Squirrels in the Garden

By Holly Einess

The Grace B. Dayton Wildflower Garden is a lovely spring/summer destination. What might it have to offer on a cold, windy, cloudy mid-November day?

Squirrels, that’s what.

Easily a dozen gray squirrels are rummaging through the fallen leaves, pausing to gnaw on their finds, and giving chase up and down trees. I hear the persistent raspy chatter of a red squirrel and look up to see one attempting to gain access to a gray squirrel’s tree cavity.

gray squirrel and red squirrel vying for spaceGray squirrel and red squirrel vying for space

While leaf nests (dreys) are gray squirrels’ preferred home in summer, in winter both they and red squirrels seek out tree cavities, and may spend days at a time there during particularly cold spells. I’m therefore surprised when I spot a gray squirrel heading up a different tree with a mouthful of leaves, which it adds to an existing drey. Perhaps it’s the planning-ahead type and is sprucing up its summer home now!

I take a footpath out of the garden and up a hill, where an albino squirrel catches my eye. The albino is a morph of the gray, with red eyes and a shorter lifespan (due to its poor eyesight and easy-for-predators-to-spot coloration).

albino squirrelAlbino squirrel

I see a sign indicating I’m on the Meadowlark Trail and follow it as it continues upward beside a ravine, at the bottom of which a shallow stream flows. Though the wind is strong I hear only the soft whooshing of leafless branches swaying and the occasional squeak of bare branches rubbing together.

meadowlark trailMeadowlark Trail

Thinking of the squirrels and their search for snug winter homes I start to notice cavities in many tree trunks, as well as telltale dark stains that indicate repeated comings and goings, whether of squirrels or some other critters I don’t know.

current or former nest cavityCurrent or former nest cavity

Returning to the garden my attention is caught by several dark-eyed juncos hopping about looking for food. A small flock of black-capped chickadees flits among the dried plants, feeding on seeds.

dark-eyed juncoDark-eyed junco

I spot a white-breasted nuthatch and a hairy woodpecker (a task made easy by the absence of leaves), underscoring my discovery that the wildflower garden has plenty to offer even in the off season.

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Natural Color

By Mary Beth Pottratz

The terrace outside the Arboretum buildings is adorned with planters of fresh green pine, cedar and spruce boughs trimmed with red-osier and sulfur yellow dogwood twigs and tan balls of hydrangea flowers. The morning’s clouds begin to brighten as I stroll the grounds.

DSC_0150 witch hazelWitch hazel

Witch hazel shrubs have lost their leaves, but its branches are dotted with tiny yellow flowers! This latest-flowering native plant is listed as threatened in our state. Turkeys trot through the grounds, gobbling quietly at each other and picking in the soil for treats. Sunbeams peak through clouds, making their feathers glow iridescent.

DSC_0205 Hornets NestWasp’s nest

Now that the leaves are mostly gone, I look for nests in the naked tree branches. The first find is a beautiful wasp’s nest suspended from slender tree branches. Made by bald-faced hornets, it is the size and shape of a football. The industrious wasps mash bark or wood with their saliva, and layer it in scalloped shapes around the nest. Some naturalists can even determine which trees the hornets were using by the bands of color around the nest!

DSC_0208 wild cucumber vinesWild cucumber pods

Pale beige wild cucumber pods swing like miniature paper lanterns from their vines, festooning the tops of red osier dogwood. Little bluestem grass blades are faded burgundy and tan near the tip. Each blade is studded with white tufts of tiny spikelets that glow in the sun.

A hairy woodpecker flits silently between tree trunks, picking at the bark. Chickadees call “tseet” from deep inside shrubs, and a distant blue jay calls an alarm. Golden tamarack needles dust the boardwalk, and the tall trees above are bare. But young tamaracks recently planted hold fast to their golden glory.

DSC_0266 bird's nestBird’s nest

A bird’s nest is woven into the crotch of red osier dogwood. It is made with dried leaves, grasses, mud and fine twigs, and seems too deeply cupped and smaller in diameter than a robin’s nest. Winter assignment:  learn about identifying bird’s nests!

DSC_0254 goldenrod seedheads croppedGoldenrod seedheads

White meadowsweet is tipped with open seed pods. Goldenrod seedheads appear trimmed in fur. Asters are tipped with tiny white cotton balls of seed. Even cattails are bursting white fuzz from brown flowers.

DSC_0253 Sun glintsSun glinting on leaves

The sun glints on leaves, stems, and seedheads. Indian pipe stems are shriveled brown and tipped with upward-pointing seedpods.

Not the pastel shades of spring nor bright summer hues, these muted tones of fall have a beauty all their own.

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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Wallpaper for the Ground

By Sydney Chandler

Fog is a fascinating feature of the water cycle but is not universally loved. Fog can feel like a safe hug or a suffocating and threatening presence. For visitors who grudgingly endure the fog by walking with their gaze pinned to the ground, the Arboretum’s terrain offers a range of patterns and textures to explore. Fog-free.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFallen leaves and seeds from the Maidenhair Tree

A bright and playful ground wallpaper is produced by fallen leaves and seeds from the Maidenhair Tree. These bright leaves are a lively contrast to the deep brown of wet mud. This pattern would be perfect wallpaper for a dendrologist or one of the busy squirrels who greedily look over the fallen seeds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGiant leaves at the Shade Tree Exhibit

Other fallen leaves provide a different pattern near the Shade Tree Exhibit. Giant fallen leaves are large enough to house mini pools of rain water. Their haphazard arrangement is reminiscent of a chronically messy room.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMulch trail and fallen leaves

A final view of the ground is one that walkers often see: mulch. The packed mulch is riddled with holes where squirrels have cashed their food. The mulch trails are soft for walking and let visitors limit their sphere of disturbance in the forest by walking with quiet steps.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGreen groundcover beneath the Spruce Trees

Suffocating fog forces explorers to escape to the colors, textures, and disturbances on the wallpapered ground. For trackers, disturbances in the patterns are exciting clues to unseen animal residents at the Arboretum. Noticing uniformity on the ground is a first step to appreciating the imperfections.

Sydney Chandler is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Great and Small

By Greg Lecker

The light struggling to break over Green Heron Pond promises to be bright. At first, the mist is a glow.  Sun’s rays graze the grasses, drawing my attention to the bluebird house.

Brightly Frosty and FoggyBrightly Frosty and Foggy

Leaves cover the forest floor.  I spot the distinctive pattern of a fungus.

False Turkey-tail - Fallen LeavesFalse Turkey-Tail- Fallen Leaves

False turkey-tail is a wood decay fungus.  The fruiting body inspires its name as it resembles another fungus, which must have been named first, I guess.  Both resemble a turkey tail in display form – fanned out with concentric circles of yellow, pink, red, and brown bands.  The word “oyster” is also used to describe the form – the outer shape.  The shell form is about one-third to two-and-two thirds high or wide.  Thin and tough, false turkey-tail grows on tree bark. The fungus is native to North America; and it can be found year-round.  With a range roughly paralleling the lower portions of the Mississippi and St. Croix watersheds in Minnesota, the fungus grows in the Big Woods from north of the metropolitan area to southeastern Minnesota, plus several other scattered counties.  Unlike the many fungus fruiting bodies we call mushrooms, this one grows throughout the year. Sometimes its color is fresh – the color of light and dark cedar shavings.  The false turkey-tail specimens I usually find are gray, and sometimes gray-green. The green is a sign of the presence of algae, which sometimes grows on the fungus.  Unlike mushrooms, there is no distinctive odor. Also, unlike mushrooms, false turkey-tail grows shelf-like – without a stem.  It grows on the bark of logs and stumps of dead hardwood trees, commonly oak.

Among my favorite vistas at Green Heron Pond is the view from the south trail looking across duckweed and backwater grasses to the open water beyond.  This morning, the view especially delights me!

Misty MorningMisty Morning

Sun and shadow lay down alternating stripes of lime and dark mint.  As the sun slowly rises, shadows crawl down the short stockade wall of grasses to retreat back across the pond surface.

On the north side of the pond, the sun breaks through and burns off the remaining mist.  The bright glare of dawn dispels gloom and darkness.  It will be a sunny morning, though crisp.

Sun Makes AppearanceSun Makes an Appearance

Don’t let shortening days and temperatures discourage you.  Get outside and explore!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Treasures on the East Side Trails

By Holly Einess

It’s a beautiful fall day and I’m looking forward to finally completing my exploration of the Arboretum’s East Side Trails.

East Side Trails mapEast Side Trails Map

As I head up the Spring Peeper Trail just east of its intersection with the Ridge Trail I am greeted by a lovely grove of birch trees, their golden leaves dancing in the sunlight. A little farther on is a grouping of small oaks, chickadees flitting about in their colorful branches (successfully evading my attempts to photograph them!). Amid all the yellows, oranges, and reds, the purple of a still-blooming New England aster catches my eye.


I pull open a tall gate to enter the wetland restoration area and after several minutes of hiking the Spring Peeper Meadow comes into view. It is bordered on the north by a long stand of Minnesota’s state tree, the red pine (also called Norway pine). I take a moment to savor the sound of the wind whispering through the branches and am surprised and delighted to hear several western chorus frogs singing their signature “fingernail dragged along a comb”call.

Red (or Norway) PinesRed (or Norway) Pines

Heading back the way I came I take a left on a connector trail inviting me into a blazing yellow maple forest. A flock of dark-eyed juncos takes off from the leaf-strewn trail in a flutter of hops and leaps, their outer white tail feathers flashing. Two red squirrels chase each other madly through the leaves, nearly running into me, and a gray squirrel eyes me warily.

Eastern Gray SquirrelEastern Gray Squirrel

A tiny ruby-crowned kinglet clings to an upright twig just long enough for me to get a photo. Moments later I spot its close relative, the even smaller golden-crowned kinglet. These two are among Minnesota’s smallest birds; only the ruby-throated hummingbird is tinier.

Ruby Crowned KingletRuby-Crowned Kinglet

This little patch of forest is fairly thrumming with life, and I’m not surprised when several chickadees appear, and then a hairy woodpecker. Fluttering yellow leaves fill the air like a kaleidoscope of butterflies, and I stand in stillness for a time, reveling in the fleeting beauty of this too-short season.

Emerging from my trance I continue out of the woods into restored prairie, where the grasses rustle dryly in the wind. The trail loops around, taking me back through the gate and once again onto the Spring Peeper Trail.

Restored PrairieRestored Prairie

As I near the boardwalk a common garter snake slithers off the sun-warmed trail and disappears into the brush. Soon it will join other snakes in a rock crevice or underground den below the frost line, spending the winter in a state of brumation (akin to hibernation in mammals). The snake and I both are hoping for a few more weeks of mild days to bask in the sun.

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Fall Splendor

By Mary Beth Pottratz

The ground is a patchwork quilt of leaves in yellows and golds, browns and purples, crimsons, greens, beige’s, greys and more. But look up, and the vista is filled with large swathes of golden yellow maples, brilliant red sumac, crimson dogwood, green tamaracks just starting to burnish gold, and oaks in shades of green to gold, purple and brown.

DSC_0799 Fall splendorFall Splendor

The hill along Wood Duck Trail is a lush mixture of green trees accented by others glowing in its own fall splendor. The prairies and wetlands are blushing seedheads of pastel brick with green and yellow leaves beneath. Fluffy white spires of goldenrod seeds pop up between red sumac and golden grapevines.

DSC_0827 Oak crimson and goldCrimson and Gold

Hackberries are green, with some berries still on the twigs. Oak leaves are a mélange of green and yellow, crimson and gold. The river birch has changed its deep green leaves to patterns of yellow, and many have fallen. Its bark flakes and curls, revealing peach tones beneath.

Catkins can be seen on American hazelnut now that most of its leaves have fallen. The remaining leaves have tones of brick and gold dotted with dark spots.

DSC_0118 shades of mapleMany Shades of Maple!

Most maples are gold, and many are still green, but others glow brilliant red or gold in the sun. There are seemingly many shades of maple!

DSC_0868 blue beech catkin and green fruit croppedCatkins with Tiny Green Fruits

Blue beech has lost almost all its leaves, revealing more of its smooth grey sinewy bark. It still sports some of its interesting catkins with tiny green fruits.

DSC_0906 Ironwood leaf and catkinsIronwood, Also Called Hop Hornbeam

Ironwood, also called hop hornbeam, is often confused with blue beech. Its scaly bark has thin vertical stripes. Its mottled green leaves are awash with yellow and pale orange highlights. The papery scales on its catkin are nut-brown. Each scale protects a fruit inside.

That graceful grass, prairie dropseed, has red or yellow stems with pale green and yellow grasses above. It is tipped with airy seeds that sway fast in the wind.

Little bluestem is a study in pale reddish-brown stems dotted throughout with fuzzy white spikelets, spouting from neat clumps. Canada wild rye is swollen with fruit and wiry, curled awns.

Indian grass sports beige tips with spikelets and tiny feathery fluff. Two wiry awns poke upwards from each seed.

DSC_0046 bumblebee on hairy goldenasterBumblebee

A bumblebee hangs onto the yellow petal of hairy false golden aster, unable to move at today’s 52⁰. He will camp here for the night!

Several black-eyed Susans are also in bloom. Deep purple New England aster flowers have shriveled to brown. Its leaves are still deep green as its seed matures. Wild geranium leaves are burgundy washed with green or yellow. Smooth blue asters are still flowering, but their yellow centers are turning reddish-purple.

DSC_0035 milkweed pods and seedMilkweed Pods

Goldenrods are done flowering, and are either maturing their seed or already dispersing it in fluffy white clumps. Milkweed pods have opened to allow the dark brown seeds to escape. Each is attached to a silky white set of fibers to carry it on the wind.

Leaving milkweed stems up is important: pollinators such as native bees and flies hibernate in the stems. And when spring arrives, orioles and other birds will strip thin fibers from the stems to weave into their nests.

The colors of fall are royal crimsons, stately purples, trimmed in rich golds against backgrounds of pale grasses. Visit soon to see the splendor of fall!

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

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Smelling the Rain

By Sydney Chandler

It rained.

As with most phenomena, such a simple statement is not the full story. Comparisons between rainy day visits and “nice days to visit the Arboretum” include differences in sounds, plants’ appearances, and smells.


Rain on the Green Heron Trail

The Green Heron Trail lacks the normal bustle of feeding birds and small mammals; the trees seem deserted. Wet leaves don’t crunch crisply on the forest floor, and other subtle sounds are drowned out by the steady patter of rain drops on the canopy.


Sweet Potato “Sweet Caroline Bewitched Green with Envy”

Rainy days provide an opportunity to observe plants as they interact with a vital resource: water. Sweet Potato leaves cleanly funnel water toward their stems. In comparison, raindrops cling to the pedals of the Chinese Hibiscus as if they were glued in place.


Chinese Hibiscus “Cherie”

Smells also change in the rain. Dropped leaves begin to mold and release their distinct scent with each step on the trail. Plants on the Green Heron Trail smell particularly vibrant as compared to the less intense smells along the road. The plants are calling out “We’re thirsty!”


Green Heron Pond

Catching plants on a rainy day is like a student seeing their teacher outside of school: it throws a familiar subject into a new context. A rainy day at the Arboretum is the opportunity to explore familiar plants and trails in a context full of different sounds, sights, and smells.

Sydney Chandler is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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