Afton State Park phenology May 31 to June 6

Dragonflies begin to appear and cicadas start to sound.

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Afton State Park beach on the St. Croix River (McGhiever/Wikimedia)

This weekend at Afton State Park

Saturday, June 1

9 a.m. Morning Bird Walk
There are many species of birds that can be found at the park. Take a hike to identify some of our feathered neighbors. This activity is designed for beginner birders, but all are welcome to participate.

Please bring your own binoculars if you have them. We have a limited number of binoculars available for those who do not have their own. Please ask the naturalist to borrow a pair when you arrive for the hike if needed.

1-3 p.m.  Nature table – Animal tracks
Stop by the nature table and explore some of the tracks of animals you might see in the park.  The nature table will be outside the visitor center.

Sunday, June 2

1-3 p.m.  Nature table – Osprey watch!
Stop by the Visitor Center to learn some interesting facts and take a close look at the nest for newborn Osprey!

Astronomy

On Friday, May 31st, get up early and look in the eastern sky for a conjunction between the Moon and the planet Saturn. On the 1st, also before sunrise, the Moon will be halfway between Saturn and Mars, and on the 2nd and 3rd Mars will appear to be very close to the Moon.

Birds

When you’re walking on the prairie you might see Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Kingbirds, Chipping Sparrows, and Song Sparrows.

Above the river you might see Ospreys, which are sometimes called “Fish Eagles,” for their superb fishing ability. They can spot a foot-long fish in clear water from a height of 200 feet, and can fully dive under the water to catch it! Also look for ospreys on the nesting platform on the prairie. Ospreys prefer to nest in dead trees, but since humans remove a lot of dead trees from the landscape most osprey nests these days are on manmade platforms like the nesting platform on the prairie at Afton. Along the banks of the St. Croix look for Great Blue Herons, and Great Egrets.

In the woods look for Rufous-sided Towhees, Cedar Waxwings, Scarlet Tanagers, and Indigo Buntings.

Insects

The Monarchs have made their return to Minnesota. Also look for American Coppers and Painted Ladies nectaring at flowers.

Many species of “skimmer” dragonflies are flying now. While some skimmers have clear wings, many have black and white patterns or colored spots. The Four-spotted Skimmer has four dark spots on its wings, in addition to the “stigma” which are the dark blotches on the leading edges of the wings. The Twelve-spotted Skimmer is named for the number of dark spots. Only the males have the white spots. You might think you would see the Hallowe’en Pennant later in the year, but they are on the wing
from early June through mid-September.

Belted Whitefaces have red or yellowish belts around their abdomens; the yellow belts are more common to the east of us and the red ones to the west of us, and both forms probably fly at Afton. Dot-tailed Whitefaces have dots on their abdomens. Widow Skimmers got their name based on their behavior. In most species of dragonflies the male stays around in the same area as the female after she lays her eggs, but Widow Skimmer males take off and leave the females alone.

And what’s all the buzz about cicadas? Here in North America there are both “annual” cicadas and “periodical” cicadas. Like their name suggests, annual cicadas emerge and breed every year. All the cicadas in Minnesota are annual cicadas. Of the periodical cicadas, some emerge every 17 years, and others every 13 years. It’s not quite as simple as that. There are 12 “broods” of the 17 year cicadas, so in all but 5 years one brood or another is emerging. There are also multiple broods of the 13 year cicadas, which, you guessed it, emerge every 13 years. 2024 is special because there are both 17 year and 13 year broods emerging.

If you want to experience 17 year cicadas, travel to northern Iowa or southern Wisconsin. You might not see them, but you will probably hear them. Like the annual cicadas you might be familiar with the males make a loud buzzing sound, though the buzz of the 17 year cicadas is lower-pitched than that of the annual cicadas. You may want to use some ear protection – the buzz is loud enough to damage human eardrums! After the cicadas mate the females lay eggs, which hatch after six to ten weeks. The nymphs burrow underground and proceed to feed on sap from tree roots for the next seventeen years, before they emerge and metamorphose into adults for their day in the sun.

The 13 year cicadas live farther south than the 17 year cicadas, with some overlap in their ranges in southern Illinois. This year I hope to take a photo of an annual cicada here in Minnesota, and to share that in a future year’s phenology report.

Reptiles

It’s egg-laying season for turtles. At this time of year female turtles venture out of ponds, lakes, and rivers and choose a place to lay their eggs. They dig a shallow nest with their powerful hind legs, then over the next several hours lay white leathery eggs – 20 to 40 eggs for Snapping Turtles, and four to ten for Painted Turtles. Then they cover over the nest and return to the water. The eggs will incubate for at least 72 days; in some nests the eggs won’t hatch until next spring. The temperature while the eggs are incubating determines the sex of the young turtles – cooler temperatures result in male hatchlings, and warmer temperatures in female hatchlings. If you see a turtle nesting please be respectful and watch from a distance. And be alert for turtles crossing roads at this time of year when you’re driving anywhere near a wetland, lake, pond, or river.

Plants

There are lots of flowers blooming on the prairie at this time of year. You might see Blue-eyed Grass, which is not really a grass, but is a member of the Iris family, Thimbleweed, Puccoons, and Black-eyed Susans.

In the woods look for Canada Anemone, Wild Geranium, Virginia Waterleaf, and Cinquefoil. The name “Cinquefoil” comes from Latin for “Five Leaves”, and Cinquefoil has five petals on its flowers and five lobes on its leaves.

Trees

At this time of year the seed capsules on female Eastern Cottonwood trees open. The seeds are covered with fluffy fibers resembling cotton. Thanks to the cotton the seeds float away in the breeze, often landing far from the mother tree. Chokecherries are in bloom now; they are one of the most common shrubby trees in our area, reaching a height of 10 to 25 feet.

Weather observations

Here are some weather observations from the Afton State Park area from past years.

Friday, May 312023: Humid and in the 80s; 2015: high in the 60s; 2010: sunny and in the 80s
Saturday, June 12015: sunny and near 70°; 2014: record rainfall of 2.37 inches
Sunday, June 22020: hot and sticky with a thunderstorm in the late afternoon
Monday, June 32016: rain off and on through day; 2013: sun in the morning gives way to clouds, high in the 60s
Tuesday, June 42021: record high of 97°; 2019: Thunderstorm with dark clouds in afternoon;
Wednesday, June 52023: smoke from Canadian wildfires, 80s; 2021: record high of 99°; 2016: high of 83°; 2000: record low of 40°
Thursday, June 62011: Thunderstorm before sunrise, record high of 97°. Hot and sticky

Photo credits

All photos copyright Nina Manzi, except:

  • Dudley Edmondson, MN Conservation Volunteer: Indigo Bunting
  • Keith Henjum: Cedar Waxwing
  • Dean Lokken: Eastern Kingbird, Great Egret, Scarlet Tanager, first three Snapping Turtle photos
  • Gary Sater: Eastern Bluebird, Great Blue Heron, Osprey, Song Sparrow
  • John Schultz: Rufous-sided Towhee

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Afton State Park phenology May 31 to June 6