a wildflower experiment

I got tired of trying to grow vegetables in my backyard garden space year after year, only to have them wilt with insect infestations, or get some virus that turned the leaves brown.  And finally at summer’s end near optimal harvest time, the garden was shaded by 2 p.m., because the maximum altitude of the sun’s arc in the sky in late August was below the tops of the trees.

So I converted my vegetable garden to a wildflower garden, with a wildflower mix from a company that promised lots of native plants from my region.  I dispersed the seed generously, watered it faithfully, and waited for weeks while it looked like I was growing nothing but weeds.  As an added bonus, I thought a bevy of flowers would attract more butterflies and bees to my backyard (which is what the wildflower packet promised).

Finally, the wildflower seed mix is starting to bloom behind the giant hyssop.

It’s a lush mix of quite a variety of plants, and there probably are a good number of my native weeds  in there too.

But unfortunately, I don’t recognize many of the flowers in this mix, which leads me to wonder if they are really from this region of the country.  For example, a few  California Poppies have appeared, and I’m sure they are not native to MN.

I would love to see golden poppies every year in my garden, but I doubt they can withstand the Minnesota winter.

They are quite pretty, but I’m disappointed that these flowers seem to be non-natives that will not attract the insects that my bird friends depend on during the summer.

What is this? It’s like nothing I’ve seen around here before.

Or this? A green sweat bee made a brief stop on this flower, looking for pollen perhaps.

What might this be, some kind of pink wallflower relative?

Or these, pretty little blue and white flowers? No insects anywhere around them.

I’m going to call this a failed experiment, an important failure because it highlights something that should be an on-going concern of all avid gardeners.  And that is this:  if we continue to replace the native vegetation in our yards with non-native species, insects that depend on native perennial and annual vegetation will face a food desert.  They don’t have the biochemistry to cope with the plant defenses of introduced non-natives, so they produce fewer or no offspring in a garden of non-native plants.  And the birds that depend on those insects to feed their own young similarly suffer the consequences of the food desert.

So, plant more native species and keep those insects happy!

Monarch butterflies love our native Swamp Milkweed for its nectar as well as a source of food for their larvae.

Exploring Maplewood state park

We made a brief trip up north over the July 4 holiday to lovely Maplewood state park, about a 3-hour drive northwest of the Twin Cities.  Lakes, trails, great campsites, rental canoes and kayaks available, swimming beach, wildlife, and more.  What a beautiful place, and it must be even more so in the fall, when the maple-basswood forest has turned gold and red.

The view of upper and lower Lake Lida from Hallaway Hill must be spectacular in the fall.  Driving the man-made causeway west takes you out of the park.

The sumac was in full bloom, and honeybees were busy pollinating. In the fall, red plumes of sumac seeds will light up this hillside.

At the top of Hallaway Hill, we happened to be standing at the intersection of the territories of three Yellow Warbler males. If one male got too close to another male’s boundary, a brief aerial scuffle between them ensued. One of the resident males checked us out.

A pair of Trumpeter Swans fed on submerged vegetation on one of the lakes in the park.

the Margined Calligrapher

With a fancy name like Margined Calligrapher, you would never guess I was talking about a little flower fly, less than a half inch long.  But this minute insect is one of the most numerous ones in your garden right now.

Minuscule flower flies are dwarfed by even the tiny fleabane flowers whose pollen they may be consuming.

The “margined” part of its name derives from the yellow line that outlines the pattern on its abdomen.  This tiny female, identified by the gap between her eyes, is feeding on peony pollen.

Flower flies derive their name from their ubiquitous presence on flower heads as the adults seek nectar and pollen, but they are also called hover flies for their habit of hovering in mid-air, or Syrphid flies because they belong to that large subfamily.

A male calligrapher fly, identified by eyes adjacent to one another, pauses on a peony petal, perhaps searching for a female.

Their yellow and black coloration mimics that of bees, and perhaps they get some protection from predation from that mimicry, but they are far smaller than even the smallest honeybees, they have only one pair of wings, not two as all bees do, and they have short, stubby antennae, again unlike the longer ropey antennae of bees.

It’s mating time for these flies which have recently emerged from a long winter hibernation as adults or mature larvae. Females will lay a single egg on leaves of a plant that is infested with aphids, scale insects, or thrips which the larvae will then consume as they grow.

Although the eye colors of the two sexes look different in the photo, they really aren’t. Compare the male (on top) eye color in this photo to the one above.

Syrphid larva consuming an aphid. Photo from Ohioline.osu.edu, by David Cappaert.

So, not only do adult flower flies perform a pollinating service for the flowers in your garden, their carnivorous larvae perform a check on the pests (like aphids) that attack your garden plants!

This particular species of flower fly, Toxomerus marginatus, can be found almost everywhere in the U.S. except mountainous regions and Alaska, and has even made it to Hawaii.  There are numerous Toxomerus species, each with a distinctive pattern of yellow and black on the abdomen, so if you see these bee mimics in your garden and wonder what they are, here’s a handy reference page (with photos) of some of the more common U.S. species,

Eastern Calligrapher, from iNaturalist.org


the color Purple

As I look around at flower gardens in my backyard and in my neighborhood, I see a lot of purple.  Where the first flowers of spring seemed to be largely pink in color, the first flowers of summer seem to be mostly purple, a color that is not all that common in plants.  Why so much purple, and why now?

The intensely violet color of spiderwort flowers is on one end of the purple spectrum.

False Indigo flowers are another example of intensely dark purple color.

Purple is for the bees, and especially the solitary bees which are the most abundant and hearty pollinators we see in cool spring and early summer weather, before honeybees and butterflies have become active.  Bee eyes can detect light wavelengths in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, and it seems that plants have adapted their floral displays to guide the bees right to the places on the flower where their search for nectar or pollen will do the flower the most good (i.e., pollination).

Streaks on the landing platform petal of the iris are probably visible to bees in the ultra-violet range.

One study with bumblebees in Germany showed that naive bees were highly attracted to flowers in the ultra-violet to blue range of wavelengths, and those flowers tended to produce more nectar or nectar with higher sugar concentrations than flowers of other colors.  Purple flowers that attract solitary bees tend to have the highest sugar concentration in their nectar (20-50% sugar), compared to yellow and red hummingbird and butterfly flowers that average around 20-22% sugar in the nectar.

The bell flower petals look homogeneously lilac to our eyes, but what do they look like to bees?

The variation in “purple-ness” of early summer flowers is due to the proportion of anthocyanin pigment in the flower in response to the pH of the soil environment.  In the presence of acid (or hydrogen ion), the pigment is red (or pink), whereas in the presence of nitrogen base the pigment is blue, and in the presence of aluminum, it is violet.   So, you can change the colors of your hydrangea or forget-me-nots by what you put in their soil.

Magenta-colored clematis flowers are the result of a redder expression of anthocyanin in a more acid cellular environment.

Flowers of this penstemon are pink-purple, based on the reaction of the anthocyanin in a more acid pH.

Bachelor’s Buttons, native of Europe, grows best in basic soils, which accounts for its deep blue color, and the bees seem to love it.

Purple is a coveted color in the garden, because of its rarity, and the ephemeral nature of purple flowers.  Looking back in our own history, we find that limited resources and the labor-intensive process used to create the color purple made it an expensive luxury, indulged in only by the most wealthy or by royalty.  Regardless of expense, its calming (blue overtones), yet energizing (red hues) make purple a favorite color.

Breakfast toad

Filet of toad, a delicacy for a Red-Shouldered Hawk, was on the menu for one hawk that swooped down about 30 feet from me while I was photographing a couple of Redstarts (featured in the last post).

I saw the bird land silently and immediately spread its wings over its prey. This “mantling” behavior is done to conceal their kill from the eyes of others.

I thought the bird might have a mouse in its beak.  This is a juvenile bird, probably from last year’s brood.  You can just barely see the red shoulder patch, but it hasn’t acquired all of the adult’s distinctive barred striping on the breast.

Red-shouldered Hawks are forest or forest-edge birds, unlike their more open country counterparts, the Red-tailed Hawks.  These are usually the birds that we hear screaming at roosting owls in the forest in the daytime — owls that are likely to nab one of the hawk’s chicks right out of its nest.

Cropping in a little tighter, the supposed mouse does look like an amphibian with its webbed feet, most likely a toad, since frogs don’t usually venture this far from water.

Red-shouldered Hawks have a varied diet of small mammals, amphibians, snakes, as well as nestling birds.  They typically sit quietly in a tree just below the forest canopy, near water, and wait until something moves that looks edible, and then pounce, just as this bird did. Their phenomenal eyesight helps them detect the smallest quiver of grass or leaves that indicates a prey item.

The click of my camera’s shutter must have alerted the bird to my presence, because it suddenly turned, looked straight at me, and took off, flying straight toward my head and then over it.  I was too stunned to raise the camera and get a photo of it coming at me though.

I wonder if this was one of the offspring from the pair of Red-shouldered Hawks I photographed in my neighbor’s backyard last year, as they were being mobbed by crows.

The pair settling in to their nesting territory in early spring last year.

Later in the summer, I photographed the pair again, when they were defending their nest (and chicks) perhaps from an owl perched nearby.

Warblers in the woods

What a week it has been!  Rain, wind, cold weather, all combined to keep the migratory warblers hunting low in the vegetation.  And they were so frantic to find something to eat, they pretty much ignored the photographer stalking them.  Here are a few of the ones I saw in the back yard this week.

Dozens of female Redstarts flitted through the vegetation, barely pausing for a second to pose.  The yellow spots on the tail that are flicked often as the bird moves, makes her easy to spot.

Probably the most common birds seen in the backyard this week, male and female American Redstarts.

The second-most common Warbler in the backyard this week, the Chestnut-sided Warbler has a bright gold cap, and chestnut sides! They were everywhere, including the front lawn.

Chestnut-sided Warbler perched on a twig on the lawn, on the lookout for insects.

American Redstarts and Chestnut-sided Warblers may stay around this area to breed, or might move north to southern Canada, nesting in the deciduous forests in northern and northeastern U.S.

But others will be on the move much farther north. And since the early bird gets the best nesting spot, they will have to fuel up quickly on this stopover and continue north soon. Magnolia Warblers and Canada Warblers, like the Tennessee Warblers in the last post, migrate to the coniferous forests in northern Canada to nest.

It was really challenging to photograph this Magnolia Warbler who was on a mission to find something to eat, darting from branch to branch, in and out of the sun, never stopping.

Taking time out to sing, the Canada Warbler looks somewhat like a Magnolia Warbler but has a necklace of black without stripes down its breast and a beautiful yellow eye ring.

Wilson’s Warblers prefer the stream and forest edges in far northern Canada or mountainous areas of the U.S. and nest in low vegetation, unlike most of their warbler cousins. They are so ubiquitous across northern Canada in the summer that they are probably viewed migrating through almost all of the lower 48 states.

Wilson’s Warbler has a black cap on its yellow head, and moves much more slowly than Magnolia!

The great migration is about over, and spring wildflowers are finally on the way in greater numbers.  It’s been a cold start to the summer this year.

I wanted a photo of yellow birds on the yellow violets in the back yard, but it was not to be…

the nectar thief

Each year, the Ohio Buckeye tree outside my porch window puts out a prodigious number of flower spikes, which reliably attract a few pollinators and one clever nectar thief.

Pollination of these flowers is sufficient for the tree to produce copious quantities of nuts, which are harvested by the squirrels in the fall.

Hummingbirds, bumblebees, and orioles visit the Buckeye tree in the spring, along with a horde of Tennessee warblers.

Tennessee Warblers arrive just as the Buckeye tree is in full flower. How do they manage to time it just right?

Tennessee Warblers really have nothing to do with the state of Tennessee, but do migrate through there, where they were first seen and named way back in 1811.  Like many small insectivores they spend the winter in the tropics, eating insects and nectar, and breed in the Canadian spruce forests where they specialize on spruce budworm and are critical to controlling outbreaks of the moth there.

Though they do visit flowers to consume nectar, they do not perform much of a pollination service for the plants, because they use their sharp beaks to pierce the flower at its base to get at the nectar at the bottom of the flower tube, thus avoiding the pollen on the anthers sticking far out of the flower.

Note where the beak is positioned to the side of the flower at its base. Pollen might inadvertently stick to the bird’s head or breast as it bumps into the anthers, but it might be hit or miss in depositing the pollen on the stigma of another flower.

Their beak is slightly open as if they are biting the flower to open a small hole in its base.

They only visit for a few days each spring, so I guess this must be the peak of their migration through MN this year.  You can see a light dusting of pollen on this bird’s neck and breast.

The sugars in the nectar will be metabolized and stored as fat and should provide these tiny little birds (about 2/3 the size of a chickadee) with the fuel they need to get to the Canadian spruce forest to breed.

(these photos shot with the Sony RX10 iii bridge camera through my porch window — what an amazing little camera!)

A weekend of birds and flowers

We drove to Lincoln, Nebraska for a wedding, and on the way we stopped to census the bird life with a few other birders at Weaver Dunes Nature Conservancy preserve in southeastern Minnesota: the day’s total was 77 species, and among them 14 species of warblers!  This was part of the Nature Conservancy’s one-day state chapter competition.  Last year MN came in second, and the pressure was on to beat Texas this year.

It took six people to find a Blue-headed Vireo in a tree.

Female Downy Woodpecker working on a nest hole — one of the 77 species we saw.

A rustic looking barn on a farm across the road from the preserve.

Prairie Violets covered the ground on some of the dune slopes, the first spring flowers blooming here.

Even the lichen were “blooming”: British Soldiers lichen with their bright red fruiting caps on gray-green stems, usually found on rotting stumps like this one.

I had a Sony RX 10 camera I was trying out on this trip, so before the wedding, we headed over to the Sunken Garden in Lincoln to see what was blooming.

Lots of mosquitos on the water lilies, but no frogs to enjoy them.

I don’t know what these trees were, but their new leaves were brilliant salmon red and pink.  The red pigment in new leaves protects them from sun damage before the leaves have synthesized their chlorophyll pigment.


Black and white tulips — that’s a little different.

Spiderwort growing by a waterfall made a nice contrast.  The camera has a wide range of shutter speeds for special effects, like silky water,

Quite a camera this Sony RX10, with its fixed 24-600 mm lens. And it weighs about 1/10 of what Big Bertha (my SLR and telephoto combo) does.  Something to consider when you need a multipurpose, lightweight travel camera.

Buried treasure

April blizzards create new challenges for wildlife, already limited by the diminished resources available.  Can squirrels really remember where they hid some buried treasure last fall?  Apparently so.

After the blizzard, gray squirrels ventured out in the deep snow, digging holes down to the dirt surface in search of their buried treasures.
This shot begs for a clever caption. Got any ideas?

It looks like the squirrel found what it was searching for — a dried up walnut.

I wonder if they can smell nuts under snow cover?

April blizzard

After a week of warmth in California weather, we returned to a Minnesota “spring” blizzard, complete with wet snow, fierce winds, icy rain, and frigid temperatures.  Pity the poor migratory birds that came here to replenish their energy before continuing north.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow looking forlorn about all the snow covering the vegetation.

The icy crust was too hard for them to scratch below in search of fallen seeds from the feeders.

Slate-colored Junco

Slate-colored Juncos were everywhere scavenging fallen seed.

Male House Finch

This House Finch was eating the snow!

Male Northern Cardinal standing tall, trying to look in the feeder to find seed.

Female Northern Cardinal, not finding much to eat with the snow covering all the feeder holes.

American Goldfinch males have turned their bright yellow spring breeding colors. But it doesn’t seem like spring weather now.

Hopefully this is the last of the white stuff we will see this spring.