  They are called hover flies because they often hover in midair over the garden before zooming off in a new direction — sometimes flying backwards.  They are known as flower flies for their pollinating presence in the autumn garden.

A Syrphid fly, (Eristalis) pollinates native goldenrod.

A syrphid fly, (Eristalis) pollinates native goldenrod.

Another species of Syrphid fly pollinates garden asters.

Another species of syrphid fly (Helophilus) pollinates garden asters.

Hidden among the garden plants, an eastern chipmunk gathered seeds to store for winter use in its nearby den.  There’s a stable chipmunk population in our urban neighborhood, in spite of many gardeners’ attempts to eradicate the rodents.  At least the chipmunks retire to their dens until spring, unlike squirrels, which raid the garden during the growing season and the suet feeder during the winter months!

An eastern chipmunk surveys the backyard from its perch on our back steps.

An eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) surveys the yard from its perch on our back steps.

The backyard bird population is changing as many bird species migrate south.  For example, most of the warblers, orioles and swallows have left; ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers and white-throated sparrows are passing through from further north.  Daily visitors to our garden, trees and hedges include northern cardinals, blue jays, American goldfinches, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, American robins and a brown creeper. I don’t have a telephoto lens yet, so I don’t photograph many birds.  An excellent website with photos, key facts, bird calls and other information is

Lastly, bumble bees and honey bees nectared on the Sedum ‘autumn joy’ and garlic chives. (Earlier in the summer, I pruned the sedum to different degrees so that it would continue to bloom late into autumn.)  The sedum and asters were the main attraction for insects last week.  I haven’t seen either bee species since the weather turned cold and rainy.  I miss their industrious presence and look forward to their return next spring.

A honey bee nectars on garlic chive blossoms (Allium tuberosum).

A honey bee nectars on garlic chive blossoms (Allium tuberosum).

A bumble bee (Bombus) nectars on Sedum 'autumn joy'.

A bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) nectars on Sedum ‘autumn joy’.