Northern Minnesota phenology report: June 2009
By John Latimer, KAXE radio, Grand Rapids6/4/2007 I watch as a small unidentified dragonfly shelters behind some trees and shrubs, suddenly, an insect is swept from the cover and the dragonfly as quick as a shortstop on a line drive shifts and grabs. This was a day for dragonflies. I was on the shores of Deer Lake in central Itasca County and spent part of the day wandering through a black spruce swamp. The dragonflies were omnipresent. I saw the white-faced meadowhawk, the four spotted skimmer, several black saddlebags and the unidentified specimen referred to above. Dragonflies are becoming as popular as the birds when it comes to observing them. They are easy to find, colorful, and field guides are becoming readily available.
6/16/2001 There are two great crested flycatchers in the garden with a phoebe and an oriole. This is the first time I have seen so many flycatchers in one place. Toss in the oriole and you have a pretty good day in the garden, unless you are a flying insect. The great crested flycatchers are more common than you might suspect. Listen for their loud “Wheeep! ” call. Once you learn that sound you’ll find it easy to spot one. They are not shy, and like many of the flycatchers they often sit on an exposed perch and sally out to hawk insects. The great crested flycatchers are gorgeous, pale yellow on the belly, gray below the beak, with an olive green back and cinnamon red tail. It is well worth the trouble to learn their call and search them out.
6/24/1997 Spreading dogbane has begun to flower. The beautiful white bell shaped blossoms are streaked with pink. These are a favorite plant for many of the summer butterflies. On one spectacular day I found ten species of butterflies and one moth. Off the high ground down in the swamp the pitcher plants are blooming. They augment their energy requirements by capturing insects. Many of the plants in the nutrient poor swamps have made one or more adaptations to survive.
A warm sunny day can be a perfect time to observe butterfly behavior. The males of many species are quite territorial. The sulfur butterflies are a good species to watch defend their area. A male will spend a good deal of energy and time flying after other males that attempt to infringe upon his space. These skirmishes usually involve a spiraling flight that begins low near the ground and can climb to fifty feet or more.
Puddling is another behavior that can be seen without great effort. Sometimes just driving around after a rain storm will afford a chance to watch as males gather and share a drink at the edge of a puddle. Or if you have ever seen butterflies congregate on feces and wondered just what was going on, both of these activities are related. Typically these are male butterflies and they are attracted to these spots in search of trace minerals.
One of the current hypotheses about this behavior is that the males, by concentrating these trace minerals; make themselves more desirable to the females. The females need these minerals as well and can get them from the male during copulation. This transfer, think of it as a dowry, allows the female to spend more time and energy developing the eggs that will be the next generation of the species.
One hot July day I spent an afternoon moving a pile of bricks that had been salvaged from some demolished building. I was re-acquainted with a world I had left behind as a child. There was an entire ecosystem living in there. Ants, salamanders, spiders, millipedes, beetles of unknown names, were all living in the crevices surrounding the bricks. It was a menagerie of the miniscule.
Some of these insects are remarkably well defended. Ants carry chemicals which alert one another to the presence of danger. The millipedes secrete hydrogen cyanide through pores located near the legs. This poison is strong enough to deter almost all of the predators they are likely to encounter. Among the beetles are the bombardiers whose scalding hot spray can be selectively shot in any direction. And the spiders, those wolves of the insect world, stand ready to attack anything that crawls or flies into their range. They use chemicals to subdue and liquefy their chosen prey. For all of the innocence of its appearance it is a dangerous world down there among the rocks, bricks, and leaves.
If you are one of those people who like to tramp the woods all year around then in July keep a look out for the blue bead lily or yellow clintonia. This lily is quite common across the eastern half of the United States and can be found as far south as Alabama. The bright blue berries are a most tempting sight but close observation will reveal few if any attempts at eating them. That is because they contain calcium oxalate crystals. Sharp microscopic needles, these crystals imbed themselves in the flesh of the mouth and throat and cause pain and swelling. Look for a cluster of two to five or six berries at the top of a single stalk above a pair of lily-like leaves. And then avoid the temptation to taste them.
As July comes to a close there will be several tasty fruits ripe and ready to tempt you. The blueberries will be ready, though much depends on the weather leading up to the end of July. A frost at the wrong time or the wrong amount of moisture can wipe out a crop. Pin cherries ripen in July. Some find these a bit tart, but if you can wait and the birds don’t eat them all, they become quite sweet. And if you are a wine maker you should be watching the chokecherries. They are a bit too astringent for my palate, but they make a wonderful wine.
John Latimer is well known throughout northern Minnesota for his phenology work. He appears weekly on KAXE radio in Grand Rapids, and audio and twitter archives are available here. We hope his work will be a frequent feature on MyMinnesotaWoods. This article also appeared in the Duluth Senior Reporter. It is printed with the author’s permission.