Seedheads and Snowflakes

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Waiting for today’s chill to subside, I watch the sunlight grow dim through wisps of clouds. At a balmy 14⁰, I head to the Arb. I stop in my tracks as I approach the entrance.

Nest of twigs and grasses

Nest of twigs and grasses

Leaf nest

Leaf nest

Small bird nests bedeck every other tree around the entrance, like a little village! I had not noticed them before. One is a cup made mostly of twigs, another of grasses and strippings from wildflower stems, another with leaves knitted around it. All are tightly woven around two or more branches in a crotch of the tree. These would be home to finches, sparrows, warblers and other small birds. Chickadees, bluebirds, woodpeckers and others nest in tree cavities; orioles weave a sack nest from milkweed stalk fibers left up over winter; and still others make mud nests in niches like swallows and swifts.

Silvery wash of snow

Silvery wash of snow

Dried seedheads, sprays of dusty white goldenrod, and graceful dried grasses are silhouetted against a silvery wash of snow. Crows caw and fly overhead, and an unseen bird calls “seet” from deep in the shrubs.

Greens and luminaries

Greens and luminarias

The terrace balustrade behind the Snyder building is lined with huge pots of winter greens and tall ice luminarias. The evenings must be beautiful with candlelight and artist Bruce Munro’s “Winter Light” exhibit. With the usual bird feeders gone to accommodate the light show, I wonder how the birds that have come to depend on this food source are faring.

Warming up in the lobby, a lovely display of nature art draws me into the Andersen Horticultural Library. Botanical sketches with watercolor, nature prints, a dwarf trout lily on ceramic tile, a stunning American yellow lotus, an abstract oil of thistles and more are on display.

Back outdoors, I look and listen for birds but only find a single turkey scratching hungrily on frozen ground. Witch hazel flowers are far past their prime, but many tiny yellow petals still cling tenaciously to their branches. I check the stately elm above Green Heron Pond and admire its shape against the sky.

Fluffy white seedheads

Fluffy white seedheads

Fluffy white seedheads tip orange stems, but I am unsure which flower they are. Snowflakes drift slowly down around them.

As the wind picks up and clouds block the last rays of sunshine, I head home. Hopefully January’s cold will soften and fresh snow will let me snowshoe next time!

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer program is available at www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.

 

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Winter Doings

By Boak Wiesner

Now that the Solstice is past, days will lengthen, yes, but, oh! will it take a long time. Even so, animals at the Arb are still active, though I see only a squirrel trotting through the forest. He’s been leaving abundant signs, though, of what he’s been up to.

dsc_0116His little hands that he uses to climb trees so fast leave distinct tracks in the snow. Conditions are really good to see them today, with the low angle of the winter sun putting them in stark relief. I can easily see the horizon cut and the wall that even this lightweight little critter left here.

dsc_0105That little body has a big ratio of skin, through which he loses a lot of heat to the environment, compared to his volume, all his cells and their parts that need nutrition and oxygen. So he’s gotta eat. There are lots of digs in the snow where he went looking for acorns.

dsc_0107Overhead is a hole in a Sugar Maple. The inside section of the trunk, the heartwood, will typically decay away before the outer layers, that sapwood, whose xylem still has material flowing through, though not now, of course, as all the leaves are down. A little gnawing here and there and lo! there’s a snug cavity in which to wait out the storms of winter.

dsc_0103

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

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Tracks and Traces

By Greg Lecker

On a gray Christmas Eve day, I have the Arboretum nearly to myself, except for one or two walkers and a photographer.  Temperatures are mild; the air is very still.  From one of the trees lining Three Mile Drive, maple leaves curl – both individually and as a mass.

A Curl of Maple Leaves

A Curl of Maple Leaves

I pause at the Ordway picnic shelter and see feeders I’ve not noticed before.  Compared with the feeding stations near the visitor center, the relative seclusion of this spot seems to welcome more birds or at least a broader variety.  Chickadees and a white breasted nuthatch flit in an out.  A little downy woodpecker hops backwards on a branch until it can spy a landing spot on the green mesh of the suet feeder.  A northern cardinal couple hangs behind.  Gray and white juncos hop on the snow around one feeder.  A few tiny birds – goldfinches, I think – dart through the wire openings of the mesh surrounding a roofed platform feeder.  Wild turkeys peck at the ground below and cluck longingly at the more bountiful buffet above.  When approached for its portrait, one of the turkeys takes off on a 50-yard dash down the tracked, but melting cross-country ski trail surrounding Green Heron pond.

No fewer than two maintenance vehicles pass by – both are scraping snow and ice from the drive; and one spreads sand in preparation for tomorrow’s forecast freezing rain.  As I walk across the Sensory Garden Parking lot, I notice patterns in the snow.  Sweater pattern design or footed feat of feathered fowl?

Turkey Tracks

Turkey Tracks

Shortcutting through the Grace Dayton Woodland on my way to the prairie, I notice that the asphalt paths have been whiskered clear by unseen workers.  At the entry to a woodland wood chip trail, I see oversized footprints next to boot tracks.  “My, what big feet you have”, I think to myself.  The better to traverse the changing snow conditions on snow shoes with –I suspect.

Several sneaker footed runners pass me on Three Mile drive demonstrating that fitness does not take a holiday.Along the curving prairie, I glance down and see the tracks of squirrel, sneaker, boot and snow tire.

Making Tracks

Making Tracks

Standing quietly at the edge between prairie and woodland, I can hear the faint bark of a distant dog and the nearer, though no less audible knocks of a woodpecker.  Then at last I near a very soft tinkle of the still flowing ravine brook.  I try my best to capture the sound I hear in a photograph.

Freezing Sound of Flowing Water

Freezing Sound of Flowing Water

I walk back to the visitor center through the maple woodland. The subtle odor of rotting biomass I detected in my earlier walk past the woodland pool is too faint to detect from this far away. Instead, I smell the freshness of hay or straw, possibly laid over tender plants asleep during winter.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

 

 

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Beautiful Forms

By Mary Beth Pottratz

“The dry grasses are not dead for me. A beautiful form has as much life at one season as another,” said Henry David Thoreau, and his quote tops the Nature Notes board in the lobby of the Great Hall.

Indeed, beautiful forms are evident everywhere. Graceful grass stalks sway and dance above half a foot of glittering snow. Evergreens and tree branches are iced white. Sturdy seedheads stand out against the wintry blanket. Bare and lacy tree branches are silhouetted against the sky.

Tree Branches

Tree Branches

The bright blue sky is brushed with wisps of cirrostratus clouds. I waited out this morning’s 20⁰ below zero, and am rewarded with a sultry -2⁰ this afternoon.

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac

A rafter of turkeys perch in the treetops. A lone tom roosts on an old log. All seem to be napping the sunny afternoon away. The velvet of staghorn sumac reflects sunlight. River birch branches bend elegantly towards ground, tipped with little bunches of catkins.

Bird of Paradise

Bird of Paradise

My camera freezes up and I head indoors. Delightful scents pull me into the Conservatory’s warmth. Snowflakes sparkle in sunlight on the glass roof, and a Bird of Paradise takes flight. Yellow, purple, blue, white, orange and pink orchids are in bloom. One is scented floral with baby powder; another citrusy and fresh; and another like roses and candy.

Nest

Nest

Nests are easily visible in the treetops: tiny, grass-woven cups; medium-sized bowls braided with twigs and cattail leaves; larger platforms that look like a pile of pick-up-sticks; and highest of all, the bushy leafy-branch piles of squirrels.

I check twigs for old hummingbird nests. The tiniest of all nests, they are made of lichen, leaves, spider web, and silk. A hummingbird egg is the size of a Tic-Tac, and the nest starts out the size of a water bottle cap. When the chicks move around, the nest is flexible and moves with them, and stretches with them as they grow.

Deer Trail

Deer Trail

The snow is too deep to see footprints, but I can guess who left those trails. Deer drag their feet through the snow, leaving a solid line between hoof prints. They follow in each other’s steps, creating a wider trail. Turkeys leave body prints where they “plop” down in the deep snow from a branch above. Fox prints are close-set and neat, usually following an edge. Tiny chickadee and junco prints leave snow piles like tailings outside of ant mounds.

Back indoors to warm my camera, I hear melodic bells tinkle and echo lightly from the music program in the auditorium. Tomorrow a warm spell returns; I’ll have to bring my snowshoes!

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer program is available at www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.

 

 

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Woods, Lovely, Dark, and Deep

By Boak Wiesner

I had just enough energy today for a short jaunt in the new fallen snow, our area’s first real taste of the white stuff. Knowing that some real cold is in the offing, I’m glad, weirdly, for the little critters of field and forest who can now escape the real nippy stuff by getting under its blanket. Though it sounds counter intuitive, the surface of the ground will start to warm up slowly as the heat that it absorbed last summer and fall diffuses back up. A couple of more inches would be nice. I saw no tracks today so everyone’s staying put, at least for the moment.

dsc_0013The puffy seed heads of last summer’s Goldenrod collect the snow readily. This stems of this stand had few galls on them, the growths surrounding the larvae of Goldenrod Gall Fly. The third instar of their larvae can survive temperatures as low as it goes – good thing, with the bitter cold coming!

dsc_0022The stalks of Bluestem give a splash of color to the otherwise monotonously white landscape. I wonder “Why Bluestem – when their stalks are either magenta or this lovely amber color?” The conventions of taxonomists sometimes leave one seeking answers unattainable. The coming days will give me a good long time to think about things, safe in my own burrow.

dsc_0033Snow collected in the scaly “needles” of junipers that are mixed in with the oaks, ironwoods, and basswoods indicating that these woods are in a state of flux, from grassland back to forest, the openings crating by settlers clearing the trees. Junipers provide a great place of refuge for birds and squirrels in their dense “needles”. Birds will eat the berries, swallowing them whole. The seeds get dispersed; I get another way to keep the winter chill at bay, if you know what I mean!

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

 

 

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Muted – “A Hazy Shade of Winter”

By Greg Lecker

Like the rest of south central Minnesota, the Arboretum is has been wet this past week, and gray – the color Simon & Garfunkel had in mind when they sang of “A Hazy Shade of Winter”.  Colors and forms are muted and one longs for something of interest amidst the muted color and form outside.Dew drops sparkle on the few evergreen leaves amongst the brown leaf duff just beyond the cultivated landscape of the home landscape demonstration garden.

Walking Three Mile Drive, one can now more clearly see the water that lies in the bowl below the maple sugarbush hillside.  Skim ice has begun to form on silvery water that is surrounded by rusty leaves and marsh and purple soaked deciduous woodland.

Ice Forming

Ice Forming

The prairie’s carpet of tan undulates with the flowing landform.  Here and there, galls distort dried plant stems or leaf masses.  I head to Green Heron Pond in search of new discoveries.

The wetland area does not disappoint me.   Near the Trex Leaf Deck below the picnic shelter, Winterberry red fruits decorate stems from which dangle wrinkled brown leaves.

Winterberry

Winterberry

Before I reach the entry to the bog boardwalk, I spy the spiny kiwi-shaped podsof wild or prickly cucumber.

Wild (or Prickly) Cucumber

Wild (or Prickly) Cucumber

What words come to mind when you study these alien looking forms?  ”Cactus balls” and “porcupine eggs” are nicknames some use to describe the fruit.  The vine is found near streams, rivers, and yes, wetlands like Green Heron Pond. In the growing season, the elongated star-shaped maple-like leaves and small greenish white flowers could be mistaken as belonging to the host plant through which the vine twists and turns.Fall or early winter is the best time of the year for locating and identifying the plant.  As other foliage discolors and withers away, the small fruits and even its tendrils stand out among thickets of twigs.

Within the bog itself, little tufts of sphagnum moss grow in the crotch of the persistent crown of deciduous plant stalks.

Island of Moss

Island of Moss

Chilled by the dampness, I retreat to the visitor center where I enjoy the current art exhibit at the Café Gallery.  Heather Tinkham weaves color and texture into her unique wall hangings.  Andy Tinkham’s photography uses both natural and introduced light to force us to study natural phenomena.

I understand that snow is coming to brighten the dreariness of this “in-between” season.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

 

 

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Winter Interest

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Amazing winter landscaping is obvious at the Arboretum now that leaves have fallen. A curbside planting of purple coneflower bordered by catmint on one side and blue fescue on the other plays light against dark; short against tall; fluffy, straight and dotted against each other.

Bee Balm and Grass

Bee Balm and Grass

Red oak leaves hang stiffly above swaying, hay-colored grasses. The brown seed globes of bee balm become distinct against a backdrop of flaxen grasses. Naked magnolias are tipped with furry white catkins.

Common Winterberry

Common Winterberry

Red berries of common winterberry add brightness to the landscape despite today’s heavy clouds. Northern white cedars are dripping with clusters of small brown cones. A blue jay perches silently atop a bare tree, scrutinizing the treetops. Two skeins of geese honk as they fly overhead in V-formation. Other birds are keeping quiet today, just a few jays, crows, and sparrows calling quickly.

Kentucky Coffee Tree Branch

Kentucky Coffee Tree Branch

Kentucky coffee tree’s bare branches now reveals its large brown seed pods. Some have holes drilled into them, and I wonder whether the predator sought seeds or insects.

Muskrat Lodges

Muskrat Lodges

With plants now bare, muskrat lodges are visibly dotting the wetlands. These furry mammals eat many cattails, along with other plants, insects and amphibians. They also build their homes of cattails, literally eating the walls during winter. Their presence prevents wetlands from becoming too heavily planted, prevents flooding and provides open water for aeration and waterfowl.

The brook in the woodland gurgles loudly as water rushes downhill. Witch hazel is still in bloom! Four tiny, yellow thread-like petals splay open from four round golden sepals in the center.

With our late fall staying above freezing, some hybrid roses are still in flower, although withered from cold. Conversely, our Minnesota native wild rose has no petals. It sports a few red hips, but most are black and starting to release seed.

Handcrafted Ornaments

Handcrafted Ornaments

Indoors, a pair of fir trees are decorated with a pollinator theme in the dining room. Created by the Minnesota Herb Society volunteers, its handcrafted ornaments are delightful: butterflies, bees, and birds made of dried flowers, leaves, seed pods and strands, birch bark, acorns, felt, and more.

Buds on Oak Branch tips

Buds on Oak Branch tips

Multiple buds are growing on oak branch tips – a promise of spring before our winter has fully set in!

As the sky darkens, pairs of huge circles glow yellow and pink atop a grassy mound. They blink like giant owl eyes as part of the “Bruce Munro: Winter Light at the Arboretum” exhibit. As I depart, cars stream in to view this unique indoor and outdoor show.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer program is available at www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.

 

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