Saturday, August 27, 2011

Late Summer in the Arb

All of the photos get much bigger if you click on them.
A walk through the northern half of the Lower Arb (Carleton College's Cowling Arboretum) this morning revealed a variety of late-summer scenes. In the wooded areas, we were pestered by mosquitoes if we stopped for even a moment or two to listen to a bird or decide which branch in the path to take. In the open prairie areas, butterflies and dragonflies flitted through the tall grasses and wildflowers. In one shaded area we counted a cluster of at least nine monarch butterflies.I love this top photo -- I didn't realize when I took it what an interesting sky there was behind this tall, sturdy, yellow-flowered plant (I'm not sure what it is, but it looks as if it may be in the sunflower family.)

Butterflies seem to love this flower (see also below), which I believe is one of the species of blazing star (Liatris).

A mix of prairie plants. Many of the grasses were taller than me (I'm around 5'2").

Light filtered in a lovely way through a stand of tall, slender trees as we neared the northern end of the Long Loop trail, returning to the small parking area near the old iron bridge on Canada Avenue.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Seen Overhead

Tree swallows and one barn swallow on a line.All the tree swallows seem to be busy grooming themselves.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Another Dark Swallowtail

My son and I drove out to Union Lake, just west of the interstate, today to see what birds might be out and about. From there we went on through Lonsdale, about halfway to New Prague, and then circled up through Elko New Market and back via rural roads. We caught a great blue heron hanging out next to a lone white pelican (too far away to get a photo). We saw a double-crested cormorant and plenty of gulls and pigeons. We saw a large hawk on a line overhead, and lots and lots of tree swallows also on lines. A small number of killdeer, some Canada geese, and a few quick, darting songbirds here and there completed the picture.

Probably the most memorable spot of the day was not avian, but lepidopteral.I caught a glimpse of something black and ragged-looking fluttering among the roadside clovers and wildflowers and pulled over to take a closer look. I wasn't even quite sure whether it was a bird or a butterfly, it was so large, but it turned out to be a huge black butterfly with blue hind wings. The sun was shining on my LCD display so that I could hardly see whether I'd captured it in the photos or not, and as you'll see the focus isn't great.

As I first saw it - huge and very black. Those are large clover blossoms!
Here you can see the blue hindwings and a hint of the swallow-type tail
I was able to get quite close to take this photo
I thought this butterfly seemed much blacker and to have more blue on its tail than the female dark-form eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) I recently blogged about. The ragged-edged appearance of the wings from a distance proved to be due to the spots/checks that form the wing borders.

As I first researched other similar butterflies I thought it might be a spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) because of that larger blue area. But as I looked at more and more sources, I came to the conclusion that this is indeed another of the same. Features that convinced me included the orange spots at the base of the hind wings and where the hind wing meets the fore wing on each side, and the yellowish color of the spots at the edge of the hind wings, compared to a cooler almost blue tone to those spots in the P. troilus. Of course, then I compared the range maps and saw that it was much less likely to have been the P. troilus, which doesn't seem to extend past Wisconsin into Minnesota. So there you have it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Recent Observations (Early August Phenology)

I haven't been keeping systematic records, so what follows is a fairly random set of observations about what's been going on lately. My last report of general observations was made in mid-June.
Red-breasted Nuthatch last winter
I commented then that we had last seen a red-breasted nuthatch on May 29. I don't think we saw any in June, but we have spotted one several times since mid-July. Based on maps of historical sightings available on, it looks as if June sightings of red-breasted nuthatches this far south in Minnesota are quite rare, while July and August sightings are somewhat more common. The red-breasteds mainly breed to our north, and not at all in the southwestern part of Minnesota.

Our 1987 edition of Robert Janssen's Birds in Minnesota shows the breeding range as extending no further south than the Twin Cities, with the fall migration period starting probably mid-August, and the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America shows the year-round range in Minnesota extending not much beyond the arrowhead region of northeastern Minnesota. The bird checklists from the Cowling Arboretum in Northfield and River Bend Nature Center in Faribault show the red-breasted nuthatch to be rarely reported in fall, winter, and spring, and not observed in summer. All these sources indicate that it is not historically common to find a red-breasted nuthatch in Rice County in the summer months, so we are excited to have done so.
Hairy Woodpecker

We haven't seen an oriole for several weeks. Common visitors to the bird feeders lately have included downy and (less often) hairy woodpeckers, blue jays, house finches, goldfinches, and chickadees. Mourning doves and chipping sparrows come for millet put out on our front walk. We have not been troubled by grackles or brown-headed cowbirds recently (in mid-June I reported grackles as our most common visitors). We don't often notice hummingbirds, though I did see one about a week ago. One day Dave saw six blue jays at the various feeders or in the nearby maple tree at the same time; usually we see only one or two.

On July 18 three baby raccoons appeared on our deck. One was seen again soon after on our front step. I haven't seen them since.

Baby raccoon
We have not been going out birding -- it's been so warm and humid that the idea has not been inviting. Summer isn't a peak time for our birding activities anyway, with the trees heavily leafed out, obscuring the view, but it can be fun to see turtles and families of young wood ducks in secluded ponds. After many humid days in the upper 80s and lower 90s, we are looking forward with relief to the coming week's forecast of a string of days with highs in the 70s and lows reaching down into the 50s.

Monarch and eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies have been common on our purple coneflowers the last several weeks. Joe-pye weed is also in bloom, and may be attracting them. Although I reported an early coneflower in mid-June (one that was closer to the house than most), most were not in full flower until July. 
Tiger Swallowtail

The last few days I have noticed that our garden phlox is flowering. I haven't kept records of that before.

Our half-hearted, late-started, much-neglected vegetable garden is in horrible condition. The six or so tomato plants look lush, but the swings between a cool June and extreme heat in the third week of July (up to 99 F. here, I believe, with outrageous dew points, putting the heat index well above 110) have limited the fruit production and certainly also limited my garden-upkeep efforts. I have picked a total of three cherry tomatoes (I think they are Super Sweet 100s); that plant has some more that are ripening, but nothing else is close to being ripe. I never got around to putting down a straw mulch, and the bed has been overtaken by tall grass. My attempt at bush beans succumbed to rabbits or other nibblers, and then got smothered by the grass. I have some cucumber plants that are growing well now, but not yet setting fruit. I have been cutting chives and basil for use in the kitchen, and we have a lot of lemon thyme and sage, but nothing else is producing.

I noticed my first flying geese of the season within the last week or two. There were some still-fuzzy half-grown goslings on the river not too long ago, suggesting a second hatching of the season.

    Saturday, August 6, 2011

    Yellow Swallowtail - Dark Morph

    A few days ago I posted photos of a female eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly. I learned that while the males are always yellow, the females can be either yellow with some distinctive blue markings, or very dark. A couple of days ago we saw one of the dark females. They have the same blue spots as the yellow-form females, and although they are indeed dark, the wings are translucent when the sun is behind them, creating an interesting effect.

    The swallowtails seem very attracted to the purple coneflowers that are growing in our front flowerbed. 

    Friday, August 5, 2011

    Gasping -- and Feeling Lucky (Still)

    Mourning Cloak: photo by Richard of "At the Water"
    A post about the mourning cloak butterfly on my friend Richard's At the Water blog today reminded me of one I'd written just about four years ago, in the early days of Penelopedia. It still sums up my views on noticing and appreciating the natural world around us, and my great pleasure that my 11-year-old son seems to share some of this appreciation, so I am re-posting it today (thanks, Richard!).

    Gasping -- and Feeling Lucky

    My quote of the week [I used to include a quote in my sidebar each week] is an excerpt from Barbara Kingsolver's 1995 collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson. Here it is:

    Someone in my childhood gave me the impression that fiddleheads [a type of fern] and mourning cloaks [a type of butterfly] were rare and precious. Now I realize they are fairly ordinary members of eastern woodland fauna and flora, but I still feel lucky and even virtuous -- a gifted observer -- when I see them. For that matter, they probably are rare, in the scope of human experience. A great many people will live out their days without ever seeing such sights, or if they do, never gasping. My parents taught me this -- to gasp, and feel lucky. They gave me the gift of making mountains out of nature's exquisite molehills. ... My heart stops for a second, even now..., as Camille and I wait for the butterfly to light and fold its purple, gold-bordered wings. "That's a mourning cloak," I tell her. "It's very rare."
    The gift Kingsolver was given and gives to her daughter in turn is one that I was also given by my mother. Not, perhaps, the gift exactly of gasping, but of being on the lookout -- noticing and appreciating the beauty and importance of a hawk circling high overhead, a heron at the edge of a pond, a purple Siberian iris, a pair of squirrels in a backyard tree. It was she who, after I'd had an unnerving encounter with bats in my first Northfield basement, said, "But Pen, bats are interesting!" It was she who, having lived for several years where I was born, near a game reserve outside Nairobi, Kenya, agonized over the threats to the survival of the great wild animals of Africa and the prospect that one day they might be no more.

    It is because of my mother that I scan the sky for raptors, pay attention to birds while I'm supposed to be paying attention to my tennis game, and at least now and then take my son (and my daughters in their day) to look for turtles and hawk feathers and creeks and footprints and berries in the woods. I hope, even though they may seem baffled by some of these passions (and perhaps more than a bit alarmed by my propensity for bird-watching at 70 mph on the interstate), I have planted seeds in them that will send down deepening roots and grow throughout their lives, enabling them to marvel at the beauties and complexities of nature and know that, no matter how seemingly commonplace their manifestations, they are very rare indeed.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011

    Hairy Woodpecker

    Hairy woodpecker (probably female - no red spot visible)

    Hairy woodpecker - strong tail feathers brace the bird at the feeder
    I've often seen downy woodpeckers at our peanut or suet feeders, but much less often noticed the very similar but larger hairy woodpecker. Both are year-round residents in much of the United States and Canada. This morning a loud, sharp call drew my attention and I saw a hairy woodpecker going after peanuts.

    The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the hairy as "a medium-sized woodpecker with a fairly square head, a long, straight, chisel-like bill, and stiff, long tail feathers to lean against on tree trunks. The bill is nearly the same length as the head." At 7-10" long, the hairy can be about one-third again the size of the smaller downy, though size alone can be difficult to base an identification on.

    Male downy woodpecker, for comparison
    The relative bill length is also a good way to distinguish the two: the downy's bill is much shorter in comparison with the depth of the bird's head, only about half that length, while the hairy's more formidable bill is about as long as its head is deep, as noted in the quote above.