Nature Notes

Late-Summer Wanderings


By Ulrike Axen

It is late summer, and as I start walking through the forest of sugar maples at the Arboretum, I decide to look for signs that the season is about to change. As yet, however, the forest remains dark green, especially on a cool and cloudy day like today. I eventually spot a willow on the far side of Three Mile drive that is shedding some yellow leaves, and a walnut tree closer is showing just a splash of yellow.

A mountain ash in the wildlife garden looks like it is ready for fall; it is also heavy with the berries that will be a treat for robins or cedar waxwings later this winter. That’s it for the trees, though; they are still wearing their summer green, for the most part.

I decide to look for more subtle clues and almost on cue, a monarch drifts by. These butterflies will be starting their journey south to Mexico soon. As I continue through the wildflower garden I see that the canopy has long ago shaded out the wildflowers. However, several plants and shrubs are showing brightly colored berries.

Berries in forest

Look for the bright berries of the red or white baneberry. Dogwoods also have berries, and sumacs are showing a little color. Our native wild grape has heavy fruit on its vines as well.

On the lower trails, around the bog and wet meadows, bumblebees are busy gathering nectar from the Jewelweed. Jewelweed flowers are perfectly shaped for bumblebee bodies; as the bee gathers nectar, pollen from the flower rubs on the bee’s body and gets transferred to another flower. The lavender-colored stands of Joe-pye weed are also a treat this time of year in the wet areas.

Another of my favorite finds is the fruit of the wild cucumber; it is very prickly – a cucumber porcupine! See if you can find some along these trails.
Along the road, by the gardens, a female American goldfinch was taking a bath in some water that had escaped onto the pavement. Her brilliant-colored mate soon flew by. In late summer, goldfinches have their most intensely-colored coats; this is their nesting season.

I wonder – is it a coincidence that their yellow coats match so many of the flowers blooming in the fields where they like to nest? Coincidence or selection, this adaptation serves the goldfinch well, keeping them safe from predators.

Ulrike Axen is a Minnesota Master Naturalist volunteer.

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