Love in the wild takes many forms and in Minnesota can be observed throughout the year. It’s possible to watch the love life of creatures as small as fireflies and as big as elk, as dramatic as eagles and as unusual as silkworm moths.
Dancing for a Mate
April is the time to watch greater prairie chickens dance on their booming grounds. These birds are best watched from a blind, and blinds can be reserved at no cost at several locations in western Minnesota. Dress warmly, and enter the blind before daybreak so the birds won’t see you. Even in the pre-dawn dark, you’ll hear the chickens’ hooting and gurgling, and once the sun is up you’ll also see the males fanning their tails, stamping their feet, and inflating their throat sacs to create the odd calls that are part of their competitive dance to attract mates.
Tangled up in Love
Garter snakes get all tangled up in love soon after they emerge from their winter hibernating dens in April. The males emerge first and wait for females; once one crawls from the den, she is surrounded by males competing to mate. The ensuing struggle has been described as a writhing mass of “living spaghetti.” The females secrete a chemical attractant, and a few males may also emit this scent to lure an enclosing mass of fooled snakes that can provide warmth on a cool spring day. If you find a den site, sit quietly on the ground and you’ll soon be surrounded by distracted snakes busy creating the next generation that will be born two to three months later.
Love is in the Air
Bald eagles show off their aerial skills when attracting a mate. Pairs of eagles chase one another, swoop and perform cartwheels, even lock talons and tumble through the air toward the ground pulling apart only moments before they would crash. Eagles begin these aerial displays in late winter and early spring when they begin their return to their nesting sites. Seeing a performance is a matter of luck, but your chances are best at locations where there are quantities of eagles, such as along the Mississippi River at the south end of Lake Pepin.
Starving for Love
Many people think moths are not impressive, but they haven’t seen silkworm moths. These are the largest moths in Minnesota – one, the cecropia moth, has a six-inch wingspan and beautiful reddish-brown wings with crescent-shaped markings. But these stunning insects have short lives, a few weeks at most because they lack mouthparts and are unable to eat. They fly only to mate, and the males’ large antennae make it possible for them to detect the scent of the females they seek. Their brief adulthood means that silkworm moths instead spend most of their lives as caterpillars, which overwinter in cocoons. Look for the adults from May to July.
Blinking for Mates
It’s fun to watch the flashing displays of fireflies on a summer night. These insects (actually beetles, not flies) are blinking for mates: the males fly at the edges of meadows, flashing a yellow to orange light and females sitting on bushes flash back. The flash color and pattern vary with the species – there are 15 different kinds of fireflies in Minnesota. Even the larvae of some fireflies have the ability to luminesce and are called “glowworms.” Look for fireflies in early summer. Many worry that fireflies are disappearing, and Firefly Watch is a citizen science effort to learn more about them.
You don’t have to get wet to watch spawning bluegill sunfish. These abundant panfish nest in the sandy shallows of lakes and ponds. Lie down on a dock and stare into the calm water to observe a group of bluegill nests. Males excavate the nests (called redds) and wait for a mate; when one arrives a male fertilizes her eggs and also chases away competing males trying to add their genes to the mix. Female bluegills leave after spawning; the males remain to guard the eggs and young. You can watch all this fish activity during the spawning season from late May through the summer.
Bugling and Sparring
We may think of courtship as a springtime activity, but for elk it is an activity for fall. That is when the rut takes place – the time when bulls clash their antlers in sparring contests for cows. Elk also bugle during the rut – the bulls make a squealing call to direct their harems and to tell other males to stay away. Elk occur in northwestern Minnesota in the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands landscape near the Canadian border. They can be hard to find, but during September and October you can listen for their bugling calls to locate them.