September Days

Woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus).

Woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus).

The morning’s first light dawns purple, builds to a soft pink, then strawberry red. Crickets and other night creatures punctuate the mild air; the birds are quiet. As the sun climbs the eastern horizon, its light flares and glows green in the tops of river birches, maples and cottonwoods. There is only a hint of autumn color in the trees, but the wildflowers are dominated by gold — the gold of woodland sunflowers, goldenrod, a few butter and eggs. The first asters, purple and white, softly accent the gold. In the coolness of the morning, voices of early walkers rise from the sidewalk. “A beautiful morning for a walk!” women call in greeting to each other.

Plumes of Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) surround a pond.

Plumes of Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) surround a pond.

Butter and eggs, or common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris Mill) was introduced by European settlers in the 1800s. Unfortunately, its bright flowers are considered invasive.

Butter and eggs, (Linaria vulgaris Mill) was introduced by European settlers in the 1800s. Its bright flowers are now considered invasive.

Native heath asters (Symphotrichum ericoides) are at their peak bloom now.

Native heath asters (Symphotrichum ericoides) are at their peak bloom now.

Later, in the afternoon, I walk the hilly paths. The sun is warm, an easterly breeze is mild. Barn swallows twitter overhead, swooping and soaring in pursuit of small insects. At a nearby pond, a dozen Canada geese perch on a half-submerged snag and a green heron alights briefly at the tip top of a skeletal maple. Close to the ground, small butterflies flutter across the wildflowers bordering the pond.

A red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) sips nectar from New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-anglica).

A red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) sips nectar from New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-anglica).

I sit in the sun to breathe in the peaceful scene and soak up the sunlight. Its radiant heat soothes and relaxes. I miss it so much during the long winter. I wish these late-summer afternoons would never end. I am grateful to be outside surrounded by this abundance of life.

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Hermit Thrush Visitors

A hermit thrush eats berries from our patio planter.

A hermit thrush eats berries from our patio planter.

Recent strong winds brought a pair of migrating hermit thrushes to our backyard.  Their brown backs, spotted breasts and rust-colored tails camouflaged them well among the leaves littering the gardens and against our winter-weary lawn.  They plucked berries from a planter on the patio, picked in the grass under the suet and thistle feeders, and turned over leaves in the garden in search of food.

Cousins to American robins, eastern bluebirds and several other thrushes, hermit thrushes may be the best singers of the family. Their song is flute-like, liquid, melodious.  In Minnesota, these songsters spend the summer in the north-central and northeastern regions of the state.  It is rare to hear a hermit thrush sing during migration, and over the many years that migrants have rested in our yard, I’ve heard their ethereal singing only once  —  when a bird perched in a tall arbor vitae and sang on a sunny morning.  Watch and listen to a hermit thrush sing its haunting song.

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A rust-colored tail helps identify the hermit thrush.

Some thrush species can be tough to tell apart because of the spotted breast and brown coloring shared by many. But, if the bird has a rusty tail that it flicks up and down, you’ll know you’ve likely spotted a hermit thrush!

 

Morning Song

Each morning between 6:00 and 6:30, a male cardinal perches in the arbor vitae at the back of our yard and sings in the predawn darkness.  His melodious whistles serenade his mate, define his territory and bring cheer to the cold morning.

When the sun is higher, he whistles a more intricately patterned call.  Soon his mate comes to feed at the suet brick while he watches from the cedars, a red ornament decorating the green fronds. His lady is softly colored in olive and brown highlighted with pinkish red.  I haven’t heard her song yet this year, but female cardinals are able to sing as lovely as males, and soon she will join him — especially when they begin nesting, to communicate location and the need for food.

This cardinal pair has nested in our hedge for the past two summers.

This cardinal pair has nested in our hedge for the past two summers.

Why does the sight of a cardinal bring joy to so many people? Cardinals are common, year-round residents throughout most of Minnesota, the eastern United States and Mexico. Yet, spotting a flash of red in a tree top, at a feeder, or in a garden is always delightful.  For me, it is because cardinals sing when most other birds are silent — on frigid late-January mornings and sweltering late-summer afternoons; and because, most summers, they raise a family in the hardwood hedge in our backyard; and, simply for their red brilliance against the winter landscape or among the purple and gold in our September garden.  A common bird, perhaps; uncommonly beautiful, most certainly.

2014 TM Murray; used with permission.

A male cardinal glows in the stark winter woods.  © 2014 T. M. Murray; used with permission.

Winter Sky

The winter sky is moody and ever-changing even in the city.  The rising sun glows a warm orange on trees and buildings that belies the steely cold air.

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The sky grows to a brilliant blue, then often softens to dove gray — especially in early winter when clouds quickly blanket the blue, sputter snowflakes, or spin a squall before moving out.

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Winter sunsets fire the horizon unlike any other time of year.  As the sun sinks lower, light streams through our southwest windows flooding the rooms with deep golden rays.  I love that last burst of gentle, bright warmth and, for a few moments, I work in those rooms when possible — perhaps to write, catch up on paperwork, or even fold a basket of laundry.  Soon afterward, broad strokes of rose illuminate the west, then slowly die down to pink embers.

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Many evenings, in the final glow of twilight a silvery moon brightens against a pale, fading sky.

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First “Sticking” Snow

It started out as rain, then many hours of mist. Later, heavy wet snow changed to sleet and back again, weighing down and soaking seed heads, decorative grass and the few leaves that haven’t fallen from the trees.  This snow is likely to stay for the rest of the winter, given the subzero temperatures and the prediction of more snow to arrive on Sunday.

I’m not a winter person, I’m a summer gal.  I miss the melodious birdsong, the activity of butterflies, bees and colorful beetles in our garden, the leafed-out trees, the warmth of the sun and the long, long hours of northern daylight.  But I try to find the raw, stark beauty revealed in the winter months.  It is not the vivid, vital beauty of summer.  No, it is a harsh beauty that complements the cold, brittle air, stinging wind and sharp light of December.

The season's first snow that is likely to remain until spring.

The season’s first “sticking” snow is likely to remain until spring.

When snow falls, a temporary hush settles over the city, dampening the noise of traffic and aircraft, and making it easier to hear nature’s sounds — the quiet ticking of sleet and snowflake on spent plant stalks, the rustle and crackle of brittle leaves in the wind, a chickadee’s call and the honking of geese flying low overhead.

This snow wasn’t as pretty as most because it was too soggy to etch and highlight trees and other plants.   But, I found a few lovely, wintry sights in the yard:

Red leaf barberry (Berberis thunbergii atropupurea berries are coated with freezing rain and snow.

Red leaf barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘atropurpurea’) fruit is encased in freezing rain.

A single apple leaf...

A single beacon apple (Malus ‘beacon’) leaf decorates a snowy landscape.

A purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seed head sparkles with beads of sleet.

A purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seed head sparkles with beads of sleet.

Snow frosts an evergreen Korean boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. koreana).

Snow frosts the tips of an evergreen Korean boxwood bush (Buxus microphylla var. koreana).

Snow softens the rough bark of 70-year-old beacon apple tree (Malus "beacon").

Snow softens the rough, scaly bark of a 60-year-old beacon apple tree (Malus ‘beacon’).

Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) buds are coated in snow.

Tightly closed Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) buds are dusted with falling snow.

Orange Sulphur Butterfly

Today’s warm temperatures and south winds brought an orange sulphur butterfly to our garden.  Normally a common butterfly, this is the first one I’ve seen all year. The orange color on the upper wing, and dark black spots help to distinguish it from other sulphur butterflies.  Adults drink nectar from many species of garden flowers; this one visited garden phlox and asters.  The caterpillars prefer red clover, white clover, vetches and alfalfa.  Other insects seen in the garden today include a potter wasp, paper wasps, bumble bees, honey bees, metallic green bees, flower flies, cicadas and an autumn meadowhawk dragonfly.

An orange sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme) drinks nectar from garden phlox.

An orange sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme) drinks nectar from garden phlox.