We went from fall to winter in two hours this morning.

After a second round of leaf raking and mowing, I admired the fall colors of the garden. But not for long.

Two hours later, it looked like this.

You can’t really tell how hard it’s snowing from this wide-angle view.
Individual flakes form a cloud over the vegetation.
This isn’t even close to a white-out, but it’s enough precipitation to discourage the backyard birds and squirrels from visiting their favorite feeder.
Snowflake tracks look like rain, visible as white streaks.

Goodbye to Fall — it seems a little early for winter’s first appearance, but this is 2020 afterall, when the unexpected has become the norm.

return of the big, scary black wasp

I haven’t seen the Great Black Wasp (Sphex pennsylvanicus), a type of digger wasp, for eight years, when I first found this fearsome looking insect in my backyard feasting on the nectar of swamp milkweed.  But this week I found several of them pollinating the flowers of a wildflower I have never seen before — Spotted Bee Balm.

A 1.5-inch long, fearsome-looking all black wasp with long legs and blue-black wings.  

The wasp inserted its head all the way into the flower and came out again with a nice dusting of pollen to take to the next flower.

The Great Black Wasp is also known as the Cicada Killer, for its habit of stinging and paralyzing orthopteran insects (grasshoppers, cicadas, etc.) to provide food for their offspring.  The prey are paralyzed after being stung in the head and abdomen and are then deposited in an underground nest. A single egg is laid on the underside of just one of the two to six prey items placed in each nest chamber as the larva’s food source during its development.

spotted bee balm

Spotted Bee Balm is a relative of the more common pink or red Bee Balm.  Flowers are arranged in whorls along the stem of the plant.  Multiple stems bearing flowers present a rich source of nectar and pollen for pollinators, but the stems die back in the winter, and the plants regrow from the roots only 1-2 years before dying out.

White bracts separate clumps of flowers on the stem and the flowers seem to open sequentially rather than all at once, so pollinators would be encouraged to revisit particular stems and whorls of flowers.   

This fragrant flowering plant, found mostly in the eastern half of the U.S.,  is especially attractive to large-bodied bumblebees, carpenter bees, and digger bees, as well as a variety of other nectar- or pollen-feeding insects.  It flourishes in dry, sandy areas, disturbed areas along roadsides and railroads, old fields, and prairies.  I don’t know why I have never seen it before this, but I would certainly like to add it to my prairie garden.

Wildflowers at the Grass Lake slough include a wide variety of perennials like Spotted Bee Balm.

It’s time for lilies!

Walking around the neighborhood the other day, I found a variety of lilies in bloom in my neighbors’ gardens.  Together they make an amazing bouquet of color (click on the image to get a full screen view):

Many of these lilies are hybrids of Asiatic varieties, but there are about 90 species in the genus Lilium, so there is plenty of natural variation.  The American Tiger Lily is one of those beauties.

Yellow or orange with dark purple spots –you can see where it got its name.  Black pollen sacs may drop pollen on the chocolate brown stigma (female) surface, or bees, butterflies or birds may help distribute the pollen as they visit the flower.

Unlike most flowering plants, lilies don’t seem to have a lot of pollinator visits, but they don’t really need them since they are self fertile and can produce seed sexually by that process alone.  They can reproduce asexually as well, by budding off of the basal bulbs from which stems and leaves grow in the spring.

The Asiatic lily in the foreground has just opened, and the pollen sacs on the anther are not yet open. The anther reflexes 90 degrees from this position to present the pollen for distribution by pollinators or wind (like the anthers on the lily in the background).

This bumblebee roamed around the base of the day lily, perhaps hoping there was nectar there, but immediately flew off. Bees seem to “know” that lilies are not good sources of nectar.

In contrast, little syrphid flies (hoverflies) immerse themselves in pollen in the process of trying to eat it, and can help cross pollinate lilies.

The only downside of these gorgeous blooms is their relatively short lives.

Bring on the bees

It’s prime time for summer flowers, and the bumblebees and honeybees are making the rounds carrying pollen from one flower to another and sipping nectar as their reward.

Tubular flowers of red bee balm (Monarda) are perfect for a slender honeybee or the long tongue of butterflies and hummingbirds. The nectar is deep down at the base of the flower, so it’s an effort for a small bee to get there.

Lead plant flowers open sequentially on a long raceme (flower stalk) exposing their yellow orange anthers to wandering bumblebee that collect and store pollen in sacs on their hind legs.

Milkweed flowers have special requirements of their pollinators — they need to stick their legs down slits in the female (pistil) parts of the flowers and drag out the pollen sacs (pollinia) on their hind legs. The slender leg of a honeybee is the perfect vehicle for this operation.  When they wander onto the next flower, the pollinia will get transferred as the bee’s leg drops into the appropriate slot.  To read more about how this is done, click on this link.

Bees love the pollen of the Cup Plant, a tall composite (daisy) with an abundance of bright yellow flowers.  Later in the summer, the Goldfinches will appreciate the fruits (well, seeds) of these pollinating efforts.  

In the fall, Goldfinches dissect the Cup Plant flowers, pulling the seeds right out of the flower head. Fortunately, there is a great abundance of flower heads to work on, and there are plenty of seeds left for the plant to fill up by backyard garden with its progeny.

Why are some birds so common?

When we did our (exhaustive) photographic survey of birds during May this year, we usually encountered a subset of what we began to call “everyday birds” — that is, the birds you can count on seeing every day.  When you step outside your front (or back) door you likely encounter some of these “everyday birds”:  Crows, Robins, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Chickadees, House Finches, Goldfinches, and if you live in very urban areas, the ever-present House Sparrows and Starlings.

Some of the everyday birds: American Crow, Blue Jay, House Sparrow, Chickadee, Goldfinch, Robin, House Finch, Cardinal

Why are these birds so common, or so commonly seen in our residential communities?

Actually, there’s a simple answer:  we have made our front yards and backyards into buffet tables for birds, with fruits, seeds, feeders, nest boxes, and lots of vegetation for growing insects;  we have planted trees and shrubs for birds to hide, nest, mate, and feed in, and provided them with water structures to bathe in; the grass is short so reptilian and mammalian predators like snakes and foxes that love eggs and chicks can’t hide there; and the vegetation is diverse and structurally complex so that many bird species can coexist there.

My backyard garden, surrounded by big trees, has something for all the little critters that inhabit it.

Goldfinches, one of the many “everyday birds” love to pick apart the flowers of the Cup Plant in late summer, and before then, they dine on a variety of seeds in several types of sunflowers and coneflowers in the backyard garden.  In this garden there are seeds for them to consume, plant material for nests, feeders for the scarce food times, and vegetative cover to protect them. 

This urban or rural/farm landscape transformed by humans is an open and easily exploited niche.  However, birds must adapt to the presence of the humans there, and some do this much more easily and successfully than others.

House Sparrows, for example, are now so dependent on living in densely populated areas of humans (and their bird feeders and hedges) or around farmers’ barns that they are found only there.  This species that originated in the Middle East became intimately  linked to human agriculture and has spread over the globe by following humans everywhere they live.

The story of how House Sparrows became “the most common bird in the world” is a good read in Smithsonian magazine.

Quite by accident, Tree Swallows have become increasingly common in the past couple of decades as the Bluebird Recovery project introduced hundreds (if not thousands) of nest boxes into U.S. parks to help “save” the Bluebirds from being extirpated by hole-nesting Starlings and House Sparrows.  So, now we put up two nest boxes instead of just one for the Bluebird, and the two species can coexist in the same territory.  Neither species is deterred by humans walking by the nest or that come to peer into or open the boxes, although Tree Swallows will definitely dive-bomb you when you get to close to the nest.

Male Tree Swallow entering its nest box at a nearby park.

Our backyards are havens for not just birds, but tree frogs, toads, house mice, woodland mice, chipmunks and squirrels, prey for other, bigger birds to feast on.  The other day I saw a FB video of a Great Blue Heron that walked from a pond near someone’s backyard right into the garden area and captured a chipmunk that boldly sat by a bird feeder chomping on seed!  Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls, as well, have become more common in urban areas because of this buffet of tasty prey available, courtesy of human gardening habits.

Great Blue Herons don’t just occupy every pond and and lakeside in urban landscapes, but as good opportunistic hunters, they sometimes invade the backyard as well.

Bird feeders attract lots of birds, and those of us who love to feed birds make sure they put a variety of seed out to increase the bird diversity in their backyards.  However, Cooper’s Hawks have recently discovered this urban mecca of bird diversity as well, and now they are becoming one of the most common urban raptors.

This juvenile Cooper’s Hawk landed on the bird bath in the backyard, looked around at the birds scuttling for cover and made a grab at one, landing on the grass — without its prey.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in the discussion of “why are some birds so common?”, and I’ll try to address other reasons for avian success in another set of posts.  So, stay tuned.

What’s happening in the backyard?

Spring (short as it was) has given way to the heat of summer, but here’s what has been happening in the backyard this past week.

Painted Turtles basking to digest all the duckweed they just ate. You can see their beautiful red and gold coloration in the turtle facing the camera.

A little White-tailed fawn got separated from its mom and bleated continuously for several minutes.

Tom Turkey strolled through the backyard gobbling and making a half-hearted effort to raise his tail — but the urge to mate seems to be waning.  If birds had emotions, I would say he looks a bit despondent.

And, big discovery…”Blondie” (of squirrel tails and coat colors fame) is actually gray. The blonde fur was apparently the winter coat, which the squirrel definitely doesn’t need these days.

Blondie is shedding its lustrous blond coat.

and of course, spring flowers are coming on strong, most notably the peonies I see colorizing the landscape everywhere.

I always though my peonies bloomed by Memorial Day, but lately it has been more like mid-June.

and now, on to summer.

Spring beauties

It will be a while before Spring graces us with her presence in MN, but meantime, I can look back at all the beautiful flowers I saw while I was in northern California two weeks ago.  Bright colors gladden the heart, even in the midst of a plague.

Evening primrose with a touch of dew.

Red hibiscus, with its velvety dark red stigma sticking far above the anthers to exclude their pollen.

Orchid sprays decorate the window.

Bewick’s Wren and Common Bushtit in a Redbud tree brightly blooming with its pink-purple flowers.

And spring color is not complete without my favorite California Poppies

The poppy bloom was just beginning in early March in northern California.

The characteristic finely dissected blue-green foliage and bright orange-yellow disc-shaped flowers — what could be more colorful?

Who needs a macro lens (or a telephoto)?

I own a suite of lenses I use for different purposes with my DSLR camera (a Sony a7iii), but when I travel, taking them all along would weigh me down.  The solution!  The new Sony rx10 (Mark 4), a relatively light-weight, fixed lens camera that does it all with a 24-600 mm Zeiss zoom lens — landscapes, telephoto, and unexpectedly wonderful up-close macro photography as well.  OMG, I’m sold.

Look how this camera does 600 mm macro photography…

No crop. I can fill the frame, getting as close as this Painted Lady butterfly will tolerate.

I thought I needed to stand at least 6 feet away, like I would with my DSLR + zoom lens combo, in order to get the camera to focus at 600 mm, but that is not the case.

I’m pretty far away in this shot, but walked closer on each successive shot below with no loss of focus.

New camera, new opportunities.  And next, new vistas, as we journey to South America for some quality time with rare birds and mammals in Brazil.

Variety’s the very spice of life…

I ran across this quote while doing a crossword…

Quote from William Cowper, from his multi-volume poetic work, The Task.

It is variety indeed that makes us marvel at natural wonders.  Something simple, like variation in the colors of Black-eyed Susan flowers.  Who knew there were 43 varieties of Black-eyed Susan, ranging in color from yellow to bright fuchsia to dark mahogany, with all manner of stripes and blotches on the petals.

A mixed bag of wildflower seed yielded the following results in my garden:

Not different species of wildflowers, but different varieties of one species, Rudbeckia hirta.

Close-up, they are quite striking.

The more standard version of Black-eyed Susan that we usually see.

Variety just makes life more interesting.

Morning visitors

The deer usually make their rounds of the backyard just as it’s getting light in the morning, between 5 and 6 a.m.  They wander by the flowers, nibble a few and move on.  But one morning, the fawns were just too tired to keep up with their mom, and took a rest in the long grass.

The lawn that hadn’t been mowed for 3 weeks must have looked inviting for a morning nap.  The fawns spent over an hour resting here, with no mom in sight.

Finally, one of the fawns seems to think it’s time to move on…

Benign neglect of the backyard, which has become somewhat of a jungle with all the rain and our long absence this summer, seems to make it more attractive to the wildlife.