Growing up Monarch – 3

“Growing up Monarch” is an on-going segment in the River Bend blog that follows the lives of several monarch butterflies as they grow from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to adult. We’ll be updating with photos and fun facts and observations throughout the summer!
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All three River Bend caterpillars are 5th instars. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

Another week has gone by and our three resident monarchs have grown an immense amount! When last we checked in, they were all what is known as 4th instars, meaning that they had shed their skins three times, and would have several distinct features: bold yellow triangles on their heads, “chunkier” bodies with dark banding, and long front tentacles (antennae) that go beyond their head capsules. By Friday the 9th all three caterpillars had shed once again and become 5th instars.

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When shedding and during windy days a monarch caterpillar will produce silk (similar to spiders) in order to anchor itself to the leaf. Silk is one of the strongest natural fibers and it’s thought that pound for pound it is stronger than steel. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

As 5th instars our caterpillars are in their final stage as larvae. This means that within just a few short days they’ll be preparing to pupate. The 5th instar stage is marked as being the largest of all the stages, and their front tentacles will be extremely long, becoming noticeably “droopy” past the head capsule. Another key feature though sometimes more difficult to distinguish is a velvety appearance to the black stripes along their bodies.

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The black stripes on 5th instars are very large and almost velvety in appearance.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

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The front tentacles of 5th instars are extremely long and are distinctively droopy towards the ends. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

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The facial markings of 5th instars are bright and clearly visible. Note the large triangle in the center. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

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Between May 30th (2nd instar) and June 10th (5th instar), just 12 days apart, our caterpillars have dramatically increased in size. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack
And while the caterpillars at this stage are very close to completing their time as larva, they still have a little bit of growing to do and a little bit of weight to gain and so of course that means…more eating! They have continued to feed almost nonstop (except to molt and produce frass). However, this constant feeding is noticeably slowing compared to their feeding habits as 3rd and 4th instars. More often they can be seen resting on the leaves—perhaps preparing their bodies for the big changes that are about to occur. In fact, scientists have dissected caterpillars at this stage to discover that several butterfly organs are already starting to form. And so even though these changes are not visible to us, we can imagine the amount of energy it would take to go from an animal that crawls on the ground to one that is capable of flying up to 2,000 miles (anyone would need a nap!).
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Although nearly full size, the 5th instar caterpillars can still be seen feeding fairly frequently. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

With three caterpillars sharing an enclosure it’s never a surprise when overnight entire leaves will be consumed—not a single scrap being left (not even the stems)—leaving an empty tank with three very hungry caterpillars looking for seconds, thirds, and fourths. For this reason, rearing monarchs can be a very demanding job, requiring frequent trips to collect fresh leaves no matter what the weather may be.

 

 

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Being larger doesn’t make you invincible. While 5th instars are notably more bold and more likely to explore their environments than their smaller counterparts, they will still consistently take shelter on the undersides of leaves, perhaps to prevent being spotted by predators. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

And while rearing caterpillars can be an immense amount of work, it is also a very rewarding process, allowing you to view them at every stage, and also witness infrequent or short-lived behaviors that would be difficult to spot in the wild if not impossible. One such behavior that the author witnessed on Saturday the 10th was especially interesting. With three large caterpillars all relatively close together it soon became apparent that this species is by no means gregarious, and has no instinct for companionship. Quite the opposite actually—they are notably aggressive towards those of their own kind, behaving in a manner that you would expect to see exhibited towards potential predators and not towards other caterpillars (who are so similar in size and appearance they may as well be identical). When one caterpillar wandered too close to its neighbors, close enough to brush up against them, the former responded by violently thrashing their head towards the intruder. This motion was repeated several times with a clear “back off” message similar to that of a lunging dog, but the recipient of these “attacks” appeared completely oblivious and merely continued on its way. Eventually the trespasser moved along far enough, and it would seem that touch was the catalyst for this behavior, for as soon as contact was removed, all normal activities of feeding resumed as though nothing had happened.

 

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The caterpillar in the center wandered too close to its neighbors and was punished for doing so by both individuals on either side of it. When touched, the caterpillars will rear their heads and lunge at the intruder—perhaps to drive them off.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

It’s likely that this behavior is completely instinctual, rather than decision-based. It would seem that caterpillars are “wired” to rear up at unexpected physical stimuli, that is, to throw themselves at things that touch them. This would effectively make them look larger (and probably less appetizing) to would-be predators. It’s behaviors such as this that allow these caterpillars to survive their long lives in this vulnerable stage. For while they are toxic, not all animals have learned to associate the bands of black, yellow, and white, with danger, and will therefore feed on monarch larva before finally understanding that they all are unpalatable. This defensive behavior may also tie in with the necessity to roam. As the caterpillars continue to grow they will soon cease feeding altogether, just as they had when preparing to molt. This time however will be different, and the caterpillar will be searching for a very special location.

 

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The large tentacles of 5th instars may be useful in sensing the environment, especially when exploring an unfamiliar location. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

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When large enough, the caterpillars will stop eating and begin to move around more—even leaving their host plant entirely in search of a safe place to pupate.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

It’s important that the location chosen is perfect—protected both from the elements as well as from predators, as the next stage, the chrysalis, is by far the most vulnerable of all its stages. As a chrysalis, the monarch will be completely unable to move or defend itself in any way as it goes through the difficult transformation into butterfly. For this reason, it is immensely difficult to locate monarch chrysalises in the wild. They are often not placed on milkweed plants, and also camouflage well with their surroundings.

 

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Over the course of approximately two to three weeks, a monarch caterpillar will increase its total mass 2000 times. Seen clearly in comparison between a 5th instar and a newly hatched 1st instar.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

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A 5th instar puts on a lot of weight in order to pupate—and their body segments will become especially pronounced. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

Once they have found the perfect spot, the caterpillar must do several things in order to pupate. First, it must start laying down a mat of silk. It would have done this every time it molted as well, as this mat of silk provides a surface on which to grip and adds extra stability. This time the mat is noticeably larger and thicker. The caterpillar will also create a small wad of silk that is much thicker—this will be the point at which it attaches itself during pupation. Caterpillars produce silk similarly to spiders—through an organ known as a “spinneret”. On monarchs it is located beneath the mouth. Silk begins as a liquid produced in the salivary glands after which it is excreted through the spinneret. Upon coming into contact with air, the liquid silk will turn into solid strands which the caterpillar may then place down. Throughout its life as a caterpillar they retain this ability, and it is most often used as a mat when molting, or as a “life line” if the caterpillar were ever to fall off its host plant. After pupating they lose the spinneret, and also the ability to create silk as it will not be needed in the adult stage.

 

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The silver-white strands of silk are clearly seen crisscrossing underneath the caterpillar. Once finished laying down this mat, it will then begin work on a silk pad, visible here as a small white ball located beneath the caterpillar’s head. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

 

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Once the silk pad is completed, the caterpillar will turn around and grip the pad with its back prolegs. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

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As of the afternoon of June 11th, both larger caterpillars were in the distinctive “J” of pre-pupation, while the third, smaller caterpillar, was still feeding.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Upon completion of its silk pad, the caterpillar will use this as a gripping point as it moves into the next stage of pupation. In order to form a chrysalis, the caterpillar will drop its head so that it will be hanging upside down by its back prolegs.  They will remain like this for anywhere between 10 and 24 hours, completely unmoving and unchanged—at least on the outside. It couldn’t be further from the case inside. As the hours tick by, the caterpillar will start to move again, appearing to almost be doing sit ups as it will move its head up and down repeatedly. Next, it will appear to grow tired of this movement and hang more loosely, looking less like a J and more like an I. At this point, if you look at its front tentacles carefully, you may notice that they appear shriveled—this is a sign that pupation will soon occur, as there is no longer any “caterpillar” inside that part of its body any longer, and it is ready to molt for the last time. The last sign will be a small tear along the caterpillar’s back, right behind the head. This tear will reveal the bright green of the chrysalis underneath and will grow larger and larger as the skin is worked upwards. This entire process once the skin splits takes just about a minute to complete, so viewing this phenomenon takes not just patience, but also luck and good timing. As the skin continues to come off, more of the chrysalis will be revealed, and many butterfly features will be clearly visible—such as the wings and antennae. When the skin has reached the rear legs, the chrysalis will start twisting around in circles—this serves a duo purpose: one, to remove the old skin completely, and two, to firmly attach itself to the pad of silk. This transition needs to occur quickly, as the caterpillar no longer has back legs to hold onto the silk with. Instead, it must use the cremaster (the black peg on the chrysalis) by hooking it onto the silk. The twisting motion increases the number of strands that hook on, similar to how Velcro works.

By the evening of the 11th both larger caterpillars had pupated and the smallest of the had begun work on its silk pad. Overnight, the smallest caterpillar pupated as well.

 

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The two first chrysalises were carefully removed from where they had originally pupated in order to be relocated. If you raise your own monarchs, do NOT attempt this without prior experience. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

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The morning of Monday the 12th both chrysalises were safely transferred to a new location for easier observation. The 3rd chrysalis had pupated overnight and was still too soft to move. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

Want to learn more?

Stop by our interpretive center this week to talk to a naturalist and see the monarchs for yourself! The monarchs will be available to view:

Mon-Fri     8:00-4:30
Sat              9:00-4:00
Sun             9:00-2:00

 

Interested in getting more involved?

River Bend will be offering MLMP trainings to teach interested members of the community to become certified MLMP volunteers! Monitor at home or at River Bend, and help save this amazing insect from extinction.

Register online to attend the training scheduled for July 29th 100-4:00pm.

For more information, see our website at: http://www.rbnc.org/

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Springing into warm weather!

Hello again, River Bend friends! As you have probably noticed, Spring has sprung and we are really enjoying all the changes that are happening here. Many snakes and frogs are waking from their winter naps – if you walk by Prairie Pond or Upper Pond, you can hear the frogs croaking!  There are so many new birds out and about, and they are all singing at the top of their lungs and hurrying to make nests in the forest, prairie, and pond alike. We have even seen Turkey Vultures, and though they neglect to sing, they are another sign that the warm weather is back.

Spring is a wonderful time to look up and take notes of the phenology of our area. Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events from year to year, and is really cool to discover – here at River Bend, we have a monthly Phenology board, where our visitors can come and write what they saw while out on the trails, and then this gets recorded and we can compare to several previous years. We also have a great book written by our founder, Orwin Rustad, which is a recording of 50 years of natural events!

phenology book

Orwin Rustad’s A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota, a fantastic phenology read.

To give you an example of phenology, I’ll tell you what his book says about the timing of Turkey Vulture spring arrivals: over 12 years of recording their comings and goings, the earliest they arrived was March 12th, and the latest was May 30th! Their average though is April 14th-17th, so they are a bit early this year.

turkey_vulture_2

Turkey Vultures are a fun bird to spot during the spring and summer; they spend their time soaring high, looking like they are rocking back and forth in the wind on their  V-shaped wings.

One of the reasons phenology is important is that it helps us note changes through time. The reason I chose to look up the Turkey Vulture (other than the fact that they are amazing birds!) was that they were not very common birds in this area 50 and 60 years ago. Most of their sightings started in the 80’s and 90’s, perhaps indicating that Turkey Vultures were expanding their ranges in that time frame to include this area! If you are ever in the interpretive center and want to know more about the natural history of this area, check out this interesting book.

You can also take advantage of the gorgeous weather forecast and come for a hike and see the spring changes for yourself. Just today, school groups spotted Garter Snakes over by Honor Point, a Bald Eagle over the Strait River, and saw the turtles that have come out at Turtle Pond too! There are also tons of frogs and birds to see and listen to, so come to River Bend, explore, and then come contribute to our Phenology board.

phenology board

As you can see, River Bend visitors have already seen some amazing sights, and we’re only a week in to April! Come add your own observations!

After hearing the frogs start up around town or here at River Bend, are you curious to learn more? Then come to our awesome program on Saturday, April 15th: Fabulous Frogs! Hop on over to learn about what’s jumping around River Bend’s ponds – We’ll be learning about what makes Frogs so unique, creating our own frog chorus, as well as meeting our two froggy Animal Ambassadors! The program fee is just $5/person, $15/family ($3/member, $10/member family), and it runs from 10-1130, so come make a day of it here at River Bend – see the program and then go for your own hike!

Hope to see you soon!

~Katie

northernLeopardFrog

Come learn all about Leopard Frogs and others at our Fabulous Frogs Program on Saturday April 15th from 10-11:30!

The NEW Outdoor Adventures Program

By Garrett IMG_6382Genereux, Outdoor Adventures Coordinator

Summer is getting closer and closer every day, and this means that we are getting closer and closer to the start of Outdoor Adventures programming here at River Bend. The Outdoor Adventures Program (OAP) is a new and exciting area of programming that seeks to engage people in the outdoors through outdoor recreation activities. The OAP is a resource for beginners and experts alike. We will be offering programs in camping, climbing, slacklining, archery, fly fishing, and canoeing. The OAP will also be renting out gear related to those activities.

Our programs are designed for participants with a range of experience. If you or your family has never tried a specific activity then we will do our best to make sure that you have an exciting and enjoyable first experience. Even if you have some understanding of an activity, you are still going to have an awesome time with us.camping

Our camping program takes place here at the nature center. Learn how to set up a tent and talk about some basic camp craft. After setting up camp, cook a delicious meal that is easy to make while camping. Of course we’ll roast s’mores over a relaxing campfire before we hit the sack. In the morning we will have an awesome breakfast before we break camp. The food, tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads are provided.

Our climbing program is the perfect opportunity for you and your family to try outdoor rock climbing in a safe and fun environment. Staff will provide basic climbing instruction and will belay you as you reach for the top! Our climbing programs take place at Barn Bluff Park in Red Wing, MN. The climbs are typically about 40 feet in length and on a top-rope setup. Participants will mYoung Man Rock Climbingeet us there in the parking lot and we will get you on the rock! Climbing shoes, harness, and helmet will be provided. We will also be offering climbing programs that are for adults only.

Slacklining is a relatively new sport that involves walking on a length of webbing that is stretched between two fixed objects. For our programs experience does not matter! Come join us and we’ll give you tips and tricks of how to walk on a slackline. It is a great way to work on balance and core strength. There will be plenty of time to practice and have a blast on the lines.

Come try the challenge of shooting a bow and arrow with the archery program. Staff will give instruction on shooting technique and safety. The bows we will be usarcherying are compound bows suitable for all sizes and strengths of archers. We will leave plenty of time to practice! Who knows, maybe you will become the next Legolas or Katniss! All necessary equipment is provided.

First the beautiful casting motion, then the effortless landing of the fly perfectly on the water. Ever wonder how people do it? Come to our fly fishing programs! We will start by going over some fly casting techniques and practice on dry land. If time allowsfly-fishing, we will head down to the river and see if we can lure any fish into biting. Fly rods, reels, and flies, are provided.

This is going to be an awesome, action-packed summer! I hope to see you out for one of our programs. We are going to have a great time!

For program dates, times, registration and more information, please check out the Outdoor Adventures Program website at www.rbnc.org/outdooradventures.

Dreaming of a Green Christmas

By Caitlin Savage, Intern Naturalist

As the winter season draws near, many people are hoping for a white Christmas, especially due to the lack of snow last year. This year, however, I want to encourage you to have a “green” Christmas! There are many simple steps you can take to make your holiday season more environmentally friendly. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Make your own gifts

Many people struggle to pick out the perfect gifts for their loved ones during the holiday season. What better way to express your appreciation than to put the time and effort into making a gift for someone? Come to River Bend’s “DIY Up-cycled Winter Crafts” event on December 15th from 10am—noon to learn how to make your own winter crafts to give out as Christmas presents (materials are provided). This program is open to all ages and costs $3 per River Bend member, $5 per nonmember, or $10 per nonmember family. Exercise your creative muscles this holiday season! If you’re feeling uninspired, don’t worry – a multitude of ideas are just a “Google” search away. You can find great ideas for homemade holiday gifts on the web.

Food is another great gift idea. Although college students are particularly appreciative of homemade goodies, people of all ages will enjoy this thoughtful present. If you’re not much of a cook, you could consider offering out another service. Give the gift of a free babysitting session to busy family members, or offer to walk someone’s dog for a couple weeks during the cold winter. Remember that many people would appreciate your help in an area you excel in. For example, if you’re good with cars, give someone a “coupon” for you to change their oil. If you’re talented at pottery-making, piano, juggling, or any other skill, offer someone a free lesson.

2. Use more sustainable Christmas trees

Christmas Tree Pick-Up & Recycling

River Bend’s Christmas tree pick-up and recycling program starts in January.

It is a common misconception that a reusable artificial tree is more sustainable than a real tree. In reality, artificial trees use unsustainable resources such as petroleum to manufacture, and additional resources are used to package and ship them. Since they are made of non-recyclable materials, the trees eventually wind up in a landfill, where they will remain for a long time, perhaps indefinitely.

Instead, buy a real tree from a local tree farm. Picking out a tree together is a great opportunity to spend time with family or friends! After the holiday season ends, you can mulch or recycle it. One way to recycle a tree is to bring it into River Bend so we can use them on our trails! For a $10 donation ($15 for nonmembers) we will pick up your tree for recycling, or for $5 you can drop your tree off at River Bend for recycling.

Another option is to buy a potted or balled tree to use. After the holidays are over, you can plant it in your own backyard or donate it to an organization that will plant it.

3. Use alternative wrapping paper

Gift packaging is one of the main contributors of excess waste during the holidays. Consider using alternative wrapping paper this year. Newspaper and magazine pages make excellent wrapping paper. Look for articles that your loved ones might find interesting to decorate their gifts. Brown paper bags can also be used as wrapping paper and decorated to your liking. Fabric scraps are useful to wrap gifts or to make bows and ribbons.

If you would prefer to use actual wrapping paper, purchase paper made from recycled materials. After the holidays end, recycle the used wrapping paper (keep in mind that shiny or metallic paper is non-recyclable, and remove tape from the paper if possible). If you use gift boxes or ribbons and bows, keep them to reuse the following year. You can also save wrapping paper to reuse (although when excited kids are involved, there may not be anything salvageable left!)

4. Decrease energy used by holiday lights

One way to decrease your energy usage for the holidays is by using LED lights instead of incandescent. LED lights use less energy and are cooler to the touch than incandescent lights. However, they are typically more expensive, and some people aren’t as fond of the aesthetics of the LED.  If you would prefer not to use LED lights, try reducing the amount of time that you keep your Christmas lights plugged in. Make sure that you only have them on during the dark hours, when they are most easily visible. Also, consider keeping them off while you are asleep. If you have Christmas lights indoors, make sure to turn them off when other lights in the room are on.

5. Avoid making too much food

Excess food makes up a large portion of the waste created during the holiday season. This can be tackled a few different ways. One option is to make less food. If you always find yourselves with leftovers, cut down the number of servings per dish you prepare, or remove a few of the usual items off your menu.

Many food dishes spark a rich sense of tradition during the holidays, so you may be reluctant to remove any of them from your usual menu. Good can still come out of excess food. Instead of throwing away leftovers, save them to eat throughout the next week. If you aren’t a huge fan of leftovers (you can only have turkey so many times in a week before it loses its appeal), look into donating them to a local food pantry or charity.

Couple snowshowing

Snowshoeing is one of many great ways to spend time with family and friends.

6. Spend quality time with family and friends

Go outside and embrace the winter weather! Get a group of friends and family together to experience the enjoyable and environmentally-friendly activities winter has to offer. Go sledding, build a snow fort, or start a giant snowball fight. Skiing, ice-skating, and snow-shoeing are popular, “green” winter activities. Snowshoes are available for rental at River Bend throughout the winter ($5/member, $10/nonmember; there must be at least 6 in. of snow to rent snowshoes). Or just take a walk and marvel in the beautiful winter landscapes your community has to offer.If you prefer to spend time indoors away from the cold, invite some friends or family over to enjoy some hot chocolate and remind yourself of what the holidays are truly about.

I hope you find that some of these suggestions will help you have a greener holiday season. I’m not advocating that you try all of these things, just choose the ones that work best for you. Even a small change can make a big impact. Happy Holidays!

Caitlin Savage is an intern naturalist for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

Five Fun Fall Things to do at River Bend

By Jill Engle, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

Broad-winged hawk

A broad-winged hawk is easier to spot once the trees drop their leaves.

Now that the temperatures have started to get frosty and the landscape’s palette has turned to shades of brown and tan and is no longer orange, red, yellow, and green, it must be time for me to admit that the fall season is here. While some of us may start to have that animal instinct to hide away in our homes hibernating until the warm weather returns (me!), we should resist our instincts by zipping up our polar fleeces, reminding ourselves that in spring this will be shorts and flip-flop weather, and heading out to enjoy some of the autumn activities that nature and River Bend have to offer.  So here it is, my top five list of fun fall things to do at River Bend Nature Center.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed juncos are “snow birds” that overwinter in Minnesota.

5.  Wildlife Walk: The majority of River Bend’s trees have dropped their leaves and that makes this a perfect time of year to take a wildlife-spotting walk in the woods. Owls, hawks, and other birds of prey are easier to spy high in the barren tree branches than when they were camouflaged in summer leaves. Salamanders are a common sight this time of year as they move away from their summer habitats in search of safe spots to hibernate this

Salamander

Salamanders are a common sight this time of year as they search for safe spots to hibernate.

winter. Keep an eye out for flocks of smaller birds who are preparing to migrate; groups of robins are around and many sparrow species are stopping by feeders on their way south. Just so we don’t feel abandoned, the dark-eyed juncos have returned to our area for the winter, we’re “south” for them! Go figure.

4.  Fossil Hunt: With recent lack of rain now is a great time to take your family down to the Straight River to explore its banks. A nice place to start your exploration is just below the Honor Point overlook. Discoveries along the river include interesting rocks, shells, bones, driftwood, and fossils.  You’re not likely to find a T-Rex bone

River bank shell finds

Shells found along the banks of the Straight River.

but River Bend was once located on a very different part of the planet and was covered by oceans so you are likely to find the fossils of ocean creatures like gastropods, brachiopods, corals, and more. We have a helpful brochure available that describes the different types of fossils you may find on your river search.  Please remember everything found at River Bend needs to stay at River Bend and cannot be taken home for your collection so be sure to bring your camera to take pictures of your finds.

3.  Go to a Public Program: River Bend public programs happen all year, cover a range of topics, and often have a seasonal theme. If you love birds, our free Bagels & Birds program is held on the first Saturday of each month. Beginning November 3rd and continuing into

Milkweed seeds

Milkweed seed pods open to spread their fluffy seeds across the prairie.

winter is a three-part cross-country ski series taught by Zach Hudson, intern naturalist and assistant coach for the St. Olaf ski team. Program coordinator Elaine Loranz will lead adults in a hike to learn to identify and arrange “Winter Weeds” on November 17th.  Crafty types will enjoy “DIY Up-cycled Winter Crafts” with program coordinator Sarah Shimek on December 15th.  Finally, to celebrate (or mourn) the end of fall and beginning of winter you are invited to attend the “Winter Solstice Celebration” on December 21st.  Details about all of these programs can be found on our web site.

2. Glowing Prairie Stroll: Our prairies are a little bit past their prime in terms of blooms and new growth but many prairie plants are fulfilling their biological imperative and are spreading their seeds. Take a stroll

Glowing grass on the prairie

Prairie grass lights up in the low afternoon sunshine across the prairie.

through the prairie and you’ll notice the fluffy white seeds of quite a few different plants like milkweed, thistle, and goldenrod. When I walk along Prairie Loop trail, I love to grab a milkweed seed pod, pull out some seeds, hold my hand high in the air, and then watch the seeds fly away imagining the plants they will become next summer. The prairie grasses are also worth stopping to see in the late afternoon hours as the low sun shines

Horse-drawn wagon rides

Horse-drawn wagon rides at Bats, Bones & Bonfires.

across the prairie because the grass seed heads light up like thousands of tiny little chandeliers glowing on beautiful red and brown stems.

1.  Bats, Bones & Bonfires – October 27th, 4-8pm: The top spot on my fun fall things list has to be reserved for our annual Halloween festival Bats, Bones & Bonfires. This event is designed to be fun (not scary) for all ages of Halloween aficionados.  Attractions include horse-drawn wagon rides, a yucky nature

Jack O' Lantern Contest

Help us fill our Jack O’ Lantern trail with pumpkins by entering your Jack O’ Lanterns in our contest.

haunted house, a bouncy house, and much more. New this year will be belly dancers,  fire spinners, and costume portraits by Katie Brien Photography. Enter your pumpkin in our Jack O’ Lantern contest for a chance to win a prize. Buy hot dogs and s’mores to cook over our campfires (or buy pre-cooked). Other yummy food and drinks will also be available. Before you head home be sure to stop and pick up free goody bags for your kids!  Admission is $4 per person with kids 2 and under free. River Bend members get in free with their member card. This enjoyable, budget-friendly event should be on every family’s “must-do” list this fall.

Jill Engle is the marketing & communications coordinator for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact her at engle@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

The Ever-Changing Prairie

By Garrett Genereux, Intern Naturalist

One part of River Bend that I feel is sometimes overlooked is the prairie. The prairie here, although small compared to the forest, has a great diversity of plant species. Not only does the prairie have a variety of plants but it also contains an assortment of animals.

Swallowtail Butterfly on Wild Bergamot

This includes many kinds of insects, deer, 13-lined ground squirrels, several other mammals, and quite a selection of birds. Despite all of that perhaps my favorite part of the prairie is that it is always changing. One week you may take a walk  on the Prairie Loop and notice several beautiful species of grasses and flowers blooming, then two weeks later see a whole new set of plants in bloom.

White-tailed Deer

Showy Goldenrod in bloom

Already this year we have seen lupine, butterfly weed, penstemon, wild parsnip (definitely not my favorite plant), purple coneflower, yarrow, golden alexander, and wild bergamot come and go. Right now we are perhaps in the “peak” blooming season. Currently big bluestem, daisy fleabane, snakeroot, tall bellflower, yellow sweet clover, Indian grass, purple prairie clover, bird’s foot trefoil, prairie coneflower, sage, side oats gamma, white prairie clover, thistle, showy goldenrod, black eyed susan, and rattlesnake master are all in bloom! If you are too busy or would prefer cooler weather to go for a hike do not worry! There are still more blooms to come. In the coming weeks several species of aster, gentian, goldenrod, and round headed bush clover will all come into bloom.

Later in the fall, prairie plants will get ready to scatter their seeds. This is summed up beautifully by American naturalist and photographer Edwin Way Teale:  “For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together. For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.”

Another way that the prairie changes is through controlled burns that mimic the fires from pre-settlement times.  These fires burn the grasses and plants to the soil, but do not damage the extensive perennial root systems that native prairie plants have. This has many benefits. For one, it returns essential nutrients to the soil. Another is that the fire removes invasive species who often do not have as deep of a root system compared to the native plants. Lastly, the fire also keeps trees in check in the continuous battle between the forest and the prairie. Here at River Bend we typically burn sections of our prairie every other year. It is likely that we will be burning this upcoming spring!

Purple Prairie Clover blooming

Please come out for a visit and see the prairie! Walking from the Interpretive Center up and around the Prairie Loop will allow you to see most of the prairie that we have here at River Bend Nature Center. Also please check out the informational brochure on prairie plants, so you have a guide for your walk. There is also a display of current blooms with names and color pictures on the backside of a divider just beside our kitchenette in the Interpretive Center. If you wish to learn more about prairie burns, come to our public program on September 15th, from 9:30-10:30 am, aptly titled “Fires on the Prairie.”

Garrett Genereux is an intern naturalist for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.