Stories in Minnesota

July Nature Notes

It's a fine time to see butterflies, wildflowers and birds.

Purple flowers in warm morning light.
Leadplant Leadplant in bloom in Minnesota © Richard Hamilton Smith

Summer is well-underway in July. This is a month when many birds have completed their spring nesting and are busy raising their young, although some late-nesters are still laying eggs. Long-distance travelers such as shorebirds begin passing through Minnesota on their south-bound migration in July. The month also brings new flowers to the state’s landscape, notably coneflowers and other showy tallgrass prairie plants that begin blooming in June and become more numerous as summer progresses. The new flowers attract insects seeking nectar and locations to lay their eggs on the host plants that provide food for hatching larvae—this is a good time to look for butterflies in Minnesota’s grasslands.

Those willing to travel to a remote area of the state can see what is perhaps the most spectacular of Minnesota’s grassland flowers in July. The western prairie fringe orchid grows nearly three feet tall and is topped by an impressive cluster of white flowers, as many as 30 or more per plant each an inch or larger with fan-shaped petals fringed with fine, teeth-like extensions. It is endangered in the state, yet the world’s largest population of the orchid grows in the Tallgrass Aspen Parkland landscape near the Canadian border, protected in the Conservancy’s Wallace C. Dayton Conservation and Wildlife Area

Closeup of the center of a coneflower, with a tiny white spider sitting at the base of the long, lavender petals.
Purple coneflower July is a good time to look for the purple coneflower, among other prairie plants. But be careful! You never know who might be hanging out in there. © Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy
Closeup of unusual-looking orchid flowers with wispy white petals extending from a light green stalk.
Western Prairie Fringed orchid An endangered species in Minnesota, this prairie flower can be hard to find. Look for them at Wallace C. Dayton Conservation and Wildlife Area, near the Canadian border. © Shan Cummingham

Fewer plants may be found further south in the Red River Valley, occasionally at preserves such as Bluestem Prairie, but the orchid thrives only in grasslands with no significant history of grazing, agriculture, or herbicide use. Established plants are thought to live as long as 25 years, and they are pollinated by a night-flying sphinx moth, an insect remarkable for its ability to hover in-place like a hummingbird as it inserts its long tongue down a flower’s spur to sip nectar. 

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Less-remote parts of Minnesota also showcase colorful wildflowers. Just 60 miles west of the Twin Cities is Schaefer Prairie, a tallgrass prairie remnant that includes wet, mesic and dry habitats making it a home for some 275 different plant species. In July, visitors to Schaefer can see milkweeds, coneflowers, lilies, leadplants and many other prairie plants in flower. Scientific and Natural Areas near the Twin Cities that protect prairies with July-flowering plants include Grey Cloud Dunes, Lost Valley Prairie and St. Croix Savanna.

July is also a good time to look for white pelicans in Minnesota. White pelicans are big birds—their wingspan can stretch nine feet—and they are impressive when soaring in groups. Unlike the familiar brown pelican found along ocean coastlines, these birds do not dive from the air but instead swim at the surface, hunting cooperatively in groups dipping their large bills and pouches beneath the water to capture fish. White pelicans can be seen near the spillway on the Minnesota River near Appleton, not far from Marsh Lake upstream where tens of thousands of pelicans gather to form the largest nesting colony in North America. The nesting colony is protected within the Lac Qui Parle Wildlife Management Area

A row of white pelicans on a sand bar with smaller wading birds in the water in the foreground.
Pelicans A group of white American pelicans resting among shorebirds. © Kent Mason

Natural areas near Lac Qui Parle are also good destinations for birding and include TNC's Plover Prairie, Chippewa Prairie, Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, and Lac Qui Parle State Park. Be sure to return to this area during the spring and fall waterfowl migrations.