Happy Dancing Turtle Blog

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Looking for something to do this weekend? Quinn S. has put together a nice list of nice things to do this nice weekend. If you haven't had a chance to eat from the Prairie Bay Side Dish food truck, you're missing out. It's all of the delicious locally grown ingredients that you'd expect from the main kitchen, driven to your event. You really need to try the grass-fed cheeseburger, or lobster bisque, or !ooh ooh! the portobello mushroom sandwich. So good. I'm hungry.

Here's the list of events. 

All Weekend: Moondance Jam - Walker. http://www.moondancejam.com/

Friday: Pine River Market Square - "Growers' & Crafters' Market", 2:30-5:30pm, Downtown Pine River. Produce, Crafts, baked goods, canned items & more!
**This week the Prairie Bay Food Truck on site!

Every Saturday: 371 Flea Market, Saturday 9am-3pm, near the Info Center/Chamber Building along the Paul Bunyan Trail, Pine River.
Every Saturday: Band in the Park - Trailside Park, Pequot Lakes, 7-9pm. http://business.explorebrainerdlakes.com/events/details/band-in-the-park-41924
Every Saturday: Outdoor Music Series - Crosslake Town Square, 7pm, http://business.explorebrainerdlakes.com/events/details/2014-crosslake-outdoor-music-series-42731

This Saturday: 10th Annual Monarch Butterfly Release - Breezy Point, 3-5pm. http://business.explorebrainerdlakes.com/events/details/10th-annual-monarch-butterfly-release-07-19-2014-43964         

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For the last couple of weeks I have been scanning roadsides and the meadow near my house for signs that the time was almost here.  While I have seen many stages over the last couple weeks that indicated it was approaching, the time has finally come! The milkweed plants are in bloom! But it is more than just the beautiful clusters of pinkish-purple flowers that makes this plant special.


Right: Common milkweed about to bloom, 7/2/14.  Left: Common milkweed in bloom, 7/17/14.


 Left: Common milkweed often grows along the roadside. Identifiable by its large, round, purple flower clusters and broad, oval leaves.  Right: Swamp milkweed is also very prevalent in this area, normally growing in more saturated areas, identifiable by its more reddish-purple, flat flower clusters and long, skinny leaves.

Milkweed perpetually makes me think of our friends, the monarch butterflies. The adults will only lay eggs on these plants and the caterpillars feed exclusively on it as they grow. In return, the monarchs, as well as other butterflies, bees, ants, and wasps pollinate the plants by carrying pollen sacs from flower to flower. By feeding on the milkweed, the monarch gains its greatest defense: chemical warfare. Milkweed plants contain cardenolide alkaloids, a toxic chemical compound in their leaves and stems that can be fatal to vertebrates. Many invertebrates, however, rely on plants containing these compounds for food, like the monarch caterpillar, hungrily chewing its way through the milkweed leaves. By ingesting the toxic compounds, the monarchs can store the poison in their exoskeletons and later in their wings, creating a defense mechanisms against predators. Predators of the monarch have learned throughout years to perceive the bright colors of the caterpillar and the adult butterfly as a warning that this animal is distasteful and poisonous. Observers have seen birds that did not heed this warning quickly start vomiting after consuming monarchs - lesson learned! Despite this reasonably efficient defense mechanism, there are a few predators that have developed ways of feeding on the monarchs. The black-backed oriole in Mexico, for example, catches the adult butterflies, splits open the butterfly and eats only the insides, leaving the poisonous exoskeleton and wings behind, effectively avoiding the poisonous parts. 


 Top: You can often find many grasshopper adults and nymphs in fields with milkweeds. Bottom: Other insects also like milkweed, such as these iridescent green dogbane beetles.

If you go out to observe the milkweed plants, you may see monarchs in various stages of their life cycle. They start out as eggs on the milkweed leaves and quickly (three or four days) hatch into fast growing caterpillars. This stage typically lasts 10 - 14 days, during which the caterpillar may grow up to 22 times the size it was upon hatching! This incredible act is due to a ferocious appetite, starting when it eats its own egg shell and continuing as it consumes lots of foliage and each one of its skins from its five molts as it grows. The phases in between these molts are called instars. When the much larger caterpillar is ready, it spends 10 -14 days inside a well-camouflaged chrysalis during its pupa stage, after which the adult emerges. Most summer generation adults will only live two to five weeks, pressured to quickly find a mate and lay hundreds of eggs in its short lifespan. However, the generation of adult monarchs emerging in the next few weeks will be the last generation of monarchs for the summer and have a special task. As with other insects of Minnesota, the monarch needs a winter survival strategy to ensure the population continues past the harsh winters. Only the adults will survive winter - but they won't stick around for the Minnesota cold!


 Right: I think I spooked this 5th instar (almost ready to pupate!) monarch caterpillar when I pulled on the leaf for a photo. Left: Another 5th instar (7/17/14). This will be the generation that migrates to Mexico come mid-August.

The monarchs of the central and eastern United States fly an incredible journey of up to 3,000 miles to overwinter in the Sierra Madre mountains of central Mexico. Something about the last generation of Monarchs is biologically and behaviorally different than earlier summer generations, triggering an instinct that causes them to make this trek and not worry about finding a mate until the spring. Changes in day length and in temperature let the monarchs know when they should depart for their journey, usually around mid-August in Minnesota. But what do they do when they get to Mexico? They seek out a tree in the Oyamel fir forest, a very small area of the mountaintops, where they hang out with all their monarch pals for the winter. The butterflies form masses of millions in the trees, often returning to the exact same trees as previous years.

This orange-colored tint on the trees in the Oyamel forest is caused by approximately 2 million monarchs roosting. Note the forest areas close by that have been clear cut for agricultural purposes. Photo credit to Lincoln Brower.

The trees in this forest provide a very specific habitat that the butterfly can overwinter in. It is on a steep slope, protected from the wind and/or snow, consistently foggy or in the clouds, meaning there is adequate moisture for the butterflies, and it is a cool enough place where they won't freeze, but their metabolism will slow down enough to let their energy reserves last through winter, as they will not be feeding. Butterflies have to reach a certain temperature threshold before they are capable of flight, so if they fall from their winter roost in the trees, they have to climb up vegetation low to the ground and spend the rest of the winter there. In the spring, as it warms, the monarchs start moving down the mountain and finding mates, beginning their migration north by the second week of march. These monarchs will not make it back to Minnesota. They will first colonize the southern states, lay eggs and die off.  When these eggs hatch and eventually turn into butterflies, this generation will finish the migration of their parents, slowly spreading north back into Minnesota and beyond, arriving simultaneous to the milkweed plants of early summer.


Monarchs face many different dangers on their long travels, including death by cars like this butterfly.

Why haven't you seen more of this majestic insect? While I have seen quite a few caterpillars (which is promising), I could count the number of adults on both hands. The monarch populations have dropped drastically over the last few decades, mostly due to habitat loss. The monarchs need milkweed plants, which there are about 110 species of in the United States. But unfortunately the number of milkweed plants has decreased drastically throughout the years, due to clearing land for development, draining wetlands, and replacing natural prairies with mono crop systems. So what can you do? There are 14 species of milkweed in Minnesota, all are native, but many are threatened or even endangered. By leaving some milkweed plants in your yard you are providing crucial stop over areas and summer habitat for the monarch population. Not to mention you are attracting other pollinators to your yard to help your gardens! Some people don't like to have milkweed in their yard due to its prolific ability to reproduce, but many people feel that if the plant is spreading through your yard or gardens more than you care for, the young plants are easy enough to remove to avoid a takeover. So give it a try! If you don't have any milkweed in your yard, you could try collecting seeds from plants in the upcoming weeks and planting them in your yard, or you can order seeds from and for your region online.

Whatever you choose to do, get out and admire the beauty of the milkweed and the monarchs, as well as all of the other wildflowers and pollinators!



 You may also see these butterflies on your milkweed! This is a great spangled fritillary butterfly, found in the HDT gardens on 7/17/14.

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Central Minnesota is lousy with things to do during the summer. You can't turn around twice without running into an activity steeped in tradition and overflowing with the trappings of tourism and delicious delicious food trucks (I'm looking at you, mini donuts vendor!) And with these carnival fare set up so close to each other, it's only one small step from the chocolate covered bacon on a stick to the large hand squeezed lemonade stand and then to the funnel cake seller at the end of the row.

That's why there's usually an accompanying fun run or dash or run/walk/stroll to each festival. They're usually early in the morning before it gets too hot. They can be chip timed (if they're serious) or not (which they mostly aren't). But running is one of the most healthy things you can do. So, how else are you going to earn your all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast hosted by the local Legion post?

Here's a list of upcoming runs that will let you feel better about yourself as you get up for your 6th trip to the pancake line.

Crosslake Dam Run --> Crosslake, Chip Timed, 10 divisions, $25-$30 entry fee, 8am start

Tall Timber Days 5k --> Grand Rapids, 8 divisions, $23-$25 entry fee, 8am start

Walker Bay Days 5k --> Walker, 12 divisions, $15-$20 entry fee, 9am start

Railroad Days Dash --> Staples, 7 divisions, $25-$30 entry fee, individual or team registration, 8:30am start

Warrior River Run 5k --> Fort Ripley, $30-$35 entry fee, 9:15am start


Then you've got your runs that focus more on the experience of the race than the runner's high. Running by itself isn't as fun as it used to be, these coordinators thought. They believed that something needed to be done to the race to make it "a memory you'll hold onto your whole lifetime." They're usually meant to be an ordeal and they pride themselves on it. Check out these runs that will push you to the limit.

Paul Bunyan Extreme 5k --> Brainerd

MLB All-Star Game Color Run --> Minneapolis

Tough Mudder --> Hudson, WI

The Zombie Run/Black Ops 5k --> Milville, MN


Regardless of which events you choose, it's important to keep your energy level high. Ellen B. from the HDT kitchen has let me snoop into her recipe book to share her healthy energy bites (which really are healthy and give you that boost you need.)

Ellen's No-Bake Energy Bites


  • 1 cup oatmeal
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter (or any nut butter)
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1 cup coconut flakes
  • 1/2 cup ground flaxseed
  • 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)
  • 1 tsp vanilla


  • Mix all the ingredients together
  • Refrigerate it for a while in order to make the mix firmer and easier to work with
  • Make small balls, bite size, from the mix. Refrigerate
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Hopefully you were able to get outside and spend some time in the sunshine over the long holiday weekend. The Fourth of July tends to drive folks towards the water (at least in this neck of the woods) and where there is water, there are usually dragonflies. You may have noticed a burst in their populations over the last couple of weeks (perhaps as an annoyingly sticky addition to your windshield) because we are, indeed, in the midst of "dragonfly season".  But where do they come from, where do they go, and how come these friendly bug eaters are only around for a couple of months!? Actually, they're around all year long, but if you're looking to the skies to find 'em, you're looking in the wrong place.

Of course we don't see dragonflies zooming around all winter long in subzero temperatures. They have adapted a rather interesting survival strategy to make it through our long harsh winters - all of the adults die off (except for a few species that actually migrate!). Dragonflies go through incomplete metamorphosis, which means their life cycle as three stages instead of the four stages you would see in complete metamorphosis. They begin as eggs in the water, hatch into an aquatic larva or nymph and then skip the pupating stage, instead opting to go straight to adulthood.


This alien-looking creature is a dragonfly nymph. Photo credit to Phil Rowley.

Dragonflies spend their winters underwater as a nymph, in the warm (okay, warmer) mucky-muck at the bottom of rivers, ponds and lakes. For some species, this may only last four weeks; for others, this may last longer than five years! These nymphs survive underwater by breathing through larval gills and using their keen sense of sight and super sensitive antennae to be ferocious predators of the lake bottom. They devour other insect larvae (like mosquitos!), other dragonfly larvae, tadpoles, and even small fish with a voracious appetite. In turn, they serve their part in the food web as prey to larger frogs or fish. As they eat, they grow, molting old tight-fitting exoskeletons for new, roomier ones. When the nymph is ready to turn into an adult it has a day or two of rest, called diapause, while the final changes are made inside of the larval exoskeleton. During this time the nymph often has its head above water as it becomes acquainted to breathing oxygen, like it will in the adult form.  When it is ready, it will climb up onto a plant or rock, the thorax splits open, the adult form emerges small and deflated and spends several hours "pumping" up its body with hemolymph (insect blood) until it reaches its full adult size. 


A dragonfly emerging from the aquatic nymph stage exoskeleton into an adult. Its small wings still need time to enlarge and dry before flight. Photo credit to garry.

When the exoskeleton has dried and hardened, the dragonfly will take its first flight and become a predator of the sky. With impressive compound eyes of 30,000 lenses, dragonflies have incredible sight. Pair that with the capability of sustained, highly maneuverable flight, antennae that work as anemometers to measure wind speed and direction, and spines on their front legs that act as a grocery cart for prey, and you get a pretty formidable predator. 


Dragonflies will eat pretty much anything they can catch, including large prey like this butterfly! Photo credit to TexasEagle.

You can thank the dragonflies for eating an insane amount of insects and pests (nicknamed the mosquito hunter as some can consume hundreds of mosquitos in just one day). You think a lion or a wolf is a good hunter? Hate to break it to ya, but they ain't got nothin' on the dragonfly! Recent studies show dragonflies catch their target prey 95% of the time - a number that decimates the stats of all large mammalian predators. In fact, their precision flight and accuracy is so impressive, they are currently a hot topic in the military in reference to drone design!

Right now is a great time to get outside and see some dragonflies! Many are feeding, mating, or laying eggs.  Dragonflies are fiercely competitive for food and mates, so chances are pretty good that if you go out and observe, you will get to see a dragonfly brawl. While lounging on our dock over the holiday weekend, I saw a male blue dasher dragonfly perched over a female, which appeared to be depositing eggs into the water near a sea of lily pads in the shallows. Another male was lingering nearby, and every time it approached the female, the clearly dominant male would dart of its perch in an attack, with an audible clash when it collided with the brave, optimistic lesser male. As dragonflies are born in, feed around, and lay eggs in water, they typically don't travel too far from a water source, so check out any nearby ponds, streams, lakeshores or wetlands for a looksee! Here are some you might find!


This male blue darner was the one I spotted avidly guarding the female as she laid eggs.



Some dragonflies display sexual dimorphism (difference between male and female). These are both common whitetails, the one on the left is the female and the one on the right is a male.


This is the chalk fronted corporal - often seen flying in large "armies", hence the name.


You can find these amber-winged Halloween pennants hunting above open grassy areas.

There are many other dragonfly species in northern Minnesota - so get a move on! Happy lookin'!




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Another bustling fun time in the Lakes Area this weekend. Here are just a few of the MANY options:

Thursday: Market in the Park - Trailside Park, 9am-4pm, Pequot Lakes
Thursday: Stars & Stripes - Pequot Lakes. Fireworks after dusk. Plenty going on during the day too. http://business.explorebrainerdlakes.com/events/details/2014-stars-stripes-days-41522

Friday: Stars & Stripes - Pequot Lakes. Parade at Noon. See above link for other activities during the day!
Friday: Pine River Market Square - "Growers' & Crafters' Market", 2:30-5:30pm, Downtown Pine River. Crafts, baked goods, produce, canned items & more!

Saturday: 371 Flea Market, Saturday 9am-3pm, near the Info Center/Chamber Building along the Paul Bunyan Trail, Pine River.
Saturday: Firecrackers 5K Run -  Nisswa. Runnisswa.com
Saturday: Band in the Park - Trailside Park, Pequot Lakes, 7-9pm. http://business.explorebrainerdlakes.com/events/details/band-in-the-park-41924
Saturday: Outdoor Music Series - Crosslake Town Square, 7pm, http://business.explorebrainerdlakes.com/events/details/2014-crosslake-outdoor-music-series-42731

Sunday: Arts in the Park -  10am-4:30pm, Gregory Park, Brainerd. More than 150 artists participate and sell goods.

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