Tea-leaf willow catkin with a blush of red just a few days before blooming.
Tag alder staminate catkins ready to bloom and spread pollen. Smaller pistillate flowers are just above them.
Tag alder staminate catkins in bloom and turning golden in the afternoon sun. The white in the background is snow.
American hazel staminate catkins.
It is April and spring is should to be well underway with flowers in the woods, trees putting out leaves, bees flying about, and frogs calling from the woodland ponds. But here in northern Minnesota you wouldn’t know it with the cold weather, occasional snow, and bleak landscape with only the conifers for greenery. There is still snow in the woods where the trees are thick and block the sun. The ground remains frozen except in the sunniest of sites and so none of the forest wildflowers have come out of dormancy. Even so, trees and shrubs are beginning to awaken albeit about 30 days late. The earliest of these are tag alder (Alnus incana ssp. rugosa), American hazel (Corylus americana), beaked hazel (C. cornuta), and tea-leaf willow (Salix planifolia). Following closely is the quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) but only some groves (clones really) are flowering. Red maple (Acer rubrum) flower buds are swelling and I expect they will be in full bloom in a week. So far none of these shrubs or trees have produced any leaves. That will come later when flowering is over and temperatures are warmer at night.
Trees that flower in the early spring are mostly wind-pollinated a good strategy since insects may still be in hibernation or slow to move about. Tea-leaf willow is an exception and produces abundant pollen and nectar which attracts small wasps, solitary bees, beetles, and flies. These insects pick up pollen from the staminate flowers and transfer it to the pistillate flowers. Tea-leaf willow plants are either staminate or pistillate so the insects need to go from one to the other in the right order to effect pollination. The flowers of tea-leaf willow are fragrant and so lure the insects to them. But if insects are scarce like they are this year tea-leaf willow can still pollinate some of its flowers by wind pollination. Red maple is insect pollinated and has thick nectar-secreting glands in its bright red flowers to attract bees and other nectar feeders of many kinds. For a few days there will be a red glow in the forest canopy while the red maple is bloom.
Rain is forecast for early next week but the chances for a good downpour are very low. This is not a desirable situation as the low humidity, dry grass, and constant winds make fires more likely. A couple of rainy days and nights would certainly reduce the chances of a fire. Sunny weather isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
So far I have heard no frogs in the woodland ponds and am wondering where they are. In past years wood frogs have begun calling in mid-April even when there was a bit of ice on the ponds. There ought to be some by now with the warm weather. I hope this isn’t an indication of a problem.
Temperatures rose rapidly over the weekend melting three feet of snow in our watershed. The result is a huge flood and the little stream (West Fork of the Moose Horn River) that flows through my property has gone from 16 feet wide to almost 1,600 feet wide. Water depths have increased from 3 feet to about 6 or 7 feet depending on where you measure. And the speed of the stream’s flow has also increased although I have no measurements for that other than sore muscles from trying to paddle upstream so as not become part of the flotsam.
The rising and spreading waters clean out the stream and refresh it. They also flatten out the grasses and sedges in the shrub carr/sedge meadow making them less prone to fire. And for me they make it easier to visit the western sections of my property as I can canoe within 100 feet of the uplands. When the stream is at normal levels the walk is 1,300 feet through willow thickets and sedge tussocks.
The flood waters are stirring up many small aquatic animals which can be collected in simple traps like minnow traps. It is encouraging to find larvae of damselflies and caddisflies in the traps as most species from these insect orders require oxygen-rich waters to survive. Their presence and abundance indicates a good level of stream health. But not everything in my traps is an indicator of oxygen-rich water. Mudminnows (Umbra limi), Brook Sticklebacks (Culaea inconstans), and isopods (most seem to be Caecidotea) are tolerant of oxygen-poor water. When rainfall is abundant and regular the stream is full and the water fresh. But if rainfall is scarce or sporadic the stream’s water levels drop and the flow slows down. During drought years the stream will nearly dry up. This can be especially problematic in the winter when what little water there is freezes solidly to the stream bed. These conditions put a lot of stress on aquatic life and species that can tolerate that stress have a better chance of surviving. In recent years rainfall has been more consistent. The arrival of beavers, which had been gone for two decades, is also helping to keep water levels higher and creating new aquatic habitats where other animals and plants can live.
Caddisfly larvae (Ptilostomis in the tubular case) and a smaller unidentified species.
An isopod (Caecidotea)
An isopod (Caecidotea)
Brook Stickleback (Culaea inconstans)
While the water is high many migratory waterfowl have arrived. Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) and Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) are two species that arrived this week. They will rest here for a short while and continue northward to their preferred nesting habitats. A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) have come back as have several pairs of Mallard Ducks (Anas platyrhynchos). These birds will stay here all summer tending their young. Redwing Blackbirds are back, too, fussing at intruders into their territory like me. Other songbirds, mainly warblers and sparrows, will being showing up soon to build nests in the willows and sedge. The flood will continue for several more days and eventually the shrub carr/sedge meadow will drain a little. Then the willows, grasses and sedges will start leafing out transforming the scene from one of bare twigs and brown thatch to green dotted with patches of aster and goldenrod flowers.
The mothing season here has officially begun with this sighting of the first moth of the year. Yesterday morning I was heading down to the small stream that flows through my property to set up a minnow trap which I use to monitor aquatic life in the stream. On the way a small moth flew towards me and then landed in the snow. I scooped it up into a paper towel and brought it back to the house where I photographed it. I’m not sure of the species but I think this moth is in the Family Tortricidae. It looks a lot like some members of the genus Apotomis but that’s just my guess for now. I wonder if this moth overwintered as an adult or as a pupa.
I went back to the stream in the afternoon to look for more moths. There was a rove beetle (Orochares?), a water scavenger beetle (Hydrobius), and spiders (most were Thanatus) on the melting snow but no moths. Today and into the weekend it will be much warmer with temperatures at or above 60°F. That should increase insect and spider activity which I think I will go see right now.
Here it is already April 12 and there is still two feet of snow on the ground and more in the forecast. Temperatures have been hovering around freezing with occasional warm days in the mid-40s followed by nights near zero. Ice is still on the lakes in Minnesota when at this time of year it should be breaking up.
In just over two weeks it will be May and I am wondering what that month will be like. During most years in May I’d be getting my garden ready, planting onions and potatoes, and putting off mowing the lawn. At this rate all of that may have to wait until June. Instead, I need to get more gas for the snow blower just in case we get the half-foot of snow predicted. And get some more oranges and grapefruit. And mushrooms for pizza.
Below is a serenade by spring peepers and wood frogs at 3 in the afternoon on April 14th last year (hit play and the video straightens out). The high for the day was 68º F. This year it is predicted to be 29º F. Looks like the frogs will be sleeping for a few more weeks.