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Northland Nature: Red meadowhawks continue fall flights

A male white-faced meadowhawk hunts in the autumn. Larry Weber/Special to the Pine Journal 1 / 2
A dew-covered female meadowhawk sits in the sun to dry off. Female meadowhawks are yellowish, males are red. Larry Weber/Special to the Pine Journal2 / 2

Early October is a delightful time. The tree colors that seem to have reached their peak in intensity and diversity in late September largely continue into this month. The abundant quaking aspens, a bit late to join their yellows than most of the rest are now thickly coloring the landscape, adding more to an already full arboreal bouquet. Though they do not reach their full colors until about the middle of the month, many tamaracks of the swamps are getting into the yellow-gold attire they wear shortly before these conifers act like deciduous trees and drop their needles. And if the leaf show is not enough, lots of trees also now hold ripe fruits: mountain-ash, hawthorn, crab apple and our domestic apples. The whole scene that we now look over as we pass by will be nearly all bare by the end of the month. But now, early in October, there is much more than trees happening.

Late fall wildflowers — goldenrods, sunflowers and especially the asters — continue their battle with the impending chill to give even more color — yellow, blue, purple and white. The daylight shortens each day. Temperatures frequently drop to or near the freezing point at night. Early morning dew is being replaced by frost and we might even experience a few flurries. And there is the migration.

Some of the bird migrants at this time are hard to not notice and flocks of Canada geese continue their loud movement to the south. Other water birds (ducks and loons) gather in groups too as they move through. Raptors (hawks, eagles and vultures) are passing over each day as well. And here in the Northland, we have the Hawk Ridge site where we can watch this flight. Several kinds of songbirds are also migrants at this time, but not as large as vocal. I don't think there is a better time of the whole year to see a variety of sparrow species than now. We have a blend of lingering summer residents mixing with travelers from further north. With some searching, the birder can find 10 kinds in a day. A few species of thrushes are here too and I expect to see some bluebirds.

One group that we don't expect to see much now is the insects. It would seem the frosty nights would be too much for these critters. But insects, being as resilient as they are, can cope with these autumn conditions. They are able to find shelter under leaves and other available sites to survive the chill. And though some succumb to the frosts, others continue their fall lives. By the time I walk out in the yard and fields in the clear afternoons, I see plenty of insects still moving about. A couple of butterflies — one white, the cabbage, and one yellow, the sulphur — flutter by. Grasshoppers and locusts are hopping while their cousins, the crickets, continue to chirp but now at a slower pace than earlier. Crane flies, looking like giant mosquitoes, join the struggling bees and wasps in basking and feeding. Colony bees, wasps and hornets are no longer living in their group homes and now the workers search for food to last a bit longer in the season. Ladybugs and leafhoppers that hibernate for the winter are still active until they find a suitable place to sleep. And there are the dragonflies.

These large predaceous insects are here too. Again, being the opportunists, they are searching for available insect meals. If the day warms, there are plenty of other insects for the dragonflies. As I watch their hunting flight, I note there appears to be mostly just two groups of dragonflies now in early October. Most obvious are the large darners. These big dragonflies are of several colors, but mostly blue-green with various spots. Also here are the small red meadowhawks. Plenty of variety is seen also with these little dragonflies, but mostly, the males are red, the females are yellowish. Among the darners, a common one — the green darners — are restless now as they are taking flight on a south-bound migration. Meadowhawks stay here. Their fate is to be stopped by the impending cold, but they continue to be active as long as they can. (I have seen them in November.)

The various species of meadowhawks belong to a genus called Sympetrum. And for the phenologists and nature observers, the appearance of the Sympetrum dragonflies is a sign that the season is moving on. A few appear in late July, they become more in August and, in September and October, they are the dominant dragonflies, despite their diminutive size. On the sunny days that October is famous for, red meadowhawks will frequently bask in this chilly sunlight. But they are not sleeping all the time. If prey comes by, they will take wing in pursuit of a meal. October cold will be coming soon that will stop this activity, but for now, these red meadowhawks add more to the already delightful days.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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