Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Nature's art, inside and out

Robyn Beth Priestley artwork
By Kate Havelin, Community Outreach

Nature’s palette has bloomed. I look outside and spy spring’s gallery of colors everywhere. The greens on display in my yard alone exhibit a world of brightness—blades of vivid green grass, chartreuse shards of unfurling hostas,  brave bleeding hearts and lilies emerging after a long winter of hiding.

The hues are hard to miss but a fresh art exhibit has sparked my senses so I notice more of nature’s textures and shapes. St. Paul artist Robyn Beth Priestley’s “A is for Afton, Z is for Zippel Bay” casts Minnesota state parks in a sunny series of mixed media painted block prints.

The show, on display at the AZ Gallery in St. Paul’s Lowertown through June 1st features some expected pretty scenes, like Itasca’s Headwaters and lady slippers. Priestley also includes many less expected sides of nature’s beauty – fungus and lichen, otters and beavers, turkey vultures, bees and bats. The artworks depicts the Hill Annex open pit mine, Mystery Cave, and a few city parks like the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

I studied the artful linoleum block prints of nature’s subtle delights—pocket mice hugging tiny stalks of prairie grass like koala on eucalyptus; dwarf trout lilies, hepatica, and bloodroot; speckled and striped trees, their bark enhanced with mushrooms.  I left the exhibit, biking home along the river, with senses refreshed and ready to appreciate nature’s show. I heard the river lapping over the paved Samuel Morgan Trail; the flooding a sign of spring as common as robins. I breathed in the mustiness of dirt warming, absorbing the weight of snow and spring rains and felt crunch of twigs and gravel, winter’s detritus speckling the paths.

In Crosby Park, I gazed at artful scenes just off trail, an outstretched branch, showing off its delicate bracelet of new buds,sunbursts of marsh marigolds brightening last year’s faded foliage. I saw trees as speckled and striped, wrapped in moss velvet.It’s a world of nature’s art, on display at galleries as well as parks and yards everywhere.  Spring’s early colors won’t stay here long. Don’t miss the shows!  Robyn Beth Priestley's A to Z Exploration of Minnesota State Parks

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Spring Ephemerals in the Park

Dutchman's breeches
By Maria DeLaundreau, MN GreenCorps

Forest plants are always competing for light. This sounds like a simple concept, but beneath the surface there is a complex challenge that plants address in many ways. Canopy trees address it by trying to grow taller than the other trees. Understory trees and shrubs grow tall to avoid competing with the smaller plants below and adapt to being shaded by taller trees. It takes a lot of energy and resources to be free-standing and strong enough to ascend toward the canopy. Vines circumvent this problem by taking advantage of other plants that invested in height and strength; it simply climbs up them as it reaches for sun. Most of the other plants accept that they will be shaded by towering woody plants, adapt to little light, and compete with plants their own size. Spring ephemerals found a way to beat the system.

Spring ephemerals pop out of the ground very early in the spring, some do so even when snow is still present, and do a whole year’s worth of growing and flowering before the trees above them leaf out. Once the trees’ leaves emerge the above-ground portion of spring ephemerals die and the underground part goes into dormancy. This strategy ensures that these plants will only be growing when they have access to the sunlight they need to produce flowers and store enough energy in the roots to support the plant in dormancy until it reawakens the following spring.

White trout lilies are a common spring ephemeral. They are so named because their green leaves have a mottled purple pattern that is reminiscent of trout scales. 

White trout lily

Dwarf trout lily

While white trout lily is common, its cousin, the dwarf trout lily , is extremely rare and endangered. This plant looks very similar to the white trout lily. The most distinctive characteristic is the comparably diminutive size of the flowers. The dwarf trout lily is thought to have evolved from the white trout lily about 13, 000 years ago just after the last glaciers retreated. It is found only in Minnesota, and within Minnesota natural populations exist within only three counties. It is Minnesota’s only plant on the federal endangered species list.

Cut-leaved toothwort is another common spring ephemeral that is named for its beautiful lacey leaves.

Cut-leaved toothwort
Other early-blooming plants utilize a similar strategy, but instead of dying back as the trees regain their full foliage, they keep their leaves and add to their energy reserves throughout the summer growing season. Flowering and setting seed requires a lot of energy from plants, so it makes sense to bloom when the most sunlight and energy are available. 

Let’s look at some spring-blooming flowers that can be found right here in the Twin Cities.

Bloodroot is a beautiful spring flower that gets its name from its red sap.

Wild ginger can grow densely on moist forest soils.

Wild ginger
Nodding trillium appears to hide its shy flower beneath its leaves.

Nodding trillium
The Missouri violet, common blue violet, and downy yellow violet are common flowers of the forest floor.

Missouri violet
Common blue violet
Downy yellow violet
Marsh marigold is prolific in areas with wet soil. It can be found growing along drainages, and along ponds. It often shares its habitat with skunk cabbage.

Marsh marigold
Skunk cabbage (left) and march marigold (right)
Skunk cabbage  has evolved to draw insects that normally feed on carrion. Its mottled brown or purple flowers and repugnant odor resemble decaying flesh and this resemblance attracts flies and other insect pollinators. It also has an amazing ability to produce heat, averaging 20 degrees above the temperature outside. This flower often emerges when there is still snow on the ground and melts it.

Skunk cabbage flower
Jack-in-the-pulpit is another gorgeous spring flower that attracts insects into its unusual flower to pollinate it .

Spring is a great time to go on a flower scavenger hunt. There are many more flowers blooming than I mentioned here. Can you find false rue anemone? Large-flowered bellwort? How about white trillium? What flowers have you found in the park that are blooming? Share your finds in the comments below!

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Birds Are Back

Spring is here!
By Maria DeLaundreau, Minnesota GreenCorps

Think about that moment when you first notice a robin after a hard winter. For many, seeing a robin return is the first cheering sign that spring is on its way.

For some, bird migration is a defining characteristic of the spring season. We may take our wildly colorful and cacophonous spring for granted, but here in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area we are actually in a bird migration hot spot because we are located on a migration “highway,” the Mississippi River Flyway.

Of the four major North American flyways, ours is particularly important because nearly half of North America’s bird species and over a third of its waterfowl use this migration route along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Some of them, like cardinals, live on and around the Mississippi Flyway year-round. Others, like the scarlet tanager, use the Mississippi as they travel through the heart of North America and for nesting and raising young along the flyway until they return to the tropics in the fall. Some cold-hardy birds, like the American tree sparrow, stay in our park over the winter and then in spring migrate along the flyway north into Canada. Another set of birds, including the tundra swan, fly along the Mississippi River and pass through our park in favor of locations within the Arctic Circle, without stopping for more than nourishment and rest. Because so many birds travel to and through the Mississippi Flyway and our park, we have the unique opportunity to host and enjoy a wider diversity of birds than people who are not in the middle of a flyway.

The four major flyways of North America.
Due to the immense importance of the Mississippi River Flyway, many conservation efforts are focused along the river. There are many conservation programs that work on setting aside natural areas or improving the ecological quality of natural areas along the flyway. You might be surprised to learn the full range of conservation activities that are happening -- and not all occur in less developed spaces.

Migrating through a city environment on the flyway, like the Twin Cities, can be particularly perilous for birds, so there are programs to address this urban challenge. One such project is Audubon’s Lights Out Twin Cities initiative. This program is important because most migrating birds are on the move at night when they can be disoriented by urban light pollution from lit skyscrapers. Turning off lights that are not in use during migration helps keep birds on track. 

Another project that addresses the dangerous urban environment is Project Bird Safe, a collaborative effort of Audubon with the National Park Service and many organizations and government agencies designed to study patterns of bird collisions with buildings. Project Bird Safe is studying which birds are more likely to crash into buildings, what building characteristics are most hazardous for birds. This information is used to design more bird-friendly infrastructure.

During migration, the lights of St. Paul's skyscrapers are dimmed.
I hope during this spring migration you will take advantage of the opportunity to view the amazing number of birds coming from all over the western hemisphere into your backyard and our national park. Parks along the river exhibit amazing diversity this time of year. If you are interested in knowing which birds just got in town, you can check out websites, like eBird, where birders record the birds they see at different locations. Another way to see the bird diversity in the park is to join the Mississippi River Fund for a ranger-led birding and pontoon boat tour this summer. There many options to connect with the birds in the park. When you see migrants, be sure to welcome them home.

Join us for birding and pontoon boat tours!