Early Signs of Spring

By Mary Beth Pottratz

The sun shines so dimly that it casts no shadow.Tree tops are frosted white from fog at the entrance to the Arboretum.

Frosted tree tops

Frosted tree tops

Several Downy woodpeckers flit up tree branches and peck for their breakfast. Chickadees make their contact chirps and call “Chicka-dee-dee-dee.” One gives ist springtime “Fee-bee” call, the first I have heard this season!Branches and pine needles are lightly flocked.

Flocked pine needles

Flocked pine needles

A dozen Dark-eyed juncos peck at the ground. I spy a lone waxwing’s yellow-tipped tail before it darts behind spruce trees. White-breasted nuthatches are very verbal today, making their nasal “Aunk” calls.

Downy woodpecker

Downy woodpecker

A Downy woodpecker picks at the bark of a Kentucky coffeetree, gleaning insects or larvae for breakfast. An American tree sparrow’s bi-colored bill is coated with ice crystals, and something dark hangs from its beak. What do you suppose it found?

I warm up in the Andersen Horticulture Library, and find an intriguing display, “A Gathering of Flowers: Botanicals in the Age of Climate Change.” Artist Ursula Hargens pairs her ceramic tiles of flowers that are endangered or threatened in Minnesota with amazing historical illustrations.

For example, the 1764 Flora Danica is open to a page displaying a sketch of a plant whose form echoes Hargens’ tile of Empetrumnigrum, Black crowberry, which in Minnesota grows only in a small area in Cook County.

I delight in finding a tile depicting Leedy’s roseroot (Rhodiolaintegrifolia ssp. Leedyi). This cliff-loving wildflower is found in only seven locations in Minnesota and New York. Just weeks before, we were cleaning and preparing its seeds for propagation at the Arb’s Plant Conservation Department.

Wild turkey tracks

Wild turkey tracks

Back outside, large flakes of snow drift slowly down.By now the sun has burned through the morning fog. Oval squirrel tracks and triangular Wild turkey tracks are evident in the sparkling snowcrust. Crystals sparkle in mid-air, and the white carpet glints in sunbeams.A Great-horned owl hoots in the far distance.

In combat!

In combat!

Wild turkeys are roosting on the backs of benches. They seem to be all males, sporting that bluish-black “broom” that brushes the ground. Two often flap their wings, spread their tails wide parallel to the ground, and lunge towards each other. Then, following them around a corner, I find a very threatening display! In combat, one tom places his beak over the other’s snood and pushes. The pair wrestle until one is pinned on the ground. The loser leaves in shame, tail down, feathers flat against his body. The victor struts, feathers puffed, head level with body, tail up and fanned.

Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow this week. The chickadee calls and turkey fights also seem to predict an early spring. We’ll just have to enjoy the snow while we can!

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

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January Thaw

By Boak Wiesner

What a weekend! Shirtsleeve weather almost as warm air from the South is delivered to us via the leading edge of a low pressure system. I recall that just two years ago this past week the Governor called off school due to the cold. How things change!

With so little snow cover, trails left by animals are very apparent and it is along these that I wander. My “guru” Aldo Leopold, writes of this time of year and his words seem prophetic. What do I find as I amble along the hillside above Wood Duck Pond but skunk tracks! Skunks walk on the flat of their feet, called plantigrade, and I wonder what brought him out of his slumber.

DSC_0008DSC_0039Not so fortunate was a rabbit, its becoming a meal for some raptor leaving only small tufts of fluffy fur. The snow cover is too crusty to let the marks of the primary wing feathers of an owl show, so I am left to merely speculate about the rabbit’s actual predator

DSC_0021Perhaps rather, it was a squirrel that became dinner for that raptor as nearby I come across a private squirrel solarium at the base of a Red Oak. In the warm spot created by the parabolically shaped exposed roots of the tree is a midden of chewed open acorns. It looks like someone’s been here often this winter.

DSC_0049At the base of a Sugar Maple, right up the hill from the oak, there is no such pile of leavings. The bounty that maples provide, namely their sap, will start to flow in just a month’s time perhaps. Squirrels chew the ends of branches off then guzzle down the sap as it pours forth. It is a drink I myself relish: cold, as it comes from deep underground, pure, quite, as the fluid had to pass through quite the gauntlet of cell wall and Casparian strip transport mechanisms which filter out impurities, with just a hint of sweetness – a very refreshing drink indeed. I can’t wait.

DSC_0051Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

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Solitude Not Sought

By Greg Lecker

Overcast skies envelope the natural world this weekend in the Twin Cities. Though I see walkers, joggers, and cross-country skiers, the Arboretum seems a bit lonely today. The wind has drawn patterns on paths with fine snow. With a light breeze, the air is colder than I had expected. The wind whispers through the tops of evergreens and shakes the leaves of the white oak. Hand-like, they wave at me.

Waving Oak Leaves

Waving Oak Leaves

Along Three Mile Drive I find a resident flock of turkeys. They often provide comic relief. Four turkeys move in such close synchronicity that I imagine them strutting a new line dance certain to sweep the nation.

Gobblin’ Line Dance

Gobblin’ Line Dance

At the Sensory Garden parking lot, juncos flit about brush piles temporarily stored there. I enter the woodland garden to seek shelter from the wind. Inside the forest, trees creak. I especially study a tree that is split with a large vertical cavity; and I spy a narrow crack of light that extends partially upward to a crotch between large branches. I detect no movement, yet I am wary – having witnessed the fall of a large oak bough onto Three Mile Drive back in autumn 2013.

The light violet gray downy blanket of the sky offers warmth but also a sense of dreariness that belies the beauty of this place.

Wind-Swept Prairie

Wind-Swept Prairie

A wind-swept view of the prairie is the best image I can find to capture the mood of the day in a photograph. The scene offers color and texture and shape; but the form of the hillside itself is flattened in the lack of direct light.

Seed Heads – Hairy Golden Aster

Seed Heads – Hairy Golden Aster

The seed heads of Hairy Golden Aster look fuzzy and warm – unlike my hands which are under-dressed in too thin gloves today.

Returning to the visitor center, I find that the turkeys have beat me there. They peck at seed lying scattered beneath the bird feeders. I leave them and retreat into the warmth and color of the orchid laden conservatory.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Frozen Finds

By Mary Beth Pottratz

The ceiling of the Visitor Center is festooned with snowflakes edged in gold and silver, sparkling in the sunlight. It is a balmy 1⁰ this afternoon, but the wind chill is 19⁰ below.

Snowflakes

Snowflakes

Bracing for cold, I step outside into bright sunshine. Before my eyes adjust, a large bird with a dark body and mottled underwings flaps into the trees. It heads down the hill and disappears behind the building.

A group of photographers with very long lenses turn and follow. “Wild turkey!” they laugh and shout. They are an InstaMeet group, joining up at the Arb today for winter photos and videos, one tells me. “Check me out at Misty.Garrick on Instagram,” she says.

They move indoors to warm up and check out the amazing botanical art in the library, a delightful macrophotography display, and Winter Wonderland: Beauty Revealed, running through March 31 in the Reedy Gallery.

Snow Drifts

Snow Drifts

Late afternoon sunlight casts blue shadow on snow drifts over the now-quiet rock garden. Turkey, squirrel, rabbit and tiny mouse tracks abound in the shallow snow. Bright red berries jump out from a background of snow and bare twigs.

Scat

Scat

A large pile of scat sits on the terrace near feeders. Pretty thick for coyote, so I try to determine its diet. Are there bones and fur? Insect or plant parts? Wood and bark fibers? But the lump is frozen solid!

Bird calls distract me. Some birds seem to be matched up already! Two White-breasted nuthatches flap wings at each other and dart head-first down branches. Two Common redpols munch seeds together on a platform feeder for their date night. And pairs of Downy woodpeckers play tag in a Kentucky coffee tree festooned with pods.

Not yet paired up are Black-capped chickadees. Branches are dotted with single birds politely awaiting a turn at the feeder. Cardinals, jays, and Dark-eyed juncos all seem more interested in their tummies than in a mate. Only the Crows seem absent today.

Green Roof

Green Roof

I am delighted to find a green roof atop Building C, near the Learning Center. Rooftop gardens provide beauty, habitat for pollinators, insulate the building, and even help clean water and air. Plus, last season’s stalks offer winter interest, habitat for pollinating insects, and fibers often woven into Baltimore oriole’s hanging sack nests in early spring.

There are quite a few green roofs and green walls throughout the Cities: Hamline University, Target Center, health care centers, some private homes and garages, and more. But my favorite is a little postage-stamp of a roof with an amazing tamarack bog on top at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). Created by artist Christine Baeumler,the tiny roof is complete with a water recycling system, sphagnum moss, Labrador tea, sedges, cotton grass, pitcher plants, and more. It displays interesting biodiversity and beauty. It also inspires many artists! Learn more about it here: http://mcad.edu/features/reconstituting-the-landscape.

Oak

Oak

But the wind freezes the focus on my camera, and my breath forms icicles on my hat. I return to my car. A lone red oak clings tenaciously to its leaves, glowing in the setting sun. The horizon is tinged pink as I head home.

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

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Finally Snow!

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Large snowflakes fall silently in slow, straight drifts. There is almost no wind on this 32⁰ afternoon.

Lichen

Lichen

A soft green lichen swells with snowmelt on wood. A pair of white-breasted nuthatches flirt and flit down branches. Chickadees are everywhere, calling and chatting. I hear blue jays and crows in the distance.

Snowy Scene

Snowy Scene

A snowy scene is so welcome after a December so warm that snow melted away before I could put on my snowshoes!A duo of cross-country skiers glide by. Others with backpacks and snowshoes are exploring the forest. Crinkled petals are mostly fallen off the yellow flowers still hanging onto witch hazel twigs in the woods.

Northern cardinals pop bright red against snow-flecked trees. Two downy woodpeckers climb up branches, playing tag in bare treetops. I hear, but can’t see, a robin calling softly.

Tree Shapes

Tree Shapes

Interesting tree shapes are frosted with snow in contrast to dark, wet bark, like this redbud. Forsythia buds are already starting to swell. No wonder they are first to flower in the spring!

Prairie golden aster

Prairie golden aster

Prairie golden aster hangs stubbornly to its last few round, puffy seed heads. Most of the seeds are long gone, leaving stark white bracts shaped like daisies.

Dark-eyed juncos and an American tree sparrow take turns visiting the feeder just outside the Arb Cafe. I head in to warm up with a hot cocoa and watch the birds from a cushy chair facing the window. Several art galleries offer beautiful paintings of flowers, trees, shrubs, barns and wetlands, plus amazing macro photographs of insects, flowers, and more.

Rhoda

Rhoda

I head back outside to take advantage of the dwindling light. Arb-member Rhoda is walking the trails and we agree how peaceful and beautiful it is to be out in the falling snow. I take her photo. Her bright blue jacket, pink trim and wide smile stand out brilliantly against the snowy backdrop.

The snow increases and the air chills. Better run errands on the way home, before tomorrow’s predicted below-zero temperatures!

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

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New Year’s First Day

By Greg Lecker

Driving to the Arboretum, I am treated to a fiery red sunrise rippling under low stripes of clouds. However, just above these, overcast grayness caps the sky. I enter the Arboretum and hurriedly rush to capture a few images before the sun disappears behind the cloud mask.

Highbush Cranberry

Highbush Cranberry

The warmth of the sun washes across distant treetops of the Maple sugarbush. Highbush Cranberry fruit adds its color accent.

Grasses, Oaks and Rising Sun

Grasses, Oaks and Rising Sun

Returning through the home landscape demonstration area, sun lights the grasses seed heads with a golden glow. Beyond, the oaks of Three Mile Drive beckon me downhill towards Green Heron Pond.

In the Ordway picnic shelter where a few months ago a family celebrated or enjoyed a picnic lunch, gray squirrels now scamper. Sighting down a twisted Scotch Pine bough, I see the sun disappear behind clouds.

Scotch Pine and Disappearing Sun

Scotch Pine and Disappearing Sun

A red squirrel chatters and cries nervously as it scampers across openings between leafless twigs – fingers of trees reaching across – to touch, tickle each other on this cold New Year’s morning. As I watch, the red squirrel explores no less than six different trees. With reddish body and white underbelly, the squirrel’s form is the inverse of snow frosted branches.

New Year’s Leafless Tracery

New Year’s Leafless Tracery

I find plenty of tracks of animals leading this way and that through the freshly relatively freshly fallen snow. It now appears that winter sports lovers will have something to play in. As I descend into the Grace Dayton woodland, all is quiet. Then I hear the wind softly whisper through the papery wind chimes of dry oak leaves hanging, screen-like, veiling the view towards a now fully frozen and snow covered Iris Pond.

I’m surprised to hear what sounds like the honking of Canada Geese. Maybe they stayed around to witness the freezing of city lakes – about which I heard described on the radio yesterday. Turning towards Green Heron Pond, I can just make out the iconic red barn at the now dim horizon. The blue gray roof reflects the now overcast sky. A black crow flaps overhead leading me towards the visitor center. There, I find a cluster of its crow cohorts feeding on bird seed scattered on the pavers under the bird feeders. Black-capped chickadees and a Downy Woodpecker join the crows at the feeder.

As I head towards the parking lot, three visitors walk from their cars carrying snowshoes, ready to embrace the snows on this first day of 2016.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Wandering at the Solstice

By Boak Wiesner

It’s certainly been a week of transitions here in the Arb. I poked around Spring Peeper Meadow just before the solstice. Wow, the sun is low on the horizon! I’m tempted to yell to drive away the darkness of the season – which is where “Yule” comes from. The question is: does a Nature Notes writer alone, yelling in the forest make a sound?

DSC_0068On the way in, a movement caught my eye – ah, yes! – Despite the best efforts of the Arboretum staff, some of these vermin still manage to get in.

DSC_0004The colors of the marsh in late fall are of a subtle yet almost sublime quality. One need only to linger a moment or two to appreciate their muted essence. Gone are the glories of October and yet to come are the stark contrasts of early winter.

DSC_0054

I’m lucky enough to come back less than a week later. The first real snow has finally fallen, here just after the Solstice, that eyeblink when the Earth’s tilt points us here in the Northern Hemisphere the greatest angle away from the sun. The snow lets me follow many animals’ treks around the Arb with their tracks. A mink hopped along the boardwalk, maybe after a squirrel.

Mink Tracks

Mink Tracks

Grey Squirrel Tracks

Grey Squirrel Tracks

Ah, the gleam of red that Dogwood provides the eye in the otherwise drab December landscape, Aldo Leopold’s “pink”. You know how you can tell it’s a Dogwood, right? (Wait for it…) By its bark! (I’ll be here all week, folks!)

Red Osier Dogwood

Redosier Dogwood

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

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